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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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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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Wallpaper Words

What has happened to the quality of political debate and discussion in modern Britain? I don’t know about anyone else, but I find I too often turn on the radio or open a newspaper, or worse, look at a current affairs website only to be confronted either by heated polemic that can verge on the abusive or by bland government- or political party-approved ‘statements’. There seems to be almost nothing between these two extremes, with the notable exception of comedy radio shows and political cartoons. Increasingly I find my sympathies are lying with the likes of Ronald Searle (whose cats have more brains than the entire membership of the House of Commons) or indeed the late and very much lamented Jeremy Hardy. And I don’t believe for one moment that the situation will get any better once Brexit has, or has not, happened, nor if Donald Trump loses the next US election. I think we can get round abusive polemic, whether from the hard right or left, by laughing at it. Pompous or self-righteous people detest being laughed at. But it’s the bland, officially approved statements that really worry me.

The rot began in the Blair years, when the Prime Minister actively encouraged press officers and a series of spin doctors to draft and approve ministerial statements. The process faltered during the Gordon Brown administration, together with the financial crash, but resumed under the Tories – if anything, gathering pace. Today it seems well-nigh unstoppable. I feel very strongly that this political double-speak is profoundly undermining our democracy – simply by avoiding any scrutiny. In effect, politicians of all parties can can do what they want without being held to account. It puts me in mind of the years when we were house-hunting in the Fens, in the late 1970s.

In those days many older properties were starting to shift on their foundations, as the soils beneath them shrank and dried out, following years of intensive agricultural drainage. We got very good at spotting freshly-applied wall plaster or stucco. Once indoors, we kept a sharp lookout for new wallpaper – which would, as the saying goes, ‘paper over the cracks’. But it was those cracks that were telling potential buyers the truth. Personally I’d be prepared to forgive a politician if he or she came out and admitted they’d made a mistake. It might show they were human. But no, they send for the spin-doctors and spout their reassuring wallpaper words. It’s so depressing.

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Busy Mid-Winter

The longer term weather forecast doesn’t look too bad. The mid-winter high pressure ‘Dog Days’ that I wrote about in my last post of 2018, now appear likely to persist until at least January 15th. Thereafter the Met Office are currently predicting more unsettled, perhaps stormy conditions in the third week of January, but that’s still in the future (just). Right now the name of the game is GET CRACKING! Midwinter is the one time of year when you can get on with those jobs that have a long-term effect on the look of the garden. This is when you change the shape of flower beds, plant new trees and do those things that can only be done when plants are dormant. And you don’t have long: in Britain, most plants will be starting to stir again by mid or late February – and thereafter they’ll be galloping ahead. So as I said before, now’s the time to get cracking!

And that’s precisely what happened: I spent the first two weeks of January reworking the vegetable garden path, inserting shelves in the new greenhouse and doing some urgent cutting-back and pruning. Then yesterday Parliament threw out Theresa May’s Brexit ‘deal’ by a record majority of 230 votes. And like everyone else in Britain I gave out a long, low moan. I don’t think I can take much more of this prolonged and bungled national suicide. Sanity lies out in the garden and with my next book. Anything rather than politics. Later, when life calms down, I’ll tell you about my latest book, which is due to be published on July 11th. It has been very technically difficult to write (as it combines at least two different chronologies), but thanks to my Editor (at Head of Zeus), Richard Milbank, it has now been finished. And as most mothers will later agree, following a long and difficult birth, it has all been worth it. I have to say, I’m very proud of it – and I hope my next blog post will whet your appetite. Incidentally, I like the look and sound of the word ‘whet’, for sharpen – hence whetstone, of course.

The New Year so far has been very dry and quite mild. Over-night frosts have been the exception rather than the rule, although late January and early February do look a bit cooler. Still, we could use a few sharp frosts to kill off some of the fungal spores and aphids left over from the hot summer and warm autumn. Winter frosts are essential for a healthy garden. I took the following seven pictures on January 2nd and while I was taking them I couldn’t help thinking about the nine winters I spent in Toronto in the 1970s. I could have been on a different planet – and I’m not saying which I prefer. Cold winters and sudden warm springs can make bulbs squirt out of the ground like athletes on amphetamines. But I digress. Herewith my pics.

Pleached limes

Rose hedge

Hazel catkins

Red berries

Winter jasmine

Nessie hedge

Vegetable garden

The top pic shows the limes shortly after pleaching, a job I like to do at the same time as digging the vegetable garden, as both are hard tasks that use different muscles. The veg garden (bottom picture) usually takes a bit longer to finish. I only dig ¼ of the garden (in this case from the Brussel Sprouts and Broccoli in the middle of the picture. The freshly dug soil has been mixed with about 20 wheel-barrowfuls of rotted sheep manure. This is where I’ll plant the new season potatoes, later in March. The second picture from the top shows the rose hedge along the front drive. This hedge is planted with a North American species rose, Rosa virginiana, which has pink flowers in summer and excellent winter colour – largely provided by its bright red stems and hips. This hedge is over twenty years old and is very easy to maintain. I highly recommend it. The next picture shows some of the first hazelnut catkins, which this year came out a day or two after Christmas and are currently looking superb (I’m writing this on January 16th). I don’t think I can remember a year when they’ve looked better. Below the catkins is a picture of the red berries on our Cretaegus persimilis ‘Prunifolia’, which like the hazel catkins, have never looked better. Blackbirds waddle away from this bush, barely concealing loud burps. The picture below the berries is of a common and much under-rated shrub, winter jasmine, which again is looking superb. I try to prune ours to give an even cover of flowers. You can opt for larger, floriferous shoots, but I prefer a more even spread. On warm days I love to watch bumble bees flit from flower to flower; their intermittent buzzing seems to presage spring. Just above the bottom picture of the vegetable garden is a view along the rather eccentric ‘Nessie’ hedge that borders the back door asparagus bed. Quite often clipped box can look rather tired and battered in winter, but not this year. In case you can’t se it, the Loch Ness Monster’s head is looking left, at the end away from the camera. Our neighbour Obie is the creative mind behind the shaping of Nessie. Thanks to Obie, she gets better every year. Whatever your political views might be, I hope you all have a wonderful New Year!

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A Symbol of Hope: Our New Greenhouse is Now Built, Glazed and Will Soon Open for Business!

If it’s depressing to be a Brit in his seventies, younger people must be going out of their minds. And somehow things seem so much worse at the end of the year, especially when the BBC and newspaper journalists produce reviews of British politics in 2018 that are so consistently, and relentlessly, depressing. So as Christmas approached, I felt I needed something practical and all-absorbing to take my mind off the doom-laden farce being acted-out so ineptly in Westminster. And the new greenhouse was just the project I was seeking. Maisie and I had decided that our old greenhouse was starting to get dangerous: the wooden frame was rotting in places and several sheets of glass had either cracked or fallen out. Still, it was 25 years old and to be honest I hadn’t looked after it very well – I always had too many other things to do. Then, by a happy coincidence, we discovered that old friends and archaeological colleagues of ours, Nick and Liz, who live in the Norfolk Fens, about half an hour’s drive away from us, had given themselves a large greenhouse, as a retirement present. Nick is a very practical person, as is his son, and with another friend’s help they erected their new greenhouse themselves. Maisie and I were hugely impressed by it. It was so sturdy and well designed. It was more like a real building – something you might encounter at Kew – than the sort of greenhouse found on allotments. It also looked rather too expensive for our budget, so we decided that although it was lovely, we’d probably best look for one a bit cheaper, elsewhere.

During October and November we visited all the larger garden centres around us, but we couldn’t make up our minds: there was always something that wasn’t quite right – especially when compared to Nick and Liz’s wonderful greenhouse. So eventually Maisie emailed Nick for information on the supplier. It was Rhino Greenhouses and we checked out their website www.greenhousesdirect.co.uk to see if their prices were as high as we had feared. To our amazement they weren’t that expensive. But both Maisie and I are very suspicious about websites: so often they make unrealistic promises at fairy-tale prices. We’d seen Nick and Liz’s great greenhouse, but we didn’t know what smaller Rhino houses would be like. And I was blowed if I was prepared to spend serious money on a new greenhouse, unseen. Nick had told us that their factory, and a permanent display, were only in Thetford, which is just over an hour’s drive away, on the sandy Breckland Heath soils, of Norfolk. So that’s where we headed. When we arrived we were met by helpful staff, none of whom tried to do a hard sell. They let us decide what we wanted, which is so refreshing, these days. In the end we bought an 8 ft. by 10 ft. greenhouse in their Premium range. It’s entirely made from aluminium; so it won’t rust. Even the nuts and bolts are aluminium – so mustn’t’ be over-tightened, in case they shear-off (only two did that to us, but there were plenty of spares, so it didn’t matter). The finishing paintwork is a very restrained Tuscan Green, which blends into the garden superbly. But the best bit was that all the internal shelves were on special offer until the end of December. There were other offers too – leading to an eventual saving of £500.

Nick and his friend Martin were able to join us on the weekend of December 8-9 and thanks to their experience and know-how we were able to erect our new Rhino in just a couple of days. Nick’s stands on a concrete slab base, but I have always preferred an earth or soil floor. I find they stay cooler in summer and drain better, if you have to do a lot of watering in summer. Late November and early December were quite wet, so the unglazed frame tended to slide around a little on our clay-silt soils. We got round this by pegging it in place using long road-spikes. Unfortunately one of these whacked a large sheet of reinforced safety-glass and shattered it into thousands of tiny fragments. Nobody was hurt, but we were all shaken-up. Two days later we nipped down to Thetford and collected a replacement pane of glass. When that was safely installed I was able to erect the internal shelves. The first plants were four rooted cuttings which I potted up on Christmas Day. They now sit in solitary splendour on the end shelf.

My immediate task is to finish digging the plot for next year’s potatoes in the vegetable garden, while at the same time I’m cutting back the pleached lime trees. Physiotherapists who have helped me recover from the hip operation (which happened 14 months ago) have advised me not to spend too long on any one task. So I switch between the digging and the pleaching. When those two jobs are done, I’ll return to the area around the greenhouse and will try to beat the growing sea of mud with gravel and a few well-placed paving stones. Later in the spring, I will install the auto-opening window vents, the external shading and finally the finials, which will grace both gable-ends. But now for some pictures of us building the greenhouse.

1. Our friend and neighbour Jessie is helping level the ground. This has to be done with considerable precision and Jessie did a wonderful job.

1. Our friend and neighbour Jessie is helping level the ground. This has to be done with considerable precision and Jessie did a wonderful job.

2. Nick (right) and Jessie starting to glaze the roof.

2. Nick (right) and Jessie starting to glaze the roof.

3. Disaster strikes: one of the panes of reinforced safety glass was accidentally caught by a metal stake. It shattered in a very spectacular manner.

3. Disaster strikes: one of the panes of reinforced safety glass was accidentally caught by a metal stake. It shattered in a very spectacular manner.

4. Glazing is completed (minus the broken pane).

4. Glazing is completed (minus the broken pane).

5. Digging holes for the concrete ground-anchors. This one is nearing completion (it needs to be a little bit wider and deeper).

5. Digging holes for the concrete ground-anchors. This one is nearing completion (it needs to be a little bit wider and deeper).

6. Installing the pipes to take rainwater from the gutters to the water-butt (which we haven’t yet bought).

6. Installing the pipes to take rainwater from the gutters to the water-butt (which we haven’t yet bought).

Finally, a thought to take us towards the New Year. I fitted the piping shown in the last photo in the week before Christmas, because the weather was pretty unfriendly and I didn’t fancy poaching-up the ground surface too much. It is a vegetable garden, after all. The weather forecast on the BBC Weather App, which I’d installed on my iPad and smartphone a couple of years ago, predicted settled, high-pressure-dominated conditions would persist through to the end of the first week of January. I immediately recognised this as a case of the so-called Dog Days, which are quite a feature of England in mid-winter – and often just after Christmas. Essentially the Dog Days are an anti-cyclone (area of high barometric pressure) which establishes itself over southern Scandinavia and across the North Sea, to Britain. This so-called ‘blocking high’ causes Atlantic weather fronts, including storms and showers, to bounce off the high pressure and head north-eastwards, often clipping NW Scotland and the western Isles. In summer, of course, high pressure brings settled warm, even hot weather. In winter it’s different, if settled, with much cooler days and frosty nights; mists, fogs and persistent all-day dew are a common feature of the Dog Days. Sometimes the sun does shine later in the winter, but not often in December or early January. I think the term ‘dog’ refers to the gloom. Dog Droves in the Fens (and there’s one within walking distance of our farm) were muddy, unsatisfactory places in the Middle Ages. The word has nothing to do with our canine friends – with which we segue seamlessly into my final picture, which was taken while I was returning with Pen and Baldwin, our two dogs, from their last walk before bed. It was Christmas Eve and I was heading towards the farmyard. The sun was setting to the south and mists were creeping along the dykes. It’s a memorable scene. And it could only have been taken in the Fens – at the start of the Dog Days.

I hope you had a merry and relaxed Christmas. Let’s hope and pray 2019 is a bit less chaotic than the year that’s rapidly drawing to a close. I certainly feel much more fit, but I can’t pretend I feel particularly optimistic.

Christmas eve

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A Small Tribute to a Good Friend of Flag Fen and Peterborough: The Late Peter Boizot.

I was so sad to read of the death of Peter Boizot at his home in Peterborough on December 5th, aged 89. Peter had been a good friend of Flag Fen and Fenland Archaeological Trust, the charity we set-up to open and manage the visitor attraction and to research into Fenland Archeology. On several occasions in the mid-1990s, when times were tough and money was hard to raise, Peter’s generosity quite simply kept us going. We owe him a HUGE debt of gratitude. He, Maisie and I got on very well personally, too. Like him, I shared a huge love of jazz and of pizzas and I have always made a point of eating at a Pizza Express whenever I’m in a town that I don’t know very well. Peter supported many enterprises in Peterborough, including Posh (Peterborough United, the city’s football club) and theatres, cinemas etc. He even agreed to honour our Trust by becoming a Patron, along with HRH The Duke of Gloucester, who had the terrible misfortune of playing in the same cricket team at school as me; I think we were both equally inept with bat and ball.

I have many fond memories of Peter, but one that will stay with me was during the excavation of the timber circle known as Seahenge, at Holme-next-the-Sea in Norfolk, back in 1999. One day I was with the archaeologists because Maisie, who was in charge of digging and recording the wood, had asked me to help her and the team lift some heavy posts across the beach to our trailer – which would then take them to Flag Fen for washing and drawing. At the time we had been having a lot of trouble from people who thought Seahenge shouldn’t be excavated and should be ‘left to the waves’. Of course this ignored the fact that it had deliberately been positioned in 2049 BC behind about a quarter of a mile’s worth of coastal dunes that would have protected it from the sea. I’m sure its constructors would have been as appalled as us, if they knew it was bound to be destroyed by the sea. Anyhow, the protestors made our lives very unpleasant with nasty threats and lots of insults. Sadly, I detect similar feelings in our country at the moment.

All the nastiness was starting to get us down and then one day we noticed a large and slightly portly gentleman walking slightly uncertainly towards us along the beach. He was bare foot and wore pale and capacious cotton shorts and a loose-fitting shirt. It was Peter. Normally he had a broad smile and I don’t think I have ever seen anyone less pompous or patronising. But today he seemed less confident than usual. I gather he had been taken for a short break in Norfolk and was plainly rather unused to be doing nothing. I’m just guessing, but I don’t think holidays ever loomed large in Peter’s life. But he had agreed and so off he went. Of course he had read about Seahenge, so he thought he’d look us up – which is what he was doing. Needless to state, Maisie and I greeted him warmly and showed him the dig. All the diggers took to him immediately. Quite rapidly, his hesitancy gave way to enthusiasm. And of course Peter was delightful: he asked lots of questions and by the time he left, everyone’s spirits had been lifted. He made it clear that he thought we were doing a very important job, under near-impossible conditions. And he was right: as I recall, the tide was starting to come in when he left and water levels were rising in the trenches.

After he’d gone, everyone on the team wanted to know who that nice man was. So I told them: ‘That was Peter Boizot, the founder of Pizza Express.’ I might just as well have said: ‘That was Her Majesty the Queen, or Nelson Mandela.’ Because everyone was gob-smacked. We all loved Pizza Express. And in the minds of those chilled diggers Peter Boizot could walk on water. He still can. We miss you Peter.

Peter Boizot (1929-2018)

Peter Boizot (1929-2018)

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