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My Fenland garden in the autumn

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

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The Partial Solar Eclipse 2015: a newt’s eye view.

I must admit, the media mega-hype leading up to the event did not put me in a particularly receptive frame of mind. The Breakfast Show on BBC1 was particularly inane. They seemed to think we all had a mental age of two-and-a-half:  ‘Be sure to wear these safety glasses and never look at the sun without protection. Remember, dark glasses aren’t enough.’  That’s fine every hour or so, when new viewers turn on, but not, please, every five minutes… And then the explanations were ludicrous. At one point I even heard a presenter explaining that the moon was smaller than the sun. REALLY? Are you certain? Surely, my photos clearly showed it to be the other way around. Otherwise, why would the moon over-shadow the sun….? Grrrrr…. Time to tear your hair out in handfuls.

And then there was that idiotic footage from Salisbury Plain, or the Western Isles, with Stonehenge or the Callanish stone circle in the background. I couldn’t believe the inconsequential rubbish the various spokespeople spouted. Did they honestly think that Neolithic communities erected those stunning monuments because ‘eclipses were important to them?’ Christ, if I wasn’t an atheist, I’d call down Hell’s fires to consume these so-called ‘experts’ and subject them to everlasting torment. But I digress.

[Takes deep breath. Thinks calming-thoughts-verging-on-Mindfulness. Then resumes:]

So I was in no mood to get exercised about a mere eclipse. At nine o’clock I headed out to the barn to check the sheep and let the chickens out. But as soon as I stepped out of the back door I was aware that the light was different. Normally our mornings are noisy affairs with birdsong everywhere. But not then. I barely heard so much as a tweet. It was eerily silent. And the light was subdued too, with a very slight reddish tinge. No, it could not be denied, everything somehow seemed very special.

I fed and let the chickens out of their fox-proof hutch; then I went in and collected various cameras. I also shouted to Maisie, who was up-stairs catching-up with her emails, and together we headed down to the pond. Over twenty years ago she had seen a solar eclipse beautifully reflected in the waters of the Flag Fen Mere, so we decided to repeat the experiment and use our pond as a mirror this time, too.

As we walked down to the pond we could see there was a thin covering of cloud which was thick enough to allow me to take a few few shots directly, with my ISO set around 1250 and the thickest filter I could find. They were OK, but not brilliant. Then the clouds started to clear and we turned our attention to the pond. The trouble was that the warmth of the sun made the newts frisky and soon it became impossible to see anything. But as the eclipse progressed, the temperature around us dropped and it grew darker. The newts were fooled into thinking it was night – and time for bed. Suddenly the activity stopped and the waters became icily calm. And then I got this view. It may not be National Geographic and there’s no Corona, but it was worth the wait. And I’ll never, ever forget it.

The solar eclipse viewed directly.

The solar eclipse viewed directly.

The pond surface as stirred-up by newts.

The pond surface as stirred-up by newts.

The solar eclipse as reflected in the pond.

The solar eclipse as reflected in the pond.

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The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring, Tra La!

I can remember rehearsing for the Mikado (I think I was in the chorus, but am not too sure), when I was about eleven. And that song has been with me ever since. Anyhow, this year really does make me want to sing out Tra La! The snowdrops have only just finished flowering after an amazingly long run of almost two months. The first ones were emerging in the second week of January – which is why I still think they are the best value flowers in the garden. But from now on, the pace begins to quicken.

Last Wednesday was fabulous. I’d just fed the sheep and was about to head indoors and catch up with emails etc., when my eye was caught by a glint of white on a shrub down by the pond. It was the sun shining off the newly emerged catkins of a wonderful pussy willow we acquired about five years ago, and which has now come into its own. I cut it hard back every year, which encourages new growth and a fresh display of catkins. The willow in question also has wonderful bluish decorative bark, which looks like somebody has dipped it in fine flour:

Pussy willow, Salix acutifolia ‘Blue Streak’.

Pussy willow, Salix acutifolia ‘Blue Streak’.

Next to the white pussy willow, but actually planted about fifteen years previously, are two shrubs of the black pussy willow. In my experience this willow is far less vigorous and doesn’t benefit from regular pollarding. So I leave it alone. Maybe that’s why it isn’t always wonderful, but this year I’m delighted to report that it has been superb:

Black pussy willow, Salix gracilistyla ‘Melanostachys’.

Black pussy willow, Salix gracilistyla ‘Melanostachys’.

I then took myself and my camera into the wood where the wild primroses were still in flower. They began shortly after the snowdrops and were rather disappointing in January, but little did I realise they were saving themselves for a magnificent display in early March. I’ve never known anything like it. They’re all over the wood, hundreds of clumps, and they light it up. I didn’t know you could, but I can also smell them on the air. And a few picked flowers in a tiny glass of water on the kitchen table last for about five days.

The common British woodland primrose, Primula vulgaris.

The common British woodland primrose, Primula vulgaris.

The largest clumps of primroses are in a part of the wood dominated by ash trees, all of which (and we planted about 400 in 1993) are now threatened with imminent death, thanks to Ash die-back disease. So I’ve been turning my attention to the part of the wood where oak trees reign supreme. This is where I was planting those snowdrops I mentioned in a recent post. On my way there, I passed by a clump of Siberian Squills which I am encouraging to naturalise. They seed quite freely and I was careful to buy a couple of pots of plants which were still in flower. Some cultivars can be a bit wishy-washy, with blues that tend more towards Cambridge (light blue) than Oxford. In the matter of squills, but only of squills, I am a firm supporter of the dark Oxford blue. Anyhow, after the recent hard winters they seem to have seeded freely and are forming nice patches below some hazel bushes.

The Siberian Squill, Scilla siberica.

The Siberian Squill, Scilla siberica.

Once in the oak wood proper, I headed past my new patches of snowdrops and remembered briefly how my back had ached after four days of intensive bulb planting. I was heading for a plant we had only discovered three or four years ago. Our garden soil is heavy silty clay and it’s also very wet. These are ideal conditions for growing the popular Summer Snowflake, or Leucojum aestivum (the variety we favour is ‘Gravetye Giant’) and it flowers freely with us, although more in later spring than summer, proper. But the Giant has a more diminutive, and dare I say it, more subtle, cousin, the Winter Snowflake, or Leucojum vernum. As I said, we discovered the plant a few years ago and I can now report it loves our soil, too. It was quite expensive so we bought just six bulbs, which I managed to sub-divide into a dozen and these are now forming small, but free-flowering clumps, which I’ll be able to divide next year. But it’s the flowers. They’re as subtle as snowdrops and twice the size, They are also gorgeous when seen from below. I love their dainty hat- or bell-like shape and they are just large enough to bob about in the wind – which was what they were doing on Wednesday. The sun shone. Birds twittered and my naughty black puppy Pen was behaving herself. A perfect day. Ah, the flowers that bloom in the spring:

Tra-La!

Winter Snowflake, Leucojum vernum.

Winter Snowflake, Leucojum vernum.

Winter Snowflake flowers.

Winter Snowflake flowers.

 

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Eschew the Formulaic: Avoid the Predictable!

At last, a truly mind-numbingly obscure title – something that all editors will immediately recognise and delete, forthwith. The thing is, that writing has its rules and only very rarely will unfettered streams-of-consciousness actually make good books. The obvious exceptions are Proust and my personal favourite, Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. Others would claim Joyce: what about Ulysses and Finnegans Wake? Quite…..

Read more:

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The First Day of Spring

As a gardener and farmer I prefer the simple way that meteorologists assign the seasons: three months each, with Winter consisting of December, January and February; Spring: March to May;  Summer: June to August; and Autumn: September to November. So using this system, last Sunday, March 1st, was the first day of spring. It was very cold and clear, with that bright March sunlight that seems to lift everything.  So I grabbed my iPad and took four photos that I thought would characterise the day, and the early spring season. We’re told that 2014-15 has been an average British winter: December was much warmer than normal; January was normal and February has been colder than normal. And early March is no warmer than late February. In fact the forecast warns of snow showers tonight, spreading down from Scotland, where I gather the late winter has been pretty dire.

On Friday I attended the annual Current Archaeology Conference, as my book HOME was short-listed for the Book of the Year. Sadly we didn’t win (my books never win such prizes, but people continue to buy them. Odd that). I met another short-listed author (and sadly, too, another runner-up) there, the great Brian Fagan, who was over from the States. Brian and I go back a long way. In my opinion he is by far and away the best writer of popular archaeology and history. Nobody can hold a candle to him. We first got to meet, back in the early 1990s, when he was over here researching a piece for the National Geographical Magazine. Shortly afterwards I was flatteringly portrayed in a chapter in his excellent book (Simon and Schuster, 1995) Time Detectives. Then in 2010 Maisie and I were deeply honoured when he dedicated his superb CRO-MAGNON: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans (Bloomsbury Press), to us both. I couldn’t think of a suitable book to dedicate to him until The Lifers’ Club happened. So I mailed it to him, and it arrived in California (he is a Professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara) on the actual day of his birthday! And I had no idea when that was. So perhaps, after all, God does exist (I don’t think).

Earlier in the winter we had offered Brian lunch at the farm. He had been in London, then at Cambridge, attending conferences and knew he would be in dire need of home-cooking. And that’s what Maisie gave him: leeks in wine sauce, carrots, potatoes (roast and boiled), rare roast beef from the village butcher’s, with, of course, Maisie’s Mum’s recipe Yorkshire Pudding and home-made onion gravy. That’ll teach him to dedicate books to us!

The photos I took before I set off to Ely station to collect Brian showed the wonderful Crocus sieboldii poking up through the thick layer of grit that we spread across the surface of the Arts and Crafts jardinière, which I wrote about last year. The grit is designed to thwart slugs – which it does very effectively. But it doesn’t deter grey squirrels and mice – both of which love crocus bulbs. Still, they didn’t get them all!

Crocus in jardiniere

I then moved into the vegetable garden and took a picture of work I was doing to prune-back old wood on our overgrown red and black currants. In theory you should do this every year, and I’m ashamed to confess that it’s been at least four years since they last had a good hair-cut. I’m determined not to let things slip so badly in the future.

Pruning currants

Moving further into the vegetable garden I came across the row of dwarf early peas (the variety is Meteor) I planted the previous week. If the weather warms up, they should be germinating soon.  I’ll probably plant another row of maincrop peas (Hurst Greenshaft, which I train up much taller hazel pea-sticks) in April (see blog post). I soak all my seed peas in paraffin to deter the mice – and, touch wood, it seems to work.

https://pryorfrancis.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/row-of-dwarf-peas.jpg?w=640&h=857

Finally, the cold February has held back the broccoli, although mercifully the cold winds and frosts haven’t killed-off any plants. Normally the purple sprouting is ready to cut first, but not this year, when one plant of white has already given us a small, but deliciously succulent dish for supper. The photo shows the pale white flower-buds nestling deep within the protection of the main outer leaves. White broccoli spears are particularly good lightly boiled, or steamed, and served with butter and freshly-ground black pepper.  Bliss! And with luck there’ll be plenty more coming soon. Although officially here, the real spring, like love in the old song, ‘lies just around the corner’…

White broccoli

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Missed Posts, 2: Alan Cadbury reveals the secrets of April 15th, 2014

Back in early December I posted a piece about the missed blog posts of 2014. Anyhow, it’s now time to write-up another one and I have to admit that resurrecting abandoned pieces of writing is a strangely archaeological experience. Now true, I do have the photos to guide me. But having said that, I’m also aware that those pictures were taken with a common, a linking theme in mind. Put another way, I didn’t just wander out into the garden to take a series of random pictures that later I could stitch-together into a coherent story. The trouble is I’ve had to fall back on forensics to try and work out what on earth that theme might possibly have been. It has been a distinctly archaeological process and happily I have had Alan Cadbury alongside me to help. He’s a really nice chap, Alan, and although he isn’t the greatest with computers and technology, he does understand the forensic process, having taken part in that landmark Forensic Archaeology course organised, I have since discovered, by the Home Office, at Saltaire University back in 1997-8.

Alan had been staying with us recently, telling me about the final events of his second adventure, The Way, The Truth and The Dead (which is still just a third subscribed, so we need your name in it soon, please!). So it was Alan who helped me reconstruct that day last April when I took those pictures. And for what it’s worth, I get really irritated when people, doubtless well-meaning, suggest that Alan is fictional. Yes, he appears in works that are conventionally categorised as Fiction, but I can tell everyone that there is plenty of truth in them. And him. Indeed, Alan himself is far from fictional. Yes, his name has been changed, but I can assure you there is an individual behind the Twitter username @AlanCadbury – and if you doubt this, I suggest you check out his geotags, which are very, very rarely the same as mine. I’m still trying to persuade Alan (and yes, that is his real name) to ‘come out’ and face the adulation of a rapidly increasing fan-base. But he won’t. In fact he gets quite grumpy whenever I raise the matter. But then, that’s Alan all over.

Now back to that day, April 15th, 2014. It was a Tuesday. As I look back on those pictures, I’m immediately impressed by the cloudless blue sky and the wonderfully bright air. It has to be spring: at no other time of the year would  conditions be so crystal clear. Now you may suppose that I simply thought: ‘What a gorgeous day. I think I’ll slip indoors, pick up my camera and take a few snaps.’ In fact, that’s what I’d have believed myself, if it wasn’t for Alan’s frowning face on the seat beside me.

‘It won’t be as simple as that, Francis.’ He paused, rubbing the short beard on his chin reflectively, ‘It never is. You, of all people should know that.’

Did I deserve that? I decided to let it pass.

‘So what do you think was going-on?’ I asked.

‘Well, look at the time and the timings.’

‘Yes?’

He flashed them up on the screen. I couldn’t see anything odd about them.

‘This picture here shows some sort of blossom, right?’

Malus  ‘Evereste’

 

‘Yes, it’s the crab apple, Malus  ‘Evereste’ . One of the best flowering crabs, I reckon.’

‘But where is it?’

‘At the bottom end of the garden, down by the summerhouse, or Tea Shed, as we prefer to call it.’

‘Well, it was taken at 16.39.’

‘Yes?’ I asked, more doubtfully even than before.

Again, I didn’t think this at all remarkable. Maybe Maisie and I had just been enjoying a cup of tea – who knows? Time has moved on.

But Alan had the bit between his teeth:

‘Now look at this one. It’s labelled the Main Border and it’s taken just two minutes later, at 16.41.’ He paused, and was staring at me intently. ‘Can’t have been a very relaxing cup of tea to get you whizzing about the garden like that, can it?’

Main border

‘I suppose not.’

I was beginning to see his point.

‘And look at the picture: the composition is good. Everything comes together at the same point. There’s lots of depth-of-field. That needs a very steady hand. So I think you’ve used a tripod.’

I nodded. Again, he could have been right. My reply was hesitant:

‘Yes, I concede, to have got to the Main Border, fitted the tripod, levelled it and fixed focus, ISO and everything else normally takes at least five minutes – or sometimes rather longer.’

‘Now look at the next one.’

Small border

I did. And if anything it was even better composed. In fact as pictures of the Small Border in springtime went, it wasn’t bad. That border only really comes into its own in the early summer when the grasses are up and the daylilies (Hemerocallis) are out. I thought the jardinière by the Compton pottery, which I discussed in March of last year, formed an excellent end-stop. Pity we haven’t yet found anything to go at the other end (behind the camera) – but that’s another story.

I wandered through to the kitchen to make a pot of tea.

From my study I could hear Alan call out from the computer:

‘So when do you think that was taken?’

‘Which one?’ My mind was on tea and cake.

‘The Small Border.’

I could hear gathering irritation in his voice. I couldn’t anticipate where this conversation was heading.

‘I don’t know, Alan,’ I replied, almost absent-mindedly, while turning off the tap and putting the kettle on the Aga. ‘I’d guess a good five to ten minutes later. Again it’s well-composed. Even better than the last one.’

Alan was now standing in the doorway. I turned round. He looked me straight in the eye. Suddenly I felt as if I’d committed some loathsome murder.

‘Well it wasn’t.’ He said this slowly, stepping forward.  He was starting to sound menacing:

‘It wasn’t ten minutes…’

He paused, then continued:

‘It wasn’t even five minutes…’

He paused again to let his words sink in. Then quieter:

‘No, it wasn’t even five seconds later.’

At that, he drew breath and almost screamed in my face:

‘It was at precisely the same time as the last one! Now how do you explain that, Mister Professor?’

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Alan Cadbury’s Abbey: Crowland

Fenland view from Bukehorn Toll, looking north-west (Crowland Abbey just visible on horizon)The Fens are open, flat and full of myths. One persistent myth is that Fenland is all the same; that there is no regional distinctiveness or identity. Outsiders cannot get beyond the straight roads, the even straighter dykes and the all-enveloping, level horizon. But the people are very different: yes, they do see themselves as Fen folk first and their county comes a distant second, whether it be any of the four Fenland counties: Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire (ex-Isle of Ely), Norfolk or Suffolk.    read more…

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Snowdrops: Divide and Rule!

I have long been a fan of snowdrops. They offer the best value of any garden plant and their crowning glory is their timing: they flower when almost nothing else is prepared to stick its head out of the soil. Yes, aconites are lovely, if rather short-lived, and hellebores can be stunning in a good winter garden, but taken as a whole nothing has the same impact as a good expanse, a vista no less, of snowdrops.

So if you’re new to gardening, how do you go about acquiring some? Ideally you want to make friends with a gardener who has a well-established snowdrop bed. Then arrange to visit him or her later in February, just after most varieties have finished flowering. It’s then that the bulbs are in the best condition for moving. Long-established clumps can become congested and then they don’t flower so freely. So that’s why it’s always a good idea to divide them up – or rather that’s what you tell the potential donor (and it happens to be true). Then, once you’ve scrounged a clump or two, take them round to your garden and plant them right away, but don’t make the mistake of planting individual bulbs: try to plant three or four at a time. Do that, and your new clumps will become visible far quicker. This way of planting-out growing bulbs is known as planting ‘in the green’ and I would strongly recommend it for aconites, and other non-bulbous springtime plants, such as anemones, too. And another useful tip: if you buy a pot of snowdrops in the garden centre, I’d advise waiting till March or April, when the nursery normally reduce prices by around 50%. And one final thing: always wash off the fluffy peaty compost that they’re nearly always grown in these days. If you don’t, the bulbs will dry out in hot summers – and snowdrops sometimes fail to break dormancy if they’re allowed to get too dry. Which is one of the reasons I rarely buy them as dried bulbs, because even if they do manage to germinate, they’re often very feeble the following year.

But there is one aspect of snowdrops that has never appealed to me. I suppose you could call it ‘snowdrop fancying’ and the people who practise this arcane, this black art, are known as ‘Galanthophiles’, after the Latin name for the snowdrop family, Galanthus. I’ve never actually dared take part in a Galanthophile conversation, but I have listened-in to one. And it was scarily obsessive. Indeed, I’m reliably informed that rare selections can change hands for hundreds of pounds. And often you need a magnifying glass to tell the various types apart.

I suppose we’ve got about half-a-dozen different varieties in our garden, but 99.999% of them are the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis. To my mind it’s perfection and cannot be improved upon; but there is a straight double version, if you’re looking for something that looks a bit more garden-like and less like a wildflower.

By and large, snowdrops prefer shade to direct sunlight, and they would rather remain dampish all year round. They very much resent having their leaves cut off before they die down naturally, over summer. So don’t plant them in grass that you intend to mow. Otherwise they require little or no attention, which is another reason I like them so much. They’re also superb in dark urban gardens at times of the year when the light is dim. But town being warmer than country, they often bloom two or three weeks earlier.

Over the years I’ve planted thousands of snowdrops and I set about it as a military operation, but one that’s short and sharp – as befits the brief days of February. Snowdrops are very forgiving, so it doesn’t really matter when you move them. The traditional time is after flowering, but often, like in the current season, it suits me to do it early. I also find that bulbs moved early ‘in the green’ seem to settle into their new positions a bit quicker. And it’s also worth bearing in mind that early springtime can be very busy elsewhere in the garden. So I tend to strike when the mood is upon me – which is now.

First, I dig an entire clump out of the ground with a small border spade. Then I remove surplus soil from the roots and use it to refill the hole, planting four or five new clumps as I do so. Then, I break my lifted clump into large pieces, from which I break-off individual bulbs to make mini-clumps of 4-5 plants. I then drop these onto the ground in what I hope looks like a fairly random pattern. Finally, I plant them where they fell – and I do this quite quickly and without much fuss, a process that takes less than half the time it took to form the mini-clumps. If the season’s very dry or your soil is sandy, I would suggest you water after planting. Using this system, I can plant roughly 50 mini-clumps in an hour, or so. I concede it’s very hard on the back. But be of good cheer: next winter they’ll look gorgeous. And then all the effort will be worth it.

Choose a source of snowdrops where the clumps are getting large and congested.

Choose a source of snowdrops where the clumps are getting large and congested.

Dig up a clump, remove surplus soil and put it in a container.

Dig up a clump, remove surplus soil and put it in a container.

Close-up of the lifted clump. Gently pull it into halves, then quarters. Then subdivide each quarter into ‘mini-clumps’ of 4-5 bulbs.

Close-up of the lifted clump. Gently pull it into halves, then quarters. Then subdivide each quarter into ‘mini-clumps’ of 4-5 bulbs.

A mini-clump lying on the ground, ready to be planted.

A mini-clump lying on the ground, ready to be planted.

5.Planted mini-clumps. If planted early in the season (say early February) the leaves and flowers will resume their customary upright position after a week or so.

5. Planted mini-clumps. If planted early in the season (say early February) the leaves and flowers will resume their customary upright position after a week or so.

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