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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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Hi Pressure in Command!

You can’t beat a good, challenging title – until, that is, you start writing. Then you have to face reality. It’s late-ish April (the 23rd) and I’ve just turned the television off because the screen is a mass of pixilated blobs and the sound is, if anything, worse. This always happens around here in high pressure weather, because the signal out in this part of the coastal Fens is so poor. Outside in the front garden two doves are sitting on the fence in the early morning sunshine, seemingly chatting over the events of the day. Many of the shrubs and plants around them are cloaked with a light covering of hoar frost and the large dark pink flowers of the small magnolia bush look a bit droopy in the cold. This is the third week of high pressure and it’s starting to have quite a serious effect: crops aren’t growing due to a complete lack of rain and heavily grazed pastures simply aren’t recovering. Normally at this time of year you can’t spot the ant hills in the meadow beyond our front garden, but this morning they stand out prominently – as do the green woodpeckers feeding off them.

And then of course there are those other, more metaphorical high pressures: the appalling surge of Covid in India, the continuing disaster that is Bolsonaro’s Brazil and then there is always Putin – and China. And Brexit… But there are also signs of hope: thanks to the NHS, both Maisie and I have had our second Covid jabs and as one doctor wisely said, it looks at last as if Britain is moving from a pandemic to an endemic state. So with luck I’ll be signing books again later this year. Talking of which, I’ve just been sent my corrected page proofs for Scenes from Prehistoric Life in Britain, which is due to go to the printer in a few weeks’ time. Other signs of hope include President Biden who seems to be reversing most of Trump’s incompetent blunders. His latest initiative, a digital conference of world leaders about climate change does really seem to have made progress. Having said that, I do hope that Britain’s loudly proclaimed ambitious carbon-reduction targets won’t be like our Prime Minister’s other ‘world-beating’ test-and-trace programme, or his government’s failed attempt to help house-holders install better insulation. Like most other sane people in Britain, I remain far from convinced that the government can achieve any of their lofty targets, unless, that is, they can pass the project on to competent people outside the increasingly suspect Westminster Bubble – which is why the NHS vaccination project was such a success. But enough of that. Let’s take a walk in the garden and consign politicians to the mental muck-heap where so many of them seem to belong these days. It’s time for some fresh air!

I shall start with the view that greeted me a few days ago, when I opened the long curtains covering the French doors leading out onto the Poop Deck, the sitting-out space at the back of the house. Directly in front is the small border, with the main double border running parallel to it, to the right. As you can see, we’ve largely cut back the herbaceous seed-heads and last season’s stems. In many public gardens these are removed in the autumn, to keep things looking neat and tidy and also to prevent the appearance of seedlings where you don’t want them, but we dig them up and if they’re good enough, we’ll sell them on our plant stall to raise money for the NGS. Also the seed heads provide food for the hundreds of long-tailed tits, sparrows and other finches that populate the garden during the coldest months of winter. In our garden the removal of the seed heads normally happens (with Jason Gardener’s help) in later March before the new season’s growth gets under way.

Four days before I snapped the frosty scene I took my camera out into the Long Border where I took this view of the two small trees of Amelanchier grandiflora ‘Robin Hill’, which we planted about fifteen years ago. At the time we were still planting lengths of the hornbeam hedges that form the border’s backdrop. By far and away the most reliable and high quality hedging supplier was Buckingham Nursery and in their catalogue Maisie spotted the Amelanchiers – and bought a couple, along with a few dozen 3 year-old hornbeam plants. They flower regularly every springtime and require virtually no maintenance – and what’s more they seem to tolerate – even enjoy! – our wet, heavy soils. I’m also delighted to report that Buckingham Nursery are still going strong: I’m always delighted when family-run businesses succeed. There’s something so cold and soulless about huge corporations – as we’ve just seen in England with the collapse of the European Super League – a bare-faced attempt to make the sport of soccer yet another marketable commodity. I’m so glad it failed.

We thought back in late March that spring had arrived: the ceaseless rain stopped and there were quite prolonged glimpses of the sun. I think I even started wearing one of my broad-brimmed Canadian Tilley hats to ward off the possibility of sunburn. The forecast didn’t look too bad so I decided to take the opportunity to plant my first early potatoes, which had been chitting on a windowsill indoors for about two months. The chits (sprouts) should be tight and dark green for the most vigorous growth – and these ones looked good. I normally try to get the first earlies in by the end of March; this should avoid the possibility of frost damage, but in 2020 some of them got quite badly damaged by an unexpected late air frost. As I write (April 25th) the first leaves are just poking through the surface and I’m having to earth them up to protect them from continuing regular frosts. English weather is so unpredictable!

I took three other pictures on the 24th of March and I’m pleased to report that they’re slightly more interesting than that row of seed spuds (and the wonderful 50+ year-old Dutch hoe I use to earth them up). After planting that first row of early potatoes I took the camera out into the meadow as the sun was shining and the daffodils were looking at their best. Back in 1994-5 we planted several drifts of the supposedly native British daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) in the area we had staked out as our semi-ornamental hay meadow. I say ‘semi-ornamental’ because it had a job to do: to provide fodder for the ewes when they came into the barn for their six weeks of lambing in March and early April. In certain cold, wet years the daffs can be very poor with short flower stalks and poor blooms. But not in 2021: I don’t think I have ever seen them looking so good!

Having snapped the daffodils I started to head back to the house, when my attention was caught by a loud ‘yaffle’ – the distinctive call of the green woodpecker. It came from somewhere near Chicken Lane and as the chickens were still confined to our small barn (as per regulations, to avoid avian flu), I thought I might get a chance for a good picture of a woodpecker feeding off an ant hill, for this blog post. But when I arrived at Chicken Lane I was astonished by the pale blossom of the sloes and wild plums in the low sunlight of early spring. We planted the trees and shrubs that line Chicken Lane in the mid-nineties and I don’t think we could have done any better – even if we had employed an expensive, fashionable garden designer. Sometimes you just stumble upon perfection.  

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My Next Book! ‘Scenes From Prehistoric Life’

First, I must apologise for the delay in producing this blog post. Life has been very frantic, what with Covid, writing and editing. The weather hasn’t helped either, in fact I increasingly use the term ‘global weirding’ to describe the meteorological effects, in Britain at least, of climate change. Frankly, it’s been a bloody cold and wet late winter and early spring and life in the garden has featured mud everywhere, and buds stubbornly refusing to crack open – yet the lawns continued to grow. Then, about a week ago in the last few days of March, the Weather God came to his or her senses and suddenly temperatures shot up: three days ago it was about 22 Celsius, now it’s back to a chilly 8. Those three days of above average temperatures (including the hottest March day, in England, for about 50 years) allowed me to get my First and Second Early potatoes planted – but frosts (including air frosts!) are forecast, so I’ve got to remain cautious. So that gives me an opportunity to return to this blog (‘and not before time!’ I hear loyal followers muttering…).

In mid-to-late March I received the proofs of my next book, which you’ll have already gathered from the title of this post, is all about Scenes from Prehistoric Life. There are fifteen Scenes and as I write this short post I am very aware that I’ve proofread eight of them – so I’m (just) over half-way through them and have a deadline for their return to my Editor at Head of Zeus, of April 20th. So with luck I’ll make it, providing, that is, I don’t start a tirade in this blog about Brexit or the horrible lurch towards the hard right in British politics, which is worrying so many people, myself included. So no ranting. No tirades. Get thee behind me Satan (visions of Andy Hamilton in Old Harry’s Game…).

Herewith a few well-chosen words about my new book (and I can’t be arsed to repeat the title for a third time, although I can hear my publicist urging me to do so: ‘repetition never hurt anyone, Francis!’).  She can be very persuasive… So I will, its…

…wait for it…

…Sod it, let’s skip straight to the cover picture (cue roll of drums and the approaching sound of the Band of the Coldstream Guards playing stirring extracts from The Enigma Variations):

I think that’s a really good cover which the designers at Head of Zeus have assembled, based on a print by artist Andy Lovell. They’re all to be congratulated: well done! This is a book which follows on from what I was attempting to do in Paths to the Past, which many readers have told me they enjoyed a lot. As I’ve pulled back from a day-to-day involvement with the nuts and bolts of archaeology, but continue to spend the majority of every day outside and getting my hands dirty with practical work, I’ve started to contemplate why the ordinary, day-to-day aspects of life matter so much – and how they can link us so vividly to the lives of people in the sometimes very remote past.

I don’t want to stress what this book is not about, but seeing as how history on television, and via Netflix and similar outlets, these days is all about royalty, fantasy and great leaders, I think it’s time to put forward a different way of viewing the past: from the bottom, up; not from the top, down. And when I say ‘up’, I’m not just referring to how ordinary men, women and children would have viewed their social and spiritual leaders – although of course that’s one part of the story – but how they might have thought of themselves and the lives they were living. I suppose I’ve always been interested in what it means to be human and how we all have the power to change the world for worse, or better. For me, these things matter profoundly and in Scenes I’ve tried to rethink the past, as I’ve read about and experienced it, in a slightly different way. This is certainly not a book for students or academics, unless, perhaps they find themselves reading it when we’re all allowed, once again, back into pubs – or maybe when they’re sitting in a garden, gin-and-tonic in hand, while listening to the sound of crows returning to their night-time roosts, as the sun slowly retreats below the distant horizon. Does that set the Scene? I hope so. Publication date is August 5th. So there’s not too long to wait – and with luck (if enough copies of the hardback sell) there’ll be a much cheaper paperback a year later.

Finally, of course it’s impossible to predict a virus with any precision, but I’ve already had my first (Astra-Zeneca, Oxford) vaccine and have been booked in for my second one next week. As I write, 32 million Brits have been jabbed. We’re also likely to get a variant boost-jab in September/October. With luck the so-called ‘new normal’ will see Covid managed rather like ‘flu, and if that is indeed the case (fingers crossed!), then I should once again start re-connecting with my readers at signings in bookshops and Literary Festivals up and down the country. I find those signings so rewarding: it’s great to meet my readers and hear what they really think about my books. And I’m delighted to say that some of my latest offerings have been well enjoyed, especially, Home, Paths to the Past and, of course, The Fens. Let’s hope Scenes goes down as well as they did! And heartfelt thanks to all my readers for their, for your, loyalty and patience.

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Winter Tasks and Signs of Hope

Back in the 1970s I lived for nine years in the Canadian city of Toronto. I spent most of summer excavating in England, but I used to return every autumn. When I returned, often in later October the first question I would ask was: ‘When is the weather going to turn?’ Even back then, before meteorological satellites had really made much of an impression, weather forecasters had become very good at predicting when the northerly air mass would swing south and winter would begin. And it was quite a dramatic process, leading to sharp drops in temperature which caused tree and shrub leaves to suddenly colour-up and then drop. I know of nowhere so spectacular as the maple and birch woodlands of Canada and New England in the Fall. They are a classic illustration of the predictability and sharpness of continental weather systems. Things are very different away from the great land-masses in places such as Britain, a medium-sized island, just off the European mainland, on the western edge of the North Atlantic Ocean. In these places, weather is much harder to predict with any certainty more than about five days in advance, even today, when satellite technology allows us to track the Jetstream and follow the weather systems below it.

British weather is very strange and no two seasons are ever quite the same. A year ago, the winter and early spring of 2019-20, was one of the wettest on record and gardening was very difficult. This year has been wet, too, but somehow it has felt even wetter. It has certainly been very much colder with snow lying for many days and frequent frosty nights. Last year there were a few ground frosts (caused by the radiation of heat out of the ground), but air frosts (where the actual air temperature drops below freezing) were very unusual. This year a succession of sharp air frosts will have had a very beneficial effect in the garden, because aphids and fungal diseases were starting to become a real problem, following a series of mild winters. For some reason, too, this winter and spring, water seems to have stayed longer on the surface. I don’t think I have ever seen so many mini-lakes and shallow ponds appear in fields of growing wheat and barley. When eventually they do drain they leave behind a great smear of mud. As an archaeologist I find such shallow surface water fascinating because it can reveal traces of much earlier ditches and hollows.

Our farm is located off a later medieval droveway which helped to mark and divide up the edge-of-parish grazing. Surface drainage of this land was aided by a series of parallel shallow ditches, which bounded strip fields known as dylings. Boundaries of these dylings lie beneath our house, garden and grazing fields. Many of them showed up in the recent wet weather, including this clear example which I photographed from upstairs.

The wet weather of late January revealed outlines of the ditches that bounded  medieval dylings, or strip fields, which still lie hidden beneath our house and farm. This example can be seen behind the small trees and shrubs in the foreground; it then runs across the paddock, towards the hawthorn bush near the large hedge that follows the line of the medieval droveway, at right-angles to the dyling.

Last winter we cut back half the rose hedge that runs alongside the driveway to the house and farmyard. This year the work was done by Jason  using a selection of power tools from his vast and comprehensive collection – I still don’t know how he manages to fit them all in his van, let alone how he keeps them in impeccable condition. He did the job rapidly and very well, but leaving the hawthorn, bramble and elder seedlings which I dug out the following day.

Jason cutting back the rose hedge that runs alongside the drive. Hawthorn seedlings have been left intact for me to remove the following day.

The main job I had for Jason and his assistant was much heavier work than strimming-off a rose hedge. On the other side of the drive on top of a low bank that skirts the garden pond on its western edge, we planted a row of white willows which we intended to pollard. We did this after about fifteen years of growth in, I think, 2010. I vaguely recall doing a second cutting-back in 2013 and I was planning to do another one in 2016 or ’17, but by then my hip was giving me trouble and climbing up a ladder with a chainsaw didn’t appeal – even slightly. So I tried to get a contractor, but was let down, twice. Then I had the hip-replacement operation and pollarding slipped even further down my list of top priorities. It wasn’t until large branches starting blowing down and blocking the drive – which happened twice in 2019 and 2020 – that I was reminded of the problem. But by then we’d discovered Jason – who arrived triumphantly to the rescue in late January, 2021. And here’s a view of him at work,

Jason pollarding grossly over-grown willows near the pond. Note the large shredder/chipper in the foreground and the huge heap it produced.

Before he arrived, Jason had told me about a new shredder/chipper he had just bought which was capable of munching-up very large side-branches. It produced about a ton of chippings, which we plan to spread along the bottom of the tall hornbeam hedges that bound most of the borders. This will act as a mulch in dry summers, but it will also suppress weeds and provide a firmer surface for Jason to stand on when he trims the hedges in later July. The next picture shows what the newly pollarded trees looked like from upstairs. I’m also pleased to report that just a week or so after they were pollarded, at least one of the trees is providing a nest site for a green woodpecker. Result!

The pollarded willows on a snowy morning in early February, 2021.

Every year has its surprises. After a cold and very wet start I honestly didn’t think that the snowdrop display would amount to much. I couldn’t see how any flower could be expected to thrive in such conditions, but I was wrong. Very wrong, as it turns out. I can’t recall a better show: they have been breath-taking. And they have flowered for so long. The first blooms appeared a little bit late, maybe three weeks after Christmas, but they were flowering vigorously by the end of January and have only just started to show signs of flagging as I write, in the last two days of February. And it hasn’t just been snowdrops; aconites have been in flower for about six weeks (far longer than normal) and just like the snowdrops, the hellebores have never looked better. Daffodils don’t normally like wet seasons, but this year there are flower buds on almost every clump and the early varieties were in bloom by mid-February. And to judge by the emerging shoots, the bluebells promise to be great, too. What a season!

So here are two views of the snowdrops in the wood. These are the unimproved ‘native’ species, Galanthus nivalis. I put ‘native’ in quotes, because I suspect they were probably introduced to Britain (along with daffodils??) in Roman times, or just before.

Two views of the snowdrop display in the wood. The willow logs from the newly-trimmed pollards mark-out the corners and junctions of paths. In a few weeks they will have weathered and will blend in better. Soon they will be covered in moss and will provide shelter and protection for wood mice and shrews.

And finally, the first signs of spring! I can hardly recall a year when hazel catkins emerged so slowly. In most years we have the very first ones appear around Christmas-time and they are usually finished by the end of January. This year they are still very evident and send up clouds of pollen when I shake them, in the last days of February. Everyone enjoys hazel catkins, but my personal favourites are the catkins of the common, native, alder, Alnus glutinosa. This season they were more-or-less on time in late February and they are looking great. I took this picture on the edge of the farmyard near the muckheap. I don’t apologise for the junk in the background. I sometimes think modern farmyards are far too neat and tidy, with concrete everywhere and no grotty corners where catkins can can be admired by sheltering rats, mice, hares and wrens.

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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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