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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Our Garden Opens on Sept 25-26th, 2021!

This is just a short piece to announce that we’re opening our garden for the last weekend of September – in a week’s time. Yes, it has been a horrible season for weeds and somehow we’ve managed to get more or less on top of them. But there have been big compensations: the large numbers of grasses are putting out resplendent tassels and the asters are looking better than ever.  Most important of all, plants are looking green and healthy – even this late in the year. And there’s also quite an enticing hint of the strong autumn colours that are to come in October and November.

Last year all our visitors had to book a time-slot in advance, via the National Gardens Scheme website. This year things are different. Yes, you can book an advance slot through the NGS, but you don’t have to. We’ll still let you in. The thing is, the garden is very large (over 10 acres?) and you simply don’t need to rub shoulders with other visitors. Having said that, we’d be very grateful if you could wear masks when queueing for tea, for admission or at the plant stall. First admissions are at 11.00 AM, last at 4.00 PM, but you don’t have to leave until after 5.00 PM, when our volunteers will be starting to pack things up. The cost of admission is £4.50. It’s worth remembering that evenings are starting to draw in.

Last year we weren’t allowed to sell tea or drinks, but our brilliant Tea Team came up with the idea of offering pre-wrapped slices of cake in its place. They proved hugely popular, so we plan to repeat them, but we’ll also be offering our visitors traditional tea and cake, served on antique china with cups and saucers (not mugs, perish the thought!). And the tea is brewed properly in a teapot, so you don’t have to dangle a bag in your cup. The teas will be served from the pergola at the back of the house, which we refer to as the Poop Deck, because of its wooden floor. The large wisteria on the back of the house and the pergola is starting to form a green roof. The plant stall, run by Linda, will feature plants from our garden and those of our helpers. This year it’s very well stocked.  Last year we also offered the sheltered little paddock alongside Chicken Lane, at the back of the vegetable garden, as a place for enjoying picnics. That also proved a big hit, so we plan to repeat it this year. If it’s not too wet we’ll also provide a few straw bales. One other thing to return from 2019 will be the stall of second-hand gardening books, provided by my brother-in-law Nigel Smith, who also edits this blog. Thank you Nigel!

It’ll be great to see you back. And remember, spend money like water: every penny will go to nursing and medical charities. We’re looking forward to it hugely!

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A Torrid Early Summer

Gosh this has been a strange summer and I don’t know if readers have shared our inability to tie down which day of the week we are currently living through. Yesterday was Friday, but all day Maisie and I were convinced it was Saturday – and this despite the fact that I had just gone to Long Sutton market, which only takes place on Fridays … creepy! Today (August 8th) the Olympics end, which will be good as I’m not sure I can cope with many more ecstatic radio interviews with over-excited skate-boarders. Gosh, I do sound like a grumpy old man: sorry! Time to turn to books and gardens.

And first to books. Sadly Heffers had to cancel their late summer signings, but it looks like autumn events will be taking place. My friends at Toppings Bookshop in Ely tell me that tickets for my talk and signing on September 6th are selling well and unless there is yet another health emergency it will certainly be going ahead. Other events to promote Scenes from Prehistoric Life are currently being arranged and I’ll report on any progress. I was also glad to hear that booksellers tell me that The Fens is still selling briskly, which is very cheering, as I really enjoyed writing it. I hope these late sales will help compensate for the fact that Covid-19 struck Britain at precisely the same time we launched the paperback; we had to cancel over twenty bookshop events. I think I’ve said this before, but it can’t be over-stressed: signings are where authors get to meet their readers and they are SO important. I can’t wait to do Ely!

I really do think that we are starting to feel the effects of climate change. Laying aside global floods and wildfires, the day-to-day weather seems to be getting more extreme. I called the early summer torrid – and it has been, but in both its senses: hot and turbulent. Britain has had a summer of successive wet weather fronts from off the Atlantic, interspersed with hot spells when high pressure predominated. So we’d remove barrowfuls of weeds in the warm weather, only then to watch as new ones sprung up when the next spell of wet weather arrived. Some parts of the garden have been thoroughly weeded five times. I can’t recall a summer like it.

I want to start this blog post with a photo of a corner of the orchard I took on August 4th. Basically, amateur orchard keepers fall into two schools: pruners and non-pruners. I tend to favour the latter, with the exception, of course of the espaliers in the vegetable garden. But when I did the first cutting of the long grass beneath and around the trees in the orchard I found it very difficult to drive the mower beneath the long, dangling branches, many of which were laden with fruit. I could deny it no longer: it was time to do a summer prune.

The big advantage of a mid-summer prune is that it doesn’t stimulate as big a regrowth as a winter prune. There are other advantages, too. This year has seen huge numbers of apples and I must confess I’ve usually got better things to do in early summer than to spend time thinning them out. So a late June/July pruning can be used to remove surplus apples. I also use the summer prune to let more light and air into those trees that are getting a bit congested. As the next photo shows, after the pruning I always think the orchard looks far more businesslike.

On the same day I took the ‘after’ view of the orchard I took four other pictures of the garden. The first is a view along the main double border, looking west, towards the large oak seat. It shows how well the various herbaceous plants are starting to blend together. Having been so warm and wet, it has been a particularly good year for day lilies, the red one in the left foreground being Hemerocallis ‘Alan’. The tall, golden dawn redwood Metasequoia glyptostroboides, ‘Gold Rush’ has grown particularly well this summer. Like the hemerocallis it has really thrived in the wet. I love the way its golden leaves contrast with the colours of the border plants below it.

I turned round to take the next view of the main border, looking west, towards the pergola, which is largely hidden by shadow. When she drew up her initial planting plan Maisie wanted the two halves of the border to contrast, but in hopefully quite a subtle way. So the previous picture is dominated by reddish/purple hues whereas this is a scene of whites and yellows and gold. The yellow trumpets of the hemerocallis to the left belong to the named variety, ‘Marian Vaughan’.

Another group of plants that thrive in wetter conditions are the various types of New Zealand flax or phormium. The long leaves of phormiums are very fibrous indeed and have been known to stop the blades of rotary lawnmowers when they get wound around them. This year most of our phormiums have also put out a magnificent display of flowers which remain tall and stately for the rest of the summer.

The last of my recent views of the garden was taken round the back of the barn. I rather like the rather sinuous mown grass path which only gets sunlight in the morning. So hostas thrive there. This year their leaves have been attacked by slugs, despite all our efforts to keep them at bay. So I thought I’d take a picture of them in flower, when the leaves are not quite so evident. I can’t recall a better show of hosta flowers – and again, it lasted twice as long as normal.

And now, as they say, for something completely different. Over the years I’ve been trying to improve the way I store potatoes. This is largely because our heavy soil means that slug damage can be a constant problem, especially in wet years such as this. In the past I would often find that slug-damaged potatoes had started to rot and had spread the rot to the potatoes near them in the storage bag. I very quickly learned not to keep potatoes in plastic bags. So I tend to use cardboard boxes, or, more commonly, double-thickness brown paper bags. Happily for us our chicken pellets come in such bags. Good, frost-free but well-ventilated storage helped cut down the spread of rot, but the development that made the greatest difference came a few years later when somebody (a visiting potato farmer, perhaps?) suggested that I should let the spuds dry in the open air for a few days, before putting them in their storage bags. This allows them to form protective skins, but it’s important that they be shielded from direct sunlight, which will soon turn those skins tough and green. The green skins taste nasty and are not very healthy, especially, I gather, for expectant mothers. So this next picture shows the potatoes I’ve selected for keeping arranged by variety on my workshop floor. I’ve only retained the larger ones. All the smaller ones and those with bad slug damage will go into boxes for immediate consumption. When I shut the double doors the sunlight will be excluded, but I’ll also cover the potatoes with a sheet of brown paper, just to be certain. Just for the record, this year the best slug resistance was provided by the second early variety Kestrel (I grow it every year) and the pink-skinned main crop Desiree. I need hardly add that both have excellent flavour. Given the chaos caused to the food supply chain by Brexit and Covid, it’s good to know that we have more than enough potatoes to see us through the winter.

In mid-July our neighbours cut the hay meadow, turned it twice and baled it on July 18th. They told me the hay was excellent and it certainly smelled very sweet. When we kept sheep ourselves, the dozen, or so, large round bales provided by the meadow, together with another dozen or so from the grass along the dykeside brinks around the edge of the wood and garden, would feed our in-lamb ewes for the couple of months in late winter/spring when they were housed in the barn for lambing. Our meadow has never been a garden feature alone. It has always had to earn its keep.

And finally, a view of the Rose Garden taken on the 4th of July, during a brief dry spell when I somehow managed to cut the grass. Everything looks wonderfully lush and luxuriant, including the pink flowers of the sweet-smelling Hybrid Musk rose, ‘Cornelia’. The heavy rains of July washed out many of the older roses, reducing them to shrivelled-up brown paper parcels. Modern roses have been bred to be rain resistant, but I have to say I’m less keen on their bright colours and lack of scent. Everything comes with a price. The three trees along the back of the picture are (left to right) an American river birch, a cut-leafed alder and, biggest of all, a golden Leylandii. While we were planning the garden I had read somewhere that the hedging Leylandii could be grown as a tree. So I bought a small cutting of the slower-growing golden variety and planted it, sometime around 1995. It’s now a substantial tree that casts such a deep shade that it’s difficult to plant beneath it. I often show this tree to younger gardeners who might be planning to grow a Leylandii hedge. Yes, they do provide an instant barrier, but they need cutting at least twice a year and draw huge amounts of nutrients from the soil. I like my single tree, even if the gold colour has faded, but I’d hesitate before I planted another one. And as for a hedge! Please think twice.

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Front of House

If truth be known, I would always far rather be working or just relaxing behind the scenes. I have never been much of a centre stage or front of house person. I confess that some people might find that admission a bit odd, as these days I seem to spend much of my time standing in front of  audiences – and sometimes quite large ones – at literary festivals and bookshop signings, when I tell the world about the glories concealed in my latest book. I must also admit that I do like doing such talks, but for me the real reward comes after the front-of-house lecture, when I retreat to a desk, quite often behind the scenes outside the lecture hall, to sign copies of my books. This is where I get to meet my readers face-to-face – and I really have been missing those occasions. In the spring of 2020 we had to cancel about 25 signings because of the pandemic and I suspect we might not get back to the ‘old normal’ in 2021. I don’t like the idea of meeting my readers with a Perspex screen separating us, but I fear it may come to that. I’ve had two jabs, as, I suspect, have most of my British readers, but even so, the new highly infections Delta variant of the disease might well infect a few of us.  Maybe we should hold future signings in swimming pools, where we all wear flippers, masks and snorkels. Sorry, that’s a silly idea.

I do apologise for that introductory paragraph, which was completely irrelevant to the subject matter of this blog post, but it did allow me to vent my feelings about something I care about deeply: namely, meeting my readers. It’s one of the main reasons why I like writing books – or indeed, this blog – and it stimulates me to try out ideas that some might find a bit controversial. One day I’d like to write a blog post on raised vegetable beds, which to me seem a very expensive excuse to prize vast sums of money out of well-intended younger gardeners all in the name of supposed soil health.  With land becoming increasingly scarce, it seems crazy to box it up into tiny little raised beds, none of which could produce enough potatoes to feed a healthy family for more than a week. But enough of that: I’m about to embark on a second rant and we haven’t yet been treated to a single picture.

Again, apologies for the first two paragraphs. Time to bite the bullet. This blog will largely be about the garden in front of the house. It’ll end with something a bit more reflective. But now to that first picture which I think for once in my life looks good enough to grace a coffee-table volume about a classic country garden. Almost Great Dixter standard – or is that going just a bit too far? Incidentally, when I was a child and was getting carried away with enthusiasm, or just showing off, my mother would calm me down with: “Steady darling, you’re going too far!” She was always smiling, so I don’t think she really meant it, and as I know, she loved it when people went too far. Anyhow, before I digress for a third time, the next picture is a view of the garden in front of our house taken, like all the others in this blog post, in the second week of June. It shows the front garden in all its early summer glory: not so much a bed, as a floral battle field. Originally we intended the front garden to resemble a cottage garden, but as the picture shows, it’s slightly more anarchic. I took the photo through the cheap-and-cheerful hazel arch out of the herb garden. We have to replace the hazel every couple of years, using rods I cut from the wood you can glimpse in the background.

The rose over the arch is the Hybrid Musk ‘Daybreak’ and she smells as good as she looks (I can’t refer to roses as ‘it’!). The small dark green shrub in the foreground is a rarish privet, Ligustrum rotundifolium, which Maisie spotted in a specialist nursery. I was sceptical at first, but as usual her choice proved right. Maisie was the main inspiration behind the front garden’s general arrangement and the selection of plants – and this year she has been the principal weeder as well. I don’t know how she managed to get on top of those weeds, but she did. I’ve never known such a year for weeds: it has been appalling!

This is a close-up of the flowering perennials visible in the first picture. To the left are our own hybrids of the pale blue delphinium ‘Summer Skies’, together with peonies and lupins. Most of the lupins are our own hybrids and I cannot be certain about the peonies’ names without leaving my desk, putting on a waterproof and dropping to my knees in search of labels. So let’s move onto the next picture.

This is a view down the path linking our back door to the barn (in the background). During lambing this was the route we used to collect milk for lambs or injections for sick and ailing ewes. So it was straight and direct – and certainly not picturesque. Shortly after we built the farm, sometime around 1997, we bought the fig tree in the mid-background, a reliably hardy and delicious variety known as Brown Turkey. An old friend advised us to plant it over the body of a dead sheep, which we did when a poor ewe died during lambing. It was sound advice and that magnificent fig tree is wonderful memorial to her. This year the fig leaves were very late to appear – I reckon at least 4-6 weeks behind what you’d expect in a normal season. I do enjoy the Loch Ness Monster box hedge.

For some reason the warmth and damp of early June really suited the Oriental Poppies in the border beneath the back wall. Often the deep shade thrown by the fig leaves means that the poppies (Papaver ‘Goliath’) below aren’t quite as good as those in the sunnier parts of the border. But not this year: they are looking splendid.

My final picture is of the bamboo garden on a warm, sunny day. I’m sitting on a deck chair sipping a cup of tea and listening to the yaffle of green woodpeckers shaping their nests in the nearby and recently pollarded willows. It’s taken our garden a long time to acquire dappled shade and now that we’ve got it, we plan to cherish it. And that brings me to my final point.

Gardens are about more than plants, lawns and borders. Gardeners too spend their time doing a lot more than merely tilling the soil and pruning shrubs. I think Covid has certainly shown that gardens and gardening are vital to both mental and physical health. But there is far, far more to them than even those huge benefits. Gardening is an art and a craft: a good garden is a vehicle for expression and creation. We gardeners must never under-estimate the importance of what we are doing. If I may adapt the famous line by John Keats, for those of us who garden – who have to garden – our gardens are ‘a joy forever.’ It was thoughts along these lines that prompted me to approach my publishers (Head of Zeus) for a follow-up to my last book, The Fens. And to my delight they have agreed. So when I’m not in bookshops signing and promoting my very next book (to be published in early August), Scenes from Prehistoric Life, I’ll be out in the garden taking photos, or tapping away furiously at the keypad of my laptop writing the first draft of Our Fenland Garden. The current deadline for the manuscript is the end of May 2022, with publication a few months later. I’m so excited!!

And finally, this morning I went out into the veg garden and picked a good supply of petit pois, which have been delicious this year. Maisie loves them too, especially with minty new potatoes and she thought both the potatoes and the peas would go very well with two duck breasts we had in the freezer – and which needed eating up. So she Googled ‘Duck with green peas’ and was about to press Return, when she noted her spell-checker had changed it to ‘Duck with green beaks’! Isn’t technology wonderful?

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May 2021: Wet, Wet, Wet!

I’m starting to write this blog post on the last day of May, which happens to be a Monday and a Bank Holiday. More to the point, we’ve got some close friends coming to spend the day with us. They’ll be the first  official visitors we’ve had to our house since we went into the first Covid-19 lockdown, back in March, 2020. True, we’ve had plenty of people in our garden, including of course our friends and supporters who came for the National Gardens Scheme open weekend, last September, but even then, we couldn’t allow people inside the house. But much has changed since last autumn and most importantly of all, Maisie and I have both received our two inoculation jabs. So even if we do manage to catch the disease it’s very unlikely indeed that we will become seriously ill (and as I lift my fingers from the keyboard they will all instantly cross themselves, firmly).

I have the television on in the background (sound turned off), as I always try to catch the early morning weather forecast which is done by a real living meteorologist and is always more reliable than the BBC Weather App on my phone, which seems to change radically from one minute to the next. And I can never understand why the hourly summary predicts rain from, say, 10-11 AM, but list the ‘probability of precipitation’ as just 21%. Very odd. If I’d handled statistics like that as a student I’d have failed my exams. But I digress: the reason I mention the television wasn’t to rant about an App, but to tell my long-suffering readers, that all morning the screen has been showing pictures of vast crowds on beaches at resorts in Bognor, Bournemouth and Skegness, to name just three. People look very happy, but also rather sunburnt and – dare I say it? – slightly overweight. Gosh, we Brits are becoming a nation of fatties.

Maybe I’m just being a predictable old sexist, but I seem to remember that back in the ‘60s and ‘70s most overweight people were female – often ladies ‘of a certain age’ who had raised their children and were now relaxing and enjoying well-earned cake, cream and fish and chips. Meanwhile, of course their husbands were down at the pub doing something similar but with a very slightly less fattening brown ale. But the thing that struck me when I saw the recent footage of people on the beach, was that younger men were overweight too. Does this reflect the fact that much modern work is screen-based or power-assisted? I honestly don’t know, but I think we do need to recognise and address the overweight problem, because if we don’t, the younger generations will have to face complex health crises that will make Covid seem relatively trivial. And as a serious afterthought to a serious thought, surely the problem that lies beneath the phenomenon of increasing overweight isn’t sugary drinks or fatty, over-processed foods. They’re a symptom, not the cause which is Education. Simple as that. Poor or inadequate education is of fundamental importance. It has given rise to so many social evils, not the least of which is populist politics. I could never understand why it was that populist politicians like Hitler rose so rapidly to power in the 1930s. I think now I am beginning to understand. Populists espouse and believe in Quick Fixes, such as Brexit, but which often backfire, as Bolsonaro is discovering in Brazil. But there are no quick fixes to poor education, which is all about consistent standards and steady progress which can only be provided by well and kindly run local schools and colleges. Love, humour and tolerance – the three biggest enemies of populist bigotry – can best be taught to children and young adults by personal contact with their friends and teachers in classrooms and lecture theatres. You’ll be relieved to know that that’s the end of my late spring rant, which was largely triggered by the British Government’s pathetic response to the damage to education caused by Covid. Meanwhile, back to the blog and the garden, where I was talking about our first two visitors on the last day of May.

Our friends have two young children who love visiting the farm and garden and it’s great, because young children don’t recognise weeds: to them a dandelion is a lovely yellow flower and its seed-head is something to blow away with delight. To a gardener, of course, they are a pernicious weed with an impossibly long tap root. Anyhow, our garden is full of dandelions and of other weeds, including vast areas of grass, creeping buttercups and goosegrass, whose cleaving leaves, stems and seeds stick to one’s clothes and spread everywhere. I find they also irritate my skin. But the point I’m trying to make is that the weeds in our garden are ubiquitous. And why? Because it has been the wettest, coldest May on record and weeding has generally been impossible – because our clay-silt soil compacts terribly if stood upon in the wet. The frost damage has been quite considerable, too, including several apple trees, whose blossoms were aborted. So let’s retrace our steps through the month since my last blog post, starting with two pictures taken on May 5th.

The first was taken near the wood and is a view across the meadow with the fastigiate English oak (Quercus robur var. ‘Fastigiata’) towards the centre of the picture, in the background. Every spring the carpet of cowslips gets more prominent and spreads a little further. There must be hundreds of thousands of plants there – and they all started from a handful of seed which I gathered back in 1994 from our old garden in Parson Drove. The ash trees in the wood haven’t even begun to leaf-up and yet the (supposedly) wild apple to the right of the fastigiate oak is coming into blossom. As I currently write, now in early June, ash trees are looking greener, but even now, one or two in open, exposed conditions are only just starting to open their buds. In June! Fully six weeks to two months late! What a weird season.

The second is a view from the rose garden, where the box hedging is starting to look a little sad (a form of blight took hold after recent wet winters, made worse by this May’s incessant downpours), but with the Tea Shed glimpsed in the background. The gorgeous crab apple Malus sylvestris ‘Evereste’ is just coming into bloom in front of it. One of the things I like about our garden is that we don’t have many secluded ‘rooms’. It makes me smile if one can catch glimpses of different areas, unexpectedly. We don’t plan these – they just happen, which makes them so much more fun! I hadn’t noticed this particular view until I took the picture.

This view was taken almost three weeks later, after a horrible spell of wet, cold weather. Honestly, we both thought winter had returned, with ceaseless freezing cold winds from off the North Sea. It was horrible…brrrrr! It’s a view over the front garden with the wood (seen in the first picture) in the background. The trees are a little bit greener, but not much. You can also spot that some of the ash trees are suffering from Ash Dieback disease – a deadly fungal infection known as Hymenoscyphus fraxineus. Woodland ash trees are particularly susceptible and many of ours are dying. By contrast, the garden in the foreground is full of life and the first flowers of summer are starting to emerge. As I write I can see the lupins in the front garden which are looking wonderful, and in full bloom.

The weather stayed dry and three days later on May 31st I took two further pictures. The first is a view along the main double border. The lawn hasn’t been mowed because the ground is still too soft and the border’s edges haven’t been trimmed (for the same reason: edges collapse if you stand too close to them). But I think this picture is full of promise for early summer. True, there are creeping buttercup flowers in the grass, but so what? I hate weed-free lawns almost as much as I detest the English obsession with striped lawns. Grass should be lush and healthy, not over-trimmed and stripy. Personally, I always think of those bloody stripes as the gardening equivalent of handcuffs; they tell me that this grass is captured, taken prisoner and bound-over to a permanent jail where control is maintained by tight mowing, synthetic fertiliser and hormone weedkillers. Freedom for lawns NOW!!

In the evening I took a stroll down towards the pond garden. The untrimmed lawns are still much in evidence, as are the recently pollarded willows, which are just sprouting into regrowth. But what is it about the low sunlight of a Fenland evening? There’s simply nothing like it. Sometimes when I’m doing an early summer barbeque, this light can be so distracting, sometimes leading to burnt chicken wings and singed sausages.

The final two pictures were taken on the following day, June 1st. The first shows a view across the meadow similar to the initial picture of this blog post, but taken with a slightly wider-angled lens. The grass has grown a lot, following all the May rain, but in this later picture the subtle pale yellow of the cowslips has been replaced by the much more vigorous tones of the meadow buttercup. I didn’t plant a single one of these; they all spread naturally into the garden from surrounding dykesides. So none of this is planned, but it also couldn’t be improved upon. To my eye that buttercup display is pure perfection – and it happened entirely by itself. It’s the sort of thing that gives gardening its very special magic.

My final picture is in complete contrast to that lovely buttercup scene. It shows a view of the vegetable garden with onions, peas and potatoes in neat, regimented rows. In the foreground, beneath mesh is a row of early summer cabbages and tender stem broccoli, and to the right, beneath netting (not mesh, as this prevents bees from pollinating the flowers) are this season’s strawberries, which I’m very pleased with. They’ve got lots of flowers and we should be blessed with a large crop in a few weeks. The raspberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants, largely hidden behind the greenhouse, are also looking very promising.

So that’s it. Lockdown looks like it’ll be easing and I’m delighted to report that nurseries and garden centres seem to be prospering. If this nasty pandemic has given us anything positive, let’s hope we find that more people are out in their gardens and allotments. Whatever else they’ll be doing, they won’t be wasting their time. And they won’t be putting on weight, either. Lovely buttery, home-grown potatoes make you positively lithe and slimline – at least that’s what I tell people. Time for a glass of Pimms with our own fresh mint and Alpine strawberries: bliss!

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Hi Pressure in Command!

You can’t beat a good, challenging title – until, that is, you start writing. Then you have to face reality. It’s late-ish April (the 23rd) and I’ve just turned the television off because the screen is a mass of pixilated blobs and the sound is, if anything, worse. This always happens around here in high pressure weather, because the signal out in this part of the coastal Fens is so poor. Outside in the front garden two doves are sitting on the fence in the early morning sunshine, seemingly chatting over the events of the day. Many of the shrubs and plants around them are cloaked with a light covering of hoar frost and the large dark pink flowers of the small magnolia bush look a bit droopy in the cold. This is the third week of high pressure and it’s starting to have quite a serious effect: crops aren’t growing due to a complete lack of rain and heavily grazed pastures simply aren’t recovering. Normally at this time of year you can’t spot the ant hills in the meadow beyond our front garden, but this morning they stand out prominently – as do the green woodpeckers feeding off them.

And then of course there are those other, more metaphorical high pressures: the appalling surge of Covid in India, the continuing disaster that is Bolsonaro’s Brazil and then there is always Putin – and China. And Brexit… But there are also signs of hope: thanks to the NHS, both Maisie and I have had our second Covid jabs and as one doctor wisely said, it looks at last as if Britain is moving from a pandemic to an endemic state. So with luck I’ll be signing books again later this year. Talking of which, I’ve just been sent my corrected page proofs for Scenes from Prehistoric Life in Britain, which is due to go to the printer in a few weeks’ time. Other signs of hope include President Biden who seems to be reversing most of Trump’s incompetent blunders. His latest initiative, a digital conference of world leaders about climate change does really seem to have made progress. Having said that, I do hope that Britain’s loudly proclaimed ambitious carbon-reduction targets won’t be like our Prime Minister’s other ‘world-beating’ test-and-trace programme, or his government’s failed attempt to help house-holders install better insulation. Like most other sane people in Britain, I remain far from convinced that the government can achieve any of their lofty targets, unless, that is, they can pass the project on to competent people outside the increasingly suspect Westminster Bubble – which is why the NHS vaccination project was such a success. But enough of that. Let’s take a walk in the garden and consign politicians to the mental muck-heap where so many of them seem to belong these days. It’s time for some fresh air!

I shall start with the view that greeted me a few days ago, when I opened the long curtains covering the French doors leading out onto the Poop Deck, the sitting-out space at the back of the house. Directly in front is the small border, with the main double border running parallel to it, to the right. As you can see, we’ve largely cut back the herbaceous seed-heads and last season’s stems. In many public gardens these are removed in the autumn, to keep things looking neat and tidy and also to prevent the appearance of seedlings where you don’t want them, but we dig them up and if they’re good enough, we’ll sell them on our plant stall to raise money for the NGS. Also the seed heads provide food for the hundreds of long-tailed tits, sparrows and other finches that populate the garden during the coldest months of winter. In our garden the removal of the seed heads normally happens (with Jason Gardener’s help) in later March before the new season’s growth gets under way.

Four days before I snapped the frosty scene I took my camera out into the Long Border where I took this view of the two small trees of Amelanchier grandiflora ‘Robin Hill’, which we planted about fifteen years ago. At the time we were still planting lengths of the hornbeam hedges that form the border’s backdrop. By far and away the most reliable and high quality hedging supplier was Buckingham Nursery and in their catalogue Maisie spotted the Amelanchiers – and bought a couple, along with a few dozen 3 year-old hornbeam plants. They flower regularly every springtime and require virtually no maintenance – and what’s more they seem to tolerate – even enjoy! – our wet, heavy soils. I’m also delighted to report that Buckingham Nursery are still going strong: I’m always delighted when family-run businesses succeed. There’s something so cold and soulless about huge corporations – as we’ve just seen in England with the collapse of the European Super League – a bare-faced attempt to make the sport of soccer yet another marketable commodity. I’m so glad it failed.

We thought back in late March that spring had arrived: the ceaseless rain stopped and there were quite prolonged glimpses of the sun. I think I even started wearing one of my broad-brimmed Canadian Tilley hats to ward off the possibility of sunburn. The forecast didn’t look too bad so I decided to take the opportunity to plant my first early potatoes, which had been chitting on a windowsill indoors for about two months. The chits (sprouts) should be tight and dark green for the most vigorous growth – and these ones looked good. I normally try to get the first earlies in by the end of March; this should avoid the possibility of frost damage, but in 2020 some of them got quite badly damaged by an unexpected late air frost. As I write (April 25th) the first leaves are just poking through the surface and I’m having to earth them up to protect them from continuing regular frosts. English weather is so unpredictable!

I took three other pictures on the 24th of March and I’m pleased to report that they’re slightly more interesting than that row of seed spuds (and the wonderful 50+ year-old Dutch hoe I use to earth them up). After planting that first row of early potatoes I took the camera out into the meadow as the sun was shining and the daffodils were looking at their best. Back in 1994-5 we planted several drifts of the supposedly native British daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) in the area we had staked out as our semi-ornamental hay meadow. I say ‘semi-ornamental’ because it had a job to do: to provide fodder for the ewes when they came into the barn for their six weeks of lambing in March and early April. In certain cold, wet years the daffs can be very poor with short flower stalks and poor blooms. But not in 2021: I don’t think I have ever seen them looking so good!

Having snapped the daffodils I started to head back to the house, when my attention was caught by a loud ‘yaffle’ – the distinctive call of the green woodpecker. It came from somewhere near Chicken Lane and as the chickens were still confined to our small barn (as per regulations, to avoid avian flu), I thought I might get a chance for a good picture of a woodpecker feeding off an ant hill, for this blog post. But when I arrived at Chicken Lane I was astonished by the pale blossom of the sloes and wild plums in the low sunlight of early spring. We planted the trees and shrubs that line Chicken Lane in the mid-nineties and I don’t think we could have done any better – even if we had employed an expensive, fashionable garden designer. Sometimes you just stumble upon perfection.  

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My Next Book! ‘Scenes From Prehistoric Life’

First, I must apologise for the delay in producing this blog post. Life has been very frantic, what with Covid, writing and editing. The weather hasn’t helped either, in fact I increasingly use the term ‘global weirding’ to describe the meteorological effects, in Britain at least, of climate change. Frankly, it’s been a bloody cold and wet late winter and early spring and life in the garden has featured mud everywhere, and buds stubbornly refusing to crack open – yet the lawns continued to grow. Then, about a week ago in the last few days of March, the Weather God came to his or her senses and suddenly temperatures shot up: three days ago it was about 22 Celsius, now it’s back to a chilly 8. Those three days of above average temperatures (including the hottest March day, in England, for about 50 years) allowed me to get my First and Second Early potatoes planted – but frosts (including air frosts!) are forecast, so I’ve got to remain cautious. So that gives me an opportunity to return to this blog (‘and not before time!’ I hear loyal followers muttering…).

In mid-to-late March I received the proofs of my next book, which you’ll have already gathered from the title of this post, is all about Scenes from Prehistoric Life. There are fifteen Scenes and as I write this short post I am very aware that I’ve proofread eight of them – so I’m (just) over half-way through them and have a deadline for their return to my Editor at Head of Zeus, of April 20th. So with luck I’ll make it, providing, that is, I don’t start a tirade in this blog about Brexit or the horrible lurch towards the hard right in British politics, which is worrying so many people, myself included. So no ranting. No tirades. Get thee behind me Satan (visions of Andy Hamilton in Old Harry’s Game…).

Herewith a few well-chosen words about my new book (and I can’t be arsed to repeat the title for a third time, although I can hear my publicist urging me to do so: ‘repetition never hurt anyone, Francis!’).  She can be very persuasive… So I will, its…

…wait for it…

…Sod it, let’s skip straight to the cover picture (cue roll of drums and the approaching sound of the Band of the Coldstream Guards playing stirring extracts from The Enigma Variations):

I think that’s a really good cover which the designers at Head of Zeus have assembled, based on a print by artist Andy Lovell. They’re all to be congratulated: well done! This is a book which follows on from what I was attempting to do in Paths to the Past, which many readers have told me they enjoyed a lot. As I’ve pulled back from a day-to-day involvement with the nuts and bolts of archaeology, but continue to spend the majority of every day outside and getting my hands dirty with practical work, I’ve started to contemplate why the ordinary, day-to-day aspects of life matter so much – and how they can link us so vividly to the lives of people in the sometimes very remote past.

I don’t want to stress what this book is not about, but seeing as how history on television, and via Netflix and similar outlets, these days is all about royalty, fantasy and great leaders, I think it’s time to put forward a different way of viewing the past: from the bottom, up; not from the top, down. And when I say ‘up’, I’m not just referring to how ordinary men, women and children would have viewed their social and spiritual leaders – although of course that’s one part of the story – but how they might have thought of themselves and the lives they were living. I suppose I’ve always been interested in what it means to be human and how we all have the power to change the world for worse, or better. For me, these things matter profoundly and in Scenes I’ve tried to rethink the past, as I’ve read about and experienced it, in a slightly different way. This is certainly not a book for students or academics, unless, perhaps they find themselves reading it when we’re all allowed, once again, back into pubs – or maybe when they’re sitting in a garden, gin-and-tonic in hand, while listening to the sound of crows returning to their night-time roosts, as the sun slowly retreats below the distant horizon. Does that set the Scene? I hope so. Publication date is August 5th. So there’s not too long to wait – and with luck (if enough copies of the hardback sell) there’ll be a much cheaper paperback a year later.

Finally, of course it’s impossible to predict a virus with any precision, but I’ve already had my first (Astra-Zeneca, Oxford) vaccine and have been booked in for my second one next week. As I write, 32 million Brits have been jabbed. We’re also likely to get a variant boost-jab in September/October. With luck the so-called ‘new normal’ will see Covid managed rather like ‘flu, and if that is indeed the case (fingers crossed!), then I should once again start re-connecting with my readers at signings in bookshops and Literary Festivals up and down the country. I find those signings so rewarding: it’s great to meet my readers and hear what they really think about my books. And I’m delighted to say that some of my latest offerings have been well enjoyed, especially, Home, Paths to the Past and, of course, The Fens. Let’s hope Scenes goes down as well as they did! And heartfelt thanks to all my readers for their, for your, loyalty and patience.

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Winter Tasks and Signs of Hope

Back in the 1970s I lived for nine years in the Canadian city of Toronto. I spent most of summer excavating in England, but I used to return every autumn. When I returned, often in later October the first question I would ask was: ‘When is the weather going to turn?’ Even back then, before meteorological satellites had really made much of an impression, weather forecasters had become very good at predicting when the northerly air mass would swing south and winter would begin. And it was quite a dramatic process, leading to sharp drops in temperature which caused tree and shrub leaves to suddenly colour-up and then drop. I know of nowhere so spectacular as the maple and birch woodlands of Canada and New England in the Fall. They are a classic illustration of the predictability and sharpness of continental weather systems. Things are very different away from the great land-masses in places such as Britain, a medium-sized island, just off the European mainland, on the western edge of the North Atlantic Ocean. In these places, weather is much harder to predict with any certainty more than about five days in advance, even today, when satellite technology allows us to track the Jetstream and follow the weather systems below it.

British weather is very strange and no two seasons are ever quite the same. A year ago, the winter and early spring of 2019-20, was one of the wettest on record and gardening was very difficult. This year has been wet, too, but somehow it has felt even wetter. It has certainly been very much colder with snow lying for many days and frequent frosty nights. Last year there were a few ground frosts (caused by the radiation of heat out of the ground), but air frosts (where the actual air temperature drops below freezing) were very unusual. This year a succession of sharp air frosts will have had a very beneficial effect in the garden, because aphids and fungal diseases were starting to become a real problem, following a series of mild winters. For some reason, too, this winter and spring, water seems to have stayed longer on the surface. I don’t think I have ever seen so many mini-lakes and shallow ponds appear in fields of growing wheat and barley. When eventually they do drain they leave behind a great smear of mud. As an archaeologist I find such shallow surface water fascinating because it can reveal traces of much earlier ditches and hollows.

Our farm is located off a later medieval droveway which helped to mark and divide up the edge-of-parish grazing. Surface drainage of this land was aided by a series of parallel shallow ditches, which bounded strip fields known as dylings. Boundaries of these dylings lie beneath our house, garden and grazing fields. Many of them showed up in the recent wet weather, including this clear example which I photographed from upstairs.

The wet weather of late January revealed outlines of the ditches that bounded  medieval dylings, or strip fields, which still lie hidden beneath our house and farm. This example can be seen behind the small trees and shrubs in the foreground; it then runs across the paddock, towards the hawthorn bush near the large hedge that follows the line of the medieval droveway, at right-angles to the dyling.

Last winter we cut back half the rose hedge that runs alongside the driveway to the house and farmyard. This year the work was done by Jason  using a selection of power tools from his vast and comprehensive collection – I still don’t know how he manages to fit them all in his van, let alone how he keeps them in impeccable condition. He did the job rapidly and very well, but leaving the hawthorn, bramble and elder seedlings which I dug out the following day.

Jason cutting back the rose hedge that runs alongside the drive. Hawthorn seedlings have been left intact for me to remove the following day.

The main job I had for Jason and his assistant was much heavier work than strimming-off a rose hedge. On the other side of the drive on top of a low bank that skirts the garden pond on its western edge, we planted a row of white willows which we intended to pollard. We did this after about fifteen years of growth in, I think, 2010. I vaguely recall doing a second cutting-back in 2013 and I was planning to do another one in 2016 or ’17, but by then my hip was giving me trouble and climbing up a ladder with a chainsaw didn’t appeal – even slightly. So I tried to get a contractor, but was let down, twice. Then I had the hip-replacement operation and pollarding slipped even further down my list of top priorities. It wasn’t until large branches starting blowing down and blocking the drive – which happened twice in 2019 and 2020 – that I was reminded of the problem. But by then we’d discovered Jason – who arrived triumphantly to the rescue in late January, 2021. And here’s a view of him at work,

Jason pollarding grossly over-grown willows near the pond. Note the large shredder/chipper in the foreground and the huge heap it produced.

Before he arrived, Jason had told me about a new shredder/chipper he had just bought which was capable of munching-up very large side-branches. It produced about a ton of chippings, which we plan to spread along the bottom of the tall hornbeam hedges that bound most of the borders. This will act as a mulch in dry summers, but it will also suppress weeds and provide a firmer surface for Jason to stand on when he trims the hedges in later July. The next picture shows what the newly pollarded trees looked like from upstairs. I’m also pleased to report that just a week or so after they were pollarded, at least one of the trees is providing a nest site for a green woodpecker. Result!

The pollarded willows on a snowy morning in early February, 2021.

Every year has its surprises. After a cold and very wet start I honestly didn’t think that the snowdrop display would amount to much. I couldn’t see how any flower could be expected to thrive in such conditions, but I was wrong. Very wrong, as it turns out. I can’t recall a better show: they have been breath-taking. And they have flowered for so long. The first blooms appeared a little bit late, maybe three weeks after Christmas, but they were flowering vigorously by the end of January and have only just started to show signs of flagging as I write, in the last two days of February. And it hasn’t just been snowdrops; aconites have been in flower for about six weeks (far longer than normal) and just like the snowdrops, the hellebores have never looked better. Daffodils don’t normally like wet seasons, but this year there are flower buds on almost every clump and the early varieties were in bloom by mid-February. And to judge by the emerging shoots, the bluebells promise to be great, too. What a season!

So here are two views of the snowdrops in the wood. These are the unimproved ‘native’ species, Galanthus nivalis. I put ‘native’ in quotes, because I suspect they were probably introduced to Britain (along with daffodils??) in Roman times, or just before.

Two views of the snowdrop display in the wood. The willow logs from the newly-trimmed pollards mark-out the corners and junctions of paths. In a few weeks they will have weathered and will blend in better. Soon they will be covered in moss and will provide shelter and protection for wood mice and shrews.

And finally, the first signs of spring! I can hardly recall a year when hazel catkins emerged so slowly. In most years we have the very first ones appear around Christmas-time and they are usually finished by the end of January. This year they are still very evident and send up clouds of pollen when I shake them, in the last days of February. Everyone enjoys hazel catkins, but my personal favourites are the catkins of the common, native, alder, Alnus glutinosa. This season they were more-or-less on time in late February and they are looking great. I took this picture on the edge of the farmyard near the muckheap. I don’t apologise for the junk in the background. I sometimes think modern farmyards are far too neat and tidy, with concrete everywhere and no grotty corners where catkins can can be admired by sheltering rats, mice, hares and wrens.

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Press on Regardless!

I’m afraid it has been a very dark winter, but now there are glimmers of light to be seen. Joe Biden has taken over from Trump, but it was so sad to see Washington under martial law, following the events of January 6th. Let’s hope nobody decides to assassinate the incoming President – as, sadly, such things are not unknown in America. Of perhaps secondary importance to the world at large, but my own news is that I received notification from our NHS doctors’ practice, that I was to receive my first inoculation against Covid-19 on January 21st, in their Wisbech surgery. Hooray! That’s a huge relief – and can I please use this opportunity to urge anyone who has doubts about vaccines and inoculation that they are completely safe. I have absolute trust in the rigorous system the UK possesses for checking all new medicines. All elderly people must get inoculated to help ease future pressure on hospitals, many of which are under the most severe strain.

            I’ve also made a vow that I will try to steer clear of Brexit, because the way it has been handled, or not, still makes me so angry. The government seems to have decided that certain parts of the community simply don’t matter: Scottish fishers and farmers; all musicians; the financial sector and academia in general. I should also add that many working farmers – such as breeders of chickens and exporters of meat – are hitting massive restrictions that threaten their future. What a dreadful mess – and all entirely avoidable. But that’s enough Brexit ranting: I mustn’t develop high blood pressure, or I might blind the nurse with a strong jet of blood when she jabs me tomorrow.

            The weather this winter has been colder than last year, but not quite as wet – which is great. The cold has meant many frosty nights and I’m pleased to report that the segment of the vegetable garden I dug just before Christmas has been well frosted and the hard lumps of clay-silt have broken-down quite well and have started to mix with the manure. By the time I plant the potatoes (in late March) the ground should be in excellent condition. Some of the frosts have already been cold enough to have killed many of the aphids and fungal spores that built-up so hugely following the mild winters of 2018-19 and 2019-20. Last summer the levels of pests and diseases in the garden were terrible and I would have been forced to start having to use sprays in 2021, if those recent frosts hadn’t happened. It still annoys me when I hear everyone on TV and radio endlessly complaining about the cold weather; they can’t be gardeners, any of them.

A view of the garden on the cold morning of December 4th, 2020.

            We were given intimations of what was to come in early December when we were hit by a sharp cold snap, which brought with it something we hadn’t seen for years: three inches of snow – which lay, unmelted on the ground for two days! On Christmas Eve I went out in the garden and found three or four low-hanging branches of something evergreen (I think it’s from a twenty year-old juniper), which I jammed into the socket of a garden umbrella-stand to make an instant ‘tree’. Once you’ve abandoned the idea that Christmas trees must always be conical you can be far more creative. I’ve been making weirdly-shaped Christmas trees from bits of evergreen for at least ten years. Once the ‘tree’ is in place Maisie decorates it – and that’s the bit that takes skill. Whatever I have given her to work on, the result is always stunning. And here’s the one for Christmas 2020.

Our Christmas tree for 2020.

            The late great gardener and garden-writer Christopher Lloyd famously noted words to the effect that ‘a garden disaster is a gardening opportunity’. The unbelievably wet winter of 2019-20 was certainly something of a disaster in our garden: box hedges died and many long-established trees and shrubs suffered badly. Many of these problems were completely unexpected. The path along the edge of the vegetable garden is lined by a double row of espaliered apples and pears. When we laid the garden out in the mid-1990s we were careful to site the veg garden on good, light land that was well-drained. Brassicas and potatoes won’t thrive on heavy or wet ground, which was why we selected a slightly raised patch of silty soil, part of an extinct stream or tidal creek, known in the Fens as a ‘roddon’. So imagine my surprise when in April last year, one of the apple trees in the espalier row started looking very sick. I applied liquid fertiliser to the roots and leaves and briefly we thought it was going to pull through. Then there was another very wet period, followed by several weeks of hot, dry weather, which proved altogether too much for the poor tree.

            The dead espalier was still standing, and actually looking strangely dignified – almost like a symbolic crucifixion – when we opened the garden for the National Gardens Scheme, last September. Strangely, nobody commented on it – which doesn’t surprise me as most of our visitors are gardeners themselves and they must have realised I was reluctant to cut it down. But eventually I had to. So as soon as I’d finished digging the vegetable garden I started up my chainsaw and did the deed. We’ve kept the trunk and some of the knobbly espaliered side-branches to use as decoration for a possible tree- or root-house out in the wood (a project we’ve been planning for some time, but which is probably one of those picturesque schemes that will never get done).

            While I was removing the dead tree and tidying up afterwards, I couldn’t help noticing that the living espaliers were in urgent need of reduction and rejuvenation. They’d grown far too large and bushy which certainly didn’t help their productivity and also meant that they shaded-out a very large area of the vegetable garden behind them.

The vegetable garden espaliers, after the removal of the dead tree, but before their pruning.

            So in the days following Christmas and into the early new year I cut back the espaliers. I have to say that giving a hard cut-back to espaliers isn’t a job I particularly enjoy, because it involves cutting off so many fruiting spurs and promising-looking buds and I kept having to remind myself that I was being cruel to be kind … After about a week of steady work I’d finished. I suspect next season’s yield will be well down, but it should pick up in 2022, fingers crossed. Anyhow, the next two pictures show the completed ‘revived’ espaliers and I think you’ll agree they look quite tight and neat. With luck, the routine autumn pruning should be much simpler in future.

Two views of the vegetable garden espaliered apples and pears, after a restorative pruning, in early January, 2021.

            And finally, let’s look forward to the spring and the delightful blossoming of the may bushes, sloe and wild plum that line both sides of Chicken Lane, the short, straight path that joins the barn, yard and vegetable garden to the woods that enclose the garden on its north and eastern sides. The lane gets its name from the chickens that wonder up and down it in normal years. This year, however, because of avian influenza (bird flu), all five hens and one cockerel are housed within the old implement shed. I think they’d be far, far happier on the muck-heap or in Chicken Lane. But sadly I must keep them confined. There are several large turkey farms in the area and I’d hate to see them infected because we were careless with our few birds.

     As a general rule I try to cut back the side-growth along Chicken Lane every four or five years, but as with the espaliered apples and pears, this year the growth had got out of hand. So I persuaded our neighbour’s son Jessie, who has been helping in the garden once a week for at least five years, to wield the mechanical hedge-trimmer. I explained I wanted to achieve a magnificent arched look – rather like a church. And didn’t he do a great job? I took this picture as he drove the garden tractor back to the barn, triumphant!

Chicken Lane, immediately after Jessie (on the garden tractor) had finished cutting it back.

The photo was taken on January 22nd, the day after I had received my first dose of the Oxford/Astra-Zeneca Covid-19 vaccine. So I think there’s hope for the future. Roll on Spring – I can’t wait for April/May, to see the hedges along Chicken Lane in glorious blossom. And then it’s summer. Followed by autumn – and sloe gin!! And who knows, maybe we’ll be able to share it with a few old friends? We can always hope…

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Always Look On The Bright Side…

…Of Life!” de-dum, de-dum, de-dum de-dum de-dum… And with any luck, that’s a cheerful earful established for the rest of the day.  I bet it beats the hell out of the high background whistling sound my ears have been making for the past few months. I gather it’s tinnitus, probably caused by a combination of old age and a build-up of ear wax. So I’ve been squirting oil in them (the brand I use is called Earol – I love the name!) – and I think it’s starting to work. It always seems worse when I’ve been sitting at my desk tapping away at my laptop, like I’m doing right now. But what the hell – I’ll press on regardless. Which brings me to my first point, which is a cheerful one: he’s gone, that ghastly Trump has at long last been sacked by the US electorate. Thank God, (no, in actual fact: thank people) for democracy! For me at least, Populism and the way it routinely disregards truth, is a major threat to democracy. It has crept up on many of us and taken us by surprise. It’s worth remembering that Hitler and Mussolini were both populists. Only now are we starting to realise what harm Trump has done to the U.S., especially with regard to his arrogant dismissal of all medical advice. His current active support of the death penalty is obscene. But he’ll soon be gone – and with any luck he’ll be prosecuted. Meanwhile, we’ve still got quite a long way to go, especially right here in Britain. So Trump’s departure is a great first step and a huge reason to be cheerful. Cue for return of ear-worm and vision of smiling Eric Idle, stepping lightly from the fridge…

Another reason to be cheerful: a view of the pond in our garden, with the pollarded willows looking particularly glowing. I took this picture in mid-December 2006.IDF

People are making big efforts to raise our morale. It goes without saying that the NHS are performing miracles and I hope the rise of scientific and other medical experts will provide a welcome counter-balance to the usual half-truths and outright lies perpetrated by far too many politicians. But meaningful change happens from the grassroots, up. And what could possibly be more grassroots than the lawns, paddocks, fields, droves and Bronze Age pastures at Flag Fen. Local readers will probably be aware that there have been changes to the way things are being done in Peterborough. The organization created by the City Council to run and manage its museum, theatres and other cultural resources, was known by the name Vivacity. It went bust in June 2020. So the City Council have since decided that Flag Fen is now to be run by Peterborough City College, based in Brook Street, on the eastern side of the City, and not too far from Flag Fen. I know a number of people involved in the new set-up and I feel far, far more relaxed about it, then I did when Vivacity called the shots. It wasn’t always very clear to me what they were aiming at. The new organisation has reassembled an Archaeological Advisory Committee, which I am delighted to serve on, and it seems that some really positive changes might be coming in 2021. Who knows, with luck we might even see small-scale excavation resume there, because without continuing research and monitoring we can have no idea how well the thousands of preserved timbers below the ground are surviving – or drying-out.

But there is one VERY positive omen for the future. The new management has deciding to open the grounds and park at Flag Fen to the public (for free!) for the rest of the winter – until it officially reopens to paying visitors in the spring/summer. The launch event will take place on the mid-winter solstice (very appropriate to the Bronze Age!) on the afternoon of Monday December 21st. And I think a few tickets are still available. Sadly, you must have tickets, to comply with Covid regulations. I have been asked to say a few words of welcome (God knows what they’ll sound like through my thick mask – ho-hum!).

In the days when Fenland Archaeological Trust ran the place, we used to welcome visitors in winter just to enjoy the many walks and the wonderful views of the open Fens. I think Flag Fen has got an atmosphere quite unlike anywhere else and it’s at its very best on clear days in mid-winter, when the sun is low in the sky, the shadows are long and seagulls circle overhead. Sometimes the peace of the afternoon can be broken by the honking sounds of skeins of whooper swans as they make their way back to their evening roosts. Hares scuttle along the overgrown dykesides and dash across the sprouting fields of winter wheat. I’ve even seen roe deer and foxes, not to mention little egrets and grey herons. There’s a wildness and an untamed-ness about the Fens that’s sadly becoming so rare in these grim, and increasingly constrained times. Alone, or with your family at Flag Fen, you could almost imagine that the modern world didn’t exist. It’s a wonderful feeling. So do pay a visit in the New Year – if not before. And who knows, you might get to meet some very nice, like-minded people – fully socially distanced, of course!

A view along the reconstructed Bronze Age droveway at Flag Fen, taken in October 2007, about 18 years after it was initially laid out and the side ditches dug. It’s interesting to see how the side ditches have filled up, by at least a half. This process was entirely natural – the result of moles, frosts and trampling sheep.

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Dig for Sanity!

By the end of November we are past the season of ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’[1] and have entered a time of short days, low clouds and occasional bright skies, with breath-taking displays at dawn and dusk. Even without Covid, these weeks can be melancholy, but I’m also far from certain that melancholy is necessarily about sadness alone. I’ve always regarded it as a type of introspection in which you don’t dwell on yourself. I know that’s hard to comprehend, but it’s something that poets have been wrestling with for a very long time – and I’m certainly no poet. For me, there’s something very comforting and yes, a bit melancholy, in an ordinary autumn view, without the breathtaking colours that have become so obligatory in every gardening magazine at this time of year. I think this photo sums up what I’m trying to capture: an atmosphere of peace and reflection, with hints of something quite spectacular in the middle distance.

A view of the Small Border in late November.

A few hours ago we learnt that despite the Lincolnshire Fens having Covid infection rates that were around the national average, the Westminster government, in their lofty wisdom, had placed the entire county of Lincolnshire in Tier 3 (or Tear 3, as all the tabloid newspapers prefer it), which has the most severe restrictions. Lincolnshire is the second largest county in England, and should probably have been sub-divided; but I think the Government’s advisors were worried about the lack of hospitals (there are just three!) in such a huge county. Having said that, I can’t say it bothers us much, as we’re both in a sort of voluntary lock-down, for the simple reason that we’re both over 70. Unlike our political leaders, we also use our common sense. So later this morning I plan to head into Long Sutton (open-air) market, where I’ll buy fresh shrimps, mussels, fruit and a few bright bedding plants for winter pots and tubs. I think we all need cheering up. And there are a few hopeful signs: at least three vaccines are on the way and across the Atlantic the ghastly Trump has been sent packing. Sadly, things are still looking pretty grim in Britain: in just over a month we will probably crash out of the EU. Already banks are heading out of London and god alone knows what will happen to the rest of the economy. The United Kingdom might well break-up, with Scotland (who voted to remain in the EU) becoming independent. My sympathies are entirely with our Scottish friends. It’s a complete mess and all of our own making. The biggest long-term problem of all is that there’s still no effective Parliamentary Opposition: the Labour Party is hopelessly split and the Lib Dems are a shadow of their former selves and also seem to have lost their once-clear voice. Sadly, I feel far less optimistic than I did back in early May, when I wrote the up-beat blog post ‘Dig for Victory!’. So how do I cheer myself up when everything is so gloomy? Simple: I’m an archaeologist and gardener: so I walk down to the shed and take my best spade off the rack. Then I head out to the muck-heap and start to fill a wheelbarrow.

The muck-heap. This view shows the trimmed and weeded face I have been digging for the vegetable garden. A few minutes later, the chickens had all been released and were feeding enthusiastically on the heap’s many worms and grubs.

I love muck. Manure, to give it a more sanitised label (these days, there’s always a bottle of word-sanitiser dangling in my brain when I write) [It took Maisie years to get you to call it muck. – Ed.] is just sheep poo, mixed with old bedding straw and other scrapings off the barn floor at the end of winter. It’s then left for at least a year to ferment and convert itself to muck (manure). The actual process of conversion is quite complex, but it involves fungi and various types of earthworms, which I always try to avoid chopping with my spade when I break-up the larger lumps in the barrow. I love the smell of freshly exposed manure as I dig into the muck-heap. It’s hard to describe, but it’s rich, earthy, fertile and full of promise. We work a four-course rotation in the vegetable garden. Muck is dug into one of the four plots every year, usually in early December, so that the hard frosts of mid-winter can break-down the larger clods of earth. Then, in March, I plant four or five rows of potatoes, which thrive in the rich, damp, freshly-dug soil.

I empty barrows of muck in rows across the plot. This year there are five rows, each one composed of five barrowfuls. I have just started the process of spreading and digging on the far right, by the white bucket (for persistent weeds, such as dandelions) and the spade.

The parts of the freshly dug plot without potatoes are used for growing tomatoes, as they too like wet, fertile ground and are also susceptible to blight, both being members of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, originating in North America. I don’t normally like spraying vegetables, but in June and July blight spreads from the many potato fields around us, so experience has shown me that I have to spray against it, or I’d lose both crops.[2] I never use systemic sprays – usually something based around copper sulphate, which we can wash-off tomatoes, later. In some very dry years, I can get away without spraying, but such seasons are rare.

In the first of the following years I use the plot to plant leeks and onions, then brassicas (cabbages etc.), then summer vegetables (runner beans etc), before digging-in more muck again, in year 4. So the annual winter digging gives me a chance to examine the state of the soil in different parts of the vegetable garden. When we began the garden, back in 1993, I was frankly appalled by the state of the soil, which was essentially dead. There were no earthworms, nor any visible insects, Consequently there were no moles who like to feed on earthworms and other soil insects. I don’t like moles in the garden, but they’re part of being a gardener: you work out ways of dealing with them. But to have none whatsoever was very, very strange. At first, the digging-in of muck seemed to have no effect, but quite soon – even the second year of manuring a plot, I started to note small improvements.  There were a few worms, but more importantly the soil had started to acquire structure: it wasn’t so heavy in winter and didn’t get quite so hard in hot sunny weather. I wouldn’t describe it as exactly crumbly, but it had definitely improved. By the third digging of each plot (i.e. after 12 years) the vegetable garden had improved beyond my wildest dreams: tomatoes leapt out of the ground; runner beans were rampant and onions grew as large as tennis balls – more importantly they also tasted delicious. I certainly noticed the difference when we ran out and had to buy supermarket replacements, which looked very nice, but had no flavour whatsoever.

A closer view of the plot during digging, with rows of un-dug muck to the left. The paler, silty dug soil, to the right, will break down more fully with the sharper air frosts of late December, January and February.

These are some of the reasons why I regard the annual winter muck-digging as such a key part of the gardening year. To be frank, the winter trip to the muck-heap has become something of a pilgrimage for me. I look for the worms and there they always are. I won’t say they wave their tails in welcome, but that’s how it sometimes feels. Then I load them into the barrow and dig them into their new home. I don’t know how they manage to do it every year, but in the spring the first peas, broad beans and pointy cabbages taste even better than in the previous seasons. So can I take this opportunity while our own species is quaking in the shadow of a nasty invasive virus, to thank those nameless earthworms who do so much to keep our soil healthy and make home-grown food taste so utterly gorgeous. For me, they are little wiggly miracle-workers: mankind’s very best and most loyal of  friends. And yes, they also help to keep us healthy, not just physically – and I’m sure I speak for all gardeners here – but mentally, too. Long live earthworms!

[2] Please don’t tell me about alternatives for blight: I’ve tried most of them and they don’t work. Believe me, south Lincolnshire is very intensively farmed!

[1] From the first line of John Keats’ Ode to Autumn.

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