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My Fenland garden in the autumn

I don’t know how you discovered this site, but I’m glad you did. There’s all sorts of stuff here.  I’ve been an archaeologist for over forty years and have excavated several major sites, mostly in the Fens of eastern England. I’ve also tried to bring archaeology to a wider audience, with a number of books, radio and television programmes, of which Time Team is the best known. When not writing or digging, I’m also a sheep farmer and keen gardener. But like most people, I get bees in my bonnet – obsessions, call them what you like. Most of  my worries are about the general disregard for the achievements of people in the past and the failure of politicians, both local and national, to learn the lessons of  history. Hence the title of this blog: In The Long Run. So to sum up, this will be the place to see stuff about archaeology, gardening, farming and rural life, books, broadcasting, history and the occasional intemperate rant. It won’t be very formal, because I don’t ‘do’ formality. But I do hope it’ll be fun.

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The Fens: And Now for the Audiobook – read by the Author!!!

I’ve always liked the idea of audiobooks: something you could listen to on demand. The trouble was, we lacked the technology. Cassette tapes and CDs etc are fine, but bulky – so downloads have to be the answer. And then, of course, there are those endless commuter journeys, which by and large I’ve been spared as I have either worked at home or have lived close by my various digs. But having said that, I do travel to London quite often, to see publishers and the like, and often catch commuter trains, where many of the regular passengers are listening to audiobooks or podcasts. And again, it makes excellent sense and is far more relaxing then reading which can be very difficult on a noisy, over-crowded train. On with the headset, and into the book. Silence. And then another world.

I had that other world very much in mind when I wrote The Fens in the first place. So it was quite easy to slip back into it when I re-read it for the audiobook. Recording audiobooks has been quite a journey of discovery for me – and one I’ve enjoyed hugely. Like many such journeys it has also been a humbling experience: if I were to do it badly, I’d be letting so many people down, but at the same time I didn’t have many opportunities to hone my technique. I’m not an actor, but for some reason I’ve always been able to read out and reach an audience. So that was a skill I had to work on – and I only had four days of recording to do it. It was quite a challenge.

In actual fact, I’d be telling a fib if I said that The Fens audiobook was my first one, because it wasn’t. That honour goes to PATHS to the Past, which I recorded in a single, day-long session, in 2018. If I’m strictly honest I have to confess I can’t remember much about it, other than the studio was somewhere in London and I stumbled out of it absolutely shell-shocked, drained and exhausted. I’d no idea that concentration on a text could be quite so mind-numbingly intensive. I’ve always respected actors, mostly I suspect because I’m a crap one myself, and that session in front of the microphone convinced me of their huge talents and very great discipline. I never got a download of PATHS, but I’ve managed to hear a few free minutes on the web – and it doesn’t sound at all bad. So please rush out and buy a copy (Francis, was that written with sufficient enthusiasm? – Ed.).

I remember being a bit surprised that I had to read the entire text of PATHS for the audiobook, but as it was 40,000 words long (less than half that of an average book of 90k words), that seemed quite reasonable. But it was still very ambitious to expect a newcomer to do it in a day. But we did it. A few weeks ago I learned that The Fens was to be recorded by audiobook specialists W.F. Howes, at their studios in Rearsby, just outside Leicester. An email told me that we’d be recording the entire text. At this point I came close to wetting myself: The Fens is just over 120,000 words long! How could any sane person possibly read such a vast text aloud without going hoarse or insane – or indeed both? I had visions of Maisie driving to Leicester to collect my twitching semi-conscious body in the sheep trailer filled with lots of fresh wheat straw… Then I discovered that we were expected to complete the marathon task in four days, divided into two recording sessions, of two days each. That sounded a bit more manageable. But only a bit. I have to say, it was still very daunting.

I took a taxi to the studio from the hotel just outside Leicester. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the fields looking wetter. Ridge and furrow was standing out, as if it were the Middle Ages and the River Soar was in full flood. The taxi had to turn round a couple of times, as the road ahead was under water. This has been the wettest autumn I can recall. We eventually got to the studio and I was taken to the recording room.

From the outside, the studio looked like any other light industrial building. But once inside it was very different. The main recording room contained two sound-proofed booths; each one had a mixing desk directly outside its only window. This was where my sound-recordist, audio engineer and producer – all rolled into one charming individual, Lewis Hampson – was to sit. As soon as I entered the room he greeted me and asked the all-important question: would I like a cup of tea or coffee? Once he’d handed me my tea, Lewis showed me into the booth. I have to say it was quite snug, but then it had to be: its walls and ceiling were thickly lined with black foam to absorb any traces of echo or noises off. The foam lining also ensured that it grew hot (any air-conditioning would have been far too noisy). I sat in a swiveling chair in front of the only window, which looked-out onto Lewis and his array of screens and complex digital jiggery-pokery. On my side of the window was a narrow ledge on which was perched an iPad. This displayed my book, page-by-page, and I was able to scroll down through it, avoiding pictures, by simply using my finger on the screen (happily I’m quite at home with reading e-books on my own iPad). A huge microphone was suspended just above the screen and there was also a very large and well-padded set of head-phones. The headphones allowed me to communicate with Lewis, just outside the window.

As soon as I’d finished my mug of tea we started recording. I remembered from doing Paths to the Past, not to read too fast and I tried to keep half an eye on the sentence to come – it’s a bit of a knack, but worth it. I think we had a couple of false starts, but once I’d got going we did a full half page before I stumbled. Modern digital recording is wonderful because it allows the editor outside the window to stitch-together sentences that get broken during recording, but it’s up to the reader to match the speed and tone – which isn’t always as straightforward as it sounds. Slowly, as I read, it all started to come back to me and it was very weird – almost as if I was writing it again, but for the first time. I know that doesn’t make sense, but it’s how it felt: déjà vu, but fresh and newly experienced. As the minutes ticked past I began to get into my stride and by half an hour I was scampering along. Then a few gurgles started in my throat, so I got another cup of tea. That worked for a few minutes, before, that is, the dreaded tummy gurgles began. At first, I ignored them. After all, people sitting alongside you in the tube don’t hear tummy rumbles. I’ve even been known to let slip the occasional small fart – providing I know I’ll be getting off at the next station. And I always get away with it: as the train pulls out I never see people in my carriage retching or holding their noses. No, they continue to stand, immobile and distant, avoiding all eye contact. Typical London, in fact. But to return to the recording booth: I continued to pretend the gurgles weren’t happening. And then it happened. Lewis cut in:

‘Sorry, Francis, can we re-do that last sentence? Take it from “The Must Farm boats…”’

I decided not to question him and started to read, yet again. Then the gurgles resumed; this time with added strength. Not so much gurgling liquid, as boiling lava. Again Lewis cut in:

‘Sorry, Francis, one more time:’

He wound the recording back and I started again:

‘The Must Farm boats were discovered…’

But that was as far as I got. This time the gurgle was a real wig-lifter. They may well have heard it outside the booth. Lewis was smiling broadly.

‘Let’s pause for a cup of tea and a breakfast bar. They usually calm stomach noises down.’

And he was right. They did. I had two. But once back in the booth it took about ten minutes for the gurgles to resume and the ultra-sensitive microphone picked them up, loud and clear. But Lewis had another trick up his sleeve. He rose to his feet and came round to the door at the back of the booth. He said something, but I couldn’t hear him. So, feeling rather stupid, I removed the head-phones. He was pointing at the floor in the corner or the booth, by my left foot. Then I saw what was there: a plump, soft cushion.

‘Hold that across your front and then we’ll see how we get on.’

And I did. And it was miraculous. One or two thunderous gurgles did manage to penetrate the cushion and be picked up by the microphone – but only a few. Maybe half a dozen all day.

There’s an interesting twist to this story. Everyone over 60 is sent a bowel cancer faecal smear kit every two years until they’re 74. You take the samples, send them off, and then receive a short ‘all clear’ letter, if you’re lucky. But about a month previously I had received a letter from Hinchingbrooke Hospital, Huntingdon, informing me that my bowel cancer smear had produced traces of blood, which might, but only might, indicate cancer in its early stages. So they had booked me in to have a colonoscopy (where they insert a small television camera in your rectum and look for cancer). It sounded rather grim, but the process wasn’t at all painful and the TV pictures were superb. I love glimpsing my insides – and this was in full, living colour! During the investigation they discovered 5 polyps (small usually harmless growths) – which they removed (live, on telly!). Then, when I got home I realised that my tummy had calmed down: the gurgles had ceased. So the next time I record an audiobook I won’t need that cushion!

And (this is written a week later) I’ve just been told by the hospital that the polyps were benign. LONG LIVE the NHS!

As part of the lead-up to the release of the audiobook on December 19th, I’ll be recording a live public interview on my Facebook page. Needless to state I’ll be doing this at my publishers, Head of Zeus, in London, as our broadband out in the Fens is far, far too slow. The interview is scheduled for 1.00 pm (1300 hours GMT) on Monday December 16th. So do watch it if you can – and feel free to ask a few questions.

And finally here’s a picture of me in the recording booth at W.F. Howes, taken by Lewis Hampson. At that stage in the recording, I had yet to acquire the cushion!

FP Audiobook

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The Late Autumn Garden (or I Loathe and Detest Leaf-Blowers)

I’m writing this on November 2nd and what a strange autumn it has been so far. I don’t think I can recall a wetter season: we’ve barely been able to get into the garden since we opened, back in late September. I’ve never known the lawnmower’s wheels spin in the wet grass and soft ground so often. I know I’m not a big fan of garden neatness, but I’ve also never seen the lawns looking so grotty with big greenbergs of mulched grass, and tyre marks everywhere. There are leaves as far as you can see, but it’s too wet to rake them up – not that I worry about them much: normally we fill a few bags at the end of the season and keep them for leaf-mould in a year’s time. The thing is, I detest leaf-blowers, which have done more to disrupt the peace of the countryside than anything a mere tractor could achieve, even pulling a fifteen-furrow plough! And what do the noisy bloody things achieve? Why, they remove a few leaves that a fit and healthy person could have raked-up in half the time. I hate the modern obsession with neatness. It’s all about control – just like politics. We should learn to live alongside nature, where fallen leaves are a part of the changing seasons. They’re not even slightly the same as hamburger wrappers and other street litter. But I’m in danger of exploding … time to calm down.

We opened the garden on the weekend of September 21-22nd and thank heavens, it didn’t rain. In the end we raised almost £2,000 for the National Gardens Scheme, where the money will go to worthy charities such as MacMillan Nurses. Every year our visitors find something new to please them and in 2019 it was the fuchsias in the front garden. We’re reasonably certain they’re Fuchsia magellanica, var. gracilis but they are a particularly good strain. Maisie bought the first plant from a garden stall by the side of the road somewhere in darkest Norfolk, in those wild sandy lands east of King’s Lynn. The man said they were descended from The Queen Mother’s favourite plant in Sandringham garden – or was that invented as a clever selling point? Given the fact that Sandringham was just down the road, I’m inclined to believe it. Mentally I doff my hat whenever I pass by them. But seriously, they were looking fantastic this year. Rather remarkable, but they had been cut down to the ground by the harsh late frosts of The Beast from the East of late February and early March 2018. That’s quite a recovery.

Fuchsia magellanica, var. gracilis growing up the wirework dome in the front garden. This photo was taken a few days after our garden opening in late September.

Fuchsia magellanica, var. gracilis growing up the wirework dome in the front garden. This photo was taken a few days after our garden opening in late September.

Wet seasons do have upsides, though, and this year it has been a profusion of enormous field mushrooms that suddenly appeared in late October. On our land they were growing in a field full of sheep and I spotted them through a hedge (for which I award myself top marks!), as I was driving by. They were enormous and I was able to pick sufficient to dry and keep us stocked-up all winter. Field mushrooms can be home to maggots, so it’s worth checking for small holes when you remove the stalk. Then we slice them up and leave them in trays on the top of the Aga (stove). They dry in a few hours and the smell is gorgeous. If you dry bought mushrooms they smell of nothing. Once dried they can be crumbled into gravy or simply added to sauces. Nothing, but nothing tastes better than dried wild mushrooms.

Autumn produce coming home to the kitchen, with field mushrooms, dried (in the glass bowl), and fresh hot chillies and tomatoes from the greenhouse.

Autumn produce coming home to the kitchen, with field mushrooms, dried (in the glass bowl), and fresh hot chillies and tomatoes from the greenhouse.

Field mushrooms sliced-up and ready for drying. Keep the dark ‘gills’, as they are superb when added to gravy.

Field mushrooms sliced-up and ready for drying. Keep the dark ‘gills’, as they are superb when added to gravy.

Various parts of the garden come into their own at different times of the year. The Glade, which is the otherwise very damp area beneath a grove of yellow alders and birch trees, is at its best in spring and early summer, when it’s carpeted with geraniums and late bulbs. During summer it becomes a shady refuge from the heat and bright colours of the long border. But in autumn its appeal is quite different: the turning leaves of the alders and the pale bark of the birches combine to give the area a unique autumn character, which seems to change every few days. I find it quietly satisfying and reassuring. A Garden of Smug Complacency, perhaps?

The Glade Garden in October.

The Glade Garden in October.

Slightly earlier in October the soak-away beds behind the barn were looking wonderful with a variety of tints and textures. Autumn colour doesn’t always have to be in-your-face: I prefer the changes to be more subtle. And I don’t think the damp soak-away beds (which take the run-off from the barn roof) have ever looked better.

The soak-away beds behind the barn.

The soak-away beds behind the barn.

My final picture, also taken in mid-October is of the Rose Garden. We never wanted our Rose Garden to be populated by roses alone – which is what the Victorians loved. No, we believe that roses look their best when set against shrubs and herbaceous perennials. Here’s a view of one end of the Rose Garden, with the wonderful North American river birch (Betula nigra), with its splendid peeling bark, on the left.

The Rose Garden, with the trunk of a River Birch, on the left. River Birches thrive in very wet soils – which says a lot about our garden.

The Rose Garden, with the trunk of a River Birch, on the left. River Birches thrive in very wet soils – which says a lot about our garden.

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As Others See Me: a Frank Portrait

Doing lots of talks and book signings can sometimes become a bit of a chore, but so far the various events I’ve done to promote The Fens have been very lively. There’s been a wonderful feeling of engagement with the audiences. Maybe it’s because so far most of the places I’ve been to have been in or very close to the Fens. It’s great to have web-footed listeners! Quite often I’m interviewed before I speak by local newspapers and bloggers and I remember this one very clearly. It was a few days ago in Lincoln at The Collection, near the Usher Gallery. I arrived a bit late, following an excellent pub supper with two archaeologist friends (and yes, a real ale or two). My interviewer, Ellen, was very forbearing, because I don’t think I was making a lot of sense – I was in a rush and thinking about other things. Anyhow, she was both charming and patient and she converted my garbled words into something that seems almost coherent. And I love the cartoon. It makes me look (and feel) quite youthful! Now read on…

Francis Pryor

 

In 1982, Francis Pryor fell over a piece of wood in a dyke and discovered a Bronze Age settlement around 3,500 years old.

‘It was an awful day,’ Pryor tells me. ‘Cold, wet, foggy. We’d been surveying along this dyke and we’d found quite a lot of interesting stuff but I couldn’t see how the things we’d found would really make a difference.’

But then, as he walked along the edge of a dyke, about a mile from the Peterborough shore, he tripped up on a piece of wood.

Continue reading on Ellen’s blog.

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Off to a Cracking Start

Today began bright and sunny and it stayed that way. In fact, I think it was the sunniest garden opening we have every experienced. To our delight, visitors started to pour in from our opening at eleven, and the car park remained well stocked for the entire day. According to the weather forecast, today (Saturday 21st September) was the last summery day of the year, and autumn begins tomorrow. Earlier in the week, my weather app was forecasting a thundery breakdown tomorrow, but now things look much better; rain will get here, but not until later in the afternoon, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed for another dry day, although not as hot as today.

I think the garden is looking better than I have ever seen it before. The borders are still full of flowers and the roses have never looked better. That’s because we haven’t had too much sun to bleach out the blooms. Lots of people have remarked about the wildlife; a huge variety of butterflies, and there have been several visits by hares and voles. And if you look across the meadow there is just a hint of developing autumn colour.

The Long Border waiting to receive the first visitors

The Long Border waiting to receive the first visitors

So do come and join us tomorrow, there’s loads of tea and cake, and a well-stocked plant stall and my brother-in-law Nigel has brought along a bookstall of second-hand gardening books. All our profits go the National Garden Scheme who support Macmillan Nurses and other, mainly medical, charities. But charity isn’t the main reason for coming; an open garden is a very English summertime event, which brings people, plants and artistic creation together; it’s also cracking good fun, so do come tomorrow if you can. We are open from 11 until 4 o’clock.

Nigel and Rachael at the tea counter before the hordes descended

Nigel and Rachael at the tea counter before the hordes descended

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Early Autumn: Getting ready to Open the Garden on September 21st and 22nd

Why is it that when deadlines approach, things always seem to go pear-shaped? I’m tempted to mention the Brexit fiasco, but it’s all too inept, divisive, dishonest and depressing. So let’s return to reality and what has been happening in the garden. August was a difficult month: warm, humid and rainy. August 11th brought fierce Atlantic gales. The next morning my walk with the dogs revealed broken branches on some of the black poplars, which will have to be chain-sawed off in the winter, but not before then, as black poplars are notorious for ‘bleeding’ sap if they’re cut back at this time of year. Later that morning we had to go shopping for supplies, but our journey down the front drive was abruptly halted when we came across a large branch that had been blown off one of the pollarded willows near the pond. It completely blocked the drive and couldn’t be dragged out of the way, as it was still partially attached to the tree. A couple of hours later I’d cleared a path through – where would I be without my trusty chainsaw? But I now knew it was time to re-pollard the willows. Yet another job for the winter – and professional tree-surgeons.

The broken willow branch across the drive.

The broken willow branch across the drive.

Close-up of the tree. The scar left by the torn bark and sapwood will be home to green woodpeckers in a couple of years, if neighbouring trees are anything to go by.

Close-up of the tree. The scar left by the torn bark and sapwood will be home to green woodpeckers in a couple of years, if neighbouring trees are anything to go by.

Opening the garden for charity through the National Gardens Scheme is very rewarding and it’s also very hard work, especially in a wet year like 2019 when weeds seem to reappear two or three weeks after you’ve cleared them. Some parts of the main borders have been completely weeded four times already this season. Normally I’d reckon on doing it twice. But opening also provides us with incentive to get jobs done that we might otherwise defer. A case in point is the dogs’ daytime run and kennels in the barn. The dogs prefer the shade and airiness of the barn on hot summer days and in the past we used to make a lash-up arrangement for them using hurdles, bales of straw and anything suitable that came to hand. Then in the autumn we’d clear it all out of the way before the sheep came in for lambing. But now that we’ve stopped lambing, we decided to make the dogs a more comfortable, permanent daytime home in the barn. So I bought ready-made wooden fencing panels and with our neighbour Jessie’s help we’ve constructed quite a smart new run, complete with two old kennels that I’d previously contemplated putting on the bonfire. The new canine compound will allow visitors to the garden to enjoy Pen and Baldwin, but we must first prepare Health and Safety notices to ensure that nobody gets licked to death by either of them – a slimy, if rather warm and lingering demise.

The new dog run in its final stages of preparation by Jessie.

The new dog run in its final stages of preparation by Jessie.

Another slimy Health and Safety hazard is the decking of the patio or poop-deck at the back of the house, from where our crack Tea Team dispense vast quantities of tea and cakes (at VERY reasonable prices) during the open weekend. Because the air in Lincolnshire is very clean and unpolluted, algae grow readily and within a few months, especially in a warm, wet summer, the decking can become highly hazardous, especially on wet days. So that was why I asked Jessie if he’d very kindly bring along his brand new power washer and give the poop a quick blast, when he’d finished work on the dogs’ run. In the event it took him three and a half hours, but the results have been fantastic, largely, I gather from Jessie, because of a new rotating brush-head, which proved extremely effective. This view shows the decking during cleaning. It was miraculous. I won’t suggest that visitors could wear high-heals, because that would be silly, but the poop deck will be fine, even if we get a shower or two at the opening.

The poop-deck half-way through its cleaning.

The poop-deck half-way through its cleaning.

Opposite the poop-deck at the back of the house is one of those sunless, north-facing beds that can often be such a problem for gardeners. It’s on the dark side of an L-shaped brick wall that supports two large fig trees and hides the fuel tank for the Aga. We’ve tried growing all sorts of plants there, mostly without success. Then about ten years ago Maisie decided to use it as somewhere for pot plants. And what a success that has proved:

The pot bed behind the fig tree wall. The large leafed-plant (not in a pot) at the centre is a Tetrapannax papyrifera ‘Rex’. The big square pots at either end contain Mahonia eurobracteata subsp. ganpinensis ’Soft Caress’.

The pot bed behind the fig tree wall. The large leafed-plant (not in a pot) at the centre is a Tetrapannax papyrifera ‘Rex’. The big square pots at either end contain Mahonia eurobracteata subsp. ganpinensis ’Soft Caress’.

Our heavy, moist soils can often make it difficult to establish certain plants and over the years we’ve found that growing shrubs in containers is a good way to build up a strong root system. The two large pots with Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’ will probably be emptied next year and the Mahonias transplanted to a dry bed elsewhere in the garden. Incidentally, ‘Soft Caress’ is well-named as it isn’t even slightly prickly, unlike most other Mahonias whose dead, dry leaves can be very painful indeed when weeding without gloves. We were given the Tetrapannax as a potted sucker by our niece Rosie Sutton (a professional gardener with the National Trust) and it has taken a few years to get established; but now it’s starting to grow vigorously, with huge leaves that give the bed a wonderfully exotic, jungle-like feel. With any luck we’ll be able to start transplanting suckers ourselves in a year or two.

The path behind the barn on July 24th, with Hostas in full bloom.

The path behind the barn on July 24th, with Hostas in full bloom.

When I took the photos for the last blog post there were simply too many good pictures to use, so I’m showing a couple more to remind us of past glories. The Hostas were as good as I’ve ever seen them and their flowering was superb. Maisie was very worried that we didn’t manage to spread the ground around them with sharp sand, grit and wool balls that expand to repel the slugs that can so rapidly honeycomb their attractive large leaves. But she needn’t have worried: the Hostas were to provide a cool, damp and sheltered refuge for quite a large population of toads who made very swift work of any passing slugs. Thank heavens they’ll never become Vegans.

The Small Border, with Hemerocallis Hornby Castle in full bloom in the foreground.

The Small Border, with Hemerocallis Hornby Castle in full bloom in the foreground.

Unlike the beautiful leaves of Hostas, those of Hemerocallis (Daylilies) can look a bit tired in early Autumn, but in common with the Hostas they also provide nice damp protection for toads and newts at a time of the year when the main pond has been dried-up by the roots of the willows and Swamp Cypresses (Taxodium distichum) surrounding it. I sometimes think that modern gardens, especially those in towns and suburbs, can often be a bit too tidy. After all, a weed is just a plant in the wrong place: they aren’t some kind of existential threat, as they are often portrayed in magazines and on television. So I don’t tend to remove the leaves of plants like hemerocallis and I certainly don’t knot the leaves of daffodils, as used to be seen in ‘neat’ gardens of the ‘60s and ’70s. Like mature human beings, older plants should be encouraged to flop about a bit.

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High Summer 2019: Hot and Wet

I think last Thursday, July 25th was the hottest day I’ve ever experienced and at 38.7o Celsius (101.66o Fahrenheit) the thermometer in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden agreed with me: an all-time British record. But it was the humidity that made it feel so intolerable: at times I wondered whether I wasn’t about to drown in my own gravy. Yuk! Meanwhile, while I was sweating indoors (it was FAR to hot to be out in the garden), the plants in the borders were growing like rockets, including, of course, the weeds, which are now about to seed and are causing us moments of high anxiety. Remember the old gardeners’ adage: one year’s seeding; seven years’ weeding? But in this blog post I want to cast such gloom aside, and have a look at the non-weeds out there in the garden, First however, I want to bid farewell to an old friend and welcome a new, youthful helper.

Old gives way to new: my 1964 International B414 (left) and its replacement: the John Deere 4400 compact tractor (right).

Old gives way to new: my 1964 International B414 (left) and its replacement: the John Deere 4400 compact tractor (right).

My hip replacement operation has proved a huge success and every month I find I can lift heavier weights and do jobs that would have been impossible a few years ago, but having said that, there are things which are perhaps best not attempted. Fighting-off angry rams is an obvious one, but pressing down with my left leg on the incredibly stiff clutch pedal of my old International B414 is another. This is especially true because the PTO (Power Take-Off) for the rear grass-topper is only engaged at the bottom of the clutch’s travel. So you really do have to press-down extremely hard – and hold it there. I was finding it very painful indeed before my operation, but now I’ve decided it can’t go on. So I’ve bought a new tractor with much easier, automatic controls and no nightmare pedals. I said a new tractor, but in reality it’s a John Deere 4400 compact, which was built about 2000 – almost twenty years ago. It’s also fitted with smoother garden tyres that won’t leave the deep ridges of the old B414. It’s also vastly more manoeuvrable. Having said that, there was a large lump in my throat when the old B414 left us. It’s funny how attached one can get to rusting steel, solid seats, stinky fumes, leaky hydraulics and rigid pedals. But now back to the garden in high summer.

The high (12 feet/4 metres?) flower spikes of one of the New Zealand flax (Formium tenax) in the pond garden.

The high (12 feet/4 metres?) flower spikes of one of the New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax) in the pond garden.

In a mad Trumpian world, where those who deny climate-change are not regarded as bonkers, it’s sobering to think that ten of the hottest UK summers have happened since 2002. And you can really see it in British gardens. We grow several varieties of Phormium, the New Zealand flax, which loves our heavy damp soils. It was always regarded as half-hardy, but not now. And this year the flowers have been breath-taking – so good, in fact that they almost look out-of-place: almost (and I do mean almost) too exotic!

A view along the main border, with Hemerocallis (foreground, right) in their final flush.

A view along the main border, with Hemerocallis (foreground, right) in their final flush.

Not surprisingly the borders have all looked magnificent, if somewhat over-blown. Some plants have become positively bloated and we’ve noticed there’s been quite a lot of wind-damage, with snapped flower heads and collapsed stems. The main double border looks very luxuriant, but then so does the lawn grass! I’ve never known such a season for mowing – my mower’s fuel bill is scary…

The small border in late July.

The small border in late July.

Because it’s much narrower, the small border, which runs parallel with the main border, to the south, seemed to close up as the plants along it grew so huge. We had laid the garden out following Christopher Lloyd’s principle of two-person access. He always assumed that most often gardens are visited by couples rather than solitary individuals and we made all our paths just that little bit wider, as a result. It’s always nicer to go round a garden with a friend, than alone.

The Front Garden in late July.

The Front Garden in late July.

And when it comes to lavish growth, the Front Garden must surely take the biscuit: the supposedly miniature rose, The Fairy (the pink flowers in the foreground of the picture), has grown way beyond her normal patch and is spreading across the paths. Currently she is threatening to take over the house. She will have to be cut back quite severely before we open in September 21-22, or she will be lacerating visitors’ legs.

The main garden in late July, viewed from upstairs.

The main garden in late July, viewed from upstairs.

But when you step back from the flower beds and borders, everything suddenly falls into place and forms a delightfully harmonious whole. I love this view from the bathroom window. Makes brushing my teeth even more of a pleasure (surely you don’t mean that? – Ed.). Most of the flowers you can glimpse – mainly shades of yellows and reds – are Day Lilies (Hemerocallis).

The vegetable garden, in late July.

And finally, the garden that has benefited most from the warmth and the wet: the veg garden. Frankly, I can’t recall a better year for courgettes, onions, broad beans, tender-stem broccoli and lettuces. The main crop onions in the foreground (and here I have yet to arrange their stalks and weed between the rows for the tenth time – or so it seems) have grown vast and I’ll be giving half the crop away to friends and neighbours. But the earlies, which I planted in the first week of January are VAST! They’re the row just beyond the main crops in the foreground and they’re the size of small dogs! And you might have expected them to taste of watery nothing, but they don’t: they’re sweet and delicious and if you can find one small enough to fit on the BBQ, they are beyond description – ambrosial!

Oh yes, before I post this rather over-the-top account of the garden, I feel I ought to report that my first three book-signing events for The Fens were all totally sold out and that book sales are fantastic. My right hand positively aches from signing my name so many times. Many thanks to everyone who attended – I do appreciate you coming, especially when I saw how hot many of you were in that big hall in Ely! Still, it was a very good night with a wonderfully Fenny atmosphere. I do like Fen people.

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Norman’s Pond

First some sensational news: my new book, The Fens is going to be the BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week from July 8th-12th!!! This will involve 15-minute readings (not by me), which are broadcast twice daily, most often in the morning at 9.45 and then again, after the midnight news, around 12.30. Radio 4 Extra usually broadcast a compilation of all five episodes. And of course nowadays the five episodes are available as a Radio 4 podcast. That should kick-start the book! As you might possibly have detected, I’m delighted. I should also add that I agree wholeheartedly with the BBC’s decision to use a professional actor to read the episodes: reading for radio is a very special skill that takes years to acquire.

The Fens’ official publication date is July 11th and I’ll be going to London to sign copies for the independent book trade – something I feel passionately about. If we lose our independent bookshops we’re losing a very long-established part of our culture. Buying books is about discussing them with other people and just browsing. And you can’t do that online. The Wimpole History Festival which I did on June 23 was a big success and we sold loads of books. That was my first illustrated talk about The Fens. The second is next week and coincides with the Radio 4 Book of the Week. It’s at one of my favourite bookshops, Heffers, in Trinity Street, just across the road from my old college. I have wonderful, if somewhat hazy memories of those days. The talk starts at 6.30 pm, and is followed by a signing. Hope to see you there!

For some reason, the Fens have loomed rather large in my life of late. On June 28th we were delighted to take part in a family gathering at the National Trust Nature Reserve at Wicken Fen, near Ely, to celebrate the life of my late cousin Professor Norman Moore. Norman, and his sadly departed wife Janet, were old friends, and Maisie and I were, and are, very fond of both of them: humorous, highly intelligent and modest. One of the last times Maisie saw Janet she was almost knocked flat by her, flying past on her bike in Downing Street, Cambridge. ‘Sorry, Maisie, no brakes…’ Mercifully, they weren’t her final words, but they could have been.

Norman was a hugely influential biologist, environmentalist and conservationist who played a large part in establishing the body which eventually became Natural England. I can remember he was furious when a Tory government broke up the British conservation organisation and sub-divided it to England, Scotland and Wales. He saw it as part of a deliberate process of divide-and-rule. And I’m sure he was right. I wonder if anything so devious is happening today? No, surely not!

Norman inspired the digging of the superb new lake at Holme Fen, near Peterborough and he gave much of his life to managing Wicken Fen, one of, if not the, oldest nature reserves in Britain.

The Lode or drain at Wicken Fen close by the pond that is to be re-named in Norman Moore’s honour.

The Lode or drain at Wicken Fen close by the pond that is to be re-named in Norman Moore’s honour.

And that’s why we all gathered together on June 28th at Wicken. Half way through the afternoon, a few of us climbed into four-wheel drives (I took our ageing Fourtrak) and drove about 7 miles to view a pond (in fact an old ‘borrow pit’ as they are known locally) which is to be re-named the Norman Moore pond. I would guess that the pond was originally dug in the 19th century to provide material for the banks of the nearby drain or lode. I don’t think I have ever seen so many dragonflies. Norman would have been delighted as he was the leading expert on them. Over 20 years ago he advised us how to make the Flag Fen Mere more dragonfly-friendly – and it worked. Today the place positively buzzes with them and their slightly smaller cousins, damselflies.

The pond at Wicken Fen that will shortly be known as the Norman Moore Pond.

The pond at Wicken Fen that will shortly be known as the Norman Moore Pond.

Then yesterday (July 2nd) something memorable happened, also to do with the Fens. Maisie and I had driven to King’s Lynn to attend a tour organised by the Wisbech Society and given by the historian and ex-Mayor of Lynn, Paul Richards FSA. The tour was about King’s Lynn (in those days it was called Bishop’s Lynn) and the Hanseatic League – the medieval trading network organised around key German towns with major partners in Britain and other north European states. The drive towards Lynn was delightful: the sun shone and the Fens were looking at their best. I remember thinking as we drove along the Nene towards Sutton Bridge that the river was looking very empty (it’s tidal for its last 30 miles across the Fens). Low tides mean that sea-going vessels can’t head upstream and that in turn means that the swing bridge at Sutton Bridge wouldn’t be in action. A couple of times recently I’d been delayed for around twenty minutes on the A17 – the main road from Lincolnshire into Norfolk – by Sutton Bridge opening.

The River Great Ouse at King’s Lynn at low tide. On the far, West Lynn, side are two piers. The King’s Lynn ferry departs from the one nearest the centre of the picture.

The River Great Ouse at King’s Lynn at low tide. On the far, West Lynn, side are two piers. The King’s Lynn ferry departs from the one nearest the centre of the picture.

When we arrived at the river front at Lynn we were both amazed by the low level of the usually so mighty River Great Ouse. I won’t say it was looking like a trickle, but you could clearly see how its lower course meandered along the wide, largely man-made, tidal channel. We parked the car on the quayside and had started a brisk stroll along the river towards the 17th century Customs House (a superb Grade I building) where the tour was to assemble. It was then that Maisie noticed that the King’s Lynn ferry had just pushed-off from its moorings on the far side of the river, at West Lynn. We often take the ferry, but had decided not to today. I think we had made the right decision. We watched spellbound as the ferry (which has been running for a mere 734 years since its charter in 1285) quickly crossed the water, then stopped a huge distance from its usual moorings on the King’s Lynn side. Then the skipper jumped overboard (he was wearing high waders), and with help from an assistant they laid a floating walkway which the intrepid passengers traversed. And they do this three times every hour during the working day! I wouldn’t recommend using the low tide ferry after a good evening in one of Lynn’s many fine pubs.

Passengers leaving the King’s Lynn ferry at low tide.

Passengers leaving the King’s Lynn ferry at low tide.

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