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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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High Summer 2019: Hot and Wet

I think last Thursday, July 25th was the hottest day I’ve ever experienced and at 38.7o Celsius (101.66o Fahrenheit) the thermometer in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden agreed with me: an all-time British record. But it was the humidity that made it feel so intolerable: at times I wondered whether I wasn’t about to drown in my own gravy. Yuk! Meanwhile, while I was sweating indoors (it was FAR to hot to be out in the garden), the plants in the borders were growing like rockets, including, of course, the weeds, which are now about to seed and are causing us moments of high anxiety. Remember the old gardeners’ adage: one year’s seeding; seven years’ weeding? But in this blog post I want to cast such gloom aside, and have a look at the non-weeds out there in the garden, First however, I want to bid farewell to an old friend and welcome a new, youthful helper.

Old gives way to new: my 1964 International B414 (left) and its replacement: the John Deere 4400 compact tractor (right).

Old gives way to new: my 1964 International B414 (left) and its replacement: the John Deere 4400 compact tractor (right).

My hip replacement operation has proved a huge success and every month I find I can lift heavier weights and do jobs that would have been impossible a few years ago, but having said that, there are things which are perhaps best not attempted. Fighting-off angry rams is an obvious one, but pressing down with my left leg on the incredibly stiff clutch pedal of my old International B414 is another. This is especially true because the PTO (Power Take-Off) for the rear grass-topper is only engaged at the bottom of the clutch’s travel. So you really do have to press-down extremely hard – and hold it there. I was finding it very painful indeed before my operation, but now I’ve decided it can’t go on. So I’ve bought a new tractor with much easier, automatic controls and no nightmare pedals. I said a new tractor, but in reality it’s a John Deere 4400 compact, which was built about 2000 – almost twenty years ago. It’s also fitted with smoother garden tyres that won’t leave the deep ridges of the old B414. It’s also vastly more manoeuvrable. Having said that, there was a large lump in my throat when the old B414 left us. It’s funny how attached one can get to rusting steel, solid seats, stinky fumes, leaky hydraulics and rigid pedals. But now back to the garden in high summer.

The high (12 feet/4 metres?) flower spikes of one of the New Zealand flax (Formium tenax) in the pond garden.

The high (12 feet/4 metres?) flower spikes of one of the New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax) in the pond garden.

In a mad Trumpian world, where those who deny climate-change are not regarded as bonkers, it’s sobering to think that ten of the hottest UK summers have happened since 2002. And you can really see it in British gardens. We grow several varieties of Phormium, the New Zealand flax, which loves our heavy damp soils. It was always regarded as half-hardy, but not now. And this year the flowers have been breath-taking – so good, in fact that they almost look out-of-place: almost (and I do mean almost) too exotic!

A view along the main border, with Hemerocallis (foreground, right) in their final flush.

A view along the main border, with Hemerocallis (foreground, right) in their final flush.

Not surprisingly the borders have all looked magnificent, if somewhat over-blown. Some plants have become positively bloated and we’ve noticed there’s been quite a lot of wind-damage, with snapped flower heads and collapsed stems. The main double border looks very luxuriant, but then so does the lawn grass! I’ve never known such a season for mowing – my mower’s fuel bill is scary…

The small border in late July.

The small border in late July.

Because it’s much narrower, the small border, which runs parallel with the main border, to the south, seemed to close up as the plants along it grew so huge. We had laid the garden out following Christopher Lloyd’s principle of two-person access. He always assumed that most often gardens are visited by couples rather than solitary individuals and we made all our paths just that little bit wider, as a result. It’s always nicer to go round a garden with a friend, than alone.

The Front Garden in late July.

The Front Garden in late July.

And when it comes to lavish growth, the Front Garden must surely take the biscuit: the supposedly miniature rose, The Fairy (the pink flowers in the foreground of the picture), has grown way beyond her normal patch and is spreading across the paths. Currently she is threatening to take over the house. She will have to be cut back quite severely before we open in September 21-22, or she will be lacerating visitors’ legs.

The main garden in late July, viewed from upstairs.

The main garden in late July, viewed from upstairs.

But when you step back from the flower beds and borders, everything suddenly falls into place and forms a delightfully harmonious whole. I love this view from the bathroom window. Makes brushing my teeth even more of a pleasure (surely you don’t mean that? – Ed.). Most of the flowers you can glimpse – mainly shades of yellows and reds – are Day Lilies (Hemerocallis).

The vegetable garden, in late July.

And finally, the garden that has benefited most from the warmth and the wet: the veg garden. Frankly, I can’t recall a better year for courgettes, onions, broad beans, tender-stem broccoli and lettuces. The main crop onions in the foreground (and here I have yet to arrange their stalks and weed between the rows for the tenth time – or so it seems) have grown vast and I’ll be giving half the crop away to friends and neighbours. But the earlies, which I planted in the first week of January are VAST! They’re the row just beyond the main crops in the foreground and they’re the size of small dogs! And you might have expected them to taste of watery nothing, but they don’t: they’re sweet and delicious and if you can find one small enough to fit on the BBQ, they are beyond description – ambrosial!

Oh yes, before I post this rather over-the-top account of the garden, I feel I ought to report that my first three book-signing events for The Fens were all totally sold out and that book sales are fantastic. My right hand positively aches from signing my name so many times. Many thanks to everyone who attended – I do appreciate you coming, especially when I saw how hot many of you were in that big hall in Ely! Still, it was a very good night with a wonderfully Fenny atmosphere. I do like Fen people.

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Norman’s Pond

First some sensational news: my new book, The Fens is going to be the BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week from July 8th-12th!!! This will involve 15-minute readings (not by me), which are broadcast twice daily, most often in the morning at 9.45 and then again, after the midnight news, around 12.30. Radio 4 Extra usually broadcast a compilation of all five episodes. And of course nowadays the five episodes are available as a Radio 4 podcast. That should kick-start the book! As you might possibly have detected, I’m delighted. I should also add that I agree wholeheartedly with the BBC’s decision to use a professional actor to read the episodes: reading for radio is a very special skill that takes years to acquire.

The Fens’ official publication date is July 11th and I’ll be going to London to sign copies for the independent book trade – something I feel passionately about. If we lose our independent bookshops we’re losing a very long-established part of our culture. Buying books is about discussing them with other people and just browsing. And you can’t do that online. The Wimpole History Festival which I did on June 23 was a big success and we sold loads of books. That was my first illustrated talk about The Fens. The second is next week and coincides with the Radio 4 Book of the Week. It’s at one of my favourite bookshops, Heffers, in Trinity Street, just across the road from my old college. I have wonderful, if somewhat hazy memories of those days. The talk starts at 6.30 pm, and is followed by a signing. Hope to see you there!

For some reason, the Fens have loomed rather large in my life of late. On June 28th we were delighted to take part in a family gathering at the National Trust Nature Reserve at Wicken Fen, near Ely, to celebrate the life of my late cousin Professor Norman Moore. Norman, and his sadly departed wife Janet, were old friends, and Maisie and I were, and are, very fond of both of them: humorous, highly intelligent and modest. One of the last times Maisie saw Janet she was almost knocked flat by her, flying past on her bike in Downing Street, Cambridge. ‘Sorry, Maisie, no brakes…’ Mercifully, they weren’t her final words, but they could have been.

Norman was a hugely influential biologist, environmentalist and conservationist who played a large part in establishing the body which eventually became Natural England. I can remember he was furious when a Tory government broke up the British conservation organisation and sub-divided it to England, Scotland and Wales. He saw it as part of a deliberate process of divide-and-rule. And I’m sure he was right. I wonder if anything so devious is happening today? No, surely not!

Norman inspired the digging of the superb new lake at Holme Fen, near Peterborough and he gave much of his life to managing Wicken Fen, one of, if not the, oldest nature reserves in Britain.

The Lode or drain at Wicken Fen close by the pond that is to be re-named in Norman Moore’s honour.

The Lode or drain at Wicken Fen close by the pond that is to be re-named in Norman Moore’s honour.

And that’s why we all gathered together on June 28th at Wicken. Half way through the afternoon, a few of us climbed into four-wheel drives (I took our ageing Fourtrak) and drove about 7 miles to view a pond (in fact an old ‘borrow pit’ as they are known locally) which is to be re-named the Norman Moore pond. I would guess that the pond was originally dug in the 19th century to provide material for the banks of the nearby drain or lode. I don’t think I have ever seen so many dragonflies. Norman would have been delighted as he was the leading expert on them. Over 20 years ago he advised us how to make the Flag Fen Mere more dragonfly-friendly – and it worked. Today the place positively buzzes with them and their slightly smaller cousins, damselflies.

The pond at Wicken Fen that will shortly be known as the Norman Moore Pond.

The pond at Wicken Fen that will shortly be known as the Norman Moore Pond.

Then yesterday (July 2nd) something memorable happened, also to do with the Fens. Maisie and I had driven to King’s Lynn to attend a tour organised by the Wisbech Society and given by the historian and ex-Mayor of Lynn, Paul Richards FSA. The tour was about King’s Lynn (in those days it was called Bishop’s Lynn) and the Hanseatic League – the medieval trading network organised around key German towns with major partners in Britain and other north European states. The drive towards Lynn was delightful: the sun shone and the Fens were looking at their best. I remember thinking as we drove along the Nene towards Sutton Bridge that the river was looking very empty (it’s tidal for its last 30 miles across the Fens). Low tides mean that sea-going vessels can’t head upstream and that in turn means that the swing bridge at Sutton Bridge wouldn’t be in action. A couple of times recently I’d been delayed for around twenty minutes on the A17 – the main road from Lincolnshire into Norfolk – by Sutton Bridge opening.

The River Great Ouse at King’s Lynn at low tide. On the far, West Lynn, side are two piers. The King’s Lynn ferry departs from the one nearest the centre of the picture.

The River Great Ouse at King’s Lynn at low tide. On the far, West Lynn, side are two piers. The King’s Lynn ferry departs from the one nearest the centre of the picture.

When we arrived at the river front at Lynn we were both amazed by the low level of the usually so mighty River Great Ouse. I won’t say it was looking like a trickle, but you could clearly see how its lower course meandered along the wide, largely man-made, tidal channel. We parked the car on the quayside and had started a brisk stroll along the river towards the 17th century Customs House (a superb Grade I building) where the tour was to assemble. It was then that Maisie noticed that the King’s Lynn ferry had just pushed-off from its moorings on the far side of the river, at West Lynn. We often take the ferry, but had decided not to today. I think we had made the right decision. We watched spellbound as the ferry (which has been running for a mere 734 years since its charter in 1285) quickly crossed the water, then stopped a huge distance from its usual moorings on the King’s Lynn side. Then the skipper jumped overboard (he was wearing high waders), and with help from an assistant they laid a floating walkway which the intrepid passengers traversed. And they do this three times every hour during the working day! I wouldn’t recommend using the low tide ferry after a good evening in one of Lynn’s many fine pubs.

Passengers leaving the King’s Lynn ferry at low tide.

Passengers leaving the King’s Lynn ferry at low tide.

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I have it in my hands, my latest book: The FENS!

Writing a work of non-fiction has one event that is never quite the same if you write fiction: it’s that moment when you rip open an envelope from your publisher to reveal your latest book. And there it is, in your hands, with maps, pictures, notes and text all together. Of course it’s then that you always spot a caption added to the wrong photo or an endnote that should have been for chapter 2 gracing the final lines of the Epilogue… But touch wood, I haven’t (yet) spotted any howling errors – so well done everyone at Head of Zeus. But seriously I’m absolutely delighted with the production: the paper feels nice, the print is large and legible and the photos and illustrations look fabulous. I didn’t want them to be in colour: not only would that have doubled the price, but it would have made it feel a bit like a travel guide or a textbook. Instead they are clear and distinct, but they don’t impinge on the text. In this book, I wanted the words to be on equal terms with the images. It’s a book that’s as much about the memories and emotions they inspire, as the places themselves. There is so much more to a sense of place than landscape history alone.

But now a few facts: The Fens‘ publication date is July 11th. It will cost a maximum of £25, if you don’t take advantage of the many offers that are around. It is published by Head of Zeus (ISBN: 9781786692221), the London-based publisher who did such a great production for my Stonehenge book. It should be available in all good bookshops and I do urge you to buy it from an independent bookseller (they need all the help they can get!). Next month I’ll be heading to London, to the HoZ warehouse, where I’ll be signing copies for the independent book trade. If you are a bookseller, or you run a literary event, my publicist at Head of Zeus is Chrissy Ryan (chrissyATheadofzeus.com). I’m particularly excited by the cover, based around a superb picture of the peaty, Black Fens by the Norfolk artist Fred Ingrams:

The Fens

Writing this book has been a strange journey of discovery and rediscovery. One would imagine that being based on a lifetime of research it was simple to write: but nothing could be further from the truth. It helped that I had a clear message: all the work I have done has convinced me that the Fens have been a prosperous region with a stable population of people who have been living there for a very long time indeed. Sure, there were very wet bits that could only have been accessed at certain times of the year, but then you could say the same about the lakes in the Lake District. It’s the wet/dry contrast that gives both regions their appeal. In the Lake District the contrast between land and water is pretty sudden and stark, but in the Fens there are all sorts of ‘in-between’ wet, damp, moist and even tidal landscapes, too. Moreover these changed through time, either through natural agencies, like peat growth and marine flooding, or through the hand of man, aided by dykes, pumps and sluice gates. I suppose the Fens lack the in-your-face spectacular beauty of the Lake District, but having said that, a view of Ely Cathedral in the burning reds of an autumn sunset does take a lot of beating. ‘The old golden ball’, as the sun was known, did play a major role in peoples’ daily and spiritual lives.

The Fens is arranged chronologically and true to archaeological precedents it starts with early prehistory and moves forward to more recent times. I also consider the future – which wasn’t an easy chapter to write. If you’re looking for a dispassionate account, then this isn’t the book for you. Over the past almost half-century I’ve lived and worked in the Fens and have grown very fond of them and the people who inhabit their many, varied landscapes. They have bequeathed us some of the best-preserved prehistoric sites anywhere and we probably know more about Bronze Age Peterborough than almost any other ancient region in northern Europe. Roman Fenland inherited this ancient prosperity and took it forward into Saxon and early medieval times. In the High Middle Ages, master masons and carpenters constructed some of the finest churches anywhere: the great cathedrals of Ely, Peterborough and Lincoln and the soaring magnificence of King’s College Chapel. But there are dozens of superb parish churches, too. It is a unique inheritance. In early post-medieval times Cambridge came into prominence as a world-class university and many smaller Fenland towns, such as Wisbech, Spalding and Boston acquired a reputation for liberal values and academic enquiry. But things have gone wrong, too.

There were fierce disputes over the intensive drainage campaigns of the 17th century and there have been terrible floods, often with high casualty rates. In the 20th century the historic medieval cores of towns like Kings Lynn, Wisbech and Spalding were severely damaged by development and insensitive road-building. The well thought-out railway network in the Fens was destroyed by Dr Beeching’s ‘rationalisation’ of the 1960s. Consequently many smaller market towns today boast empty high streets, poorly-attended markets and numerous charity shops. We are also beginning to appreciate the extent of irreversible change that the wholesale drainage of the 1850s and 1970s has caused. And with sea level rise a seemingly inexorable process… Need I say more? The floor of my study is about two metres above sea level; an average high tide would wet our bed, upstairs. And yet, people are still regularly granted planning permission by local authorities to build bungalows. In many respects, the story of the Fens – an area I have grown to love and cherish – could be the story of Britain, past, present and future.

We take the future for granted. But now I think the time has come to be more mature: we must learn from the people of Holland and other low-lying regions; we can’t afford to turn our backs on them. In a world that is increasingly threatened by global warming and rising sea levels we must have the humility to co-operate and pool our experiences and knowledge. If we British head off in one direction, motivated by a false understanding of our own history, largely based on naively optimistic, rose-tinted nostalgia, we are unlikely to find our way back, alive. And God knows, the history of the Fens has contained a few appalling errors and misjudgments. A wise man would learn from them. A fool would deny their existence. All I can hope is that this book may start a few people thinking.

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Back to Nature – Again!

We are living through very strange times. Laying aside the political melt-down which has become part of everyday life in Britain, we also seem to have taken our eye off the climate change problem – what in the 1970s we used to refer to by the catch-all term Pollution. But now, and quite suddenly, it’s all become much simpler and there’s a new scapegoat: plastic. But surely we’ve known about the dangers of plastic pollution for at least twenty years, haven’t we? I recall my wife Maisie buying a green net 100% cotton shopping bag, named a Turtle Bag, because if we all used Turtle Bags there’d be fewer plastic bags to choke turtles swimming in the ocean. Incidentally, Turtle Bags were founded in 2001 – and they’re still going strong. Get one today!

Another simplistic ‘solution’ to all environmental problems is seen as Veganism. If you want to be a Vegan, that’s fine, but you should also think through some of the consequences. The wide open, treeless ‘grain plains’ that are such a grim feature of so many fertile landscapes in eastern England are a direct result of intensive arable agriculture. The pleasant hedged and wooded pastures of the West Country are the result of keeping sheep and cattle. If we all go Vegan we can kiss goodbye to hedges, pasture and woodland. Personally I would opt for a middle way, whereby the methane and other gases produced by livestock farmers are somehow reduced or are captured for other uses, such as the generation of (renewable) electricity. Incidentally, the much-vaunted ‘re-wilding’ will lead to the damage and destruction of thousands of very ancient archaeological sites which owe their survival to the carefully nurtured farmed landscapes that followed-on from their initial building. There is evidence already for this on the moorlands of the south-west where the growth of scrub vegetation near stone rows and prehistoric hut sites has been uncontrolled. All attempts to increase trees, hedges and woodlands must do so in a way that respects history and the way the landscape has developed.

The modern trend to over-simplify difficult issues, whether by re-wilding or seeking appealing scapegoats, is symptomatic of a far deeper problem. Long before Brexit, we ceased to listen to what politicians were saying – and I blame most of this on the introduction of ‘spin doctors’ in Tony Blair’s time. Essentially politicians now speak in a series of pre-prepared statements provided for them by their PR staff. It’s no wonder that the interviewers on Radio 4’s Today programme are always interrupting them – not that it works, and by God it’s irritating! But seriously, you rarely hear a politician say anything sensible, constructive, original or analytical about climate change. In some way Trump has found the perfect answer: pretend that it’s not happening. Trouble is, he knows, and we all know, that’s a lie.

So I was delighted when British school children recently held protest meetings and I was hugely impressed by the Swedish 16 year-old Greta Thunberg’s recent visit to Britain. I don’t think it matters if she and her colleagues have shortened the timetable too much: the fact is they have reintroduced the subject. And that’s something that those of us who dwell outside the Westminster Bubble have been worrying about for decades.

But certain things rarely get mentioned, like jet-engine powered flight. Yes, it’s a topic when the additional runway at Heathrow is being discussed, but the emissions of airliners are colossal. I wonder how many environmentally-aware and politically active young people take a flight for their summer holidays or to wedding and engagement parties? And long-distance holidays are now routine. Happily Maisie and I have never flown to a foreign holiday. If we do take the bold step to cross the English Channel, it’s either by ferry or through the Tunnel. Slowing climate change is a complex matter and it does nobody any favours to seize on simplistic solutions.

I didn’t mean to sound rude about urban Vegans, because at least they are doing something, as are the people who avoid using plastic bags. Here in our small Lincolnshire farm we do our bit by growing our own vegetables and by buying food in the local market, where nothing is pre-wrapped. I have also planted 2,000 trees and have established some 50 acres of permanent grassland, fertilised by clover, not artificial nitrates. Oh yes, and there are 64 solar panels on the barn roof and 16 on the house – enough, I’m told, for 7 households. I’ve also become very interested in what individuals are doing to improve the environment. My cousin John Cherry, who farms my grand-father’s land near the village of Weston, in north Hertfordshire, where I spent a very happy childhood, has helped to pioneer a system of no-tillage farming, which cuts down greatly on tractor fuel and which improves soil health and fertility enormously. Like John, I feel passionately about soil health – one of the next big environmental problems that will confront us all. A healthy soil is a huge absorber of carbon. Dead soils can be very depressing. When we laid out our garden in 1995 the land had been intensively farmed for many decades and there wasn’t a mole or earthworm to be seen. Today they are everywhere and fat green woodpeckers feed on the ant hills in our grazing. The soil is living again.

I have always had a taste for books that look at landscape and the environment in a new way, but I’m only interested if they are also based on personal, practical experience. Two have recently been drawn to my attention and I can recommend them heartily.

Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the WorldThe first is a a very original account of a woman’s life on a remote farm, looking after 500 sheep in an area of Iceland known locally as the End of the World (Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World, by Heida Asgeirdottir [John Murray, 2019]). It gets coldish in winter there and all sheep have to be brought in before the heavy snows fall. But this book is about far more than the practicalities of farming in such a difficult – I almost said impossible – environment. The author is an Icelandic woman who gave up a promising career in modelling to run the family farm, which she mostly did on her own, with the help, of course, of her quad bike. I sometimes think that modern sheep farming is as much about four wheels as four legs. And she had to face other problems, too, such as an unfriendly developer which meant that she had to become involved in politics. What I like about this book is its perspective: yes, it is a remarkable and humane, multi-stranded story, but it also shows how farming, the landscape and daily life are intimately connected.

Jeremy Purseglove: Working With NatureMy second book is also firmly rooted in reality and personal experience, but it couldn’t be more different (in fact they make an excellent pair to take on holiday). I only received my copy last week and I have to confess I’m still reading it – it’s a book to be savoured in small, reflective doses and I’m blowed if I’ll hurry it. I have known Jeremy Purseglove the author of Working With Nature: Saving and using the world’s wild places (Profile Books, 2019) for some time. We first met when he was presenting a television series on his first book, Taming the Flood (which was republished and revised by publishers William Collins in 2017). At the time I was working on The Making of the British Landscape and was growing increasingly concerned at the way British streams and rivers were being straightened and tamed. Jeremy’s book took the opposite approach: he argued that marshes and wooded areas along rivers were not just good for wildlife, but also helped to lessen the impact of flash floods. It was an important lesson which many river authorities are now, belatedly, starting to heed. Working With Nature continues the story. It is based on Jeremy’s life as an environmentalist for a major firm of civil engineering consultants and it is set across the globe, in Britain, central America, India and Bangladesh, U.S.A., the Caribbean, Asia and the Middle East. It’s a wonderful, absorbing read, written with charm and grace. And when you’ve read it, I’m sure you’ll agree that our environmental problems are far more complex and diverse to be addressed by simplistic solutions. They require time, knowledge, experience and creative thought. That’s quite a scarily tall order – but something that must be taken seriously both by voters and people in power. And we don’t have long.

Posted in Farming, food, In the Long Run, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Hello to All This…

And what do we start with? Why, sheep of course!

Ewe and lambs

I know what I said in my last blog post, but this is what we in Britain once used to be very good at, namely, compromise. I contacted two neighbouring farmers, who we have known for a long time and are old friends, and we came to a deal whereby they rent some of our land for grazing their ewes and lambs and in return we feed and look after them. Admittedly, they provide the feed, straw and silage, but we gain something intangible, and worth far more than mere money: we are woken by lambs bleating in the paddock outside our bedroom window every morning. I get to see green woodpeckers feeding at the ant-hills while lambs leap around them, completely unconcerned. And best of all, we can look on as a ewe feeds her twin lambs, while contentedly chewing the cud. Makes you glad to be alive.

The first picture showed the initial batch of ten ewes and lambs who were housed in our small barn, to give them a few days to bond together and get used to their new surroundings. Almost a week later, a second batch of ten ewes and lambs had arrived, but by then I had turned the first batch out onto the rich spring grazing of the meadow. In the second picture the new batch of ewes can just be seen behind the plate hurdles in the small barn. By now the original ewes and lambs are looking very healthy: it’s worth remembering that early lamb growth is as much about exercise as nutrition. Currently we’ve got around 35 ewes and their lambs on our farm – almost like the old days!

Sheep in yard

Normally the garden takes a back seat in March and April, simply because ewes and lambs, straw, hay, feed and late nights tend to dominate our lives. We would manage to take short walks in the garden, usually while exercising the dogs, but with certain important exceptions (like planting potatoes in late March), the garden took second place to the farm. It was holiday time for the weeds, which would produce a wonderful display of flowers in late April, as a reward. But now that the late nights have gone and my sheep work is so much lighter, we’ve been able to get out and enjoy the early spring flowers – and what a great year it has been (so far). Our heavy, moisture retentive, silty-clay soil favours plants such as the Summer Snowflake (Leucojeum aestivum), which I don’t think has ever looked so good. This picture shows them flowering along the base of a low wall. These are examples of the slightly improved variety, Gravetye Giant (named after the garden at Gravetye Manor, West Sussex, home to the famous Victorian gardener William Robinson).

Leucojeum

By and large, plants that look good in borders and in formal plantings rarely suit less structured surroundings, but this Leucojeum and its earlier-flowering cousin Leucojeum vernum (Winter Snowflake) can look stunning in a wood or shrubbery.

Leucojeum in wood

As that last photo showed, our garden tends to be a bit informal. And there are some reasons for this (aside from the expense of employing several full-time gardeners). For a start, English gardens have always reacted against the stricter formality seen on the Continent, in gardens in the Flemish, French and Italian traditions. Admittedly we English can do such styles very well when we want to, but in our heart-of-hearts I think we prefer a more natural (I almost said laissez faire) approach. Wildlife comes a close second to informality – and the two go well together.

Before we planted our garden, the Fen around us was something of an ecological desert: an intensively-farmed grain plain. Twenty-five years later things have greatly improved and I am convinced that quite a big factor in this improvement has been the availability of winter feed and shelter. So we don’t clear out our borders every autumn, as most of the textbooks preach – in the name of neatness and tidiness. Instead, we leave the asters and other flowers to form seed-heads and dry off. Then, every day in January and February the borders and shrubberies are alive with sparrows, blackbirds, gold finches and long-tailed tits. Our pond is populated with toads and newts who hibernate beneath the collapsed reeds around the edge. In theory, we should clear all this debris away, to make the pond nice and neat, but we don’t. It might get done in the run-up to summer, but not always. And besides, I think the clumps of Leucojeums look great against the brown background. Incidentally, each one of those clumps was a single bulb about 15 years ago; today there must be fifty or sixty – maybe more.

Pond

I think there’s a danger that people who manage their gardens for wildlife are somehow ashamed of the fact that they don’t always look neat. This paranoia (and we suffer from it ourselves, sometimes) is a direct result of the post-war obsession with tidiness. I don’t know whether this in turn was a reaction to overgrown bomb-sites (I recall their magnificent stands of Buddleia davidii) in cities like London and Coventry, or whether it was the natural result of the suburbanization of Britain. If you have to live cheek-by-jowel with the families on either side of you, it makes sense if your garden is at least under control: the last thing any gardener wants is an invasion by his neighbour’s Japanese Knotweed or creeping Ground Elder. And by and large, a neat garden is a controlled garden. But having said that, a seeding, uncut-back border in late winter or early spring has a charm of its own. It also provides a wonderful contrast with the neatened-up stands of perennials, rose bushes and shrubs that come into their own so magnificently in high summer – from June onwards. Here’s our Long Border in late March, shortly before we began to clear it out – a process that takes 2-3 weeks, depending on the weather. You can’t clear borders if the soil’s wet – compaction can become a big problem if the summer turns hot and dry.

Border, uncleared

Sadly, there’s a down-side to wildlife, but it’s just something you have to live with. You can’t combat it without being cruel, and besides, that would be defeating the point of the entire exercise. Quite simply, it’s this: animals don’t always eat what you want them to take. Deer, such as muntjac, will strip the bark from young trees and shrubs; hares nibble growing shoots and various animals graze on emerging leaves, such as the bluebells at the foot of this Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides – my favourite Latin name: once you’ve learnt it, it trips of the tongue wonderfully).

Nibbled bluebells

In late March and early April you also get glimpses of the forthcoming summer garden, such as the emerging golden-green leaves of the delightful miniature willow, Salix Golden Sunshine. We planted this young tree at the main crossing point of the Long Border and it has proved a huge success. It’ll be even better in a few years’ time. And that’s another great thing about gardening: you’re always planning for the future. It helps you take your mind off the political horrors of the present.

Willow in border

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Good-bye to All That

There are times when you have to pause and take stock. A year ago I had my prostate removed and six months before that I’d had a hip joint replaced. I guess it was Mother Nature’s way of telling me that my body was starting to wear down. I won’t pretend that last year’s lambing was particularly easy, because it wasn’t: bits of me hurt like nothing on earth. Then, when it was all over – in June I think it was – it came down to me on a parachute: it was time to do a bit less. I also wanted to spend more time in the garden and with my writing. So together Maisie and I decided we would stop keeping sheep. Happily our neighbours run a mixed cattle and sheep farm and they were looking for more grazing and for somewhere sheltered to raise lambs. So we came to an arrangement. And a couple of weeks ago the last of our sheep were moved off. In a fortnight the first of the neighbour’s lambs will arrive at our farm and we’ll be able to watch them frolic in our small barn, before being turned out onto the grass. Of course I’m sad – we’re both very sad – but we knew something had to change. I was very aware that I wasn’t checking the sheep as often as I should and if I wasn’t very careful we’d soon have problems – and it’s always the animals that suffer first. Looking back, I’m glad we made that decision, but it wasn’t very easy – and it still hurts. It puts me in mind of my cousin (through my mother’s, Irish, family) Robert Grave’s autobiography, written in 1929 when still a young man, when he decided to leave England: Goodbye to All That. Yes, goodbye to all that.

A couple of days ago, our neighbours came round to clear out the small barn and make it ready for the new lambs. I don’t think it has ever looked so neat and tidy. They removed a large trailerful of rotten pallets, old fencing and general agricultural rubbish – for which many thanks!

Small barn ready

It has been quite a turbulent early spring, following the mildest February on record. I don’t know whether it was anything to do with the preceding, very hot summer, but I don’t think I have ever seen more profuse sloe and wild plum blossom in the little lane that runs from our farmyard to the main wood. We call it Chicken Lane. Normally it’s very humble and normal, but not now: this morning, when I took this picture it was resplendent!

Chicken Lane

Most garden writers tend to wax lyrical about bulbs, but I have always enjoyed flowering trees and shrubs, like the ones along Chicken Lane. Another shrub that loves our damp and rather heavy soil is the flowering quince, Chaenomeles japonica. Our plants are cuttings off a very old shrub from our previous house, which was also in the Fens. Again, I don’t know whether it was the hot, dry summer, but I’ve never known them flower so splendidly.

Flowering quince

The early daffodils have been wonderful this year, especially two varieties that seem particularly happy here: February Gold and February Silver. I like this view down the drive towards the front gate, with the daffs scattered through the long grass of the orchard. Incidentally, I have never bought daffodils in bulk ‘suitable for naturalising’. If you do that you’ll get a load of ill-assorted flowers, some very bright, some long, some short, some single, some double, that never ever ‘naturalise’. In long grass they look like what they are: a bloody awful mess. No, plant named species or varieties and don’t worry about quantity. Buy what you can afford: in a few years’ time a small bagful will have multiplied hugely.

Front drive

Finally, this is a view of our pond that I took a week, or so ago, before the recent heavy rains. The bottom of the pond is about two metres below sea level and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it that low in early spring. Soon the newts will be looking for somewhere watery to lay their eggs. I was getting very worried, but now I can report the pond level is up at least a foot and there’s more rain forecast for the next week. So don’t worry newts: you can come out and enjoy yourselves. Soon it’ll be time for newty tadpoles!

Pond

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Walking on Water

It all began about three weeks ago when yellow signs appeared warning about a road closure. Then men in red overalls appeared on the bridge that crosses the big dyke near our farm. The following weekend the bridge closed and early in the morning a large truck could be seen driving towards it, carrying what looked like massive concrete girders. I’ve always been a big fan of civil engineering, ever since we built the first semi-floating building in Britain (the Flag Fen Museum, which sits in a lake on 660mm of styrofoam blocks). I’m also very nosey. So I grabbed a camera, ran into the barn, climbed into our ageing Fourtrak and headed towards the bridge. Just outside our gate I took this shot of the big truck being unloaded. It was very cold and I think my hand was a bit shaky, so I apologise for the focus, but it does capture the atmosphere quite well.

bridge 1

When I got to the bridge I could see that unloading was well underway, but these were not girders. They looked more like very thick paving blocks.

bridge 2

Then I spotted a chap wearing hi-viz, but armed with a large Canon SLR. Cameras are always a good way to start conversations with photographers, so I asked him about his lens – and we got chatting. It turns out he was making a video for the company who had supplied the blocks. One of their vans was parked beside us: The Pontoon and Dock Company Ltd. I assumed they were there in their dock-building capacity, although the nice man making the film repeatedly mentioned a pontoon. Still the penny didn’t drop: I didn’t get what he was trying to tell me. So I decided to head into Long Sutton market to buy some mussels for lunch. They were delicious (with our home-grown onions, shallots and garlic). After lunch, I decided to follow the video man’s advice and returned to have another look. And I have to confess, I nearly dropped my teeth when I saw this:

bridge 3

The ‘concrete’ blocks had been lifted from the bridge and were now floating on the water. People were walking around on them as if they were strolling through a shopping centre: the ground beneath their steel toecap safety boots was as firm as a car park. By now a breeze had go up, but the pontoon remained completely stable. It was most extraordinary. The video man came up to me, smiling and I apologised profusely for being so thick. Concrete! I don’t think I have ever felt quite such a dickhead.

While we were talking, one of the men walked to a corner of a pontoon, produced a long hook, which he caught around a loop of blue rope and used it to pull another pontoon closer. It was that easy.

bridge 4

Underneath the bridge I could see men were adding a few blocks to a larger pontoon to fit it closer to the concrete piers that supported the bridge. They did this with stout plastic or rubber clips that fitted into sockets in the blocks comprising the pontoon. Some of the clips were still lying on the deck.

bridge 5

I returned at the end of the day to see that the surface of the South Holland Main Drain had largely been paved over. If I hadn’t seen it happen with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it.

bridge 6

Finally on February 7-8th we were hit by storm Eric which threatened to bring severe gales, so I wanted to see how the pontoon would cope. In actual fact it fared far better than I did. The gale was so fierce that I had a great deal of trouble holding the camera still. It was almost impossible to stand upright. By now the crew had fitted railings and were rigging up sheets of green mesh on the Heras fencing, presumably to act as a windbreak. Gaps that the pontoon was unable to cover were filled in with scaffold planks. The surface of the dyke had been converted into a platform, from which they could work on the underside of the bridge in complete safety.

bridge 7

The water in the dyke was very choppy, but the pontoon remained dry and completely stable. It took me several attempts, but eventually I managed to get a picture that wasn’t too shaky. Then I had to head off to Peterborough for a meeting. It was so windy that I decided to avoid the main roads and soon found myself passing through the little community of Holbeach Drove. The land south and east of medieval Holbeach was drained after the middle ages and in many villages the parish church wasn’t built until the 18th or 19th centuries. Often the villages feature abandoned windmills and drovers’ inns, which are mixed in with the cottages and houses. They have a peculiar charm – a sort of Wild East feeling. As I reached the edge of Holbeach Drove (towards nearby Shepeau Stow), I passed the rather humble-looking workshops and offices of Rock Construction Ltd. Everyone locally takes them for granted, as they’ve been around for so long (since 1978), but they’re very well-known in the country at large, having designed stages and sets for the likes of The Clash, Wham, Pretenders, Grace Jones, Meatloaf, Dire Straits, Public Image Ltd, Cliff Richard, and Bucks Fizz. I wondered if they knew about pontoons? You could easily fit a full symphany orchestra on one. And what about archaeologists? A pontoon would certainly have come in handy at Flag Fen and it would have been an absolute godsend on some of the Scottish lakeside excavations, or those digs along the Thames, east of London.

I’m sorry, but I still haven’t quite recovered from the shock and excitement of first seeing the pontoon that afternoon. In our heart-of-hearts, I think we’d all fancy a quick stroll on water.

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