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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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Dig for Victory!

The Dig for Victory campaign was launched in 1941 at a time when food imports to Britain were being blocked by a very successful enemy naval blockade – mostly using submarines. Today, of course, the enemy is the Covid-19 pandemic, which is disrupting our lives in so many ways. But I have noticed one rather odd thing. All the news media are covering urban areas and rural communities are scarcely ever mentioned. I have to confess I’m getting rather fed-up with hearing about how ‘we’ can make short trips to the countryside to take exercise – and so forth. Trouble is, we never hear anything about the rather different problems that people living on farms and in rural villages face.

Many of the villages around us have organised groups of volunteers who do weekly shopping trips for pensioners and other at-risk people (as we’re both over-70, our shopping is collected by two such volunteers, for which many thanks!). There are also several village-based internet social groups whose posters are popping up in several local communities. I don’t know how the lock-down powers-that-be who rule the urban world would react, but many gardeners are freely exchanging fruit and vegetables (I do a daily asparagus round to local friends) and at this time of year surplus plants are being exchanged – especially to younger people who are only just starting to grow their own food. One good thing to come out of all this might well be a rise in the number of home gardeners. And once you’re hooked on gardening – be warned! – it can become a lifetime’s addiction. I’m well and truly hooked. Never will I forget that moment when I ate my first home-grown ripe tomato. There was an explosion of flavour! At the time (the 1970s) shop-bought tomatoes tasted quite literally of nothing. Every year you will find that that first tomato is special, but also slightly different, depending on the spring, the compost, the variety and a host of other variables. That’s another great thing about gardening: no two years are ever the same. You are never bored when you eat your own food!

The new heated greenhouse has been a godsend and I’m still learning my way around it. The interior may look a bit chaotic, but believe me, there is method in my madness. Here’s a glimpse through the door in early May:

Greenhouse

Next is a close-up of the tomato seedlings, freshly potted-up. In about a fortnight I’ll be able to pot them up again, into slightly larger pots. The trick is to wait till you see the first white roots showing through the water in the bottom of the tray. When all the pots are showing roots, it’s time to pot-on again. When they’re in 4-inch (10 cm) pots they’ll be ready to go into a grow-bag or the garden. Mindful of the need not to discard too many seedlings I’ve potted-on five dozen tomato plants, of different varieties. Normally I’d use about 18 – at the most. So I plan to give the rest away to anyone living nearby who needs them.

Tomatoes

Several of our neighbours have offered us joints of beef and lamb, but there seems to be something of a shortage of young point-of-lay chickens. I gather this shortage is universal and there are stories in the local press of gangs coming out from towns to steal them. We heard of a local man who always raises a few dozen chicks and we were able to buy three off him. The traditional breed, Light Sussex, is new to us but we’ve looked them up and they have a docile reputation and prefer being free-range. Our new chickens are strictly-speaking ‘a trio’ of two hen birds and a cockerel. I took this picture on the day they arrived, in late April and they should be laying eggs in later summer. By then we may also have bought two or three additional hens who will be kept in order and protected by the cockerel. In our experience, if there’s a cockerel, the hens tend to stray less and don’t fight among themselves so much.

Chicks

A few days after we had received the chicks I had been cleaning my teeth with my smart new electric toothbrush (which has done wonders for the health of my receding gums!), when my eye was caught by the sun on the golden guelder rose (Viburnum opulus, ‘Aureum’) outside the window and the view of sheep peacefully grazing on our land beyond. So if you live too far away to take my tomato seedlings, I thought I’d share a little piece of the countryside, instead.

Spring view

Whenever I’m out by the pond, whether I’m pruning shrubs, weeding or just taking the dogs for a walk, I listen-out for the distinctive ‘yaffle’, the loud, sharp repeated call (I hesitate to call it ‘song’!) of the green woodpecker. We have several pairs of these birds, which feed on ant hills in the nearby meadows, and who make their homes (again, I hesitate to call them ‘nests’) in the trunks and branches of pollarded willows we planted back in 1995. By now these fast-growing trees are fully mature and many already have heartwood rot, which those clever woodpeckers seem to know about instinctively. So with loud machine-gun pecks they bore neat, circular holes through the outer sapwood and make their homes in the soft, dry rotten wood at the centre. Sometimes when you’re passing close-by you can hear quieter pecking sounds coming from the centre of the tree, as they enlarge and add the finishing touches to their new homes: a tasteful Gothick archway here, a louvred sitting-out space there.

Woodpecker holes

As a keen gardener I’ve long-since discovered that Mother Nature likes to tease. We have just endured the wettest winter on record, but back in March and early April, when I wrote my last blog post, I didn’t like to mention it, but I’d been surprised that we hadn’t lost more plants to root-rot. Then we had a sunny, dry April and Mother Nature revealed her hand. So far, I’m fairly convinced that two mature apples have been killed, one of them a lovingly pleached tree in the vegetable garden. The wet has also hastened the demise of shorter-lived shrubs, such as Viburnum and one or two elderly roses, not to mention several Buddleia – although this wasn’t a surprise as our land is a bit wet for them anyhow. I’ll keep an eye out for seedlings in the next few weeks and pot them up as replacements to go in later. The big horror has been the large box hedge which surrounds one of the beds in the rose garden. It’s growing (or dying) in the wettest part of that garden and I’m fairly certain it isn’t the dreaded box blight, as we haven’t bought-in any box plants for at least 15 years. If this was a professional garden we’d grub-up the entire hedge, but we’re less ruthless so we’re going to try alternatives, once we’ve removed the dead plants. The live box bushes are full of insects and other life, which is why I don’t want to kill them unnecessarily.

Dead box

We can’t be absolutely certain at this stage, but it does seem very likely that our annual garden opening for the National Gardens Scheme (scheduled for the weekend of September 19-20) isn’t going to happen – thanks to the Covid pandemic. In my next blog I’ll have more to say about what the NGS is planning to do to raise funds for those mostly medical charities it, and we, support through our garden open days. But Maisie and I decided back in March when the lock-down was announced that we’d use the potential lack of visitors as an excuse to do some root-and-branch garden improvements, such as the cutting down and rejuvenation of the rose hedge that runs along the drive on the other side of the pollarded willows, which are home to our woodpecker friends. We had contractors help us (all working at a safe ‘social distance’) and it only took a day to complete, but that hedge had terrible die-back. I’ve given it a good feed and it’s already (just three weeks later) starting to recover.

Cut hedge

There’s been a fair bit in this blog post about death and destruction, so let’s end with something positive: probably my favourite garden plant, Wisteria. I don’t think the Wisteria on the front of the house has ever looked better. Ok, so it may be bending the gutter in a few places, but who cares, when every night it’s in bloom the garden and the rooms above it (including our bedroom) are suffused with that delicious scent. The bees, including honey bees, love it, too. Some unpleasant things may recently have come from China, as that nice, disinfectant-drinking Mr Trump likes constantly to remind us, but Wisteria sinensis is certainly not one of them.

Wisteria

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PLEASE NOTE: This Blog Post is NOT About Covid-19

This blog post is for any followers of this blog who are confined indoors and cannot get out. It’s also for anyone whose spirits are starting to flag. I think we’ve all been affected to a greater or lesser extent and so I’ve dedicated this blog post to cheering us up. Come and take a rapid stroll with me through bits of our farm and garden that are starting to look and feel spring-like.

After the wettest February on record, March turned out to be dry and quite warm, but it took the best part of three weeks for our vegetable garden to dry out enough to become workable. By the end of the third week in March I had planted the potatoes. To be honest, the ground was wetter than ideal, but I couldn’t see it getting much drier any time soon. So I went ahead. Fingers crossed.

The four ridge rows beneath which lie my seed potatoes. The two shorter rows are for the first earlies and the maincrops. Over the years we have found that our early potatoes mature quite fast and don’t store very well. At the other end of the season maincrop varieties tend to get attacked by slugs, especially if left in the ground into August. So the two longer rows are for second earlies, which store well and seem to resist slugs. My favourite variety of second early is Kestrel, which stores well, has an excellent flavour and good, firm texture.

The four ridge rows beneath which lie my seed potatoes. The two shorter rows are for the first earlies and the maincrops. Over the years we have found that our early potatoes mature quite fast and don’t store very well. At the other end of the season maincrop varieties tend to get attacked by slugs, especially if left in the ground into August. So the two longer rows are for second earlies, which store well and seem to resist slugs. My favourite variety of second early is Kestrel, which stores well, has an excellent flavour and good, firm texture.

One of the great things about having a garden, especially one that isn’t over-designed or too controlled, are the surprises that each season brings. After such a horribly wet winter I wasn’t expecting many such happy moments, but as usual, nature proved me wrong. There’s quite a high wall leading up to the back door. We had it built (a) because there were several pallets of bricks left-over after the house had been finished and (b) because we had to shield the back garden from the fierce south-westerly winds that still cut across this area. The ground here proved much softer than we’d expected, so we filled the wall’s foundations with rammed brick and tile rubble. This rubble supports the wall very well, but it makes the bed at its base impossibly dry. But not this season. I’ve never seen the bulbs, flowers (and weeds) thrive so well in early spring.

The wall leading to the back door. The bed running along it is normally very dry and plants growing there rarely thrive, but the very wet winter of 2019/20 has had a magical effect.

The wall leading to the back door. The bed running along it is normally very dry and plants growing there rarely thrive, but the very wet winter of 2019/20 has had a magical effect.

Early in March we decided to tackle the main borders which were starting to look very dishevelled. This is a job that cannot be done half-heartedly or in short attacks. It requires a sustained, full-on assault and usually takes about four days to complete. But it’s one of those garden jobs that transforms the gardener, too. After four days of cutting and carting I’m feeling ready for anything – and as for the border. Just take a look:

The main double border during its annual spring-clean.

The main double border during its annual spring-clean.

It has been a strange spring. Some things, such as snowdrops, are well ahead and many have finished. Daffodils were also very early and have had quite a short season; but as often happens in short seasons, their flowering was intense. Here’s a view of the meadow garden taken at the very end of March. The daffodils are in full bloom and as I write this (on Good Friday, April 10th) they have already been finished for about a week. In this weird year they have been unable to live up fully to their old name, the Lent Lily. A week or so after I took the picture, the ground was dry enough for me to cut the pampas grass back.

A view of the meadow garden, taken in mid-March, with drifts of the wild daffodil, Narcissus pseudonarcissus.

A view of the meadow garden, taken in mid-March, with drifts of the wild daffodil, Narcissus pseudonarcissus.

Every day I try to take our two dogs, Baldwin the almost human Jack Russell terrier and Pen, the lick-happy black Labrador/Border Collie cross, for at least three brisk walks around the garden. These walks are good for both me (my replacement hip has now fully recovered) and the dogs. On at least one of the daily walks I take the dykeside path that skirts round the back of our wood, along its eastern side. It’s a bit exposed to winds from off the Wash (just eleven miles away), but as it’s all fenced for grazing I can let the dogs off their leads without the fear of them bolting. Sadly, Pen has grown up to be bolt-prone – I gather it’s a problem with some Labradors. On her last bolt she was recovered by a friendly farmer three miles away. When we planted the wood back in 1993 we put many flowering trees and shrubs around the fringes. Normally it’s the cherry blossom that steals the springtime show, but this year that honour must surely go to the wild pear trees. I don’t think I have ever seen them looking so magnificent. And when the wind does decide to ease off, all the air is delicately scented. It’s a great pity that the fruit are hard, bitter and inedible.

Two views of the dykeside brink along the eastern side of the wood, with the white blossom of the wild pear Pyrus communis.

Two views of the dykeside brink along the eastern side of the wood, with the white blossom of the wild pear Pyrus communis.

6 Wild pear blossom lo res

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Late February: The End of the Wet?

First let me say a few words of welcome to anyone who has had the sound good sense to follow this blog having read my short piece (‘I wouldn’t be without…’) in the Correspondence section of the March issue of the RHS magazine, The Garden. So if you’re new here, this is a blog that has lots of garden stuff, mostly written for the benefit of gardeners and garden lovers. Sometimes I make forays into farming, archaeology, nature conservation and landscape history – especially of the Fens. I like to believe there’s something for everyone – but having said that, there’s no pleasing some people. Anyhow, if you’ve just joined us: welcome aboard!

I am writing this in the first week of March and we haven’t had heavy rain for almost a week. A couple of days ago the Met Office announced that February 2020 had been the wettest February of all time (or since records began, if you want to be pedantic). And I think that says it all. I also think we’re all rather fed up with it. Yesterday the electrician who has been sorting-out our various problems in the house and farm had been fixing something in the fuse-box that was making a persistent loud hum. Apparently it was a faulty contact. Normally, as he runs a very popular business, we’d have expected him to be a hour or two in coming, but no. He arrived very promptly: he said he was going ‘stir-crazy’ – absolutely frustrated with not being able to get out and get on. I know exactly how he felt. And of course water and ambient dampness don’t help any electrical work.

Latterly the rain fell as sleet and snow and it gave the garden a rather menacing and slightly eerie look, which lacked the fluffy Santa Claus softness of proper snow. Here are four pictures I snapped through open windows during the storm. The first is the view across the main garden from upstairs:

View from window

The second is out of the front door, looking across to the driveway with the wirework dome. Three days ago Maisie pruned the fuchsias in the foreground down to the ground. They put on a lot of growth last year:

Out the front door

The third was taken out of the back door. This is a snap-shot, not a carefully composed picture for a book, so I apologise for the three prominent dustbins (the little bin is for vegetable waste to go onto the manure heap). The winter-flowering honeysuckle (Lonicera purpusii) immediately behind the bin with the snowy lid was particularly good this year. The flowers are just going over and the first leaf-buds are starting to open:

Front garden

The fourth is a view from the French doors leading onto the poop-deck, whose pergola-supports rather dominate the picture. All our bird-feeders now sport squirrel-proof mesh. The small border behind the central post is still too wet to walk along. You can’t see it very clearly, but there’s water in the gutters on either side. The bed on the right is filled with the highly scented, dark pink rose Madame Isaac Pereire. The plants are only just hanging on and we worry if they’ll survive all the wet. They’ll certainly need a good feed in a week or two’s time:

View from poop-deck

A couple of days after the last of the February wet, we actually had some sunshine. I was out walking the dogs and was heading towards the wood. At this point the wood is planted with hazel for coppicing and oak standards. But shortly after planting we found that strong winds were making it hard for the trees to get established, so we decided to sett a wind-break of black poplar (Populus nigra) tree cuttings, which has proved very successful and has drawn the slower growing oaks into fine upright specimens. What we hadn’t realised was that the poplar trees helped shade and drain the paddocks alongside them and this provided a superb habitat for field ants. At least that’s what I assume them to be. Field ants are famous for their anthills and these don’t seem to have spread into the neighbouring wood (which wood ants would have done). One day I must get an entomologist to identify them properly (hint, hint: Tweet me if you are one living locally). I noticed the first of their little anthills about fifteen years ago and they have grown steadily ever since. Now they have spread to the other side of the farm, where there’s another colony of at least half an acre. I reckon the one in the picture is slightly larger.

Anthills

And here’s a close-up of those anthills. As a prehistorian I can’t help thinking that they closely resemble tiny Bronze Age round barrows, complete with the slightly flattened or even depressed crowns. With barrows these depressions are largely the result of Victorian antiquarian-Vicars doing ‘excavations’. In the case of the anthills the excavators are far more welcome: they’re made by the sharp pointed beaks of green woodpeckers. We now have about four pairs of resident green woodpeckers who waddle about the fields, or fly over the garden, stuffed full of ants and making their wonderful, deafening calls, which are known in the west country as Yaffles.

Anthills

I first began to notice the ant-hills around ten years ago when I was topping the grazing in the autumn. By then they were tall enough to catch the revolving blade of my pasture-topper. For a few years I was ably to lift it by setting the tractor’s hydraulics up a notch or two. But now they’re too high even for that, so I’ve stopped topping the grazing. If anyone is going to dig into those ant-hills, I would far rather it was woodpeckers than my tractor.

My final picture was taken at the very end of February. It shows Chicken Lane, the little lane/footpath we planted when we laid out the garden, farmyard, wood, paddocks, house, barns and orchards in 1994-5. The various wild and semi-domesticated forms of plum (Prunus, sp.) were planted as a semi-formal line of rooted cuttings along the left-hand side of the lane (which gets its name from the chickens that peck and scratch their way along it, in summertime). On the right-hand side you can see more spaced out, taller alder (Alnus glutinosa) trees. Today the alders form part of a self-seeded and almost impenetrable hedge. Archaeologists still don’t believe me when I tell them that hedges can occur naturally: they don’t have to be deliberately planted. I think the emerging may blossom is particularly good this year – and it makes a change that the flowers are so well ahead of the leaves. As our climate grows ever warmer, the two often occur simultaneously – which spoils the effect.

Chicken lane

A final thought. Chicken Lane is acquiring a character all of its own. To be honest, I don’t think that either Maisie1 or I had a very clear idea of what it would look like when we planted it. But that didn’t worry us – we had more than enough to be getting on with. I think we both rather wanted the garden to come up with surprises that we could subsequently develop and improve. And that’s what has happened. So when we laid it all out, we were at pains not to cram the various features together. Plants need space – especially trees and shrubs. So is our approach less disciplined than that of a Capability Brown or a Gertrude Jekyll? No, I don’t think it is. But the English landscape – especially in eastern England – has become so open and impoverished since the war that traditional approaches to garden design have to be modified: nature must be allowed to return at its own pace: I fear that rapid tree planting or, just as bad, ‘rewilding’ will prove almost as aesthetically bland and culturally meaningless as the ‘grain plains’ that currently blight rural areas of lowland Britain. I have a double Golden Rule: respect landscape history and never force Mother Nature.

1 For new followers of this blog, Maisie is my wife, the archaeologist and gardener, Maisie Taylor.

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Digging the Vegetable Garden: One of My Favourite Jobs of the Year

I know there’s a big danger about droning on and on about a wet season, but whenever I meet other gardeners that’s all we ever want to do. And it seems to make us all feel just a little less frustrated. I suppose it’s a bit sad. But anyhow. Recently, however, the weather has got a tiny bit drier – I think we’ve just enjoyed a full week without heavy rain – which is bliss! But I know it won’t last. Right now I’m sitting at my desk because I daren’t spend long outside. There’s a 70 to 75 m.p.h. storm force wind blowing and heavy rain is forecast in a couple of hours. It’s all part of an Atlantic storm – bequeathed to us by our American and Canadian friends, which has gathered force while crossing the ocean. Everything hereabouts is blowing and flapping in the gale – puts me in mind of a Trump tantrum. So I thought I’d do some writing while the storm (given the name Ciara by the UK Met Office) does her worst.

The vegetable garden stood up quite well to the wet, and most of the water drained into the path around it, where it remained stubbornly, looking more and more like a canal. I lifted the gravel with a heavy-duty fork and it worked for a bit, but while I was pruning the espaliered apples I trod it down again – and now we’re back to a canal. I took this photo exactly a week ago, on February 2nd, the day I started digging.

Flooded veg garden

Right now the ground’s so wet you can’t get on the borders without compacting the soil, which means we can’t cut-back last season’s perennials and annuals, which we normally like to start about now. Some people prefer to do this in the autumn, but we’d rather leave the seeds in place for our huge bird population to feed on during the coldest weeks of winter. In fact it’s too wet to do almost anything, except prune a few trees and shrubs and dig the vegetable garden. So here’s my very first bit of digging, done late in the afternoon of Sunday February 2nd. I know it’s only a small patch of ground, but I felt as stiff as a board when I headed in for tea. But I knew digging would get me fit. And it did.

Digging veg patch

Just a week of digging is enough to get my limbs working again after Christmas. It’s a restorative process – and cheaper than a gym. While I dug I was visited regularly by a very friendly cock robin and a small brown hen (who has stopped laying for the winter). She was stuffing herself full of live earthworms – something I still find hard to watch even after almost five decades of digging. I know it’s fashionable to have no-dig gardens and raised beds, but I find my potatoes taste better and better as time passes and I put it down to the well-rotted manure I dig-in every winter. Oh dear, just had a thought: does this mean that visiting Vegans can’t eat my vegetables? Anyhow, this is what the veg garden looked like this morning (Feb 9th). I finished digging late yesterday afternoon and found I’d left my camera indoors, so didn’t take a picture – and besides, the light was fading. Still don’t know how I managed to hold it steady enough for a picture in the gale, when I popped out an hour ago. But it was looking good – and today my back feels fine. Digging seems to reach every bit of you: makes you feel supple. Shame about the chicken eating wiggly live worms, though.1

Veg garden dug

There was another short dry spell at the end of January and it was then I decided that I would have to do something about the state of the lawns. The previous day I had done my usual trip to Long Sutton market to collect brown shrimps and mussels and on the way home I noticed that a lot of people were out in their gardens mowing their lawns. The Saxon founders of the town had a good eye for landscape and they placed their new settlement on the low ridge of tidal silts that bound The Wash along its southern shores. That’s why the town of Long Sutton sits maybe a metre or two higher than the fen immediately to the south and west, where we are. This means that our land takes a bit longer to drain – but those chaps with their mowers didn’t seem to be having any problems. So I thought I’d give it a go when I returned home. And this was the result.

Wet grass

I wouldn’t say for one moment that it was stripy perfection – and certainly not Wimbledon Centre Court standards. But if you compare the single mown stripe up the left-hand side of the Long Border, you can see just how very long the grass has grown. I’m aware the mowing did make a mess – and I even got the mower stuck at one point – but I simply had to do something. And now a full week later it is starting to recover: had I left it much longer it would have made the early spring cuts very much more difficult. Once our grass gets away it grows like a greyhound on amphetamines.

Towards the end of January Maisie and I decided we’d visit Cambridge University Botanic Garden, who have one of the finest winter gardens anywhere. I love going there and not just because it’s a fabulous garden, but because it also means I can have lunch in Yim Wah Chinese Restaurant. We used to visit Yim Wah when it was at Caxton on the old North Road a few miles west of Cambridge. I love that road with its trees set back and many 18th Century roadside inns. It’s also the world’s first turnpike (1663: see my The Making of the British Landscape, pp. 452-3). The Chinese restaurant was located at a cross-roads, alongside the Caxton Gibbet. Then the building burnt down and has been replaced by the ubiquitous clutch of look-alike fast food and burger eateries. I later discovered the Chinese family had moved to Cambridge – where their food is as fresh and delicious as it has ever been. Having said that, I do rather miss the gibbet: glimpsing death while you pig-out on noodles. But I digress…

To get to Cambridge we boarded a train at March station. I can’t remember what happened next: I think I might even have nodded off. Then Maisie woke me with a poke in the ribs.

We’re approaching the Welney Washes.’

That was all I needed to know. I whipped out my camera and grabbed several pictures. Sorry, I know there are spots of rain on the train’s window – but where else would you ever get such a fantastic view?

This huge expanse of winter flood forms between the two artificial and parallel channels of the River Great Ouse as they make their way in a dead straight line across the flat expanse of the Fens. Cornelius Vermuyden, who master-minded this drainage scheme in the 17th Century, realised that you must channel floodwater from the southern midlands across the Fen basin in the quickest manner possible, if you are to avoid further flooding. And this was the result: two wide artificial channels whose digging was interrupted by the English Civil war (1642-1651). The flood land between the two embanked channels is known as the Ouse Washes and from our train window I could see that they were deeply flooded. Note how the dryland beyond the bank to the right of the picture is far lower-lying than the water in the Ouse Washes. That drop was caused by drainage and the peat erosion that has happened since the land was initially drained three and a half centuries ago. You don’t need to be a hydrological engineer to known that it will pose major problems in the future, especially if sea levels continue to rise – as every respected climate scientist expects.

Welney Washes

And now I want to move away from the big picture to a couple of plants that have helped raise my spirits in these rather ghastly times. The first is the evergreen tree Garrya elliptica, sometimes known as the silk-tassel. It’s a native of northern California, but seems to do very well in England. We planted ours against the south-facing gable end of our house, about 15 years ago, and it has grown far more vigorously than we expected. One day I think I’ll get it under control, but every February the tassels descend and then it has a magic all of its own. You can’t beat it.

Garrya elliptica

My final picture is of the winter-flowering Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’. I love this plant: simple, elegant flowers, unfussy foliage and it blooms throughout most of the winter. Ours grows immediately outside the back door and it brings a smile to my face every time I walk past it. Winter flowers are often like that: they seem to speak to you directly.

Clematis cirrhosa Freckles

1 I posted pictures of the robin and the hen on my Twitter feed @PryorFrancis

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Oh Dear, What a Wet Season…

The rain showers kept coming. As my favourite commentator, Brenda from Bristol, would have said: ‘Not another one!’.1 The rain started more or less the weekend after we opened the garden for the National Gardens Scheme, back in September (note for your diary: in 2020 we’ll open on the weekend of September 20-21). At first the wet was just irritating. It meant, for example, that long grass in the meadow couldn’t be cut until it was a bit too long – which meant in turn that it had to be raked off in places (hard work!). Some areas, such as the orchard, even missed their late autumn cut. But even so, there were compensations. The summer growing season had been warm and wet, which meant that trees grew well and the red stemmed white willows (Salix alba var. Kermesina) laid down vigorous new stems, which glowed a good colour in the late autumn sunshine.

Autumn colour

The constantly passing shower clouds would often form strange patterns at dawn and dusk and I noticed this rather strange stripy effect on two or three separate occasions, when I got up early to do my first stint of writing.

Sunrise

But there were a few other benefits. The ground water table had been very low for several years and the pond would remain dry for many months. I was actually getting quite concerned for the well-being of the many hundreds of newts and toads who depend on its water. At first the almost ceaseless showers seemed to be having a minimal effect and the pond stayed stubbornly dry. Sometime in later October, water began to accumulate, first slowly, then quite rapidly. This photo, taken a few weeks before Christmas, shows the water at its correct level, which is more or less at Sea Level. Ignore the willow trunk in the foreground and look instead at the three trees growing out of the pond. They are semi-evergreen Swamp Cypresses (Taxodium distichum), from the southern states of North America, and are just starting to shed their leaves. They’re one of the few trees that can happily grow in near-permanent standing water. If trees could dance, that’s what they’ll be doing now…

Pond

Thanks to the roots of the many hundreds of trees and shrubs that we planted over the years, some parts of the garden remained passable, if not exactly firm underfoot. The Nut Walk was just such an area, but as you can see I haven’t been able to get out and rake up the leaves, which we normally put in bags and use as leaf-mould in a year’s time. The grey squirrel problem has become so severe that we only managed to collect a couple of dozen hazel nuts. They start picking and opening them in July – weeks before there’s anything inside the shells to eat. It’s SO annoying, although I must confess, I do quite like looking at them when they play on the wooden pergola, which we call the Poop (as in Poop Deck), at the back of the house.

Nut walk

The rain eased-off briefly in early December and I was able to get this post-leaf-fall view of the wood and the meadow. There’s something very English about such a simple scene. I have to say it, but I often find modern gardens can be over-designed and a bit too clever, with far too many contrived views and vistas. Sometimes something as simple as trees, grass and woodland-edge can possess a dignity and charm that’s irresistible – for me at least!

Meadow

And now to the floods. I think what made them – and still makes them – so destructive and difficult to manage or deal with is the fact that the soil was already completely saturated by the time the heaviest rains started to fall, in November and December. Usually when floods happen they tend to be one-off events: sudden massive rainfall usually followed by weeks of drier weather. That way you can get back on the land after four or five days. But this season I haven’t been able to get back to the vegetable garden at all. Runner bean plants are still there, with their bamboo cane frame starting to lean at an impossible angle. And I certainly haven’t been able to barrow-in the manure to do my usual early winter digging. I’m about a month behind in the vegetable garden. Here’s a shot of the floods along the edge of the meadow, at the end of the Serpentine Walk.

Flooded serpentine walk etc

Here’s another view of the flooded area, which you can see lies in a clear line or row. If this was anywhere else in Britain, you’d say that the water was lying in the furrow of an abandoned ridge-and-furrow field, but in the Middle Ages the silt Fens of Lincolnshire were farmed in a slightly different way, that didn’t involve the raising of high, heaped-up ridges. Instead, local farmers dug widely separated, parallel shallow ditches known as dylings. Very few of these still survive as surface features, but they often show-up in very wet conditions. I’ve counted about six running parallel across our garden. This one is particularly clear – in fact it’s a great shame it isn’t still flowing!

Meadow walk

One job we have managed to do is to cut back the hornbeam hedges which have grown rather long and straggly of late. It’s a pretty heavy and demanding job and my hip won’t let me do it. So I employed Jason, who did a superb job and is as keen about good hedge-clipping as I am. It has been good to see them straightened-up and rejuvenated. Jason’s YouTube website is well-worth visiting.

Hedge cut

So that’s it, but only for a short time. I’m aware I haven’t done a blog post for just over a month and that’s because I’ve been up-to-my-neck with signings of The Fens and I’ve also been very busy working on my new book for Head of Zeus, which I’ve got to finish by the autumn. So I’ll be back shortly. The rain has held off for almost a fortnight and I’ve been able to do a little light work on the garden – usually involving several sheets of plywood and wellies. I’ve been living in wellies of late!

1 For the benefit of my non-British readers, Brenda was famously recorded on the BBC greeting the news of a recent General Election with the words: ‘Not another one!’ in a strong Bristol accent.

Posted in Gardening | Tagged , , , , , , ,

“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life…de dum…de dum…”

We Brits are meant to be good at keeping our peckers up and smiling through adversity. But lately I’ve been having trouble finding my pecker, let alone keeping it up. Everything seems so gloomy and pointless. And it all came to a head yesterday, Thursday December 12th, 2019, the day of the General Election. We did some gentle shopping in Holbeach, then called in at the Sutton St James Village Hall where the Polling Station is always to be found. Maisie and I then dutifully marked our ballot papers and had a nice long chat with the two charming ladies who were checking names and forms. I think they were a bit bored: I wouldn’t have said the place was exactly overcrowded with eager voters. We got back to the car, just as the rain began to start. And it rained steadily all the way home. The wind picked up and the dogs seemed very reluctant to be taken for an afternoon walk. So I let them play in the barn. The rain got worse and I could see the puddles out in the fields growing by the hour. Parts of the garden looked a bit like Venice. By the end of Election Day I emptied 13mm from the rain gauge.

Our chickens are still laying so we had boiled eggs and homemade bread for supper: simple, but very nice, as the eggs this year have had wonderful yellow yokes and are bursting with flavour. Maisie’s bread is always lovely. After supper we both did something we rarely do: we looked at the internet news on our phones, since the BBC was not allowed to report on the General Election until after the Polls closed at ten o’clock. There were pictures of endless queues and of youngsters lining-up to vote in various universities across England. Everyone seemed to think that the ‘Youthquake’ – involving three million newly-registered young voters – was going to transform the election from a Tory landslide into something else (nobody seemed quite certain what).

At ten o’clock, the BBC announced the result of the exit poll – usually a fairly accurate predictor of the eventual result – and the Tories under Boris Johnson were going to win with a majority of about 50. We were both amazed, if not actually stunned. I grabbed another glass of cheap port and tried to read a book. Then I went upstairs to bed – and the radio. Despite my best intentions, I didn’t stay awake and listen: the port took over and I snored my way to a fairly deep sleep. When she came up half an hour later, Maisie tried to get me to stop snoring (a sharp shout in my ear usually does the trick), but this time she failed. By now the earliest results were starting to come in and Maisie realised that the Exit Polls had probably been correct. Very kindly she decided not to wake me up. So she listened to the gloomy tidings alone.

At three AM I woke up, only to hear that the Tories were winning what looked like a major landslide and that Labour and the Lib Dems were having something of a car-crash. I started to feel a dreadful pall of black depression creeping up on me. And then something very strange happened. Maybe it was a latent sense of survival. Or perhaps my publishers were sending out subliminal messages to me: don’t go all gloomy or you’ll never finish your new book. Remember, the deadline is the end of June and you’ve still got fifty thousand words to do…

But whatever it was, the pall of gloom started to dissipate. I almost felt a sense of relief. At least we knew what was going to happen. And maybe now that he’d won such a major landslide, Boris could tell the extreme-right members of the Tory Party to leave him alone; perhaps the new Brexit deal wouldn’t be as suicidally hard as we had expected? It was a thought. Who knows, what if Boris didn’t try to paddle or punt the British Isles across the Atlantic to cuddle-up to that nice mister Trump? I didn’t really believe in any of these thoughts, but suddenly they seemed possible. And if the trade and political severance of Brexit wasn’t too hard, one day we might be able to return – when, that is, my generation dies off and the saner younger generation gains control. Again, it was a thought.

So that’s how it is. I detest what has happened in the Election, but the years of uncertainty were starting to get me down. I also loathed the growing hatred, racism and intolerance that Brexit seemed to foster. I don’t think for one minute that the lurch to the extremes of right and left will cease, but maybe it’ll slow down as the febrile, testosterone-fuelled atmosphere of hatred starts to abate. It would be so nice to think about things other than a sort of politics that somehow ignores what really matters. Climate change and global warming, the rise of religious fundamentalism and the disintegration of nuclear weapons agreements should be occupying politicians’ thoughts. Not Brexit. And as for me? I want to write books and meet the lovely people who read them – and you can’t enjoy things like that if you’re feeling all knotted-up inside. I may be wrong, but I think my pecker might be starting to ascend…

Posted in In the Long Run, My life | Tagged ,

The Fens: And Now for the Audiobook – read by the Author!!!

I’ve always liked the idea of audiobooks: something you could listen to on demand. The trouble was, we lacked the technology. Cassette tapes and CDs etc are fine, but bulky – so downloads have to be the answer. And then, of course, there are those endless commuter journeys, which by and large I’ve been spared as I have either worked at home or have lived close by my various digs. But having said that, I do travel to London quite often, to see publishers and the like, and often catch commuter trains, where many of the regular passengers are listening to audiobooks or podcasts. And again, it makes excellent sense and is far more relaxing then reading which can be very difficult on a noisy, over-crowded train. On with the headset, and into the book. Silence. And then another world.

I had that other world very much in mind when I wrote The Fens in the first place. So it was quite easy to slip back into it when I re-read it for the audiobook. Recording audiobooks has been quite a journey of discovery for me – and one I’ve enjoyed hugely. Like many such journeys it has also been a humbling experience: if I were to do it badly, I’d be letting so many people down, but at the same time I didn’t have many opportunities to hone my technique. I’m not an actor, but for some reason I’ve always been able to read out and reach an audience. So that was a skill I had to work on – and I only had four days of recording to do it. It was quite a challenge.

In actual fact, I’d be telling a fib if I said that The Fens audiobook was my first one, because it wasn’t. That honour goes to PATHS to the Past, which I recorded in a single, day-long session, in 2018. If I’m strictly honest I have to confess I can’t remember much about it, other than the studio was somewhere in London and I stumbled out of it absolutely shell-shocked, drained and exhausted. I’d no idea that concentration on a text could be quite so mind-numbingly intensive. I’ve always respected actors, mostly I suspect because I’m a crap one myself, and that session in front of the microphone convinced me of their huge talents and very great discipline. I never got a download of PATHS, but I’ve managed to hear a few free minutes on the web – and it doesn’t sound at all bad. So please rush out and buy a copy (Francis, was that written with sufficient enthusiasm? – Ed.).

I remember being a bit surprised that I had to read the entire text of PATHS for the audiobook, but as it was 40,000 words long (less than half that of an average book of 90k words), that seemed quite reasonable. But it was still very ambitious to expect a newcomer to do it in a day. But we did it. A few weeks ago I learned that The Fens was to be recorded by audiobook specialists W.F. Howes, at their studios in Rearsby, just outside Leicester. An email told me that we’d be recording the entire text. At this point I came close to wetting myself: The Fens is just over 120,000 words long! How could any sane person possibly read such a vast text aloud without going hoarse or insane – or indeed both? I had visions of Maisie driving to Leicester to collect my twitching semi-conscious body in the sheep trailer filled with lots of fresh wheat straw… Then I discovered that we were expected to complete the marathon task in four days, divided into two recording sessions, of two days each. That sounded a bit more manageable. But only a bit. I have to say, it was still very daunting.

I took a taxi to the studio from the hotel just outside Leicester. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the fields looking wetter. Ridge and furrow was standing out, as if it were the Middle Ages and the River Soar was in full flood. The taxi had to turn round a couple of times, as the road ahead was under water. This has been the wettest autumn I can recall. We eventually got to the studio and I was taken to the recording room.

From the outside, the studio looked like any other light industrial building. But once inside it was very different. The main recording room contained two sound-proofed booths; each one had a mixing desk directly outside its only window. This was where my sound-recordist, audio engineer and producer – all rolled into one charming individual, Lewis Hampson – was to sit. As soon as I entered the room he greeted me and asked the all-important question: would I like a cup of tea or coffee? Once he’d handed me my tea, Lewis showed me into the booth. I have to say it was quite snug, but then it had to be: its walls and ceiling were thickly lined with black foam to absorb any traces of echo or noises off. The foam lining also ensured that it grew hot (any air-conditioning would have been far too noisy). I sat in a swiveling chair in front of the only window, which looked-out onto Lewis and his array of screens and complex digital jiggery-pokery. On my side of the window was a narrow ledge on which was perched an iPad. This displayed my book, page-by-page, and I was able to scroll down through it, avoiding pictures, by simply using my finger on the screen (happily I’m quite at home with reading e-books on my own iPad). A huge microphone was suspended just above the screen and there was also a very large and well-padded set of head-phones. The headphones allowed me to communicate with Lewis, just outside the window.

As soon as I’d finished my mug of tea we started recording. I remembered from doing Paths to the Past, not to read too fast and I tried to keep half an eye on the sentence to come – it’s a bit of a knack, but worth it. I think we had a couple of false starts, but once I’d got going we did a full half page before I stumbled. Modern digital recording is wonderful because it allows the editor outside the window to stitch-together sentences that get broken during recording, but it’s up to the reader to match the speed and tone – which isn’t always as straightforward as it sounds. Slowly, as I read, it all started to come back to me and it was very weird – almost as if I was writing it again, but for the first time. I know that doesn’t make sense, but it’s how it felt: déjà vu, but fresh and newly experienced. As the minutes ticked past I began to get into my stride and by half an hour I was scampering along. Then a few gurgles started in my throat, so I got another cup of tea. That worked for a few minutes, before, that is, the dreaded tummy gurgles began. At first, I ignored them. After all, people sitting alongside you in the tube don’t hear tummy rumbles. I’ve even been known to let slip the occasional small fart – providing I know I’ll be getting off at the next station. And I always get away with it: as the train pulls out I never see people in my carriage retching or holding their noses. No, they continue to stand, immobile and distant, avoiding all eye contact. Typical London, in fact. But to return to the recording booth: I continued to pretend the gurgles weren’t happening. And then it happened. Lewis cut in:

‘Sorry, Francis, can we re-do that last sentence? Take it from “The Must Farm boats…”’

I decided not to question him and started to read, yet again. Then the gurgles resumed; this time with added strength. Not so much gurgling liquid, as boiling lava. Again Lewis cut in:

‘Sorry, Francis, one more time:’

He wound the recording back and I started again:

‘The Must Farm boats were discovered…’

But that was as far as I got. This time the gurgle was a real wig-lifter. They may well have heard it outside the booth. Lewis was smiling broadly.

‘Let’s pause for a cup of tea and a breakfast bar. They usually calm stomach noises down.’

And he was right. They did. I had two. But once back in the booth it took about ten minutes for the gurgles to resume and the ultra-sensitive microphone picked them up, loud and clear. But Lewis had another trick up his sleeve. He rose to his feet and came round to the door at the back of the booth. He said something, but I couldn’t hear him. So, feeling rather stupid, I removed the head-phones. He was pointing at the floor in the corner or the booth, by my left foot. Then I saw what was there: a plump, soft cushion.

‘Hold that across your front and then we’ll see how we get on.’

And I did. And it was miraculous. One or two thunderous gurgles did manage to penetrate the cushion and be picked up by the microphone – but only a few. Maybe half a dozen all day.

There’s an interesting twist to this story. Everyone over 60 is sent a bowel cancer faecal smear kit every two years until they’re 74. You take the samples, send them off, and then receive a short ‘all clear’ letter, if you’re lucky. But about a month previously I had received a letter from Hinchingbrooke Hospital, Huntingdon, informing me that my bowel cancer smear had produced traces of blood, which might, but only might, indicate cancer in its early stages. So they had booked me in to have a colonoscopy (where they insert a small television camera in your rectum and look for cancer). It sounded rather grim, but the process wasn’t at all painful and the TV pictures were superb. I love glimpsing my insides – and this was in full, living colour! During the investigation they discovered 5 polyps (small usually harmless growths) – which they removed (live, on telly!). Then, when I got home I realised that my tummy had calmed down: the gurgles had ceased. So the next time I record an audiobook I won’t need that cushion!

And (this is written a week later) I’ve just been told by the hospital that the polyps were benign. LONG LIVE the NHS!

As part of the lead-up to the release of the audiobook on December 19th, I’ll be recording a live public interview on my Facebook page. Needless to state I’ll be doing this at my publishers, Head of Zeus, in London, as our broadband out in the Fens is far, far too slow. The interview is scheduled for 1.00 pm (1300 hours GMT) on Monday December 16th. So do watch it if you can – and feel free to ask a few questions.

And finally here’s a picture of me in the recording booth at W.F. Howes, taken by Lewis Hampson. At that stage in the recording, I had yet to acquire the cushion!

FP Audiobook

Posted in books, My life | Tagged , , , ,