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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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Thwarted at Every Turn

As an atheist of long-standing, there are times when I have to concede that those religious chappies might just possibly have a point. Then that idiot Trump makes another barmy evangelical utterance and I’m reaffirmed – a thousand-fold – in my non-beliefs. Even so, and despite my rationality, there are times when I think there must be Someone Up There who has it in for me. I had one of those days yesterday, Sunday January 29th, 2017.

It had been a lovely morning. We had slept in after getting home rather later than normal following a wonderful wedding service the previous day (in Ely Cathedral) and a splendid celebration afterwards, in a 16th Century Norfolk timber barn. The Cathedral is arguably the most beautiful building in Britain and sun was streaming down into the Choir. It was breath-taking. The bridegroom, our neighbour, had provided the beef from his own herd, and it was superlative! The entire meal was delicious. The ceremony in the Cathedral had been fabulous and it was great to see so many rural people having such a relaxed and good time. We both felt really at home.

As I said, the following morning was sunny. Lovely. We got on with clearing-up-after-winter-type jobs in the garden. Then, just after one o’clock, it started to rain lightly and we decided to break early for lunch. So far so good. No hints of menace on the horizon: just darker clouds and slightly heavier rain. But that was entirely normal for late January.

‘So what shall we do this afternoon?’ I asked Maisie brightly, when we had finished eating.

‘I know,’ she replied, and as she spoke I could see she was growing more enthusiastic: ‘Let’s nip over to Crowland, you can get your sand and we can then look for a couple of seed-feeders.’

I had been planning to lay some paving-slabs, but couldn’t get started without sand and Pen (our adorable black Border Collie x Labrador) had used two of last year’s seed-feeders from the bird-table, to hone her chewing skills. So this seemed an excellent plan.

‘Oh yes,’ Maisie added, her brain now firmly in gardener mode, ‘And we can then nip up to Bourne and see if the garden centre there has any nice wire obelisks. We need three for the main border.’

There was much to do, so we decided not to have any tea, and got straight into the car. Looking back. I wonder whether that was the moment when we offended the Great British Tea Gods? To skip a cup of tea: in England? On Sunday? I know, it didn’t seem quite right. But we went ahead, anyhow – regardless. Were we being foolhardy? As we walked out of the back door, I began to sense something was going wrong. When we drove down the drive, I started to have feelings of foreboding. But I said nothing. What’s the point? Nothing had happened.

Yet.

At Crowland, the garden centre was almost deserted, which wasn’t surprising, given the gloomy, wet afternoon. So we decided to have a cup of coffee. I know it wasn’t tea, but it might have warded off the evil presences that I, at least, could detect. Later, Maisie told me she had begun to sense them too.

We had a good look around. They had some obelisks, but they weren’t quite what we wanted. Or were they? We dithered. Were there three? Yes, came the reply, there were two more in the shop over there. More dithering. In the end we decided not to get them, as they weren’t precisely what we were looking-for. But we did get two bird-feeders, which was something. Sadly, we forgot the sand.

Navigating in the Fens is never simple – and it’s vastly more difficult with a sat-nav (which I refuse to buy, on principle). The main problem is getting from A to B, without being diverted by large drains and rivers. You can be within sight, almost touching distance, of your destination, only to find a river’s in the way and there’s no bridge for five miles. So we decided to head towards Bourne, via Spalding. And all was going well until we found that the patent little road (that only we know about) was being completely rebuilt, from the foundations up. It was absolutely closed. To Hell with that, we thought, we’ll go to Baytree. We’ve been going to Baytree for at least forty years. It’s a vast nursery and garden centre on the other side of Spalding.

So we headed across the narrow bridge and out into the fen that skirts the town. We arrived at the main road and turned right, only to discover that that road, too, was closed. So we turned around and retraced our steps, turning left this time. Maisie thought she knew how this road passed through the vast new housing estate. But she was wrong. Every turning we took was residential and dead-end. Eventually we extricated ourselves and got back, once again, to the main road. This time we went straight ahead, back out into the fen. The road was now skirting the new estates. On and on we went, as the afternoon light faded away, and darkness descended.

About half an hour – it could have been two hours for all I cared by now – we arrived at Baytree, to discover the entrance to the car park closed off. They had shut at four: ten minutes previously. By now we were ready to weep: we’d driven the best part of fifty miles for two bird-feeders!

‘Sod it!’ I declared, ‘That does it. We’re having large gin-and-tonics when we get home, whatever the bloody time.’

We normally try not to start drinking before six, but I could see from Maisie’s face she agreed with me. Sod it.

I had pulled up in the roadway. So I had to do a U-turn. I eased the car backwards, then swung forwards at full lock. We both needed to get home for that drink. Then suddenly the steering wheel felt strange. It had happened to me before. I knew immediately what had gone wrong: total power-steering failure.

In the end we did get back, albeit very slowly, and by the time we had watered the sheep, put the chickens to roost, and fed the cats and dog, it had gone six when we poured out our G and Ts. And then it came to me. Perhaps I’d got it all wrong? Maybe it was never anything to do with the Gods of Tea? The failure of the power steering was just the final act of a different, but benevolent deity who didn’t want us to start drinking alcohol too early. Was I being allowed a glimpse into the medieval conscience? And did I care?

Oh to hell with everything: religion, Trump and Brexit. I’ll put my faith in GIN!!!

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My York Hon Doc (January 21st)

When I was young and had left home for a day, or even longer, my mother would enthusiastically ask me for a full account of what I had done. Her first question was almost invariably:

“So you got on the train…??”

Being a slightly bolshie teenager I was always determined to thwart her thirst for knowledge with a polite, but firm, put-down. Then her wide-eyed enthusiasm would always be too much for me, and I invariably ended-up by giving her a full account – albeit omitting my worst excesses of drink, and inept attempts to attract girlfriends.

So to answer my mother’s question: we got onto a very crowded train at March station, and by chance bumped into our old friend, Jeremy Purseglove, who was also heading north to York. Some may remember Jeremy’s documentary series on BBC-2, Taming the Flood, and the excellent book (published 1988), which inspired it. Well, he has written a much-revised second edition, which I can heartily recommend. It’s already on our shelves. Most of Jeremy’s predictions about flooding have been proved to be only too real, and at last planners and developers are starting to realise that paved-over front gardens and huge car parks lead to rapid drainage and a greater flood-risk. Farmers are now being urged to encourage streams to flow more slowly through wet areas. Better forty years too late than never, I suppose. Jeremy was also very gloomy about the prospects for the landscape after Brexit. And I have to agree with him, although I have been trying not to think about it. Trump is more than enough gloom and despondency than I can cope with for now. Brexit and Trump. Trump and Brexit: reactionary populism for dim-wits. I thought Jeremy remained remarkably cheerful as we discussed a probable future of factory-farming and abandoned conservation schemes. We arrived at York Station in high spirits.

The University looked after Maisie and me handsomely. We were met by Richard, the University’s driver, in a large, smart Mercedes-Benz and were whisked to our hotel, the Hotel du Vin, where we were staying, along with the other Hon Doc graduates and their partners. I don’t think I’ve ever stayed in a hotel before that was so full of Dames and Professors.

To my complete and utter amazement, I remembered how to knot my black tie and got it right, first attempt!!!! Then it was time for all of us to be chauffeur-driven, this time in a swanky Mercedes mini-bus, to the university campus for a wonderful dinner. The food and wine were superb – as was the service. We had a great time.

The following morning, I put on my suit, the one I used to wear twenty years ago, on my only trips down the corridors of power, when I served on the Ancient Monuments Advisory Committee for English Heritage. I remember once sitting opposite Virginia Bottomley in First Class. She was with two Civil Servants and was deeply enmeshed in Cabinet Papers. I wanted to introduce myself, as she was then the Minister in charge of National Heritage, but I didn’t have the guts to push myself forward. And anyhow, I’m not sure what I’d have said, except that I knew her husband Peter quite well at Cambridge and that, perhaps predictably, and behind his back, the non-Tories among us sometimes called him Bumley. In actual fact, he was, and is, a very nice chap, without the vast ego of some politicians. He also has an excellent mind, which should come in useful in the near future. But I digress.

We slept quite well, because before we left for the dinner, Maisie had discovered the room’s thermostat and had turned the heating a few notches below what it would have taken to bake a potato. The following morning, and after an excellent Full English at the hotel, we arrived back at the university. The other Hon Docs had received their degrees at ceremonies on the previous day and earlier that morning. So ours was the last session of the January degree conferrals. My co-Hon Doc was Annamarie Phelps CBE, the distinguished oarswoman and Chairman of English Rowing. I felt a bit lumpy and scruffy alongside her statuesque figure.

Now, and as a matter of very minor interest, I very rarely write out any speech or talk in full, because there’s then a danger I might just read it out, verbatim – which can be disastrous as it rules out any spontaneous responses to the audience. On this occasion I had been asked to keep my talk quite short – no more than three minutes – and I knew it had to be uplifting and congratulatory. So I decided to start on an anthropological note (was that wise, I still ask myself?), with a short mention of Rites of Passage. I named five of them: Birth, Marriage, Graduation, Retirement and finally, Death. I pointed out, and of course in hindsight it seems blindingly obvious, that the students seated before me in their smart gowns were going through the third one, Graduation. I could see from their faces lined up before me, that they agreed with me, but were not quite sure why I was telling them. Then as an afterthought to cover my slight confusion, which I immediately regretted, I suggested that I was now looking forward to Number Five: Death. To my huge relief, and complete surprise, that got a huge laugh! From then on, the speech was straightforward and seemed to go down quite well.

I’ll close with two pictures taken by my old friend, the Director of the CBA (Council for British Archaeology), Dr. Mike Heyworth, who was sitting near the front of the auditorium. I think they capture the atmosphere of the occasion splendidly. The first, is a general view of the audience, with the graduates-to-be sitting in a block at the centre. The second, is of yours truly holding forth from the podium. I’m so relieved Mike didn’t have a video camera with him!

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January 2017: Hit the Ground Running – or Swimming!

I’m aware that as one gets older, time is meant to pass faster, but so far January has been ludicrous. It’s passed in a couple of blinks. And I know it’s still passing, but I seem to be missing it. First there was Christmas, which was delightful and was made even more cheery by my sister Caroline, who was with us for four days. We laughed and supped a lot. Great fun! Then the New Year was upon us and so was Colin our magically quick and competent local painter and decorator, who painted the entire hall and upstairs landing, two coats, in just two days. No sooner had he gone, than a team of tree/hedge surgeons from Farm Linc arrived to cut-back the encroaching woodland along the dyke. It’s been just over 20 years since we planted the main wood and both cherry and blackthorn suckers were starting to seriously encroach on the grazing. Now that they’ve been tidied-up, I reckon we’ll cut at least another two large bales of hay there every season. Incidentally, if you live in or near Lincolnshire and need fencing and other jobs done, I can wholeheartedly recommend Farm Linc. They’re excellent people: fast, efficient and very good value for money.

The hedging crew finished on Friday the 13th, traditionally not the luckiest of dates, which this year just happened to be my 72nd birthday. I’m sure the Devil must be after me. So I’ve walked under as many ladders as I could find, sprinkled salt around the floor, crossed table knives, cracked mirrors, opened umbrellas indoors and stacked shoes on the table. That should put him off. Maybe we should cut a turf maze in our garden, like the extraordinary one in the Huntingdonshire (now, sadly, Cambridgeshire) village of Hilton, which was cut in 1660. The idea was that if you were being followed by the Devil you could carefully trace your path to the centre of the maze, with him following you. Then, when you’d arrived at the centre, you made a HUGE leap back to where you’d started – leaving nasty Mr Devil behind you, unable to find his way out. That at least was the theory, but it would have taken an Olympic athlete – even a doped-up Russian one – to have got half-way across, from a standing start. And anyhow, I don’t think the Devil was particularly stupid – even if he did resemble Mr Trump. Incidentally, I think Andy Hamilton got him (the Devil, that is, not the other man) to a T on that wonderful Radio 4 series, Old Harry’s Game. Now I think I’m starting to digress, which is not the right way to begin the first of my blogs for 2017. So back to the unfolding narrative, such as it is.

There was another, rather more real, blot on the horizon of Friday the 13th. The TV and radio News had been full of dire warnings about an expected tidal surge down the east coast, which would be amplified by strong northerly gales. It was expected to hit Sutton Bridge, about five miles away from us, in the early morning. Luckily, however, the winds had dropped, so there was no damage reported. Maybe we were completely foolhardy, but Maisie and I then decided to keep our lunchtime appointment at The Olive Branch in Clipsham. The village is architecturally very fine, with beautiful 18th Century stone buildings. If you didn’t know you were in Rutland, you might think you’d stumbled across an outcrop of the Cotswolds, except that property prices were half as expensive. But we didn’t go there for picturesque houses: the food at the Olive Branch is, as they say, to die for. So just like 2016 we celebrated my birthday in fine style. Another fabulous meal!

On our way home, the news about the later high tide at Sutton Bridge wasn’t so good. And then we checked the Flood Information Service on the web: if the coastal defences were breached, our farm would be about 3-4 miles away from the inundation. But it was a very worrying time, as in a flat landscape distances don’t mean much – and water can flow fast along dykes. So as a precaution in case I had to drive, or swim with my exhausted wife slung across my back, I decided not to start on the sherry until 7.30 when the most severe risk had abated. That was a British compromise, very much in the tradition of Keep Calm and Carry On. I will confess, however, that my first sherry was a generous tumbler-full. Cheers! I hope you all have a happy, prosperous and worry-free New Year.

PS On second thoughts, Maisie is probably more at home in water than I am. So I could have had a drink, as she’d have been carrying me. Dammit!

PPS Oooo, I forgot to mention that next weekend I’ve got to get really tarted-up – black tie and lounge suite (although not, of course, at the same time, dear boy!) – for a prestigious award. To be honest, I’d be better-off wearing brown than black trousers, given my present state of nerves. I’ll try to persuade Maisie to take some nice, relaxed pics of it all. Then we can be gracious and matter-of-fact about the entire pant-wetting procedure. So stay tuned!

PPPS For her many fans, I’ve decided to post two pictures of Pen: one of her looking noble, the other when she was in the grips of a Wallace and Gromit moment.

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The Last Post – of 2016

Gosh, 2016 was a strange year. Reason took a back seat and rationality seemed in very short supply. I also have a nasty feeling that 2017 probably won’t be that different, either. Heaven alone knows how the Euro is going to fare, as the French and Italian economies are looking increasingly shaky. And then there’s Trump. It baffles me how somebody who has made no effort whatsoever to hide his personal ambition and greed can be considered a populist. Using those criteria, Sir Philip Three Yachts Green is a populist too. To be honest, I don’t know where to look for something cheerful and inspiring. And when that happens, I usually fall back on the tiny realms I inhabit: my books, my garden, my sheep and my family. And to hell with the outside world!

Seen from the bunker of my own little world, 2016 was actually rather a good year: lambing went well, my second Alan Cadbury book reached its target of subscribers, I landed two new contracts for non-fiction books and my Stonehenge book was well reviewed and I’m delighted to say is selling very briskly. And gosh, I still can’t get over what a lovely job the design team at Head of Zeus have done with the artwork, the illustrations and the layout. It really is a very handsome volume – and damn good value for money, though I say so myself. Oh yes, and before I forget, a HUGE thank you to everyone who came to our Open Garden Weekend in mid-September, which was a great success and raised some £1,400 for charity.

Meanwhile life continues on its relentless way. On December 28th, on a horribly cold and foggy day, we housed all the ewes and last year’s female lambs (known as gimmers) in the main barn. I went out a few minutes ago to take this picture and I can assure you they’ve settled into their new home very well. All I could hear was the chewing of cud and one or two snores. Those are the sounds a shepherd always enjoys.

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On the Bank Holiday that followed Boxing Day, the weather forecast predicted unbroken sunshine, so we decided to get away from the house for a couple of hours. It was a great opportunity to get some photos for a web piece I am writing for the Royal Geographical Society. With luck I might also get some pictures for one of my current non-fiction books, too. So I took my very best camera, a Nikon D300, plus some good lenses. And it proved well worthwhile, as I have always reckoned that winter sunshine gives the most magical of light, especially for views of the landscape. Here are a couple of the pictures.

Dog-in-a-Doublet Sluice

The River Nene from Dog-in-a-Doublet bridge, just north of Whittlesey. This view is looking upstream towards the tidal sluice gates. In the foreground is a pill-box of the GHQ Line – Britain’s major defensive work, built in 1940, when the threat of invasion was very imminent.

Nene Washes

The Nene Washes from the Green Wheel cycleway bridge, a couple of miles upstream from the previous picture. This photo shows the extent of the Flag Fen basin, with the uplands of Stanground and Fletton on the far horizon. Although not visible, Fengate and Flag Fen are to the right, and Must Farm to the left.

I must confess that even after forty years, I have never quite got used to the loneliness of the Nene Washes so close to the large modern city of Peterborough. You’re in another world. I well remember seeing a grey seal nonchalantly paddling his way beneath the place where they would eventually build the cycleway bridge. We now know of course, that the area was very well populated in prehistoric times. But, if anything, that adds to the atmosphere of remoteness and, yes, of melancholy. It’s one of my favourite landscapes.

And on that wistful note, I shall bring the blog year to a close. I do hope that you, and all my readers, have a very Happy New Year. And remember: you mustn’t let politicians get you down!

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Your Last Chance to ASSURE YOUR LEGACY!

I know it has been quite a drawn-out process, but the production of Alan Cadbury’s second adventure, The Way, The Truth and The Dead, is now well in hand. The editing process is finished and the manuscript (or rather its digital equivalent) must now be finalised, in every detail, ready for sending to the printer in the new year. Subscribers will receive their copies in May. So I have done my level best to sort-out any inconsistencies in the actual text, and given that it’s a fairly substantial book, that has been a painstaking process. And now it’s your turn. If you’ve been kind enough to subscribe you will just have received an email asking you to check that your name (or names, as some people buy subscriptions for friends) have been copied-in correctly. If they are correct, then there’s no need to do anything. If not, click where the email shows you (‘change’ in green beneath the name/names). But if you haven’t yet got round to subscribing, now’s the chance to do it. You will be able to subscribe later, but if you do that, you won’t get your name into the back of the printed book. Do it now and there it will be: your name enshrined for ever, for future generations to wonder at.

If you do subscribe, people will see you in an entirely new light, as someone with wealth and taste, in equal measure. Your legacy will be assured. Prime Ministers and Presidents sweat blood worrying about their legacies to Posterity. But why? I’ve never understood, when all they needed to have done was to subscribe to one of my books. How vain of them to think of themselves alone! Can’t they see that a legacy, a genuine lasting legacy that will be universally acknowledged, won’t be guaranteed by attacking Iraq, or by building a wall, even if you can persuade somebody else to pay for it. No, if the likes of Blair and Trump had subscribed to The Lifers’ Club, they would now be seen in a more beneficial light. So please, don’t repeat their mistakes, don’t walk away from reading this blog post, having done nothing. Because if you do, you will regret it for life. Pause and think: Francis Pryor, that most generous, warm-hearted, gifted and kind – yes meltingly kind, as his many thousands of lady friends across the globe nightly attest – has offered me this final opportunity to subscribe to a book that has taken him months to complete, shut away, as he was, in his lonely Fenland farmhouse, with nothing to nourish his mind or body than the occasional oyster washed down with cheap Cava. How could you NOT subscribe??? I know I would. And I’d do it several times, under many variants of my name:

Frances Pryor

Francis Prior

Frank Pryor

Frank Prior

Professor F.M.M. Pryor

Professor F.M.M. Prior

Lord Pryor of Baldock

The Hon. Francis Prior

The Revd. Francis

Etc. etc.

So the List of Subscribers closes at the end of December. And then, that’s it. The steel-clad doors will have crashed shut. The portcullis will have dropped. The drawbridge will have risen. And cauldrons of boiling oil will be readied to drop on anyone stupid enough to try and join what will soon become the Hallowed List of Enlightened Subscribers. Who knows, one day the names on that list might appear on a memorial tablet in Poets’ Corner? God knows, those people have shown sufficient imagination and vision. They deserve to be there. Or to stand behind the saintly Bob when he fails to collect his Nobel Prize. So if you can, and haven’t done so already, please subscribe (even if only to the cheap and nasty lovely e-book). So click HERE. I can guarantee, you won’t regret it. In fact, future generations will… [that’s enough hyperbole for this blog, Francis. It’s time you shut up – Ed.].

Merry Christmas! Fx

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Later Autumn Colour

I do apologise for the late arrival of this blog post, but life has been rather frantic of late. My main priority was returning the final edits of the second Alan Cadbury mystery, The Way, The Truth and The Dead. In case anyone should think that crowd-funders somehow have softer (I hesitate to say ‘lower’) editorial or production standards, than more conventional publishers, I should point out that Unbound are extremely rigorous – maybe because of this fear. So my Script Editor, Liz Garner, made me tighten up everybody’s motives and characters and now the Copy Editor has been through the manuscript with the proverbial fine-toothed comb. Some of the problems she raised have been hard to sort out:

If Alan is arriving at Weybridge by helicopter on Thursday, how come on p. 127 you said he was planning to meet Trixie in her flat for a curry-and-chips on that very day? And why was she naked? Seems a bit odd for a Thursday. And besides, on p. 42 he vowed he would never set foot in Surrey ever again, even if his life depended on it. I’m sorry, but I think you will have to sort this out.’

Copy editors’ comments can be damning, but they are always impeccably kind and polite: there is never so much as a hint that the author is/was a brain-dead cretin. Anyhow, after a full week of battling with my own inconsistencies, I’m out on the other side – and a little wiser, I hope.

The publicity people at Head of Zeus have been arranging a series of signings for my Stonehenge book. This week I’ll be spending a day in London visiting bookshops and signing stock copies. The day ends with a visit to the Hatchards (Piccadilly) Christmas Party, where I’ll get to meet readers and sign their books. I might also be able to get my chops around some mince pies and mulled wine. Those are the sort of gigs I really enjoy: people, food and drink!

I have also signed a contract with Penguin to write a short book based around the British landscape. I’ve taken a few weeks to find my way into it. Penguin want the book (provisional title: Sketches) to be personal, but they also expect some new and original ideas that will fire readers’ imaginations. After several sessions with my Editor at Penguin, Thomas Penn, I think we’ve now cracked it and the words are beginning to flow more naturally. I find it very difficult to write a book whose purpose I don’t fully understand. To put it another way: I have got to know roughly where I’m supposed to be heading, if I am to have any hope of getting there – or indeed anywhere! And that’s what really scares me about Donald Trump. There’s a limit to how far any politician can follow a philosophy of drift. Taking a Long View of his up-coming presidency (which this blog is meant to do), I have to say I am scared stiff. Trump and Brexit. Has the world gone mad?

When I get too depressed by the antics of populists1 or the stupid, rich and powerful, I increasingly take refuge in the garden. Maybe I’ll become a hermit, although not an ascetic. Like the Carthusians, my cell will feature a hatch through which Maisie will pass fresh oysters and glasses of Viognier (a grape that goes superbly with shellfish). But, and this isn’t something I’ve had to say of late, I digress. Let us now return to the garden, this autumn.

As we’ve already discussed, the Opening for the NGS was a great success, but as so often happens in gardening, the best-looking displays arrived late. In particular, the asters didn’t reach their full glory for at least another fortnight, and when they did flower, the display was stunning. Walking past them in the warm days of late September, you couldn’t help noticing that the air around and above them was literally alive and humming with bees. What a wonderful, peaceful sound that is. Here are two pictures of asters in the Long Border. You’ll have to imagine the bees.

Long Border

Asters

The easterly, or pergola, end of the Long Border has a different colour scheme to the warmer tones of the seat end. Maisie can carry colours in her head to an extraordinary extent and can spot plants in garden centres that will blend with her plantings at home. I, on the other hand, always get colours wrong. So the plants I choose invariably clash with those around them, so have to be planted elsewhere – which can cause chaos. In her wisdom, Maisie has made the pergola end of the border, which is naturally shaded by the now very large black poplars nearby, a cooler colour area. Yellows, creams and whites predominate, with here and there splashes of something brighter – often in blue. This next picture shows how the cooler parts of the Long Border look in mid-autumn. I think this planting is superb in its subtlety.

Yellow Border

Away from the set-piece Long Border, the expression of autumn colour can be gentler. I love this corner of the Rose Garden. Note also the leaves on the lawn. I absolutely detest those ear-splitting leaf-blowers that afflict large gardens and public spaces at this time of year. Surely autumn is meant to be about peace, reflection and mellow fruitfulness, and not that God-awful din? I bet Trump has a huge personal collection of the noisiest leaf-blowers.

Rose Garden Seat

The previous pictures were all taken in early October, but it is now mid-November and the autumn tints are in their last stages. Severe gales have helped thin out the leaves, too. This final picture of the Meadow still retains some strong colours, but there is also a slight hint of melancholy. Winter cannot be far away now. So let’s make the most of November. Next month is the season of digging and cutting back. I must wheel-barrow muck to the vegetable garden. Time to get busy!

Very late colour

1 My definition of a populist: someone who is prepared to do, write or proclaim anything that might get him or herself elected.

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Pasteurising the Past

I recently visited a very popular historical site near London. It was a place I had always intended to go to, but for some reason it had never actually happened. I’m sure you know how it is. Anyhow, we’d both done a fair amount of preparatory reading and we were really looking forward to it. And it started very well: the car park was actually inside an historic building and we both felt suitably tiny and insignificant as we walked out of the vast enclosed space, towards Admissions and the coffee shop. We bought the new guidebook, which was well-written and beautifully illustrated. Gosh, this was going to be a great visit!

And it started quite well. We went round a couple of exhibitions, and although the noises from several conflicting digital displays was annoying, they didn’t actually drive us out. But our tempers were just starting to get a tiny bit frayed. Then we got to the first of the two displays I was particularly keen to see: a series of timbers that had been revealed in the 1990s, when I was on the Ancient Monuments Advisory Committee (AMAC), of English Heritage (now Historic England). I was very keen to see these, as I had missed the original AMAC trip, for some reason. When we arrived, there was a huge TV screen with a BBC newsreader blaring forth a commentary. Despite this, we started to look at the timbers, which were still in situ – and very impressive indeed. A few metres away there was another screen, where kids could reassemble the timbers (I think) and then another, where they could do something else digital. Both had loud commentaries that conflicted with the original one(s). So instead of the atmospheric, almost ghostly, display, which I’d anticipated, we were being driven mad by a cacophony of garbled commentaries and flashing screens. To make matters worse, zombies wearing those earphones (audio guides) would drift across whatever we were trying to examine, completely oblivious of our presence. I was strongly tempted to trip them up, but somehow resisted.

I’d hoped to spend at least half an hour with the timbers, but after just ten minutes neither of us could stand it any more – and we made a dash for the exit. I think another screen may have flashed: ‘We hope you enjoyed your visit.’ But I can’t be certain. Although it was still a bit early, we were now both desperate for a bite of lunch and a glass of something hop-filled and soothing. The second place we were both keen to visit was quite close to where we had lunch (which was very good, I have to say) and while we were waiting, Maisie nipped across and booked us into a tour at 1.30, I think it was. It was the only way you could visit, largely I suspect for security reasons, as the place was a major fire hazard.

After lunch, and now feeling refreshed and considerably calmer, we assembled for the guided tour. I was slightly surprised that we were greeted by a lady dressed in Victorian clothes, and warning bells should have sounded. But they didn’t. Such are the anaesthetising effects of good Kentish ales. About a dozen other people arrived and the tour began. Suddenly the lady in the Victorian dress slipped effortlessly into BBC East Enders cockney and we were treated to a hands-on re-enactment of an industrial process. The trouble is, that everything had been sterilised: the materials were clean and bright, whereas in reality they would have been dripping in tar. The lady and her clothes were clean and freshly washed. She had all her teeth, which were gleaming and white. She had no scars, her dress didn’t have a tear or rip on it. Her shoes were clean and well-soled. She didn’t take a swig from a dirty gin bottle. There were no rats. And the place didn’t smell. To be honest, we both found the entire ‘reconstruction’ excruciatingly embarrassing. But why? Surely, in a visual age, it’s better to make an effort to portray the past in three dimensions?

And here were come to the point. Laying aside the fact that I always prefer the vision of the past that inhabits my imagination to some re-enactment, it’s the cleaning-up, the pasteurisation, of pre- or historic times that I detest so strongly. It certainly wasn’t fun to be a Victorian factory or mine worker. Often it was hell on earth. And I wonder what impression of past times modern children are taking away with them after such an experience? I think such misleading impressions add to the complacency of our lives: things weren’t half as bad in the past as we’re sometimes told. Somehow, this adds to our increasing inability to appreciate just how horrible life must be in, say, a 21st Century Bangladeshi sweat-shop. If nothing else, history, and historic sites, should be teaching us how we humans can perpetrate horrors on other people. The recent re-enactments of the Battle of Hastings, that currently feature on News bulletins, never describe what happened to the wounded men – how arrow punctures would have festered. And we certainly aren’t told about the way the families of dead soldiers – on both sides – would have fared in the decades following 1066. All the stress is on those cleanly pressed soldiers on their gleaming chargers. Sorry, but life wasn’t like that then – or now. It’s high time re-enactment grew-up.

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