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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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

Posted in Gardening, My life | Tagged , , ,

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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Things That Matter Most: Breakfast Cups

A few years ago we made a Time Team film in an 1870s railway navvy camp high in the Yorkshire Dales, on the Settle-Carlisle railway. Navvies, like archaeologists, were known for their boozy lifestyle and we fully expected to find massive evidence for drinking. And we did! There were trayfuls of sherds, but they weren’t glass. No, they were mostly pieces of blue-on-white china, usually from teacups and saucers. Tea, it would appear, was the hard-bitten navvies’ tipple of choice. And I have to confess that as I get older I find tea and coffee are getting more and more inviting. Which is why I’m writing this rather unusual, for me, blog post. Time for another memory.

Sometime in the mid-1990s I went with English Heritage (now Historic England) on a trip to Stoke-on-Trent to look round a rare working pottery. During the late 20th century many manufacturers of English china moved their factories from Stoke to China, where labour was massively cheaper. Ironic, in a way, as we originally pinched the technology of making porcelain from the Chinese. But I must not digress. Anyhow, one firm had re-established a small pottery in Stoke and had made use of an existing building, which still had its kilns and workshops more or less intact. This building had been protected by Listing – which was why our party from English Heritage visited it. And I have to say we were very impressed with what we saw. I think I even bought a teapot.

More recently, other firms have re-established potteries in Stoke, including one of the most famous companies of them all: Spode. The early history of the English Potteries is fascinating and it includes some very remarkable people, one of whom was Josiah Spode I, who invented Bone China in 1796. Bone China is essentially a version of porcelain which can be produced commercially and is remarkably strong, heat-resistant and attractive. It is made from china clay and calcined (i.e. burnt) ox bone. Josiah I was succeeded by his son, Josiah Spode II, who went on to improve the original Bone China. He also had a good grasp of marketing and introduced some very attractive new lines including blue-on-white designs in what would later be known as Willow Pattern Plate. Many of the broken teacups and saucers we excavated on that Time Team navvy camp dig were Willow Pattern Plate.

Our new set of four matching Spode Italian range blue breakfast cups and saucers. These cups were made in Stoke-on-Trent to a design that has been in constant production, since it was introduced by Josiah Spode II, in 1816.

Our new set of four matching Spode Italian range blue breakfast cups and saucers. These cups were made in Stoke-on-Trent to a design that has been in constant production, since it was introduced by Josiah Spode II, in 1816.

I know that nowadays we all live increasingly busy and frantic lives, and we drink our tea and coffee from mugs (sadly we are discarding teapots, which I regard as the first step of Humanity’s descent into Oblivion). But for Maisie and me, breakfast has always been different. It doesn’t matter how rushed we might be, we always drink our coffee from breakfast cups. To a non-Brit, breakfast cups look, for all the world, like large tea cups. But they’re not. Yes, they are more capacious and I think that encourages the drinker to sit back and take stock of his or her world. Maybe it’s the steamy aroma that inspires both introspection and concern for others. You cannot possibly think selfish or greedy thoughts when you’re holding onto a full breakfast cup. Mugs belong to a grab-it-while-you-can mentality. But not breakfast cups They are quite different: they’re all about magnanimity and grace. Nobody, but nobody, could possibly gulp their coffee from a breakfast cup.

Our old breakfast cups were getting cracked and unreliable. They were dear friends, but the time had come to relegate them to the cupboard where we keep things that only see the light of day on rare occasions. We both knew more or less what we wanted, but couldn’t find them in shops – not even in John Lewis. So Maisie went on the internet and eventually came across the Spode website. And there she discovered a blue-on-white design in their Italian range that has been in continuous production since 1816 – the year after Waterloo. It was love at first sight – and we bought four. They were also remarkably cheap, given various introductory offers.

In 2007 the old Spode company moved its production to China, which proved a big mistake and the company closed. In 2009 it was bought by the Portmeiron Group who have always had an enlightened approach to craftsmanship and maintained a pottery in Stoke. It’s near the original Spode works and that’s where our breakfast cups were made. It’s a shame the clock can’t be turned back 100% and re-open the old factory, but the Portmeiron take-over of Spode is undoubtedly very good news for Britain, for Stoke and for breakfast cup fanciers, everywhere. It’s a huge stride in the right direction.

But now it’s time to lift the cup, raise the little finger and cherish another lingering, sensuous, steamy sip… Ahhh, what bliss!

Posted in History, My life, Time Team | Tagged , ,

Autumn Reflections


I’ll start this post with a view of turning birch leaves taken in the glade garden a couple of days ago. At the time I was feeling more than a little stressed: the deadline to produce the final edited version of my book on the Fens was rapidly approaching and I was spending every waking moment sifting through drawers of slides and vast arrays of digital pictures. Eventually I got it done – and with a few days to spare. So now I have a little time to reflect, before I get stuck into my next book – about which more later. So I planned to write a quiet piece about falling leaves and autumn hues in a gently mellowing country garden. Until, that is, the political scene suddenly turned crazy – which set me thinking, but on rather different lines.

I began by thinking that living in Britain today was a bit like my youth in the 1960s: society was highly polarised. Youth was rebelling against what they saw was a deeply conservative older generation. With hindsight, we can now appreciate that the war had played a huge part in making older people cherish their Britishness: anything was preferable to what they saw as the chaos across the English Channel. But by the ‘60s that particular sort of Britishness seemed tweedy, stuffy and plain boring. It was also inaccurate: the Continent was, if anything, less chaotic than Britain, where trade unions were becoming increasingly powerful, but in a restrictive and unconstructive way. But we were young and we rebelled – and in the process gave the world some cracking good music.

My thoughts then returned to the present and the political changes that are happening around us. First we have the hard right: the rise of Trump, the alt right and neo-populism. But running a close second there’s the hard left: a Corbynista world, where a top-down authoritarian socialism of the Stalinist/Militant Tendency sort is seen as the cure for all our political and social problems. Trouble is, as any sane person knows, the economy would immediately come crashing down. And then even the nastiest cuts of recent austerity measures would look like minor tweaks, as the coins in our pockets rapidly became worthless. So I think things are a lot worse than in the 1960s – which set me thinking about the 1930s.

And then I had to stop. The parallels between Trump and Mussolini seemed too horribly close. They are dead ringers. Think about it. But I won’t: it’s funny, yes, but ultimately too depressing – and so degrading for our many good friends across the Atlantic.

For the benefit of future readers, who might include an historian or two, the political events that have just transpired are mostly to do with the disastrous Brexit referendum of 2016. Mrs May and her team of politicians and civil servants have just completed negotiations with the European Union. Essentially we have gone for a ‘soft’ Brexit which appears to minimise economic harm, while giving us no input into the way that future EEC laws and regulations are framed. This is more or less what I thought would happen. I don’t see how it could be anything else. I’m slightly inclined to favour a second referendum, but on the other hand I detest political referendums1: eight hundred years ago Britain pioneered representative democracy – in the form of the parliamentary system – and we should stay with it. Parliament softens decisions: if it were left to referendums we would soon return to the death penalty, if not to public executions.

So what will happen? I honestly don’t know. Nobody does. But whatever does eventually transpire, we must try to learn from the experience. For a start, we should make our political system more representative. We should think about lowering the voting age. The first-past-the-post system of electing MPs, simply doesn’t work. Living in a highly Tory county (Lincolnshire) I’m effectively disenfranchised. My vote counts for absolutely nothing whatsoever. I also think we should teach more about politics and political history at school. People need to understand the sophistication of the parliamentary system and why they should cherish it. As it is, people take it for granted and don’t really understand how and why it works so well – and that’s despite the current generation of very second-rate politicians. The fact that the likes of Boris, Corbyn and Rees-Mogg can function at all, says a great deal about the flexibility and restraint of the system in which they operate.

Sadly we’re lumbered with the present bleak situation. This week the Prime Minister is travelling to Europe to try and make her deal a bit better for us. I can’t see her succeeding, as I think politicians in Europe are getting very fed-up with the way we have been behaving – and I don’t blame them. But I do respect Mrs May and the way she has behaved with such dignity. I couldn’t have done it, especially after having voted Remain – as both she and I did. I’d long ago have told Boris and Rees-Mogg to do something unpleasant, perhaps with a rotten carrot.

So I think it very important that somehow – and maybe this is a much protracted after-effect of the dreadful Parliamentary ‘Expenses’ scandal of 2009 – we need to start respecting politicians, of all parties, again. One way to achieve this would be to appreciate and admire the parliamentary system in which they have to operate. Then, and only then, we’ll see an end to these horrid and so divisive referendums. Meanwhile, we must all keep our heads down and fingers crossed. It promises to be an uncomfortable Christmas!

1 Note for pedants: I’m using referendum as an English, not a Latin word, here.

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