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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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Ready for Day 2?

To be absolutely honest, I was really worried about today’s Open Garden. The weather forecast was dire: rain and winds. The lawn was wet-to-seriously-soggy and the barometric pressure wasn’t rising as fast as had been predicted. Frankly, the outlook was dire. Then eleven o’clock came and suddenly there were cars in the car park. The black clouds to the north were building and getting more menacing. But then something strange happened: it didn’t rain. Yes, there were a few spots, but nothing to worry about. By lunchtime there were people happily drinking cups of tea and munching on cake. In the end, we escaped any significant rain. PHEW!!! And the lawn has started to dry out, too.

Tomorrow the forecast is very much better: a possible shower around 1.00, but otherwise, it looks dry and very sunny in the afternoon. So the prospect is good and as the photo (taken this afternoon at 2.11) shows, the garden is looking wonderful. Everyone says the borders are much better than last year. So do please come if you can. And there’s plenty of tea and cake to be enjoyed by one and all. See you tomorrow!

2017-09-16 14.11.39

 

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Our Open Garden, September 16-17, 2017: Something to Look Forward To!

Please forgive the silence of August and no, I wasn’t lying on a beach somewhere exotic trying to nurture skin cancer. In actual fact, I was hard at work in two places: at my desk, trying to kick-start a book on the Fens (about which more later), or out in the garden hobbling about with one of my three sticks, attempting to keep on top of the grass, the weeds, the vegetable garden – or just luxuriant growth, in general. Incidentally, I’ve got three walking-sticks, because I’m always losing one or two of them – usually they’re left on straw bales, the garden tractor trailer, or under cabbages in the veg garden. Once they were locked in the chicken hutch overnight. They looked a bit lumpy and colourful the following morning. Sticky stuff, chicken poo! But the good news is that my hip replacement surgery is due in later September or October. So with luck, it’ll be farewell to sticks and hobbling. Fingers crossed, I’ll be mobile again in time for Christmas – thanks to our wonderful NHS.

The main meadow shortly after hay-making. We got all the bales safely into the barn before it rained.

The main meadow shortly after hay-making. We got all the bales safely into the barn before it rained.

It has been a terrific growing year. We made the hay in early July and it was superb. I’m glad we didn’t do it any earlier, as many of our neighbours did, because some of our grasses come late and this year they were luxuriant. I think the sheep will feed well this winter.

The small border in July. I have never known growth to be so luxuriant.

The small border in July. I have never known growth to be so luxuriant.

As we saw in an earlier blog post, early summer started well and the borders looked excellent. The first flowering of roses was good, but quite short, so Maisie was able to get on top of the summer pruning promptly. This has meant that the second coming of the roses has already started and promises to be superb when we’re open in mid-September. I can’t recall seeing so many flower buds forming. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that there isn’t too much rain, as wet tends to damage old-fashioned roses. Already I’d have said the rose show this year is better than when we opened, on more or less the same weekend in mid-September, last year. Our other main feature in September are the Asters, which again, weren’t fully out last year, but are far more advanced this year: in fact some are already in flower. All in all, I think the borders are going to be looking superb, I really do. So, if you can, do try to come. Remember, every penny we raise goes to charity: we aren’t a charity ourselves and don’t charge for expenses or administration and we certainly don’t employ expensive publicists. But we want to do what we can to help.

A group of local carers spent an afternoon with us in mid-August. This is the scene during afternoon tea on our ‘poop deck’, with the share-out of the group’s lottery in full flow.

A group of local carers spent an afternoon with us in mid-August. This is the scene during afternoon tea on our ‘poop deck’, with the share-out of the group’s lottery in full flow.

The National Gardens Scheme, who organise garden open days across the country, came up with a new idea for this year. It’s called Gardens and Health Week and it took place on August 12-20th. Our event was on the afternoon of the 17th, when a group of local carers came for a relaxing afternoon in the garden. I feel very strongly that people who care for others with long-term problems, such as dementia, deserve our thanks and our support, which is why we offered them the use of our garden during the NGS week. It was a great success, even though we were hit by a sudden and completely unexpected sharp rain shower, the moment they arrived. Cups of tea were rapidly brewed and the house was instantly full. Then as soon as the rain passed everyone spilled out onto the patio-like pergola at the back of the house, that we call ‘the poop deck’ – God knows why. The photo shows how the wisteria has suddenly started growing in earnest and now covers most of the pergola. It doesn’t yet provide much shade, but it certainly will next year. I have spent days tying it up: fiddly work, but worth it.

Baldwin, our new Jack Russell puppy.

Baldwin, our new Jack Russell puppy.

And finally, visitors to the garden may well be savaged by our new Jack Russell puppy, Baldwin. He’s been adopted by Pen (our much larger 3 year-old Labrador x Border Collie bitch) and the two make a charming, if turbo-charged couple. They’ll be sure to welcome you. To find out more about the garden opening, click on this link: https://www.ngs.org.uk/?bf-garden=13908

Now I must stop and return to weeding the veg garden. Then I’ve got to cut edges and mow the lawn, trim the wisteria, dead-head the roses, tie-in the sweet peas, look for my sticks…

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Cutting the Mustard

And now for something completely different: a guest blog. It’s by Mrs. Pryor, aka Maisie Taylor, who is not writing about her favourite topics of ancient wood-working, gardens or our new puppy Baldwin (and there’ll be more about him in another post, shortly). Anyone who has stayed with us on the farm will know that Maisie is also an excellent cook with very strong views about the quality of ingredients. I think that comes across quite forcibly in what follows. And just for the benefit of our non-British readers, Waitrose is a food supermarket chain operated by the John Lewis Partnership. The J.L. Partnership is an enlightened company that is owned by the workforce, who are known as Partners. Both Maisie and I are great supporters of John Lewis’s who did, and still do, much to pioneer fair trading and support British farmers and farming. Anyhow, I hope that has whetted your appetites. Now read on – and I can promise: you won’t be disappointed!

Cutting the Mustard

By Maisie Taylor

For many years I have been of the opinion that Waitrose English Mustard is the best. To open a new jar and inhale sweet essence of mustardiness is to set taste buds aquiver and saliva glands squirting. It is actually wrong to say ‘is the best’ because a while ago it became ‘was the best’. The first inkling that something was wrong came when a new jar was opened and there was no quivering or squirting – just a mustardy smell. Initially there was no panic and my cold-ridden sinuses were blamed.

The perfect ham roll is made with a freshly baked, crusty white roll – the sort which are more or less bright orange on the outside, and which shatter when you take the bread knife to them. The butter must be salty, cold and slightly hard so that it doesn’t spread, so much as roll itself up in the soft white crumb. The ham should be purchased from a proper butcher and must have plenty of fat, which should be very white so that it contrasts yummily with the pink of the meat. It should be newly and thickly sliced and stuffed into the roll generously and not too neatly but only after English mustard has been enthusiastically spread over the bread and butter of both halves of the roll. The roll has to be squashed quite a bit before you can get it into your mouth. The crust should crackle and craze and the first mouthful should be a perfect balance of tough crust, soft bread, cold butter, sweet ham and enough mustard to almost, but only almost, make you sneeze. Waitrose English Mustard used to do the job every time.

As well as failing to make things quiver and squirt, the new jar tasted different: bland and slightly sweet. It was all very strange. The jar looked the same but could they have changed the recipe or was it that the taste buds had started deteriorating with the onset of old age? The level of mustard in the jar gradually went down but it didn’t taste any better and continued to be a disappointment.

A new jar! Perhaps this one would return to form… but no. The mustard was still bland, strangely sweet and not terribly English.

At this point something interesting happened.

Living in the country, I tend to keep a well-stocked larder and a full fridge. (‘But Darling, you live how far, 20 miles, from a Waitrose store? I’d heard there were pockets of deprivation in the countryside, but I hadn’t realised it was that bad!’). I have to admit I do occasionally uncover things at the back of the fridge which surprise me. Searching for a jar with something nice preserved in oil in it, I found myself travelling deeper and deeper into parts of the fridge that had seldom seen a human hand. Eventually, having abandoned the search and cramming everything back in, I discovered that I was left with not one, but two identical jars of Waitrose English Mustard.

The two jars of Waitrose English Mustard. The earlier one (2015) is on the right.

The two jars of Waitrose English Mustard. The earlier one (2015) is on the right.

Not being a great believer in ‘use by’ dates, my first reaction was to unscrew the lid of the nearest one and sniff:

Kerpow! Perzang! Splurt!

Taste buds quivered! Saliva glands squirted! Wow!

My second reaction was to unscrew the lid of the second jar and sniff:

Sigh! Unexciting, slightly bland, mustardy smell.

My third reaction was to look at the use by dates on the lids. Bland mustardy smell is Apr 2017 (Oops, two months out of date – no wonder it wasn’t quite the thing.) The date on the Kerpow! jar lid is quite hard to read, as it is rather faint… could it possibly say Nov 2015? How embarrassing. That is not good even for me.

But wait! I whip the lid off Nov 2015 (as it will now be known) and inhale deeply. Wow, fabulous! – this should be illegal.

There must be a reason for the difference. The labels seem to be identical including the bar code but detailed analysis begins to reveal differences. Nov 2015 is described as ‘A traditional English mustard providing the classic accompaniment to hot or cold meat.’ Apr 2017 is described as ‘A [?] English Mustard providing the classic accompaniment to hot or cold meat.’

The nutrition table is very different on the two jars. April 2017 has more calories, less fat and nearly twice as much carbohydrate. Really? That seems a big difference. Sugars are even more startling. Per 100g, Nov 2015 has 8.9g carbohydrates of which 2.9g are sugars. This compares with 15.5g in Apr 2017 of which 13.3g are sugars. Presumably the rise in sugar needed to be balanced by the rise in salt – from 5.05g in November 2015 to 8.5g in April 2017.

And so to the ingredients:

Nov 2015 – Water, mustard flour (31%), salt, lemon juice from concentrate, mustard husk, ground turmeric.

Compare that with:

Apr 2017 – Water, mustard flour (22%), spirit vinegar, sugar, salt, mustard bran (3%), turmeric, stabiliser xanthan.

So all is explained: 9% less mustard, added sugar and other stuff.

So what to have in my ham roll?

More rummaging, this time in the larder, produces a tin of Colman’s English Mustard Powder. It doesn’t seem to have a use by date – too faint to read? It can’t be that the tin dates from before ‘use by’ dates, because it has a plastic lid and not a tin one… Oops, sorry, I’ve found the best before date: 07/16. That’s clever. Almost half way between the two jars. The label on the tin has no list of ingredients and just says ‘mustard powder’ and suggests that the mustard should be made up ten minutes before use. Armed with an egg cup and a Mickey Mouse tea spoon I make up a quantity of mustard – just mustard powder (which I happen to know was grown in the Fens!) and cold water, as instructed. I leave it to stand while I assemble the roll, the butter and the ham. Then I press the crust, lift it slowly and bite. At last, the moment of truth…

Freshly-made Coleman’s Mustard in an egg cup, waiting to be enjoyed with a fresh pork pie from the village butcher.

Freshly-made Coleman’s Mustard in an egg cup, waiting to be enjoyed with a fresh pork pie from the village butcher.

Chewy crust, soft bread, cold butter, sweet ham and – yes – is that a sneeze I feel coming on? Yes…? Yes…? No! Phew. Aah, but the taste:

Bliss! Perfection!

And now an afterthought. I’ve just returned from Waitrose in Peterborough, where I failed to find any Colman’s Mustard Powder. All they stocked was the new, bland, pre-made stuff in jars (although I’m pleased to say that they did have the indispensable mustard tubes, which are perfect for the picnic basket). But really: just prepared ‘condiment’ and no real mustard powder! All I can say is:

YOU’RE NOT CUTTING THE MUSTARD, WAITROSE: PLEASE DON’T LOSE THE PLOT!

Posted in food, Tirades | Tagged , ,

The Garden in Early Summer

It never rains, but it pours – even in dry weather. All of which is, I concede a bit Delphic, but that’s how I’ve been feeling lately, as events pile up to make life difficult. And, to add yet another inappropriate simile: is there light at the end of the tunnel? What tunnel, I ask, and how do you know it’s dark? Confusion heaped on chaos. Disorganisation structures anarchy and meltdown. Or am I going over the top? Probably, but what the hell, my hip hurts and I can’t think as clearly as I once did.

The saga of woe began a few years ago, when a washing machine sprung a big leak and poured water all over the floor of the room next door to the kitchen, where we wash vegetables, do the washing-up, prepare lambs’ milk, wash pieces of ancient wood and eviscerate the occasional rabbit, pigeon, pheasant or partridge. We call it the scullery, and it’s a space that can be found in any rural house or cottage, where food isn’t bought-in ready-washed, cleaned and prepared. Well anyhow, that leak caused the scullery floor to rot and before we knew it, our feet were standing on something distinctly spongy. Then I went and put a step ladder foot through the floor, down to the concrete raft three inches below. Cue for a call to our insurers, who agreed to pay (it was our first claim in 23 years!). And now we’ve got the builders in. They’re a small local firm: very friendly and extremely competent, which is a huge relief, but it still doesn’t remove the noise of drills and the constant coming and going.

While all of this was happening, the sheep had to be shorn. At the same time I had to meet an urgent publisher’s deadline and a sudden hot dry spell after heavy rain set the grass everywhere growing like mad. Then about two weeks ago, my hip began to give me a lot more pain. Our local NHS hospital (the North Cambs., in Wisbech) X-rayed it, and this showed heavy wear on my left hip with both bone and cartilage worn away, such that my left leg is now 10mm shorter than my right. I saw an orthopaedic surgeon at Wisbech on Monday and he was in no doubt: a total left hip joint replacement was needed. I asked when that would happen and he reckoned within 2-3 months. So to celebrate (and on his advice) I bought a pair of matching, adjustable walking sticks – which have made a huge difference. At least I can now get about without too much pain.

So let’s try to look on the bright side. Ninety-nine percent of modern hip replacements are 100% successful. So the prognosis is good, and I’ve just got somehow to struggle through the next few months. But, as I said, let’s look on the bright side. There’s nothing like a few personal and domestic problems to put global issues in perspective: creeps like that chap who runs North Korea, or Tweetie-Pie Trump, or even those Brexiteers on the hard right of the Tory Party, who seem to be running things at present, somehow seem slightly less poisonous and rather more pathetically laughable, given all my other problems. And then of course there’s that ghastly tragedy at Grenfell Tower. But even so, there are signs of hope, especially in France – or am I being hopelessly naïve?

The other alternative is to disengage from the world entirely. And in my case, that means I take a walk – or rather a hobble – around the garden, trying not to look too closely at the weeds, which I’m finding increasingly difficult to pull out now that the hip is so stiff. And I must admit that the borders have been looking pretty stunning throughout June. So here are four pictures I took on the 25th, when it wasn’t so hot that flowers everywhere were wilting.

Oh, and one final thing. My next blog post will be quite soon and will be written by Mrs Pryor, aka Maisie Taylor. It’s all about what happens when a qualified archaeologist carries out a close survey of the many items that lurk towards the back of the fridge… And I think you’ll be surprised at what she revealed!

Poop Deck wall

A view along the base of the Poop Deck wall, with the Nut Walk in the far background, across the pond lawn. Wall bases are difficult places to plant, often being either too wet or too dry. This one is both: too wet in winter and too dry in summer. We have found that the Hemerocallis Bonanza does very well here.

Small border

The Small Border was rather a sad place when we first laid it out, back in 1993. It had to be there, if only to provide access to the back of the Main Border and an edge to the very wet rose bed behind the house. But over the years it has developed a character of its own. The Hemerocallis closest to the camera is Burning Daylight. The focus of this view is the Arts and Crafts jardinière, which I featured in an earlier blog post; it’s planted with a variegated Cornus.

Entrance from yard

If the garden can be said to have a formal entrance, it’s from the yard, down a short grass path, towards a golden Metasequoia Gold Rush. This spring and early summer, despite some gales which damaged the foliage, it has looked very spectacular and is well set-off by the red Hemerocallis and scarlet Pelargoniums in the tall, slightly flared Yorkshire Pots (which are reliably frost-resistant and well worth the slight premium you have to pay for them). By the end of the season, the plants in the pots will have doubled in size. I will then take cuttings, which will be over-wintered indoors

Main Border

The Main Border looking NW, with the house on the left. This view is taken from half way along the border. Various old and David Austin roses can be seen. Note also the vivid red flowers of Lychnis chalcedonica, which seems to thrive in our heavy, damp soils.

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The End of Spring 2017

First, I must apologise. Lambing finished in mid-April and since then I’ve had my nose pressed firmly to the grindstone, working through alterations and corrections to my latest book for Penguin (which will be published in March 2018). I’m also busy on the farm (we shear next week) and am promoting The Way, The Truth and The Deadwhich was published on May 17th (copies are now being sent out to subscribers). And then to cap it all, my left hip joint has become painful and an X-ray in late April showed it to be very worn. Can’t think why. My physiotherapist at Wisbech Hospital is recommending that I have a replacement. She says (and she was smiling broadly at the time) that I shouldn’t have spent fifty years on my hands and knees, or swinging mattocks and certainly not pushing fully laden wheelbarrows up steep spoil-heaps. Oh well, at least we all revived ourselves in the evening with vast volumes of beer. Happy days! But now I’ve got to pay for them. I gather hip joint replacements are becoming far more common, if not actually routine: apparently over 70,000 operations were performed on the NHS last year. I also gather that the six weeks after surgery are crucially important, so I’ll be following the physio’s instructions to the letter

But enough about me: tomorrow is the General Election and it seems the country is going completely barmy, with politicians who live on another planet and deranged murderers rampaging through our streets, picking on defenceless youngsters. Sanity and humour seem to have flown out of the window. Forget fake news: image, self-delusion and irrelevance are the new realities. So it seems to me that if you want to retain a grip on the real world, I suggest you turn off the television, the radio and above all, the phone, laptop or iPad, and then step out of doors. Take a deep breath. Listen to the birdsong. Those birds are tweeting more good sense than those highly-paid numbskulls in Westminster – or indeed the biggest idiot of the lot, in Washington. I’m lucky enough to have a lovely garden, but if you don’t, I suggest you take a long walk in a park or the country. Anything rather than the media. And if you’re a resident of the UK: despite the insanity of the current situation, I do hope you voted! Democracy, despite its many weaknesses is still by far and away the most humane system of governance that society has ever evolved. And who knows, one day the UK might abandon the first-past-the-post system, which worked quite well in the Victorian era…

By the time this post gets published, we will be in post-election mode, which for me at least, will mean a stunned sense of unreality, because whatever happens, it is bound to be barmy: Corbyn or Hard Brexit. La-La Cake or Crucifixion. So let’s instead take a leisurely stroll through our garden in May, the last month of spring. I took the photos on the 10th and the 27th, both warm sunny days. And now it’s June and the sun has vanished. There are strong winds from the north-west and yesterday it rained for 18 hours. Ah, the joys of an English summer! I do hope you enjoy your stroll.

Nut Walk

A view along the Nut Walk with the bluebells still in flower. I think it looks better now that we have pruned the hazel bushes higher. It gives a more arched, almost church-like feel. Or is that being a bit pretentious?

Long Border

The Long Border in early May. I love the subtlety of the many hues of green in plants that are still fresh, or have only just come into leaf. Even the grass looks gorgeous – reminds me of summers spent in Ireland, justly called the Emerald Isle (but you have to put up with the ceaseless rain. Doubtless that’s why they invented Guinness).

House wisteria

Although the house we built in 1995 isn’t as ugly as some of the massive monsters that now blight our countryside, towns and cities, most architecture can be improved by a vigorous wisteria. And this year ours was particularly floriferous.

Flag Iris

We dug the pond to take run-off from the house roof and I planted these yellow-flowered flag irises around its fringes in honour of Flag Fen. I found them in a nearby dyke, where they have since been sprayed to extinction. My ones are only just under control, but even so, they always look gorgeous.

Loggery

In some of the smartest gardens it is fashionable to have an arranged pile of logs and call it a Stumpery. To my sensitive ear that’s a bit too close to Trumpery. So this is our Loggery. It’s made of willow logs, which are being pecked by woodpeckers and bored by beetles. Already (and it’s starting its third summer) it’s a mini nature-reserve.

Long Walk

This is the Long Walk, which skirts the Rose Garden and leads into the Serpentine Walk. The roses were very early this year and the pink hybrid musk ‘Cornelia’ is looking particularly good – and smells gorgeous.

Steps Path

And finally, to the Front Garden and the Steps Path, which we created a couple of years ago and is now starting to come into its own. As I write, the lupins outside my office window are looking a bit tatty and will need another cut-back soon, or else they will overshadow the peonies, which are starting to look splendid. Herbaceous gardening can be a high-maintenance business.

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Lambing’s Nearly Finished…

I’m writing this on Tuesday, April 11th and we’re approaching the final week of lambing. Easter, late this year, is next weekend and we are down to just four ewes who haven’t yet lambed – and one of them, I’m fairly sure, isn’t in-lamb (or pregnant, to use the human term). We reduced the flock to a third of its former size three years ago and in those days it paid us to have all the ewes scanned. That way we could separate out the multiples from the singles and indeed the empty – to use another shepherds’ term. We recovered the scanning costs by being able to feed the flock more efficiently and it also meant that empty ewes didn’t get over-nourished, and frankly, fat. So if that single empty ewe doesn’t very soon show some sign that she’s going to lamb, she’ll be put on a crash diet, as very fat sheep are prone to all sorts of health problems – heart attacks etc. – just like their human counterparts.

It’s been ideal lambing weather: dry and not-too-hot, but with the notable exception of last weekend, when Cambridgeshire reached 25o C (almost 80o F). Mercifully, we’re much closer to the coast, so we didn’t get quite that hot, but it was warm enough to make the milk in the orphan lambs’ feeding bucket start to go off – and that’s very unusual indeed. All the warm weather has also meant that the grass has grown strongly. Back in mid-March, I was seriously concerned that we would have to keep the ewes and lambs in the barn until mid-, even late, April, but in the event that didn’t prove necessary. We let them out on Sunday April 2nd and, as always, I took a photograph.

The first ewes are turned out with their lambs. Note the very long, and lush, grass.

The first ewes are turned out with their lambs. Note the very long, and lush, grass.

The sheep that have been turned out still have access to the barn, where they can take their lambs at night, or when it turns wet. We continue feeding the ewes who have lambed for about three or four weeks, as they need very high levels of nutrition to maintain a supply of rich milk, during those first crucially important weeks of a lamb’s life. The feed is spread along wooden troughs standing on the paved yard outside the barn. While the ewes jostle for food, the lambs, very wisely, get out of their way. And this is where the lamb flock begins to form. In the past, I have seen lambs badly trampled in the scrum for food; so now I always give plenty of warning that I’m approaching with the buckets. That way, the lambs have time to beat a hasty retreat.

Feeding the turned-out ewes in the yard outside the barn.

Feeding the turned-out ewes in the yard outside the barn.

The lamb flock begins to form.

The lamb flock begins to form.

I love watching the way the lamb flock starts to develop its own style and identity. It always begins at feeding time and often with a few, very tentative, leaps and races. By late spring these have developed into fully-fledged steeplechase-style-stampedes that reach a crescendo in the hour or so before sunset. In most years, the balance of male to female lambs is roughly 50:50, but this year something has gone wrong with the genetic statistics, and the current score is 17 females and 28 males. I can remember learning about the research of the great Czech geneticist (and monk) Gregor Mendel, who died in 1884. Mendel effectively invented the modern science of genetics and in my opinion his name should be up there alongside the likes of Darwin and Einstein. A very great man. He predicted the 50:50 gender split, and I have been amazed at how often he has been shown to be correct. Indeed, this is the one year in the thirty we have been keeping sheep, that proves that the normal is indeed what it is: statistically (i.e. probabilistically) normal. I only wish that the imbalance had been the other way around, because we get far more money for our female than our male lambs. Still, that’s life.

The imbalance began at the start of lambing, with three successive male twins. It then slowly redressed itself, before slewing back and is now showing a slight tendency to favour females. As normal, the later singles have been huge, because the ewes have had longer to feed. This female lamb, only about three hours old when I took the picture, is a fine example:

A big single female Lleyn lamb, with her mother.

A big single female Lleyn lamb, with her mother.

And finally, to a sad story that began with a mistake. When I was looking through the pictures of lambing on my mobile phone, I came across one that had happened, in error. For some reason, presumably when I was putting my phone back in my pocket, I had photographed the front of my very, very tired, torn and, frankly, malodorous lambing trousers. At the time, it made me smile. And to my amazement I had just enough phone signal in the barn (a very rare event indeed!), so I Tweeted it. To my amazement, it got ‘liked’ by lots of people – who might well have changed their minds, had they been able to smell the image! But you, my faithful and forbearing blog followers, deserve, and expect, a better-composed and altogether higher quality picture. So here it is, taken with my Lumix camera, which is fitted with a Leica lens (no less).

The last picture of my trousers: eloquent witnesses to the ravages of time and the shepherd’s life. Farewell, old friends.

The last picture of my trousers: eloquent witnesses to the ravages of time and the shepherd’s life. Farewell, old friends.

And as you can see, the trousers are just finishing their third lambing season. They began life as moleskin jeans, but about four years ago all the hairy knap had worn away, leaving just the bare cloth beneath. So they’re not particularly warm or damp-proof any more – which is why they will have to go. They’re altogether too foetid to recycle. So I’m afraid they’re for the dreaded black bin of death. Landfill. Burial: a common grave, together with Kentucky fried chicken bones, dead goldfish and broken tape cassettes. As I said in that Tweet: it is so sad. Farewell old friends. Your time for immortality has come…

Gulp, …           gulp, …            gulp.

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Spring is Here – if Not in My Step

I’ll remember the winter that has just, but only just, finished as the winter that dragged on, and on, and on. I think it’s over now (March 28th), but I cannot be certain: we’ve had so many returns of cold, wet, clammy conditions. I have never known the garden feel so wet underfoot, and yet the actual rainfall hasn’t been particularly heavy – we’ve had no great lakes form out in the meadows. Anyhow, the grass is now growing quite vigorously and the earliest lambs will be ready to put out on it shortly. The first lambs arrived on March 25th, one day late, and the first three ewes all podded-out twin males, two of which we decided were good enough to keep on as replacement rams, as our old boys will be running out of steam before very long. I’ve included a couple of pictures here, one (slightly fuzzy, I’m afraid) of the first lambs, the other of the ‘scamper pen’ where we confine the newly born ewes and lambs, after they’ve been released from their individual lambing pens. They spend a few days in the scamper pen, before being given access to both the barn and the yard and meadow. The idea is that ewes get to identify, and bond with, their own lambs, in a controlled crowd.

First lambs

Scamper pen

Apart from the run-up to lambing, my blog silence can be explained by an approaching deadline (March 31st) for my latest book for Penguin. Like my Stonehenge book for Head of Zeus, which I’m glad to say is still selling well, it’s a bit shorter than normal, but will be highly illustrated. Sadly, I’m sworn to silence for the time being, but will be able to tell you about it shortly. But if finishing a book wasn’t enough, I’ve been plagued by irritating, minor health problems, which have seen me through the doors of Kings Lynn Hospital more often than I would like. I’ve had skin cancer checks (all clear!) and now I’m doing exercises three times daily to combat a stiff hip (probably caused by ‘wear and tear’). I had a prostate MRI scan almost four weeks ago, which I don’t think revealed cancer, or else I’d have been told by now. So that’s potentially good news. I love it when I get ‘All Clears’.

And that brings me, very sadly, to the main news that my good friend and colleague, Dr. Geoff Wainwright died, of prostate cancer, on March 6th.

Dr. Geoff Wainwright (1937-2017)

Dr. Geoff Wainwright (1937-2017)

Geoff was Chief Archaeologist at English Heritage (now Historic England) for most of my active digging career and it was directly down to his support that we discovered Flag Fen. He also supported the earlier long-term landscape projects at Fengate and Maxey/Etton, in the Welland Valley, just north of Peterborough (but also on the edges of the Fens). Geoff was a pioneer of open-area excavation, where huge tracts of landscape were stripped of topsoil, to reveal entire settlements and field systems beneath. I think that’s why he enjoyed our projects, which often covered many acres. And then Flag Fen happened, and suddenly we had to make the switch from open areas to small trenches, where much of the digging was done with trowels and dental picks, rather than shovels and mattocks. I know he was impressed at the way our small team made the rapid change (a process that was made simpler by the digital recording he had encouraged earlier). He also liked the fact that we opened our digs to the public, as he was always very aware that archaeology would soon die, if it didn’t maintain a good high profile. It sounds like we never disagreed over anything, which certainly wasn’t true. Geoff had very clear opinions, as did I, and we did fall out from time to time. Sometimes he was right; sometimes it was me. But he never held grudges, and even if we had had a big show-down earlier, he would always finish the day with us in the local pub – Geoff loved his beer. I later discovered, when I visited him and his wife in retirement in their much loved house in Pembrokeshire, that we had another interest in common: vegetable gardening. He will be sorely missed.

Meanwhile, and back in the Fens, I’m now doing physiotherapy exercises three times a day to try and get on top of a sore hip, which has slowed me down so much this winter. I’d started to develop an old man’s stiff walk, and although I’m now 72, I think that walk was more appropriate to 92, so I intend to fight it – with help from the wonderful physios at Wisbech NHS Hospital. Right now, and after 6 weeks of exercises, I’m definitely starting to feel a bit more frisky. But make no mistake, you have to work at these things…

As I began to say earlier, out in the garden it has been a very strange late winter and I reckon we’re now about three weeks behind average. Hawthorn hedges are just coming into leaf, and the first cowslips are starting to poke their flower heads through the grass, in the orchard and meadow. Normally, by now we would have cut at least two meals-worth of asparagus, but not this year: I haven’t yet managed to detect a single shoot. Meanwhile, we’re frantically busy trying to get the border cut-back, now that it’s just dry enough to stand off the mown areas. Maisie is out there for hours on end, desperately pruning roses. But we’ll get there! Now I must go out and check the sheep. I’ll try to write the next blog post a bit more promptly. Sorry about the delay. Blame publishers and deadlines, but please not the sheep. Baa, baa…

P.S. Good news for all my loyal and patient subscribers to The Way, The Truth and The Dead: the folks at Unbound have told me the manuscript went off to the printers yesterday (March 29th). So we’re on our way! You should all get your copies in May.

P.P.S. I recently saw proof copies of the end-papers of the hardback (subscribers’) copies: they’re very droll, and slightly evil. Made me smile.

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