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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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Press on Regardless!

I’m afraid it has been a very dark winter, but now there are glimmers of light to be seen. Joe Biden has taken over from Trump, but it was so sad to see Washington under martial law, following the events of January 6th. Let’s hope nobody decides to assassinate the incoming President – as, sadly, such things are not unknown in America. Of perhaps secondary importance to the world at large, but my own news is that I received notification from our NHS doctors’ practice, that I was to receive my first inoculation against Covid-19 on January 21st, in their Wisbech surgery. Hooray! That’s a huge relief – and can I please use this opportunity to urge anyone who has doubts about vaccines and inoculation that they are completely safe. I have absolute trust in the rigorous system the UK possesses for checking all new medicines. All elderly people must get inoculated to help ease future pressure on hospitals, many of which are under the most severe strain.

            I’ve also made a vow that I will try to steer clear of Brexit, because the way it has been handled, or not, still makes me so angry. The government seems to have decided that certain parts of the community simply don’t matter: Scottish fishers and farmers; all musicians; the financial sector and academia in general. I should also add that many working farmers – such as breeders of chickens and exporters of meat – are hitting massive restrictions that threaten their future. What a dreadful mess – and all entirely avoidable. But that’s enough Brexit ranting: I mustn’t develop high blood pressure, or I might blind the nurse with a strong jet of blood when she jabs me tomorrow.

            The weather this winter has been colder than last year, but not quite as wet – which is great. The cold has meant many frosty nights and I’m pleased to report that the segment of the vegetable garden I dug just before Christmas has been well frosted and the hard lumps of clay-silt have broken-down quite well and have started to mix with the manure. By the time I plant the potatoes (in late March) the ground should be in excellent condition. Some of the frosts have already been cold enough to have killed many of the aphids and fungal spores that built-up so hugely following the mild winters of 2018-19 and 2019-20. Last summer the levels of pests and diseases in the garden were terrible and I would have been forced to start having to use sprays in 2021, if those recent frosts hadn’t happened. It still annoys me when I hear everyone on TV and radio endlessly complaining about the cold weather; they can’t be gardeners, any of them.

A view of the garden on the cold morning of December 4th, 2020.

            We were given intimations of what was to come in early December when we were hit by a sharp cold snap, which brought with it something we hadn’t seen for years: three inches of snow – which lay, unmelted on the ground for two days! On Christmas Eve I went out in the garden and found three or four low-hanging branches of something evergreen (I think it’s from a twenty year-old juniper), which I jammed into the socket of a garden umbrella-stand to make an instant ‘tree’. Once you’ve abandoned the idea that Christmas trees must always be conical you can be far more creative. I’ve been making weirdly-shaped Christmas trees from bits of evergreen for at least ten years. Once the ‘tree’ is in place Maisie decorates it – and that’s the bit that takes skill. Whatever I have given her to work on, the result is always stunning. And here’s the one for Christmas 2020.


Our Christmas tree for 2020.

            The late great gardener and garden-writer Christopher Lloyd famously noted words to the effect that ‘a garden disaster is a gardening opportunity’. The unbelievably wet winter of 2019-20 was certainly something of a disaster in our garden: box hedges died and many long-established trees and shrubs suffered badly. Many of these problems were completely unexpected. The path along the edge of the vegetable garden is lined by a double row of espaliered apples and pears. When we laid the garden out in the mid-1990s we were careful to site the veg garden on good, light land that was well-drained. Brassicas and potatoes won’t thrive on heavy or wet ground, which was why we selected a slightly raised patch of silty soil, part of an extinct stream or tidal creek, known in the Fens as a ‘roddon’. So imagine my surprise when in April last year, one of the apple trees in the espalier row started looking very sick. I applied liquid fertiliser to the roots and leaves and briefly we thought it was going to pull through. Then there was another very wet period, followed by several weeks of hot, dry weather, which proved altogether too much for the poor tree.

            The dead espalier was still standing, and actually looking strangely dignified – almost like a symbolic crucifixion – when we opened the garden for the National Gardens Scheme, last September. Strangely, nobody commented on it – which doesn’t surprise me as most of our visitors are gardeners themselves and they must have realised I was reluctant to cut it down. But eventually I had to. So as soon as I’d finished digging the vegetable garden I started up my chainsaw and did the deed. We’ve kept the trunk and some of the knobbly espaliered side-branches to use as decoration for a possible tree- or root-house out in the wood (a project we’ve been planning for some time, but which is probably one of those picturesque schemes that will never get done).

            While I was removing the dead tree and tidying up afterwards, I couldn’t help noticing that the living espaliers were in urgent need of reduction and rejuvenation. They’d grown far too large and bushy which certainly didn’t help their productivity and also meant that they shaded-out a very large area of the vegetable garden behind them.

The vegetable garden espaliers, after the removal of the dead tree, but before their pruning.

            So in the days following Christmas and into the early new year I cut back the espaliers. I have to say that giving a hard cut-back to espaliers isn’t a job I particularly enjoy, because it involves cutting off so many fruiting spurs and promising-looking buds and I kept having to remind myself that I was being cruel to be kind … After about a week of steady work I’d finished. I suspect next season’s yield will be well down, but it should pick up in 2022, fingers crossed. Anyhow, the next two pictures show the completed ‘revived’ espaliers and I think you’ll agree they look quite tight and neat. With luck, the routine autumn pruning should be much simpler in future.

Two views of the vegetable garden espaliered apples and pears, after a restorative pruning, in early January, 2021.

            And finally, let’s look forward to the spring and the delightful blossoming of the may bushes, sloe and wild plum that line both sides of Chicken Lane, the short, straight path that joins the barn, yard and vegetable garden to the woods that enclose the garden on its north and eastern sides. The lane gets its name from the chickens that wonder up and down it in normal years. This year, however, because of avian influenza (bird flu), all five hens and one cockerel are housed within the old implement shed. I think they’d be far, far happier on the muck-heap or in Chicken Lane. But sadly I must keep them confined. There are several large turkey farms in the area and I’d hate to see them infected because we were careless with our few birds.

     As a general rule I try to cut back the side-growth along Chicken Lane every four or five years, but as with the espaliered apples and pears, this year the growth had got out of hand. So I persuaded our neighbour’s son Jessie, who has been helping in the garden once a week for at least five years, to wield the mechanical hedge-trimmer. I explained I wanted to achieve a magnificent arched look – rather like a church. And didn’t he do a great job? I took this picture as he drove the garden tractor back to the barn, triumphant!

Chicken Lane, immediately after Jessie (on the garden tractor) had finished cutting it back.

The photo was taken on January 22nd, the day after I had received my first dose of the Oxford/Astra-Zeneca Covid-19 vaccine. So I think there’s hope for the future. Roll on Spring – I can’t wait for April/May, to see the hedges along Chicken Lane in glorious blossom. And then it’s summer. Followed by autumn – and sloe gin!! And who knows, maybe we’ll be able to share it with a few old friends? We can always hope…

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Always Look On The Bright Side…

…Of Life!” de-dum, de-dum, de-dum de-dum de-dum… And with any luck, that’s a cheerful earful established for the rest of the day.  I bet it beats the hell out of the high background whistling sound my ears have been making for the past few months. I gather it’s tinnitus, probably caused by a combination of old age and a build-up of ear wax. So I’ve been squirting oil in them (the brand I use is called Earol – I love the name!) – and I think it’s starting to work. It always seems worse when I’ve been sitting at my desk tapping away at my laptop, like I’m doing right now. But what the hell – I’ll press on regardless. Which brings me to my first point, which is a cheerful one: he’s gone, that ghastly Trump has at long last been sacked by the US electorate. Thank God, (no, in actual fact: thank people) for democracy! For me at least, Populism and the way it routinely disregards truth, is a major threat to democracy. It has crept up on many of us and taken us by surprise. It’s worth remembering that Hitler and Mussolini were both populists. Only now are we starting to realise what harm Trump has done to the U.S., especially with regard to his arrogant dismissal of all medical advice. His current active support of the death penalty is obscene. But he’ll soon be gone – and with any luck he’ll be prosecuted. Meanwhile, we’ve still got quite a long way to go, especially right here in Britain. So Trump’s departure is a great first step and a huge reason to be cheerful. Cue for return of ear-worm and vision of smiling Eric Idle, stepping lightly from the fridge…

Another reason to be cheerful: a view of the pond in our garden, with the pollarded willows looking particularly glowing. I took this picture in mid-December 2006.IDF

People are making big efforts to raise our morale. It goes without saying that the NHS are performing miracles and I hope the rise of scientific and other medical experts will provide a welcome counter-balance to the usual half-truths and outright lies perpetrated by far too many politicians. But meaningful change happens from the grassroots, up. And what could possibly be more grassroots than the lawns, paddocks, fields, droves and Bronze Age pastures at Flag Fen. Local readers will probably be aware that there have been changes to the way things are being done in Peterborough. The organization created by the City Council to run and manage its museum, theatres and other cultural resources, was known by the name Vivacity. It went bust in June 2020. So the City Council have since decided that Flag Fen is now to be run by Peterborough City College, based in Brook Street, on the eastern side of the City, and not too far from Flag Fen. I know a number of people involved in the new set-up and I feel far, far more relaxed about it, then I did when Vivacity called the shots. It wasn’t always very clear to me what they were aiming at. The new organisation has reassembled an Archaeological Advisory Committee, which I am delighted to serve on, and it seems that some really positive changes might be coming in 2021. Who knows, with luck we might even see small-scale excavation resume there, because without continuing research and monitoring we can have no idea how well the thousands of preserved timbers below the ground are surviving – or drying-out.

But there is one VERY positive omen for the future. The new management has deciding to open the grounds and park at Flag Fen to the public (for free!) for the rest of the winter – until it officially reopens to paying visitors in the spring/summer. The launch event will take place on the mid-winter solstice (very appropriate to the Bronze Age!) on the afternoon of Monday December 21st. And I think a few tickets are still available. Sadly, you must have tickets, to comply with Covid regulations. I have been asked to say a few words of welcome (God knows what they’ll sound like through my thick mask – ho-hum!).

In the days when Fenland Archaeological Trust ran the place, we used to welcome visitors in winter just to enjoy the many walks and the wonderful views of the open Fens. I think Flag Fen has got an atmosphere quite unlike anywhere else and it’s at its very best on clear days in mid-winter, when the sun is low in the sky, the shadows are long and seagulls circle overhead. Sometimes the peace of the afternoon can be broken by the honking sounds of skeins of whooper swans as they make their way back to their evening roosts. Hares scuttle along the overgrown dykesides and dash across the sprouting fields of winter wheat. I’ve even seen roe deer and foxes, not to mention little egrets and grey herons. There’s a wildness and an untamed-ness about the Fens that’s sadly becoming so rare in these grim, and increasingly constrained times. Alone, or with your family at Flag Fen, you could almost imagine that the modern world didn’t exist. It’s a wonderful feeling. So do pay a visit in the New Year – if not before. And who knows, you might get to meet some very nice, like-minded people – fully socially distanced, of course!

A view along the reconstructed Bronze Age droveway at Flag Fen, taken in October 2007, about 18 years after it was initially laid out and the side ditches dug. It’s interesting to see how the side ditches have filled up, by at least a half. This process was entirely natural – the result of moles, frosts and trampling sheep.

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Dig for Sanity!

By the end of November we are past the season of ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’[1] and have entered a time of short days, low clouds and occasional bright skies, with breath-taking displays at dawn and dusk. Even without Covid, these weeks can be melancholy, but I’m also far from certain that melancholy is necessarily about sadness alone. I’ve always regarded it as a type of introspection in which you don’t dwell on yourself. I know that’s hard to comprehend, but it’s something that poets have been wrestling with for a very long time – and I’m certainly no poet. For me, there’s something very comforting and yes, a bit melancholy, in an ordinary autumn view, without the breathtaking colours that have become so obligatory in every gardening magazine at this time of year. I think this photo sums up what I’m trying to capture: an atmosphere of peace and reflection, with hints of something quite spectacular in the middle distance.

A view of the Small Border in late November.

A few hours ago we learnt that despite the Lincolnshire Fens having Covid infection rates that were around the national average, the Westminster government, in their lofty wisdom, had placed the entire county of Lincolnshire in Tier 3 (or Tear 3, as all the tabloid newspapers prefer it), which has the most severe restrictions. Lincolnshire is the second largest county in England, and should probably have been sub-divided; but I think the Government’s advisors were worried about the lack of hospitals (there are just three!) in such a huge county. Having said that, I can’t say it bothers us much, as we’re both in a sort of voluntary lock-down, for the simple reason that we’re both over 70. Unlike our political leaders, we also use our common sense. So later this morning I plan to head into Long Sutton (open-air) market, where I’ll buy fresh shrimps, mussels, fruit and a few bright bedding plants for winter pots and tubs. I think we all need cheering up. And there are a few hopeful signs: at least three vaccines are on the way and across the Atlantic the ghastly Trump has been sent packing. Sadly, things are still looking pretty grim in Britain: in just over a month we will probably crash out of the EU. Already banks are heading out of London and god alone knows what will happen to the rest of the economy. The United Kingdom might well break-up, with Scotland (who voted to remain in the EU) becoming independent. My sympathies are entirely with our Scottish friends. It’s a complete mess and all of our own making. The biggest long-term problem of all is that there’s still no effective Parliamentary Opposition: the Labour Party is hopelessly split and the Lib Dems are a shadow of their former selves and also seem to have lost their once-clear voice. Sadly, I feel far less optimistic than I did back in early May, when I wrote the up-beat blog post ‘Dig for Victory!’. So how do I cheer myself up when everything is so gloomy? Simple: I’m an archaeologist and gardener: so I walk down to the shed and take my best spade off the rack. Then I head out to the muck-heap and start to fill a wheelbarrow.

The muck-heap. This view shows the trimmed and weeded face I have been digging for the vegetable garden. A few minutes later, the chickens had all been released and were feeding enthusiastically on the heap’s many worms and grubs.

I love muck. Manure, to give it a more sanitised label (these days, there’s always a bottle of word-sanitiser dangling in my brain when I write) [It took Maisie years to get you to call it muck. – Ed.] is just sheep poo, mixed with old bedding straw and other scrapings off the barn floor at the end of winter. It’s then left for at least a year to ferment and convert itself to muck (manure). The actual process of conversion is quite complex, but it involves fungi and various types of earthworms, which I always try to avoid chopping with my spade when I break-up the larger lumps in the barrow. I love the smell of freshly exposed manure as I dig into the muck-heap. It’s hard to describe, but it’s rich, earthy, fertile and full of promise. We work a four-course rotation in the vegetable garden. Muck is dug into one of the four plots every year, usually in early December, so that the hard frosts of mid-winter can break-down the larger clods of earth. Then, in March, I plant four or five rows of potatoes, which thrive in the rich, damp, freshly-dug soil.


I empty barrows of muck in rows across the plot. This year there are five rows, each one composed of five barrowfuls. I have just started the process of spreading and digging on the far right, by the white bucket (for persistent weeds, such as dandelions) and the spade.

The parts of the freshly dug plot without potatoes are used for growing tomatoes, as they too like wet, fertile ground and are also susceptible to blight, both being members of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, originating in North America. I don’t normally like spraying vegetables, but in June and July blight spreads from the many potato fields around us, so experience has shown me that I have to spray against it, or I’d lose both crops.[2] I never use systemic sprays – usually something based around copper sulphate, which we can wash-off tomatoes, later. In some very dry years, I can get away without spraying, but such seasons are rare.

In the first of the following years I use the plot to plant leeks and onions, then brassicas (cabbages etc.), then summer vegetables (runner beans etc), before digging-in more muck again, in year 4. So the annual winter digging gives me a chance to examine the state of the soil in different parts of the vegetable garden. When we began the garden, back in 1993, I was frankly appalled by the state of the soil, which was essentially dead. There were no earthworms, nor any visible insects, Consequently there were no moles who like to feed on earthworms and other soil insects. I don’t like moles in the garden, but they’re part of being a gardener: you work out ways of dealing with them. But to have none whatsoever was very, very strange. At first, the digging-in of muck seemed to have no effect, but quite soon – even the second year of manuring a plot, I started to note small improvements.  There were a few worms, but more importantly the soil had started to acquire structure: it wasn’t so heavy in winter and didn’t get quite so hard in hot sunny weather. I wouldn’t describe it as exactly crumbly, but it had definitely improved. By the third digging of each plot (i.e. after 12 years) the vegetable garden had improved beyond my wildest dreams: tomatoes leapt out of the ground; runner beans were rampant and onions grew as large as tennis balls – more importantly they also tasted delicious. I certainly noticed the difference when we ran out and had to buy supermarket replacements, which looked very nice, but had no flavour whatsoever.

A closer view of the plot during digging, with rows of un-dug muck to the left. The paler, silty dug soil, to the right, will break down more fully with the sharper air frosts of late December, January and February.

These are some of the reasons why I regard the annual winter muck-digging as such a key part of the gardening year. To be frank, the winter trip to the muck-heap has become something of a pilgrimage for me. I look for the worms and there they always are. I won’t say they wave their tails in welcome, but that’s how it sometimes feels. Then I load them into the barrow and dig them into their new home. I don’t know how they manage to do it every year, but in the spring the first peas, broad beans and pointy cabbages taste even better than in the previous seasons. So can I take this opportunity while our own species is quaking in the shadow of a nasty invasive virus, to thank those nameless earthworms who do so much to keep our soil healthy and make home-grown food taste so utterly gorgeous. For me, they are little wiggly miracle-workers: mankind’s very best and most loyal of  friends. And yes, they also help to keep us healthy, not just physically – and I’m sure I speak for all gardeners here – but mentally, too. Long live earthworms!

[2] Please don’t tell me about alternatives for blight: I’ve tried most of them and they don’t work. Believe me, south Lincolnshire is very intensively farmed!

[1] From the first line of John Keats’ Ode to Autumn.

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Life and Hope: Facing a Challenging Winter

Let me start with a profuse apology and then the good news. The apology is for the fact that it’s been over a month since I last did a piece for this blog. This was all the more unforgiveable given the huge success of our NGS Open Garden weekend on September 19-20. I know that Maisie has been in contact with those of you who were able to help us manage the visitors; you will already know the details of the weekend. MANY thanks to all of you – and to all our visitors! Warm thanks also to the people who weren’t able to come, but who sent us generous donations, instead. Visitors had to pre-book on the NGS website and to be quite frank we had very low expectations. Our garden is very rural and many of our visitors live locally, where broadband speeds are – to put it politely – pitifully slow. But in the event, we were proved wrong: we had about 60% of our normal, (i.e. unrestricted) number of visitors, but people spent far more freely. We weren’t allowed to sell tea; nevertheless, the pre-wrapped slices of cake were a huge success, as was the picnic field, where people (in groups of six, or less!) sat on bales of wheat straw munching lemon drizzle cake, with warm drinks from the flasks they had brought with them. I may even have spotted a bottle or two of wine. Or did I? No, I must have been mistaken. In previous years our garden opening usually has raised around £1,500 for nursing charities. This year, even with pre-booking only, we managed an extraordinary £1,055! And if ever there was a year when the medical profession needed our help, this was the one. So again, huge thanks to everyone involved: volunteers, visitors and donors. You’re all stars!

            While we were opening the garden, we were hugely encouraged by the enthusiasm of our visitors and of course by their generosity. There was no hint of the thuggish animosity that seems to be dominating contemporary public life and the social media. Admittedly, country people tend to be more easy-going than their urban counterparts, but loneliness is known to have been a problem among isolated farming families during the pandemic and rural areas have certainly had their own problems. We were so heartened to see how cheerful people were. When one got to chat with them, many visitors were finding hope and consolation in their gardens, I can’t remember his precise words, but one young man told me how much he had enjoyed growing vegetables for the first time. He was wondering about planting potatoes next year, so I discussed varieties of earlies, second earlies and main crop. And also how to fight those horrible slugs! I got the strong impression that he’d be a gardener for the rest of his life – and that’s so very heartening!

            I must confess that once we had removed all the signs, the notices and also the hurdles and other barriers we had used to keep people apart, we both rather collapsed: it had been quite an exhausting few days. Of course, this was when I should have written my blog. Then my publisher gently nagged me to return the corrected final proofs of my next book. If you’re an author, a gentle nag from a publisher is like a shot of concentrated adrenalin, which drives everything else out of you mind. The poor old blog post didn’t really stand a chance. Hence the delay. I blame others (maybe because I’ve seen too many politicians on the TV screen of late), but it’s my fault really. Grovel…grovel.

            On the positive side, The Fens book is continuing to sell very well. Of course it’s now in paperback and available at most bookshops, but if you want to get a copy by mail, I suggest you click here (or at the top of this blog). In my next blog post I’ll say a few judicious words about my next book, which I’m very excited about. Present plans are to publish it later in 2021, when the current huge wave of new authors might have subsided a bit. I gather over 600 titles were published in the UK in September, 2020. That’s an insane number! Better wait till things have calmed down, but I have to say I’m so delighted that publishing is doing OK and best of all, that real, printed-on-paper books are back in vogue. I’d hate my literary legacy, such as it is, to be handed on to future generations by way of floppy disks, CDs, flash drives and downloads, alone. What would happen if there was a nuclear war and all electronics were wiped out? Horrible thought.

            Meanwhile back to the garden. Autumn colour has been quite good, although strong winds have removed many of the leaves and recently rain has hit later flowering roses and asters, many of which have collapsed because their flower heads are heavy with water. So let’s go on a rapid tour – and don’t feel obliged to maintain social distance. Join me in large crowds and walk as close as you want![1] I took most of these photos last week, before the recent rains began.

            Every year we pay a local tax to the IDB, or Internal Drainage Board, who spend our money cleaning-out, straightening and maintaining the dykes in our area. The big clean-out (known in the old days as slubbing-out) used to be done by hand, but today is done by mechanical excavators fitted with huge buckets. The buckets are in turn fitted with mechanical cutters that mow off the weeds. The system was introduced by John Thory in the 1970s. John was an old friend (sadly departed) who used to provide us with earth-moving equipment when we were doing our first excavations at Fengate, Peterborough from 1971-8. His buckets were about two metres wide. This one looks about three times that! The driver is very skilled indeed. It looks easy, but believe me, it isn’t.

            The Rose Garden suffered terribly last winter, as a result of prolonged, continuous flooding throughout December, January and February. This caused about half the box hedges to die of the less common variety of blight, brought about by flooding. To draw attention away from the dying hedges we created a new bed, arranged around a series of old sinks, planted with house-leeks and various dry-loving Alpine plants. The plant with the startling flowers in the foreground is the hardy Bromeliad, Fascicularia bicolor. Make sure young children don’t cut their fingers on its razor-sharp leaves!

            The wider open spaces, such as the Meadow tend to be the subject of attention in autumn, but I also like the quieter, more intimate parts of the garden, such as the Dome Garden, which I suppose is the only ‘room’ – in the traditional gardening sense – in our garden. It used to house the wirework dome that now adorns the Front Garden, until we moved it about fifteen years ago, but the name had stuck. I think the asters and roses look lovely in this shot and I apologise for the long grass of the lawn, but the soil in this part of the garden is both low-lying and clay-rich. It puddles terribly when I drive over it with the mower.

            We try to make sure that the Long Border looks good throughout the year, but it is particularly splendid in autumn. I particularly like the fruits of the winged spindle, Euonymous europaeus, Red Cascade (in the foreground, left).

            By way of complete contrast with the Long Border, the informality of the mown path of the Serpentine Walk becomes even more pronounced in autumn. I suppose we ought to re-seed it every year, because the birch roots always cause dryness in late summer. Lack of water makes the lawn die back. However, it usually recovers by springtime. Moss likes the dampness of winter and this, too, helps to keep the path looking green. I think lawns and paths are about more than neatness: they should change with the seasons, too.

            We have two large asparagus beds, in which we grow – surprise, surprise – asparagus, which we harvest in April and May. We grow an old variety (developed in New York in the 1860s), called Conover’s Colossal. I love it to bits and as I’ve planted far too much of it, I spend happy days handing bags of fresh spears to our neighbours in late spring. But a benefit that is rarely reported is the lovely colour that asparagus fern turns every year. I’ll have to cut it back shortly and then burn it, to prevent the dreaded pest, asparagus beetle, from hibernating inside the hollow stems over winter. In the foreground, are the rapidly drying plants of Eryngium giganteum, Miss Willmott’s Ghost. Miss Willmott (a famous gardener of the late 19th and earlier 20th centuries) was supposed to secretly spread its seeds around the gardens she visited. The leaves are horribly sharp, so she must have had tough old fingers!


[1] He lives in a world of his own! (Ed.)

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The Garden will open on September 19th and 20th. Advance booking only.

This is a short blog post to let everyone know that we’re opening our garden for the weekend of September 19-20th, 2020. Because of Covid-19 restrictions, the National Gardens Scheme are only allowing visitors who book in advance. Everything seems to be constantly changing, including the NGS website, which is currently introducing improvements. I’m told these will make it easier to book in. Visitors will be admitted in hourly slots which can only be reserved through the NGS website. Download your booking to your phone, or do a printout as you’ll need to provide proof when you arrive. But in common with other larger gardens, we aren’t insisting on an exit time. In other words, your hourly slot only applies to your arrival time. The garden will close at 4.30. Sadly, the insurers behind the NGS are insisting that we cannot provide tea or non-emergency toilets, but we are planning to offer visitors home-made cake and there will also be a plant stall. For reasons of hygiene, we cannot offer change, but don’t worry: everything you give will go to the medical charities supported by the NGS – and their finances have taken a big hit thanks to the pandemic. So feel free to throw money at us! Oh, and one other innovation: we’ve introduced a picnic area, next to the vegetable garden. It’s a very sheltered small paddock, surrounded on all sides by hedges and a tall stand of black poplars. We haven’t allowed any sheep in it for a month, so you shouldn’t have to contend with wet sheep poo! Gentlemen might choose to visit some of the larger trees in the wood from time to time…

It has been a very challenging year in the garden. Last winter was very, very wet and the damage it caused is still becoming evident. We’ve lost an apple tree and most of a box hedge; several shrubs are barely hanging on. But other plants have thrived. Some of the roses have never looked better. One big surprise was the Pyracantha (Firethorn), ‘Orange Glow’, which covers part of a wall in the front garden. Every late summer I trim it back to reveal the berries. Often I do this job with a hedge-cutter or shears, but last week I had to resort to a pair of secateurs. It proved quite a task: there were so many berries.

Wet-loving weeds (a weed, after all, is merely a plant in the wrong place) have also thrived. Having provided a magnificent spring display in the meadow, where they provide a deeper, more golden hue to the paler yellow of the cowslips, the many thousands of dandelions formed their fluffy air-born seeds, which were duly distributed all over the garden by the northerly winds which were such a feature of the early summer. Seedlings emerged in the borders and flower beds, in late June and July, and grew into large plants, in August. We’ve been weeding them out relentlessly ever since (a slow process, given their deep tap roots), but I don’t think we’ll ever complete the task. Please be understanding. But on the positive side, Jason’s superb re-styling of the bamboo is greening-up and the asters in the main border should be in full flower. Storm Francis did a lot of damage, but we’ve managed to clear most of it up. We won’t be displaying many posters, as we don’t want to attract casual visitors, so do please make a careful note of our post code (on the NGS website). I do hope you’ll be able to come: both Maisie and I feel very strongly that the nursing profession and medical charities urgently need all the help they can get this year. It would also be nice to see so many of your friendly faces again!

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What A Summer!

I don’t think I can ever recall a summer when so much, and yet so little, has happened at the same time. I know that sounds nonsensical, but I’m sure you all know what I’m trying to say: at the personal scale things have been fairly busy, but more a matter of making constant small adjustments than confronting major catastrophes. Thanks to the ghastly wet winter, gardening has been busy, but still quite productive: I don’t think the vegetable garden has ever produced so much food – and it’s still continuing (the runner bean crop threatens to overwhelm us). But at the same time there are weeds everywhere and as soon as we remove them, new ones spring out of the ground and thumb their noses at us defiantly. Of course we’ve had to make changes to our lives – even as supposedly placid retirees: we try to get supplies delivered, we do our best to avoid going into shops and we haven’t had any social activity inside the house since the Covid lock-down began, back in March. Having said that, we frequently meet friends and neighbours in the barn or the garden – and of course on the poop deck at the back of the house. We take the view that open-air meetings are perfectly safe, provided everyone stays well apart. Meanwhile out there in the wider world, things seem to be going crazy: America is run by a populist egomaniac; Britain’s semi-populist government is, at best, semi-competent and of course Brexit continues to loom at a time when food prices are rising and world trade is in turmoil. And what makes it all feel so mad is that most of this chaos was self-inflicted: people voted for it.

Before lockdown was announced (which for non-British readers was on March 24th), Maisie and I had established a routine of booze-free Mondays. So we’d have our last drinks on Sunday night and only pour another one after six in the evening, the following Tuesday. That meant that our metabolisms were given a rest from alcohol for about 44 hours. It also meant that we drank rather less on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings and having a regular alcohol-free ‘gap’ ensured that our overall rate of boozing didn’t creep upwards. We adopted this scheme about ten years ago after speaking to a doctor friend, who specialised in liver complaints. He reckoned that a weekly ‘gap’ of about 24 hours would give the liver time to recover from the ill-effects of alcohol. But then lockdown happened.

It was all so depressing that we both decided to suspend the Monday booze ‘gap’ for the duration of lockdown. Now I won’t say that our rates of drinking rose steeply, because I don’t think they did. If anything, they fell for a bit, then they started to increase and by mid-July I knew I’d have to cut down. Maisie, being perfect, had barely increased at all. I banned beer from my lunchtimes and tried to cut down in the evenings, but none of these things seemed to have much effect. It was then that I remembered what our friend had said about the cumulative effects of booze on the liver. And that did it. So about three weeks ago we re-introduced our booze-free Mondays and I’m delighted to report that things are now back to normal – and I’m even losing a little weight. I also feel a bit more cheerful. So if lock-down is getting you down, may I suggest you try something similar? As someone famous once said: ‘It might just work.’

By the end of July, the hornbeam hedges that form the framework of our garden were starting to look rather overgrown. Hornbeam loves the wet and it has thrived in our heavy silty soil this year. So we contacted Jason, our contract hedge-cutter, and he did a superb job. Some of the hedges had grown in height and  many were too wide, so it took time to get them right, but now they are looking superb. Here’s a view of Jason starting work on a new section of hornbeam.

One of the reasons I like hiring Jason is that he always has superb tools, which he looks after with enormous care. He’s also very happy to offer advice on their care and maintenance – something I appreciate hugely. He scrupulously followed all advice on Social Distancing, which was such a relief, as both Maisie and I are both at an age where Coronavirus infection could be quite serious. He has a very informative and superbly illustrated YouTube blog, which recently featured him working on our hedges – complete with some superb semi-aerial footage. In Part 1 of my recent 2-part tour of our garden I mentioned how the hornbeam hedges can look very good untrimmed, especially when the growth is still relatively tight, in earlier summer. To make the point, the seventh picture in that blog post showed a length of the border with the hedge untrimmed. By way of contrast, this is how it looked after Jason had given it a haircut.

I’m not saying that the hedge looked better either before or after its haircut. It’s just different, that’s all. And I like the garden to change over the seasons. One of the things I don’t like about some famous display gardens is that they never change. They’re always impeccably neat, controlled and oh-so-bloody BORING! A garden must change and come alive if it’s to avoid just being a three-dimensional picture.

This is a view of the path leading from the long border to the rose garden. When we laid out the garden we didn’t want to go straight from one garden into another. We’re not very fond of the widely-accepted notion that garden’s should feature a succession of neighbouring ‘rooms’. Sure, they work well at Sissinghurst, but we didn’t think we wanted to copy that idea. We wanted our garden to be more a series of voyages, journeys or perambulations, of discovery. So we tried to separate some of the main elements and this curved walk is one of the ways we achieved this. But what we didn’t realise at the time we laid it out, is that it works very well as a feature in its own right. In this picture, Jason has just finished cutting and I’m carting the trimmings away in our John Deere garden tractor.

Hedges do allow you to pull off a few tricks. I took the previous photo of the curved hedge in such a way that the ‘squint’ was concealed (it’s actually in the shadowy bit to the right). You’re only supposed to notice it when you walk close-by and then your attention is immediately grabbed by the contrasting scene it reveals. You are standing just off the long formal border, surrounded by imposing tall hedges – and suddenly you get a glimpse of a more airy, shaded and informal garden – we call it The Glade, through the narrow squint in the hedge. But that squint is carefully aligned to catch the view we want you to see. That’s why it’s so narrow.

I’ve included this picture simply because I am getting very attached to this small bed at the back of the house, near the kitchen window. The large leaved Tetrapanax has really got going in the wet summer. At the start of the year it proudly displayed five big leaves. The current count is seven! This bed is developing quite a jungle feel. The ground-cover is mostly dog violets which look great in early spring.

Earlier I mentioned that it’s been a very productive summer in the vegetable garden. We’ve had a good crop of tomatoes both in the greenhouse and outside and we’ve also had dozens of figs. In late July and August I was distributing soft, ripe figs to neighbours daily, but now the glut has slowed down and we’re reduced to just two or three at breakfast – and a couple at suppertime. I adore them.

Over the past week I’ve been making regular trips down the drive to inspect work on the medieval droveway road that runs alongside our farm. To do this I have to pass through our small orchard where I’ve been delighted by the crop of plums. The apples look a bit disappointing (we had a late frost which affected the blossom), but the plums have been delicious. This photo shows some of the damson crop, which promises to be excellent. Damson jam is delicious, but I can also recommend damson gin; in some respects I think I prefer it to sloe gin.

The road that passes our farm has been pitted and full of pot-holes for a long time, but it got very much worse about fifteen years ago when heavy tankers belonging to a local contractor passed along it, at high speed, every ten or so minutes. This traffic essentially broke the road’s back and caused half of it to start slipping down into the drainage dyke that runs alongside it. There were times when it was barely passable for a car or two-wheel drive vehicle. But we learned that all of that was to change when the local council highways department announced that the road was to close for a week in late August for ‘recycling’. This involved the use of a very heavy-duty rotary cultivator that simply broke the surface up and allowed it to be graded and levelled. The next picture shows the road at this stage, following several hours of heavy rolling.

The following day the rolled road was sprayed several times with tar before being rolled again and sprinkled with white granite chippings, which were then rolled-in. I can’t believe how smart it looks in this picture. About ten minutes after I took the photo, a huge tractor passed over it, shedding vast amounts of mud on the spotless white chippings. Ah, the joys of living in the country…

British readers will still remember the rather vicious storm, named Storm Francis by the Meteorological Office. It featured severe gales – arguably the worst I can remember for August – which brought down fruit in orchards and had a terrible effect on those bamboo cane frames for runner beans. Mine was blown over and half the bean plants were snapped off. Yesterday morning friends living on the edge of the Fens in Norfolk reported exactly the same thing and then had the temerity to blame me!


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A Tour Around Inley Drove Farm Garden in June and July, 2020: Part 2

(This is the second part of the two special blogs written for visitors who would have come to our garden on a pre-booked tour, in June and July 2020. As everyone will know by now, we have had to cancel all National Gardens Scheme visits because of the pandemic.)

The previous blog post was a quick tour through the more formal parts of the garden. Now I want to turn my attention to those other, more spontaneous or natural areas. Many of them grew up quite slowly – and yes, we did ‘design’ the fundamental layout behind them, but it was Mother Nature who did much of the rest and quite often we altered the layout to fit in better with the direction she was taking things. I think it very important that garden designers get a good feel for local context of the gardens they are designing. If you must import ideas from other places – and I concede this is an essential element of all modern design – then you should alter them to fit in with the surrounding landscape, the soils, the size and the scale of the garden. So a massive fountain the size of the ‘Great Squirt’ (that’s what I call it), at Chatsworth House, would look odd in a suburban setting; similarly, a brightly-coloured pavilion from a sandy rhododendron wood might appear rather out of place in a gentle Cotswold farmhouse meadow.

I’ll start this tour where you’re supposed to begin most visits: in the front garden. Our front garden has a chequered history. It had difficult beginnings. The silty soil here is very soft and the builders needed good firm access to the front of the house. So it soon became a bit of a quagmire, mixed with disused bricks, roof tiles and scrapings of mortar. When work on the house finished, I have to confess I stayed away from the chaos at the front. As a result, over the first two winters the deep wheel-ruts filled with muddy water then everything set like concrete in the heat of summer. The soil there had no structure whatsoever; it was completely dead – even more dead than the rest of the field in which we built the house, which had been relentlessly ploughed, harrowed, rolled and fertilised for at least forty years, without a fallow break or rest of any sort. It took about five years for earthworms to return in any numbers. We didn’t have a mole even pay us a visit, for at least that time. Then, sometime in the later 1990s, we took the front garden in hand. We dug in vast amounts of manure and slowly something that vaguely resembled soil began to reappear. It’s still a bit thin, but very much better. It’s certainly a gardening challenge.

My first picture is a view from the edge of the front garden with the Hybrid Musk rose ‘Prosperity’ in the foreground and an almost-finished peony ‘Bowl of Beauty’. These are both planted behind the wooden hurdles, bought at Melton Mowbray Cattle Market, which skirt the garden along the front driveway. In the background is one of the paddocks, complete with suitably peaceful-looking sheep, grazing.

Front garden

If you take about ten paces backwards from the first picture, you’ll bump into the wirework of the four-arched dome that forms the central feature of the front garden. When we first planted this garden it was all very controlled, but since then, fuchsias have really gone mad and both roses and peonies seem to love it too. Even clematis, that normally don’t seem to welcome wet-retentive soils seem to love it; having said that, versions of the Clematis texensis (and yes, very surprisingly it’s named after the state of Texas!) have always liked damp ground and they do very well in our garden. So some time ago, we decided to stop over-controlling the front garden and it really has worked: last summer large numbers of visitors told us how much they enjoyed the rampant fuchsias around the dome arch.

Dome

You may have noticed in Part 1 that when I was describing the Rose Garden I mentioned the Long Walk that runs along its north side, beneath the trunks of two quite substantial Dawn Redwoods. Here’s a view looking back towards the spot where I photographed the Rose Garden, with one of the redwoods in the right foreground. Although they like damp ground, Dawn Redwoods create a rising slope around their trunk and roots which is often very dry and well-drained. This gives you an opportunity to plant cyclamen and other dry-loving plants which can look very striking at certain times of the year (they’re not in this picture as it was taken too early in the season). On the left is the wonderfully fragrant Hybrid Musk rose, Cornelia.

Long walk

If you head down the Long Walk, which isn’t actually that long, you’ll pass a small enclosed semi-formal garden, which for some reason hasn’t featured in either of my two blog posts. Once past that, the path swings right and then left and you are now passing through quite a substantial birch grove. Somehow this rather sinuous path acquired the horribly pretentious name the Serpentine Walk. I think at first it was an ironic reference to the garden of some stately home, somewhere. But then sadly it stuck. So the next picture shows the Serpentine Walk looking back towards the Glade Garden on the left, at the end.

Serpentine walk

The Glade Garden was one of our biggest challenges, quite simply because it was one of the wettest spots. It didn’t help that the undersoil drainage system installed in the 1960s was blocked at this point, but even when we managed to unblock it, the ground remained stubbornly damp. Last winter there was standing water in this area for about three months. These large puddles exactly followed the alignment of much earlier, medieval channels known in the Fens as dylings. So about fifteen years ago we gave up fighting the damp in this area and instead decided to live with it. We planted a small stand of golden alders and wet-loving geraniums (such as Geranium palustre), species hemerocallis and of course bog-loving primulae (neither of which was flowering when the picture was taken). Rather to my initial surprise the birch trees we’d planted a few years earlier seemed to love the damper ground. Then Maisie reminded me that most of the trees at the wetter-than-wet Holme Fen Nature Reserve are birches. The Serpentine Walk crosses the middle of the picture, with the Round Garden (with its distinctive covered seat just visible), in the background.

Glade

If you follow the Serpentine Walk down towards the pergola at the end of the Long Border and then turn sharp left, into the Meadow, you will find yourself walking along the back of the birch grove, along the mown walk between the birch trees and the growing hay, which this season was cut on June 22nd. The photo is looking north-west towards the Bamboo Garden, with a drooping frond of one of my favourite roses, the species Rosa glauca, on the left.

Meadow and bamboo gardens

About ten years ago we planted the red climbing rose Rosa moyseii at the base of the tall birch tree that occupies the left hand edge of the previous picture. Then we forgot about it, until quite recently, when we could just see spots of red high above our heads. The small red rose flowers contrast well with the pale birch bark. I love this effect. It’s very subtle and looks so uncontrived – which, believe me, it isn’t!

7 Rosa moysii in birch lo res

This next view of the bamboo garden was taken quite early in June, before the roses were in full display. I took it because Jason, who does such a good job improving and maintaining our hedges, had just tamed and cut back the rampaging spread of the two clumps of the bamboo, Arundinaria japonica, which about twenty years ago we were sold as being non-invasive (which it most certainly isn’t!). Jason has made an excellent film of the cutting-back on his YouTube channel. The two Dawn Redwoods, that edge the Long Walk, are very prominent in this picture and the variegated pampas grass on the edge of the lawn has recovered well from its annual late winter haircut, which I deliver in February with a hedge-cutter (and wearing very thick, grasscut-proof, gloves!).

Bamboo garden

And finally, as they say: the Meadow. This view was taken about a week before hay-making and I have to say the grass looks in excellent condition and eventually gave us about ten large round bales. One of the things I like about our meadow is that it’s a piece of working grassland. Yes, in spring it’s covered with cowslips and snakeshead fritillaries, and then there are wild daffodils and a mass of meadow buttercups, which found their way to it by themselves (or more likely by way of various birds’ bottoms). This view shows the grass when it’s not looking floristic and romantic. If I caught any passing shepherdess come tripping through it in a floaty floral frock I’d tell her where to go in the fruitiest of language. ‘Let that grass stay upright, or it won’t mow properly, Miss!’ – or words to that effect. The mown path is sometimes fancifully known as ‘Lady Hermione’s Tantrum’, after a fictitious previous owner of the garden, whose pompous husband used to drive her to furies of frustration. I won’t reveal what happens in the wood. That’s for you to discover when next you visit!

Meadow

Meanwhile, if you’re feeling well disposed towards our garden, or to the National Gardens Scheme, do please visit their website. So far they’ve raised over £100,000 towards nursing charities, but in a normal (i.e. non-Covid) year, like 2019, they raised over three million! There’s still a long way to go! Gardens are starting to reopen for the NGS and we might do the same in late September. It will all depend on the state of the pandemic in the autumn. Sadly, neither Maisie nor I are quite as youthful as we might appear; so we have to be careful. With creaking joints, the aged author arises from his laptop, clutching stout walking stick and bottle of cheap gin.

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A Tour Around Inley Drove Farm Garden in June and July, 2020: Part 1

These two blog posts (this is the first part only) are written for the benefit of those visitors who would have come to our garden in a pre-booked tour, in June and July 2020. Sadly we have had to cancel all visits as part of the National Gardens Scheme, because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Having said that, I’m delighted to report that all the cancelled tours have been re-booked for 2021 – when hopefully things will be rather different. Now I’m well aware that looking at a phone or laptop screen is a very poor substitute for being somewhere, outdoors, surrounded by the scent of roses and the rattling tree-tapping of numerous woodpeckers, but I hope this short blog post will help to make up for missing your visit this year. And with luck we’ll see you next year. Meanwhile, to use a current cliché, please stay healthy!

My original idea, when I began writing this, was to offer you a carefully-structured virtual tour of the garden, complete with maps, numbers, keys and arrows. Then we could both plod our way around the borders and through the shrubs, pausing dutifully to look at this or that, before moving on to the next dutiful pause. YAWN! To be honest, I couldn’t face it: I have a low threshold of boredom and the map-led ‘virtual tour’ was well beyond it. And besides, when you do manage to get here next year, you’ll be able to consult many maps and plans. Unlike 17th– and 18th-century landscape gardens, such as one of my favourites, Rousham, in Oxfordshire, we don’t have a preferred route that allows you to admire selected views from carefully-staged temples or waterfalls. We’d rather visitors found their own way around and their routes will depend on their inclinations at the time. But we have tried to avoid dead-ends: you should never have to turn back and retrace your steps. You may glimpse the same things from time to time, but always from a different angle. One of the questions I always enjoy is when visitors ask me about something they glimpsed in passing, but now can’t find! I always tell them where it is: I never take them there. Gardens should be about imagination and discovery.

No piece of writing can be completely without structure, so I have decided to write the first part of this Tour Around Inley Drove Farm Garden about the more structured part of the garden. Part 2 will turn to the less formal areas, where you’ll meet fewer people and hear more birdsong. And where better to start than in the most rigidly structured part of any garden: the vegetable plot.

Vegetable garden

Our veg garden is subdivided into four sub-plots, one of which is dug over with a thick mulch of well-rotted compost and sheep manure every winter. This allows us to maintain a four-course rotation, with potatoes going into the freshly dug plot in late March. The next year sees onions (year 2) then cabbages and other brassicas in year 3 and summer veg (runner beans etc) in year 4. This view was taken in early June and shows the onions (foreground); beyond are the summer veg, including a large steel hurdle which I use as a frame for sweet peas, behind that are the potatoes. The new Rhino greenhouse in the background is really earning its keep and is filled with young tomato plants, many of which are about to be planted next to the potatoes.

Greenhouse

Here’s a close-up of the greenhouse and the plot of Sweet Williams outside it. I’ve always liked growing cut flowers for the house and Sweet Williams are one of my favourites. They smell delicious and last in a jar for a good week, if not longer. They also resist the effects of rain, which can devastate old-fashioned varieties of roses. The beds immediately outside the greenhouse are not a part of the 4-course rotation and tend to accumulate bits and bobs of stuff, such as the two giant Cos lettuces, which got there somehow. I think I might have bought them as plugs late in the winter. Anyhow, they tasted delicious and each one kept us supplied for at least six meals. One advantage of growing your own lettuces is that you can pull them out of the ground, with roots intact. I then wash off surplus soil and remove outer leaves, plus any slugs and snails and take them indoors, where I put them in a stout stone jar, with the roots in water. That way they can stay beautifully fresh for at least a week. It also avoids cluttering-up the fridge. But I’m starting to ramble: time to return to the Tour.

Path behind barn

This is the path to the veg garden (visible through the gap in the hedge) that runs behind the barn. Our original intention was to pave it, but we ran out of free paving stones (I acquired a couple of tons of used slabs from a friend at the Peterborough Development Corporation when they closed down in, I think, the early 1990s) and couldn’t afford to buy new ones. So we grassed it over, as a temporary measure. It gets a bit worn in wet winters, but not too badly. We now have absolutely no intention of paving it over. Mud can be reduced by spreading chainsaw sawdust and a light sprinkling of seed in the spring gets the grass back in a few weeks. To the right of the path are two open soakaways that take run-off from the barn roof. You can’t really see them in the previous picture, but here is a close-up of one of them.

Soakaway

Notice the water-loving Iris lavigata variegata and the huge green leaves of the North American skunk cabbage, Lysichiton americanus. Skunk cabbage is highly invasive and must never be planted near streams, in Britain. The soak-away is ideal for it. The dwarf, twenty year-old jasmine on the bank behind the irises looks dead. It hated the wet winter we’ve just lived-through and we both thought it was stone dead, but about 10% of the branches have come back to life. It needs a very careful prune and plenty of fertiliser – but it’ll probably die, anyhow.

Long border

This is a view of the Long Border, looking towards the pergola at its eastern end, which is almost completely hidden beneath climbing roses, which aren’t in flower yet. It was taken in early June and we were both taken completely by surprise when some roses started to flower in the final days of May. By mid-June the garden was a blaze of colour and the absence of rain meant that old roses were particularly fine. I always hate to see it when their bright, fresh and delightfully scented flowers are rained on and rapidly disintegrate into shrivelled odourless, brown paper parcels. So sad. Whoops, I’m starting to sound like Trump. This picture was taken after a day of frantic border weeding. The lawn hasn’t been cut for a week and the border edges need a good trim. But even so, I think it looks stunning. The lovely pink rose in the foreground is ‘Geoff Hamilton’, a modern shrub rose by David Austin.

Great garden designers of the past used to love their set-piece views whether from upstairs windows, along manicured woodland paths, or down magnificent double borders that make ours look like a window box. But when I walk around these gardens I am often struck by the views one can get when set-piece features are approached from the ‘wrong’ angle. So we bore this in mind when we started to lay out our new garden at Inley Drove Farm, back in 1994-5. It was one of the reasons we have tried to avoid too much hard landscaping, like the construction of brick or stone walls. True, we have many hedges, but these are nearly all deciduous and they change throughout the season, losing their hard outline at this time of year. I don’t like the modern tendency to keep all hedges ‘neat’ and close-clipped at all times. You might as well have built a wall. So here’s a view of the Long Border from the outside. It looks wonderfully confused, which isn’t entirely true, because in reality it’s quite carefully contrived. The tall golden tree is the wet-loving dawn redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, var. ‘Gold Rush’.

Back of border

The structural skeleton around which most of the formal garden is arranged is formed by tall hedges of hornbeam. We chose hornbeam quite simply because our ground is too clay-rich and far too water-retentive to suit beech, which grows best on chalky soils. It turned out to be a brilliant choice. It’s very resilient and doesn’t mind being cut hard back from time-to-time. Like beech, it retains its brown leaves over winter. We normally cut our hedges once a year, usually in later July, following the main summer growth. This allows the long double border to acquire a completely different, far more formal, character during the second coming of the roses and for main aster season, in August and September. By early October the next year’s shoots are starting to appear and it’s these leaves that the hedge retains over winter. Here’s a view of one side of the Long Border, at the pergola end. In this view the pergola is visible, but the tall hornbeam hedge has almost vanished. It forms a natural background to the border that merges into the shrubs and roses along the back of the bed. It also blends with the trees standing in the Glade, directly behind the border. A tightly-clipped wall of hornbeam would look ghastly here, at this time of the year.

Border near pergola

The next picture is a view of the Rose Garden, with the tall, as yet unclipped, hornbeam hedges in the background and the Long Walk heading away, to the left. The central shrub is in fact a dwarf tree, Thuja orientalis aurea, which we don’t clip or prune. Wrens and other small birds love it, especially in winter. Many of the roses are hybrid musks, including the pink flowers of Cornelia, which is clearly visible along one side of the Long Walk. We don’t enjoy rose gardens where roses are displayed on their own. I always think they look very stark and a bit frightened – rather like newly recruited soldiers on their first parade. So we mix our roses with peonies, geraniums and small shrubs. During last winter, large areas of the garden were very wet or actually under water for almost three months, and this had a terrible effect on the box hedges that lined many of the Rose Garden beds. We’re currently doing what we can to save them, but I fear we’ll lose about 30% of them. Still, as the late great Christopher Lloyd used to say: a garden disaster is a gardening opportunity. Right now we can’t think what the opportunities in this particular case are, but doubtless something will occur to us.

Rose garden

May, June and early July are the months of frantic weeding – even in an informal garden, like ours. I’m a great believer in the old gardening saying that ‘a weed is a plant in the wrong place’, but certain weeds can be very invasive and must be controlled. Happily we don’t have the two worst and most persistent weeds, bindweed (Convolvulus) and ground elder (its Latin name is impossible), but our soil is very fertile and any seeds on the air, such as dandelion, seem to put down deep roots on impact. That’s why this next picture, a view of the Small Border that runs parallel to the Long Border, features my wheelbarrow and one of the dozens of white ex-food supplement buckets we have left over from our full-time sheep-keeping days. Those buckets are strong and light and are excellent when weeding. The large cut-leaf buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula ‘Asplenifolia), to the right, is over ten years old and it loved all the rain that fell last autumn and winter. I’ve never known it look better. Day lilies (Hemerocallis) also love the wet and this year they have not been attacked so badly by the pests that like to develop in their flower buds. This is probably because the water standing on the ground for so long over winter may have broken their life-cycle. The large pot (more correctly a jardinière) is featured in an earlier blog post.

Small border

My final picture in this rapid review of the more formal parts of the garden, features an corner in an otherwise formal area, which is starting to develop its own rather individualistic character. This is one of the working shots I use to record progress, or the lack of it, in the garden as a whole; so it wasn’t taken with publication in mind – hence the lack of mowed lawn and uncut edges. It’s an area immediately outside the back of the house, on the north side of a wall that runs part of the way from the back door to the barn. There are two fig trees on the other, sunny side and we thought that this side would be bitterly cold and hostile, but we were wrong. It’s actually very sheltered and does get a lot of reflected sunlight off the back of the house, in summertime. The tall verbascums at the front should probably have been weeded out over winter, but I do love them, and besides, we needed more seeds. The netted fruit tree is a Morello cherry, which gave us a splendid crop of fine fruit for cooking. Morello cherries make superb jams and compotes (fruit preserved in syrup). The large-leaved small shrub is a tetrapanax, which has taken about four years to get established, but is now starting to grow vigorously. We often find that plants take awhile to get established in our heavy, clay-silt soils. But once they feel at home, they roar away – which is what I hope and pray the splendid tetrapanax is about to do. Fingers crossed!

Tetrapanax etc

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Back to Abnormality!

It’s Sunday morning and for the first time in many weeks I’m not sitting down to write the last few chapters of my new book. Because they’re finished! Last night to celebrate we opened a bottle of Champagne which we cheered-up by adding a few wild strawberries from the garden. Trouble was, we haven’t had much sunshine of late; so they were a bit green and under-ripe. Still, it was the thought that counts and the wine was lovely.

Book-writing has been a major part of my life for the past twenty-five years and my daily routine has been the same throughout: I get up early (around 5.30 or 6.00), write for a couple of hours, have breakfast, walk the dogs, return to writing and stop before noon, when I grab a quick cup of tea, before heading out to the farm or garden. If I need to do research I tend to do it in the evening, or the afternoon, if it’s wet. That’s also the routine I have adopted during the Covid lock-down. So on the surface at least, life hasn’t changed much – except, of course, that it has. And profoundly.

I have to say, I find it hard to be my normal, fairly relaxed, relatively care-free self, during lock-down. In the past, the writing of a book has tended to rather dominate my thoughts. And Maisie says I get worse as a book is nearing completion: I even manage to screw-up simple tasks, like the soft-boiling of eggs for breakfast. Over the past month we’ve had to enjoy several hard-boiled egg and mayo salads, for lunch. And God alone knows how many emails, texts and phone calls I’ve failed to respond to. If anything, I think my late-stage-book-writing absent-mindedness has been worse since the pandemic struck. A couple of mornings ago I came downstairs around six o’clock and got on with writing. After about thirty minutes, I reached to one side to finish the last coldish sips from my cup of tea. Glancing up from the laptop, I couldn’t see it. I even lowered the screen and looked behind; but it had completely vanished. So I completed the paragraph and went through to the kitchen to make another cup. And there, alongside the electric kettle, was the cup I had made earlier: full to the brim with near-cold tea. So I had forgotten everything: the pouring of water into the teapot; the removal of a milk bottle from the fridge; finding the mug in all last night’s washing-up; pouring out the tea and adding the milk. Then I must have put the bottle back in the fridge, before returning to my desk, while forgetting to take the tea with me. And if that isn’t absent-minded, I don’t know what is.

My new book is an attempt to pinpoint moments when certain sites, finds, monuments and excavations have given me glimpses of what it might have been like actually to have lived at a particular moment in the prehistoric past. The sort of thing I was trying to nail-down was that temporary moment of madness with the morning teacup. Did people have such moments in the Bronze Age – and if not, why not? Archaeologists are very good at reconstructing the routines of every day life, such as peoples’ diets, the organisation of their households and the layout of their houses and farms, but routines, if anything, tend to de-humanize people for me. They were never machines and they would not have behaved in precisely the same way on the day grandma died, or when the baby had a nasty attack of runny bottom. It was those more spontaneous human moments that I have tried to isolate in my latest book. The basic idea was straightforward enough, but it wasn’t the easiest of books to write and I’m still not one hundred percent confident that I managed to pull it off successfully. I might have a better idea of its success (or lack of it) in a couple of weeks time, when I’ll do the final revision of the first draft. If I’m happy, I’ll say so in this blog. If not, the silence might be deafening…

Revising manuscripts is an integral part of the writing process and it’s one of the things that modern software allows one to do so readily. I’ll never forget when I first started to use a computer-based ‘word-processor’ package, back in the early 1980s, when I was writing the Fourth Fengate Report. I’m reasonably certain that I’d done some of the initial work on an electric typewriter, but I soon transferred the entire manuscript to my new Apple 2 . Soon after that, I transferred to WordStar, the predecessor of Microsoft Word, which I’ve used ever since. The great joy of computerised composition is that re-writing is a such a doddle. It’s so easy! It’s also quite pleasurable, because you don’t have to navigate your way through scorings-out, or follow branching, wobbly arrows or cut-and-pasted paragraphs. All of that’s done for you by the clever algorithms in those tiny microchips. The clean appearance of the page on the laptop allows me to form an immediate impression of how the piece is flowing. Or to put another way, will a certain passage appear rather ‘lumpy’ to my readers? Lumpiness is something I always try to avoid. If I’m reading a book I hate it when I have to re-read a sentence, or worse, paragraph. Sadly, much academic writing is indecipherable without at last three read-throughs, which is never any fun – or pleasure. Reading should always be pleasurable.

So the new book will be released to the editorial teams at Head of Zeus in a few weeks’ time. We’re still not entirely clear when it will actually be published. In normal times I would have said in 8 to 12 months, but these are abnormal times. So the best guess would be around 14 to 16 months, probably in time for Christmas 2021, but that’ll depend on the state of the market: quite often it’s better to publish what one might call serious non-fiction in the spring, because bookshops tend to fill-up with celeb rubbish and picture books (mostly about food or gardens!) at Christmas, when so many people seem to put their brains on hold. But maybe things will be different in 2021. I detect signs that certain attitudes are changing quite fundamentally, especially among more contemplative people. There is, after all, more to life than earning fast bucks, or watching rubbish on TV.

Meanwhile sales of The Fens have continued. A few hardback copies are still available, and the e-book and audiobook are selling nicely. The paperback came out in early April, just after lock-down, and I’m delighted with it and think it’s very reasonably priced (just under £10). Trouble is, I haven’t been able to promote it and have had to cancel signings in Peterborough, two in Wisbech, Chester, Boston, Stamford, Oundle, Wells-next-the-Sea, Downham Market and Leicester. And what about future signings? There is currently talk of halving social-distancing from 2 to 1metre and for easing lock-down; but I have to say I’m very uneasy about these measures, which seem to be determined more by economics and politics than by science. Unless we’re careful, we might find ourselves following in the disastrous footsteps of Brazil and the USA. Speaking entirely for myself, in my mid-seventies, I don’t intend to do any public engagement that involves person-to-person contact until (a) there is a reliable treatment for Covid-19, should anyone be infected, and (b) we can all be immunized with a safe vaccine.

To judge from my Twitter feed and from many emails I have received, The Fens seems still to be going down very well. It also appears to have lifted many spirits during lock-down – and I am so pleased. I had no idea when I wrote it that it could bring comfort to so many people in a time of grim pandemic.

During lock-down we have also had to cancel a number of pre-booked group visits to our garden, on behalf of the National Gardens Scheme (NGS). This has been a great shame, not just because the garden is looking great, but because it has deprived some very worthy medical charities of much-needed funds. So my next blog post, which I’ll try to do a bit sooner than this one has been, will be a tour through the garden using pictures taken over the past few weeks. I’ll also include a link so that if you’re feeling generous you can dedicate something to the NGS, who will then distribute it to the many charities they support. I know that video garden tours are currently very fashionable on the NGS website, but I have never felt very comfortable taking them. I understand still-picture photography and know what I’m doing. Every time I see an amateur video I think of the many professional film and TV cameramen I’ve worked with, and how they’d be cringing…

Last Sunday was June 21st, the Summer Solstice, or Mid-Summer’s Day and now we’ve moved out of Early and into High Summer. The next few days promise to be very hot and yesterday (Monday) our neighbour Charles came round in his large green John Deere tractor to cut the hay in our meadow. I think he’s going to get a very good crop for his sheep and cattle to enjoy this winter. Certain things never change: if this had been in the Middle Ages that green tractor would have been a gang of men with scythes, but the end result: contented animals in a sheltered barn in mid-winter, would have been the same. So here’s that picture of yesterday’s hay-making:

Hay-making 2020

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Dig for Victory!

The Dig for Victory campaign was launched in 1941 at a time when food imports to Britain were being blocked by a very successful enemy naval blockade – mostly using submarines. Today, of course, the enemy is the Covid-19 pandemic, which is disrupting our lives in so many ways. But I have noticed one rather odd thing. All the news media are covering urban areas and rural communities are scarcely ever mentioned. I have to confess I’m getting rather fed-up with hearing about how ‘we’ can make short trips to the countryside to take exercise – and so forth. Trouble is, we never hear anything about the rather different problems that people living on farms and in rural villages face.

Many of the villages around us have organised groups of volunteers who do weekly shopping trips for pensioners and other at-risk people (as we’re both over-70, our shopping is collected by two such volunteers, for which many thanks!). There are also several village-based internet social groups whose posters are popping up in several local communities. I don’t know how the lock-down powers-that-be who rule the urban world would react, but many gardeners are freely exchanging fruit and vegetables (I do a daily asparagus round to local friends) and at this time of year surplus plants are being exchanged – especially to younger people who are only just starting to grow their own food. One good thing to come out of all this might well be a rise in the number of home gardeners. And once you’re hooked on gardening – be warned! – it can become a lifetime’s addiction. I’m well and truly hooked. Never will I forget that moment when I ate my first home-grown ripe tomato. There was an explosion of flavour! At the time (the 1970s) shop-bought tomatoes tasted quite literally of nothing. Every year you will find that that first tomato is special, but also slightly different, depending on the spring, the compost, the variety and a host of other variables. That’s another great thing about gardening: no two years are ever the same. You are never bored when you eat your own food!

The new heated greenhouse has been a godsend and I’m still learning my way around it. The interior may look a bit chaotic, but believe me, there is method in my madness. Here’s a glimpse through the door in early May:

Greenhouse

Next is a close-up of the tomato seedlings, freshly potted-up. In about a fortnight I’ll be able to pot them up again, into slightly larger pots. The trick is to wait till you see the first white roots showing through the water in the bottom of the tray. When all the pots are showing roots, it’s time to pot-on again. When they’re in 4-inch (10 cm) pots they’ll be ready to go into a grow-bag or the garden. Mindful of the need not to discard too many seedlings I’ve potted-on five dozen tomato plants, of different varieties. Normally I’d use about 18 – at the most. So I plan to give the rest away to anyone living nearby who needs them.

Tomatoes

Several of our neighbours have offered us joints of beef and lamb, but there seems to be something of a shortage of young point-of-lay chickens. I gather this shortage is universal and there are stories in the local press of gangs coming out from towns to steal them. We heard of a local man who always raises a few dozen chicks and we were able to buy three off him. The traditional breed, Light Sussex, is new to us but we’ve looked them up and they have a docile reputation and prefer being free-range. Our new chickens are strictly-speaking ‘a trio’ of two hen birds and a cockerel. I took this picture on the day they arrived, in late April and they should be laying eggs in later summer. By then we may also have bought two or three additional hens who will be kept in order and protected by the cockerel. In our experience, if there’s a cockerel, the hens tend to stray less and don’t fight among themselves so much.

Chicks

A few days after we had received the chicks I had been cleaning my teeth with my smart new electric toothbrush (which has done wonders for the health of my receding gums!), when my eye was caught by the sun on the golden guelder rose (Viburnum opulus, ‘Aureum’) outside the window and the view of sheep peacefully grazing on our land beyond. So if you live too far away to take my tomato seedlings, I thought I’d share a little piece of the countryside, instead.

Spring view

Whenever I’m out by the pond, whether I’m pruning shrubs, weeding or just taking the dogs for a walk, I listen-out for the distinctive ‘yaffle’, the loud, sharp repeated call (I hesitate to call it ‘song’!) of the green woodpecker. We have several pairs of these birds, which feed on ant hills in the nearby meadows, and who make their homes (again, I hesitate to call them ‘nests’) in the trunks and branches of pollarded willows we planted back in 1995. By now these fast-growing trees are fully mature and many already have heartwood rot, which those clever woodpeckers seem to know about instinctively. So with loud machine-gun pecks they bore neat, circular holes through the outer sapwood and make their homes in the soft, dry rotten wood at the centre. Sometimes when you’re passing close-by you can hear quieter pecking sounds coming from the centre of the tree, as they enlarge and add the finishing touches to their new homes: a tasteful Gothick archway here, a louvred sitting-out space there.

Woodpecker holes

As a keen gardener I’ve long-since discovered that Mother Nature likes to tease. We have just endured the wettest winter on record, but back in March and early April, when I wrote my last blog post, I didn’t like to mention it, but I’d been surprised that we hadn’t lost more plants to root-rot. Then we had a sunny, dry April and Mother Nature revealed her hand. So far, I’m fairly convinced that two mature apples have been killed, one of them a lovingly pleached tree in the vegetable garden. The wet has also hastened the demise of shorter-lived shrubs, such as Viburnum and one or two elderly roses, not to mention several Buddleia – although this wasn’t a surprise as our land is a bit wet for them anyhow. I’ll keep an eye out for seedlings in the next few weeks and pot them up as replacements to go in later. The big horror has been the large box hedge which surrounds one of the beds in the rose garden. It’s growing (or dying) in the wettest part of that garden and I’m fairly certain it isn’t the dreaded box blight, as we haven’t bought-in any box plants for at least 15 years. If this was a professional garden we’d grub-up the entire hedge, but we’re less ruthless so we’re going to try alternatives, once we’ve removed the dead plants. The live box bushes are full of insects and other life, which is why I don’t want to kill them unnecessarily.

Dead box

We can’t be absolutely certain at this stage, but it does seem very likely that our annual garden opening for the National Gardens Scheme (scheduled for the weekend of September 19-20) isn’t going to happen – thanks to the Covid pandemic. In my next blog I’ll have more to say about what the NGS is planning to do to raise funds for those mostly medical charities it, and we, support through our garden open days. But Maisie and I decided back in March when the lock-down was announced that we’d use the potential lack of visitors as an excuse to do some root-and-branch garden improvements, such as the cutting down and rejuvenation of the rose hedge that runs along the drive on the other side of the pollarded willows, which are home to our woodpecker friends. We had contractors help us (all working at a safe ‘social distance’) and it only took a day to complete, but that hedge had terrible die-back. I’ve given it a good feed and it’s already (just three weeks later) starting to recover.

Cut hedge

There’s been a fair bit in this blog post about death and destruction, so let’s end with something positive: probably my favourite garden plant, Wisteria. I don’t think the Wisteria on the front of the house has ever looked better. Ok, so it may be bending the gutter in a few places, but who cares, when every night it’s in bloom the garden and the rooms above it (including our bedroom) are suffused with that delicious scent. The bees, including honey bees, love it, too. Some unpleasant things may recently have come from China, as that nice, disinfectant-drinking Mr Trump likes constantly to remind us, but Wisteria sinensis is certainly not one of them.

Wisteria

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