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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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Our first Open Garden for 16 years: Day 2

I tried not to show it in my last blog post, but I can now confess we were rather disappointed with the visitor numbers on the first day we opened. I know from when we ran Flag Fen that Saturdays are often very slow, but this was a lot quieter than we’d expected. I put much of it down to the weather, which was very cold and windy, sometimes with drizzle. Having said that, the visitors who did come were very enthusiastic and bought lots of plants, cups of tea and slices of cake. But Day 2, Sunday September 18th, was altogether different, as was the weather: warm, wind-free, light cloud and sunshine. Perfect for a day out in a country garden.

The day began with a visit from BBC Radio Lincs., who parked their radio transmitter van in the visitors’ Car park, where Nigel Smith snapped it. With luck the interview with Maisie, based around a treasure hunt, would have alerted many local people.

Radio car

On Day 1 the first visitors arrived a few minutes before we officially opened (at 11.00), but on Sunday we were a bit disappointed that this wasn’t repeated. Still, we shouldn’t have worried: after fifteen minutes there was a steady stream of cars arriving, which continued all day, apart from a brief, half-hour, lull around 1.00, presumably for Sunday Lunch. The Car Park and Admissions teams did a wonderful job. Together they collected a very impressive £772.00.

The plant stall was overseen by Linda, who is one of our long-term volunteers at Flag Fen. In her professional life she was a senior nurse in the NHS, so she also looked after our First Aid. Linda’s sales were quite brisk on Saturday (I assume the few stalwarts who did venture forth were also avid gardeners), but she did almost no trade at all on Sunday morning and early afternoon. Then things suddenly picked up and the pots flew off her bench. In the end, Linda’s plant stall earned the NGS a very healthy £161.00.

Plant stall

Teas were served on the decking at the back of the house (we refer to it as the Poop or Poop-Deck, but don’t ask me why!). The tea team included some extraordinarily well-qualified archaeologists, among whom were a professor of conservation, a National Trust archaeologist and the CEO of a major contracting unit. And they worked together like the dream team they were. It was like watching a difficult excavation (which normally wouldn’t involve kettles and urns filled with boiling water) being carried out under enormous pressure. And boy, did those cakes fly off the shelves! Teas raised the NGS a very sweet £362.00.

tea cups

Although I say so myself, the garden, wood and meadow were looking particularly attractive. We didn’t set about doing a proper visitor survey (life’s too short…), but we all got the impression that almost everyone stayed for three hours, and many stayed for four – or longer. Certainly the tea team told me they’d sold two separate tea-and-cakes to many people, presumably at the beginning and the end of their visits. Another indication that people had enjoyed themselves was the Donations Bucket near the Tea Table. At the end of the day that was found to contain no less than £147.62.

Rose garden

And who was the greatest hit of the Open Garden? You’ve guessed: it was Pen, who greeted visitors with her customary high spirits and a few licks. By the end of the day (when Nigel took the final photograph), she was completely exhausted.

Pen

So, taken together, we raised a total of £1,442.62 for the National Gardens Scheme. And I am so grateful to the team who helped us look after the visitors so courteously (and who didn’t ask for a penny by way of expenses). We all had great fun – many said it was like being part of an excavation! And are we going to open again next year? You bet! And we even know the date. So put it in your diaries now:

Saturday and Sunday, September 16-17, 2017 (11am – 5pm each day)

SEE YOU THEN!

Picture Credits

With one exception, the images for this and the previous post (on Day 1 of our NGS Open Garden), were taken by this blog’s editor, Nigel Smith. The single exception was the close-up of teacups (the 3rd picture above), which was taken by Rachael Hall. I am hugely grateful to both photographers, for their excellent pictures.

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The End of Day 1

Old tractors are always popular in Lincolnshire and this one was no exception. It went on display in the car park.

Old tractors are always popular in Lincolnshire and this one was no exception. It went on display in the car park.

Gosh it has been a frantic day! It started badly with high winds and heavy rain overnight. Anxiously, I checked my BBC Weather App every fifteen minutes and it simply looked worse: black clouds with bright yellow drips… By eleven o’clock, when we were due to open, Maisie was still driving around the neighbourhood sticking arrows on direction signs, and I was trying to arrange tables in the barn, up to my ankles in dry sheep manure. Then the rain failed to materialise and the car park was filling up. Soon we had three rows of cars and people were strolling through the garden, looking wonderfully relaxed and leisurely. But some of these folk were locals, and locals like their tea and cake. Would we be able to satisfy them? I had my doubts as it was so early in the day, but our teas team proved up to the task: they selected a series of light, suitable-for-the-morning cakes and cookies – not over-the-top icing or lashings of cream, but slightly severe, as befits a rural morning in the heart of the Fens.

teas

All day, the teas proved a great success and the cakes went down a storm. Little did any of our visitors know there were huge reserves of cake and cookies waiting for the better weather of Sunday. As we learnt when running the Visitor Centre at Flag Fen, Sundays were normally four times as busy as Saturdays. So with luck, the cake supplies should just about last out.

One of my most pleasurable jobs was showing a party from Unbound around the garden. These were all people who had subscribed to Alan Cadbury’s second adventure: The Way, The Truth and the Dead. And they were a great group to show around. Felt more like showing round close family, than paying visitors. It reminded me of why I went with Unbound for my foray into the realms of fiction.

unbound

Although I say so myself, and despite the cold weather and strong breeze, the garden was looking fabulous. Everyone enjoyed themselves and most people stayed three or four hours. One or two even got lost! It was amazing how the size of the garden just seemed to absorb people. They arrived, then they vanished, eventually appearing, hours later, in search of tea.

So if you’re planning a visit tomorrow: do come. We’d love to welcome you here. And I’m sure you‘ll enjoy the cake!

borders

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A Sweltering Last Minute!

As I write, the mists that swirled in from off the North Sea late last night are just starting to lift and allow the first rays of morning sunlight to filter through the upper branches of the trees in the wood. Those mists have brought with them much-needed cooler air, and as today’s forecast is for yet more sweltering heat (29o C), I’ve been spending the past ten minutes opening windows upstairs and down. And a couple of minutes ago, I felt some deliciously cool air on my toes. Bliss! We’ve learnt to ‘drive’ this house in very hot weather. It’s timber-framed and very well insulated, so the trick is to change the air, then batten down hatches, close all windows and doors as soon as the sun really gets up and the outside air starts to heat up. That way the house stays cool until the evening, when everything can be opened-up again. And in case you think I’m exaggerating, yesterday was the hottest day of the year so far. It was also the hottest September day in more than a century. Take my word for it: it was hot!

But what were Francis and Maisie Pryor doing? Were they lolling in hammocks, supping pint glasses of deeply chilled Pimms? Were we, heck! Maisie was weeding like a maniac and I was cutting lawn edges that had been undermined last autumn by a particularly vengeful mole. I should have done it over winter – but it was too wet, next it was a dry spring, then summer and by July the ground was like concrete. Miraculously, last Saturday we had 20mm of rain! I allowed a couple of days for it to sink in, then yesterday I started on the last of those edges. Heat or no heat, I was going to get the job done, and by 6.45 yesterday evening, I laid my crescentic edge-cutting spade aside. Job done!

lawn edging

But those are just the straightforward gardening jobs you must do if you’re to open your garden to the public for the National Garden Scheme (NGS). Our D-Days are next weekend, God help us. Oh, and incidentally, this is also the time of year when one has to agree next year’s opening dates with the NGS. So if you can’t come this year (maybe you follow this blog from Australia or New Zealand), now’s the time to book your passage on a tea clipper, passing Zeppelin or Kon-Tiki-style raft, for next. The two days to mark in your diary: September 16-17, 2017. But as I was starting to say, there are dozens of other jobs that have to be done before you can open a garden to the public.

There’s quite a bit of admin, although the NGS are very helpful here: they provide advice and support with insurance and that sort of thing. They also provide posters and useful signs. My job has been to assemble the plywood display boards and then paste (with wallpaper paste, no less) the posters and signs onto them. We erected the first posters at road junctions around the farm and village last Sunday, once the heavy rain of Saturday had stopped.

NGS poster

Meanwhile Maisie has been organising tea, cold drinks and cakes. She has a small army of cake-cooks (including her brother Nigel) who have been slaving over hot stoves throughout this sultry weather. And we can speak from experience: I thought we were going to die of heat in the kitchen, two evening ago. It was unbearable – but the cakes looked gorgeous!

And there are other practical things to do. Tables have to be fetched from a local Church Hall. Portable loos must be delivered. The field that will become the car park has to be mowed. And I plan to put the tractor seen here (my stalwart McCormick International B414) on display, complete with an explanatory sign. But I won’t tart the old girl up. If you’re coming, you’ll be able to see her in full working order, complete with a large patch of owl-poo she acquired a few years ago when our only brood of barn owl fledglings decided to perch on her exhaust-pipe. Ah, happy days!

McCormick International B414

So do come along and join the throng. You can read more about us here and the times we’re opening are from 11 AM till 5 PM, price £4 per head (children are free), on both days of the weekend of September 17th and 18th. But now I’ve got to turn off this laptop and get outside. Then I’ve got to drill holes in the brickwork for Rawplugs to hold screws and wires that Maisie says are DESPERATELY needed to tie back a shrub that might ladder passing ladies’ tights. Up until now I haven’t worried, because most of our female friends – especially the archaeological and horticultural ones – normally wear battered trousers. But that excuse won’t apply next weekend. So I have to admit, it’s a job that must be done. But that’s enough: time to start drilling! Turn off the bloody laptop!

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Getting Ready for the Garden Opening

As followers of this blog will probably have gathered, we are opening our garden, as part of the National Gardens Scheme (NGS), on the weekend of September 17-18th. I won’t say it has caused more hand-wringing and anxiety than even the grandest of book launches – but it has. Weeds seem to have ganged-up and declared our garden their national chosen target: if there was such a thing as an Olympic sport of weed-pulling, Maisie and I would be joint gold medal winners. Anyhow, part of the preparation involves the production of short information sheets that will be available at various points in the garden, and key to these is what follows: a short history. I’ll probably adjust it a bit over the next few weeks, but here’s my first draft. If you find it whets your appetite, spread the word on Twitter and/or Facebook. The more visitors that come, the more cash we can raise for the NGS Charities: Macmillan Nurses, Marie Curie Cancer Care, Hospice UK, and the Carers Trust. So roll up! Roll up! And when you come for your visit, spend money like water!

A Short History of the Garden

In the summer of 1992 the house and garden were still an expanse of wheat. The field in question, of some 17 acres, was bounded on two sides by large drainage dykes. The NW and NE sides were also edged by dykes, but smaller and accompanied by mature hawthorn hedges. There were no trees. Then Maisie and I bought it. Were we mad?

Our previous house, also a farmhouse, had been in the nearby parish of Parson Drove, just across the county line in Cambridgeshire (previously the Isle of Ely). There we had converted an acre of paddock into a large garden, complete with vegetable patch, a long border, a pond and a small wood of willows and ash trees. While we were creating the Parson Drove garden we were also setting-up Bronze Age Flag Fen (Peterborough), as a tourist attraction. It wasn’t a straightforward process. I’m convinced that working in that garden kept us both sane, while local politicians aggressively interfered with things they didn’t understand. But that experience also came in very handy. In 1989 we constructed a permanent museum and visitor centre at Flag Fen and I went on a self-taught crash-course in project management. With the help of a Lotus 123 spreadsheet, I managed to retain control of the budget (it was about £160,000) and I didn’t end up in the Bankruptcy Court, or jail.

By 1990 we realised that we had done what we wanted to achieve at the old house and were ready, as the cliché has it, for further challenges. We bought the land near Sutton St. James, just across the county line, in south Lincolnshire, and took possession, immediately after the harvest in 1992. The field was large, and very bleak, as the next photo shows.

Maisie stands in what is now the gateway into Inley Drove Farm. The slightly darker soil in the centre-left middle-distance has not been sowed with grass; it was planted with trees the following winter (1992/3).

Maisie stands in what is now the gateway into Inley Drove Farm. The slightly darker soil in the centre-left middle-distance has not been sowed with grass; it was planted with trees the following winter (1992/3).

The next picture shows the same view taken in August, 2016. The trees have got slightly larger in the last year, but the hawthorn hedge, to Maisie’s right in the previous picture, is still there.

The same view, in 2016.

The same view, in 2016.

The second (2016) picture shows a drive heading away from the gate. This took a fair bit of construction, as the soil in the Fens is soft and of poor load-bearing quality. I managed to find a source of what people in the area call ‘brickbats’, for the foundations. Essentially these were reject bricks that had been used to back-fill disused clay pits in local brickyards. We had to import 17 thirty-ton lorry-loads of them, which we spread and tracked-in, using the Hy-Mac excavator we’d used a few years earlier to clear topsoil from archaeological sites. That machine was an old friend.

The brick foundations of the drive are being consolidated by a Hy-Mac tracked excavator (spring, 1993). This view is taken from the gateway off Inley Drove, as seen in the previous photos. Work on the house and barn could not begin until the access had been finished.

The brick foundations of the drive are being consolidated by a Hy-Mac tracked excavator (spring, 1993). This view is taken from the gateway off Inley Drove, as seen in the previous photos. Work on the house and barn could not begin until the access had been finished.

Because the fundamental motivation for the new house was ultimately the garden, we began work on it before building began. In fact, we had laid out the main elements (the two borders, the orchard, the wood, the vegetable garden, the meadow and the paddocks), before we had managed to sell the old house. That house had been built in 1907 and was poorly insulated and cold in winter. I had lived in Toronto during the 1970s, and knew how warm modern timber-framed houses could be, even in the coldest of Canadian winters. So we decided our new house should be timber-framed, too. Timber-framed houses are also much lighter, which suits the soft land of the Fens.

The house under construction in mid-summer 1994. Being timber-framed, construction of the interior could begin while the outer brick ‘skin’ was being laid. The Long Border and the Small Border had been laid-out and planted the previous year. The golden Metasequoia had yet to be planted.

The house under construction in mid-summer 1994. Being timber-framed, construction of the interior could begin while the outer brick ‘skin’ was being laid. The Long Border and the Small Border had been laid-out and planted the previous year. The golden Metasequoia had yet to be planted.

In common with most rural developments, our Planning approval had depended on us running the small farm successfully. So by 1994 we had built the two barns and had laid-out the field and paddock around the house. We took our first crop of hay from the meadow in 1995. At this early stage, we had still to acquire the larger fields on either side of the house and garden and were renting additional land for our growing flock of sheep. The smaller paddocks close to the barns were intended to provide sheltered grazing for ewes and their lambs in the very first months.

Some of our Lleyn ewes, with their two-week-old lambs, being turned out to grass on March 11th, 2011. The surrounding trees and hedges provide shelter against spring gales and the barn is freely available in wet weather.

Some of our Lleyn ewes, with their two-week-old lambs, being turned out to grass on March 11th, 2011. The surrounding trees and hedges provide shelter against spring gales and the barn is freely available in wet weather.

Maisie and I are keen to preserve and encourage wildlife on the farm and in the garden. All the grasses of meadows, paddocks and lawns, for example, are native to Britain. That is also why we have planted so many native wet-loving trees, including the endangered Black Poplar, host to the Poplar Hawk moth and visiting pairs of Golden Oriels. Our timber barns are home to hedgehogs, swallows, tits and other birds, and barn owls shelter there in winter. Despite a purpose-built nestbox, we have only managed to provide home for one brood of three young Barn Owls, in October 2011.

Two barn owls on either side of one of their chicks, October 2011. The two other chicks have yet to emerge from the nestbox immediately below the main roof beam on which the birds are perching.

Two barn owls on either side of one of their chicks, October 2011. The two other chicks have yet to emerge from the nestbox immediately below the main roof beam on which the birds are perching.

The garden’s focus on wildlife means we are not obsessive about weeding: even ragwort, which is poisonous to sheep, is sometimes allowed to flower briefly, as it is host to Cinnabar moths; but it is never allowed to seed and is promptly uprooted! In the old garden we managed to to get cowslips established in long grass and we took seed with us to Inley Drove Farm and spread it along the dykesides and in the hay meadow in 1992. Five years later we acquired bulbs of Snakeshead Fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris) from our then neighbour at Guannock House, just a mile to the south, the now famous garden designer, Arne Maynard. Both cowslips and fritillaries love our wet, clay soils and have seeded freely. The cowslips have even migrated across to the orchard, where they have also thrived. Meadow wildflowers are a major feature of the garden in April.

A view of the orchard in April 2012, with a fine display of self-seeded cowslips which thrive in the wet, clay-rich soil.

A view of the orchard in April 2012, with a fine display of self-seeded cowslips which thrive in the wet, clay-rich soil.

Anyone who has ever grown their own vegetables knows how good they taste. They may not always look as attractive as their supermarket equivalents, but our meals are based on taste, not appearance. So we determined to be almost self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables (and I say ‘almost’ because we will never be able to grow carrots in our heavy soil). The veg garden is fringed by pleached apples and pears and is sub-divided into four plots to allow for regular manuring (with our own sheep muck) and crop circulation. It is highly productive.

The vegetable garden in July 2015. In the foreground are rows of onions, shallots and garlic. Beyond, and beneath the fine mesh, are next winter’s sprouts, cauliflowers, broccoli (both purple and white) and cabbages. The canes, top right, are for runner beans. The hedge in the background is hornbeam – a good wet ground substitute for the more widely grown beech.

The vegetable garden in July 2015. In the foreground are rows of onions, shallots and garlic. Beyond, and beneath the fine mesh, are next winter’s sprouts, cauliflowers, broccoli (both purple and white) and cabbages. The canes, top right, are for runner beans. The hedge in the background is hornbeam – a good wet-ground substitute for the more widely grown beech.

We tend to think of gardens in spring, summer and autumn, the warmer months of the year. We also imagine them with our mind’s eye at ground level. But one of the great pleasures of creating a garden in a flat landscape has been viewing its changes and development from above. And it doesn’t have to be from far above, either. My last picture, taken in mid-December, 2012, from the first floor of the house, shows the now fully-formed skeleton of the garden, wonderfully enhanced by a heavy Fenland hoar frost. The top of the pergola, which we added in 2006 at the back of the house, somehow echoes the layout of the rest of the garden.

Winter garden from upstairs

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The End of Early Summer

We all have different ways of dividing up the seasons. I’ve always thought of summer in three parts: Early Summer, High Summer and Late Summer. All three are about the shade of the colour green. In Early Summer (although not this year which was very late) all trees and shrubs are in leaf. Theoretically, spring ends and summer starts on June 1st, but as any farmer or gardener knows, that’s rubbish: it could be up to three weeks on either side of that date. Usually, in these days of climate change, it’s often somewhere in mid-May. Anyhow, in Early Summer the shades of green are fresh and varied: you could no more mistake an oak for an ash for a field maple; hedgerows and woodland fringes are full of distinctive colours and shapes. Then all of that changes in mid-July: the greens blend together and, yes, they harmonise, but unlike close harmony singing, the result isn’t fuller, richer and more satisfying. No, it’s just British mid-summer universal green. But don’t get me wrong: it isn’t at all unpleasant. It’s just green. Take it or leave it. It’s the green you drive by on your way to summer holidays by the seaside. It’s the colour of British summertime, along with the painful pink of sunburnt shoulders and the hazy blue of mid-summer skies. By now all freshness has gone from the scene and won’t be back until autumn. Late summer colours are a bit more varied: often there’s a hint of yellow in ash trees, and poplars turn a strange shade of grey.

In this blog post I want to look at other symptoms of transition from Early to High summer, which has been both late, and as often happens in a delayed season, abrupt. Two thousand and sixteen has so far been very strange – and oh so wet.

We started cutting asparagus very late in mid-April and because it rained so hard the crop was huge, if slightly less tasty than usual – which I put down to lack of sunshine. A bitterly cold March meant the crop was almost a month later than usual. I decided to stop cutting in mid-May as the spears were starting to get slightly fibrous and what taste there was was starting to decline. Sadly, it wasn’t the best year for my favourite vegetable. About three years ago, we decided to make more of the garden that fringes the asparagus bed. It’s unlike the rest of our garden, as that’s where we buried all the old bricks and battered roof-tiles, plus sand and anything else that was left-over from the building of the house, back in 1995. We did this deliberately, as we knew asparagus likes to grow in tidal sandy mudflats, which are better drained than our usual claggy stodge. So this well-drained bed has proved great fun to plant and has been colonised by some wonderful dry-loving annuals and short-lived perennials. The mullein, Verbascum olympicium, with the grey-green felty leaves and tall spikes of yellow flowers loves the dry edges of the yard, but must be thinned-out in the spring, or else it tends to dominate. Although I concede it is more than a little contrived (like most flower gardening), I love this rather chaotic screen which hides the asparagus behind it.

Asparagus bed

The path which runs from the yard and barn, to the back door of the house, was one of the first things we built once the house had been finished, as that was the route from the lambing pens to the house – and you soon get tired of squelching through mud when carrying syringes, or bottles of warm milk. I can’t say we planted the box hedge that lines the path at all deliberately. If anything we used it as a place to heel-in rooted cuttings and seedlings. But after a few years, it managed to establish itself and last year our neighbour Obie, who is a natural master of topiary and has now thoroughly taken over the management of our hedges, decided to reshape the emerging box hedge that separates the path from the asparagus bed. There’s a large box plant at one end, which is slightly off the alignment of the rest of the hedge. So Obie clipped this larger plant into the head (complete with nose, ears and eyes), of a very long Loch Ness Monster – which of course made clever use of the bigger and smaller plants of what had up until then been a very informal ‘hedge’. I like the way Obie’s Nessie is turning her head, as if looking around at people emerging from our back door. This view is taken from her tail, with the barn in the background.

Hedge Nessie

The gravel path from the back door to the small, informal cottage garden-style front garden, is plank-lined and a tiny bit utilitarian. Essentially, we need it as access to the house. So recently we’ve tried to enliven the front garden with a Feet Path, leading to a small urn. If it sounds a bit odd, then it is. But at the point where the Feet Path springs off the main access path there’s a short, but tall, length of panel fencing, covered by a rose and by jasmine, which acts as a wind-break in winter. Last winter I had the bright idea of making a simple hazel arch, to bridge the gap between the tall fence and the house. I’ve trained a perennial sweet pea (Lathyrus latifolius) to climb the two hazel rods, which I’ll have to replace every few years, when the pea dies back, in winter. So it’s not a lot of work and I think the result is rather pleasing – though I say so myself.

Feet Path

If you follow the gravel path to the front of the house, you come to one of my favourite roses. It’s Rosa Mundi (more correctly, Rosa gallica versicolor), one of the oldest roses still currently grown in British gardens. Its precise history seems to be slightly obscure, but it is undoubtedly medieval and of great antiquity. One of its common names, Fair Rosamund, refers to the mistress of Henry II (1133-1189). It could have been introduced when troops returned from one of the early Crusades. We will never know for certain. It’s only drawback is that the flowers are damaged by rain, which of course has been terrible this year. You can see this in the sad brown-paper-parcels (which we should have removed, but there have been too many) alongside the central blooms in this picture. This bush flowers just outside my office window and I am admiring some flowers as I write this.

Rosa Mundi

And now, a pair of pictures of the front garden, which we took in hand two seasons ago – and at last all that early work is starting to pay off. The popular ground-cover polyantha rose, The Fairy, has been particularly good this year, but its flower stalks will need quite a vigorous pruning, if it is to to look good when we open the garden in mid-September (17th-18th). We’ll also have to tie-in the fuchsia on the wire dome. We tried weaving the stalks into the lattice of wires, but they grew so fat and round that they began to distort the structure. So last winter we cut them out and replaced them with stems that were tied-in. That seems to have worked very much better.

Front Garden

Urn Path

Finally, a health warning. Last Friday I went to the Day Surgery Centre at Kings Lynn Hospital, where I had an umbilical hernia stitched-up. I’m still recovering, but it has meant that I mustn’t lift anything heavier than ‘a sheet of paper’ for at least a week – and then nothing ‘heavy’ for maybe three months. Somehow, but God alone knows how, I’ve got to stick to that rule. And then next week, the busy surgeons at Kings Lynn are going to have a second crack at a small carcinoma on my face. They say the skin op’s more precautionary than anything – but better safe than sorry. So with those two bits of surgery out of the way, I’ll be able to return to full vigorous health. I think my first job in the autumn will be chain-sawing logs for winter. And do you know what? I’m rather looking forward to it (the sawing, that is, not the winter!).

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My New Book: Stonehenge

SronehengeI was approached to write Stonehenge late last summer by the Commissioning Editor of a relatively new publishing house called Head of Zeus. At first I have to admit I was slightly sceptical: books on Stonehenge aren’t exactly hens’ teeth. And besides, how could I, a specialist in the Fens, contribute anything even remotely original, or interesting? But the nice man at H of Z was very insistent. And then he offered lunch.

I have to say, I have always been a sucker for a free lunch, especially if it comes with a reimbursed rail fare. So I said yes.

To be quite frank, I can’t remember much about the meal, except that it was in the bar of a local pub in Clerkenwell – about a twenty minutes walk from King’s Cross station. When I lived briefly in London in the late ‘60s it wasn’t a particularly salubrious district, but now it is very different: pop-up bistros and sandwich bars everywhere and people sipping coffee in the dappled late summer sunlight. Nobody could possibly have guessed that in less than a year the country would decide to commit collective suicide and leave the EU – so the atmosphere was relaxed, cosmopolitan and yes, remarkably Continental. I suspect the vibe is rather different there today.

Magna CartaI found the publisher’s offices and was met by Richard Milbank, Head of Non-Fiction Publishing. He told me about their Landmark series and produced the first book on Magna Carta, by Dan Jones. And I must admit, it was very handsome: a compact hard-back, in full colour throughout, but it didn’t seem at all dumbed-down. There were footnotes and detailed explanatory appendices. I was beginning to warm to the idea. Over lunch and a pint of London Pride (Richard drank orange juice), he explained that they were after a book on Stonehenge that put the site in its setting and which brought it alive. They didn’t want something dry and descriptive.

The King is DeadI started reading Dan’s Magna Carta on the train, and had finished it by the time I went to bed. In other words, I couldn’t put it down. It was a real page-turner – and I learnt so much. Since then, Suzie Lipscomb has published the second in the series (on the Will of Henry VIII), and it too, is a cracking good read – and like Dan’s, beautifully written. By now, I was on my mettle. My Stonehenge had better be good.

I had originally reckoned that a book of 30,000 words would take me a couple of months to write. I normally produce about 1,000 words a day, so that would allow me a month or so to catch up with current research, visit the site (again) and produce a working manuscript. Or so I thought. Even with the help of Mike Parker Pearson and Josh Pollard – two of the current leading researchers into Stonehenge – it took me the best part of six months to produce something, which I hope can stand alongside the first two books in the series.

Obviously I have drawn heavily on the mass of recent research, but I have also used my own experience of Neolithic and Early Bronze Age sites, too. While we were starting work at Flag Fen our team were also excavating a causewayed enclosure at Etton – which predates Stonehenge by several centuries, but which has many intriguing parallels with it. Before we dug Etton we had excavated a massive timber henge at the nearby site of Maxey, and in subsequent years we dug three small henge or henge-like sites. So I did have a certain amount of relevant experience.

I think my main problem with the way Stonehenge has been perceived in the past has to do with how we envisage the development of ancient sites. We tend to see them as the prehistoric equivalent of modern construction projects, with fixed phases of development and re-development. This structures the way we interpret the radiocarbon dates and gives a misleading impression of rigid planning and synchronicity – which I’m fairly sure didn’t apply in prehistoric times. Prehistoric shrines were not like medieval churches or modern buildings. They were built for different purposes entirely. In some respects, their construction was their use. It’s a complex topic and intimately bound-up with the development of the landscape and the way people perceived their lives within it.

Anyhow, I’ve tried to touch on some of these issues in the book, which doubtless explains why it took so long to write. Addressing complex themes in clear language can be challenging – and I’ve tried to eschew obfuscation (my favourite phrase of all time), and to avoid academic jargon, too. So it was hard work and took several drafts. But it was fun to do, and it was great to meet old friends and talk about their work. All I can say is that I do hope you enjoy it (and at a list price of just £16.99 it’s incredibly good value!).

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More Soggy Than Blazing…mid-June, 2016

A couple of days ago I dug the first early potatoes of the season. It had been raining on and off for the previous ten days and the soil was more like porridge than earth. My heart sank as I looked at the mess of mud and spuds: there were slug holes everywhere. I won’t say the crop was ruined, but if the damage continues it will be. Very depressing. In fact, this is the first time in over forty years of vegetable-growing that my first earlies have been slugged. As I said: very depressing. So let’s try and look on the brighter side.

And what could be more cheering than an early rose? Maisie is something of a rose enthusiast and our garden has dozens of different varieties. I tend to like the older, more scented ones and am very fond of natural species, or very slightly improved ones. A good example is Rosa moyseii ‘Geranium’. This is a tall species that loves to grow through low trees, such as birches. We’ve got one in a birch and one (seen here), which scrambles over the tall brick wall which protects the front garden from the cold north-easterly winds of winter. Some of the more highly bred older roses lose their blooms at the first sign of rain, but not Rosa moyseii, which was looking particularly good when I took this photo, on June 10th.

Rosa moyseii geranium

A couple of years ago we decided it was time to take the small garden in front of the house in hand. This was where the readi-mix concrete lorries stood when we were pouring the house’s foundations, back in 1995. Later, the ground got further messed-up when we added the back porch and built-on a couple of walls. Rather than face the problem, we dumped loads of muck on the ground and planted a few shrubs, in the hope that nature would repair the damage we’d inflicted on it. And it seems to have worked. I won’t say the soil is anywhere near as good as in the vegetable garden, but at least it is soil – and not just gleyed silt.

So two years ago we cleared some over-grown shrubs and laid-out a new path, which we fringed with perennials. One or two plants had managed to survive from the previous garden including my favourite Delphinium, ‘Summer Skies’, which had struggled to survive for some fifteen years, but which was quite suddenly thriving, now that the shading shrubs had gone. I don’t think it has ever looked this good.

Delphinium Summer Skies

About a couple of metres away from Summer Skies are two plants of my favourite peony, with the slightly cringe-making name, Bowl of Beauty. Again, it’s looking superb and is flowering freely, if a couple of weeks late. Peonies can take the rain better than roses, but this year hasn’t been at all easy and I suspect the season is going to be very short indeed.

Peony Bowl of BeautyI suppose the horticultural polar opposite to the exotic and highly improved Bowl of Beauty is the native British species Iris pseudacorus, or flag iris. It gave its name to Flag Fen and I can see it flowering along dykesides as I drive through the fens near here. It always lifts my spirits, which is why we planted it around the little pond in our garden. It can be a bit invasive, so needs to be controlled in the autumn.

Flag irises

And finally, something completely different: strawberries. Fortunately I got mine strawed-up the day before the weather broke. It’s important to push straw underneath as many young green strawberries as you can. Do this while it’s still dry and you won’t lose your crop to slugs. I suppose those slimy little garden terrorists have eaten 5% of my crop, but that’s a lot better than having nothing. And a sprinkling of sugar can compensate for the lack of sunshine. The taste, the underlying flavour, of home-grown strawberries is so, so, so much better than those bland supermarket ones. We like them with Greek yogurt, which is far less fattening than cream. And as we are forced to eat strawberries twice a day for some three weeks, you have to take these things seriously. Cheers!

Oh yes – and death to all slugs.

Strawberries

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