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My Fenland garden in the autumn

I don’t know how you discovered this site, but I’m glad you did. There’s all sorts of stuff here.  I’ve been an archaeologist for over forty years and have excavated several major sites, mostly in the Fens of eastern England. I’ve also tried to bring archaeology to a wider audience, with a number of books, radio and television programmes, of which Time Team is the best known. When not writing or digging, I’m also a sheep farmer and keen gardener. But like most people, I get bees in my bonnet – obsessions, call them what you like. Most of  my worries are about the general disregard for the achievements of people in the past and the failure of politicians, both local and national, to learn the lessons of  history. Hence the title of this blog: In The Long Run. So to sum up, this will be the place to see stuff about archaeology, gardening, farming and rural life, books, broadcasting, history and the occasional intemperate rant. It won’t be very formal, because I don’t ‘do’ formality. But I do hope it’ll be fun.

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Getting Ready for the Garden Opening

As followers of this blog will probably have gathered, we are opening our garden, as part of the National Gardens Scheme (NGS), on the weekend of September 17-18th. I won’t say it has caused more hand-wringing and anxiety than even the grandest of book launches – but it has. Weeds seem to have ganged-up and declared our garden their national chosen target: if there was such a thing as an Olympic sport of weed-pulling, Maisie and I would be joint gold medal winners. Anyhow, part of the preparation involves the production of short information sheets that will be available at various points in the garden, and key to these is what follows: a short history. I’ll probably adjust it a bit over the next few weeks, but here’s my first draft. If you find it whets your appetite, spread the word on Twitter and/or Facebook. The more visitors that come, the more cash we can raise for the NGS Charities: Macmillan Nurses, Marie Curie Cancer Care, Hospice UK, and the Carers Trust. So roll up! Roll up! And when you come for your visit, spend money like water!

A Short History of the Garden

In the summer of 1992 the house and garden were still an expanse of wheat. The field in question, of some 17 acres, was bounded on two sides by large drainage dykes. The NW and NE sides were also edged by dykes, but smaller and accompanied by mature hawthorn hedges. There were no trees. Then Maisie and I bought it. Were we mad?

Our previous house, also a farmhouse, had been in the nearby parish of Parson Drove, just across the county line in Cambridgeshire (previously the Isle of Ely). There we had converted an acre of paddock into a large garden, complete with vegetable patch, a long border, a pond and a small wood of willows and ash trees. While we were creating the Parson Drove garden we were also setting-up Bronze Age Flag Fen (Peterborough), as a tourist attraction. It wasn’t a straightforward process. I’m convinced that working in that garden kept us both sane, while local politicians aggressively interfered with things they didn’t understand. But that experience also came in very handy. In 1989 we constructed a permanent museum and visitor centre at Flag Fen and I went on a self-taught crash-course in project management. With the help of a Lotus 123 spreadsheet, I managed to retain control of the budget (it was about £160,000) and I didn’t end up in the Bankruptcy Court, or jail.

By 1990 we realised that we had done what we wanted to achieve at the old house and were ready, as the cliché has it, for further challenges. We bought the land near Sutton St. James, just across the county line, in south Lincolnshire, and took possession, immediately after the harvest in 1992. The field was large, and very bleak, as the next photo shows.

Maisie stands in what is now the gateway into Inley Drove Farm. The slightly darker soil in the centre-left middle-distance has not been sowed with grass; it was planted with trees the following winter (1992/3).

Maisie stands in what is now the gateway into Inley Drove Farm. The slightly darker soil in the centre-left middle-distance has not been sowed with grass; it was planted with trees the following winter (1992/3).

The next picture shows the same view taken in August, 2016. The trees have got slightly larger in the last year, but the hawthorn hedge, to Maisie’s right in the previous picture, is still there.

The same view, in 2016.

The same view, in 2016.

The second (2016) picture shows a drive heading away from the gate. This took a fair bit of construction, as the soil in the Fens is soft and of poor load-bearing quality. I managed to find a source of what people in the area call ‘brickbats’, for the foundations. Essentially these were reject bricks that had been used to back-fill disused clay pits in local brickyards. We had to import 17 thirty-ton lorry-loads of them, which we spread and tracked-in, using the Hy-Mac excavator we’d used a few years earlier to clear topsoil from archaeological sites. That machine was an old friend.

The brick foundations of the drive are being consolidated by a Hy-Mac tracked excavator (spring, 1993). This view is taken from the gateway off Inley Drove, as seen in the previous photos. Work on the house and barn could not begin until the access had been finished.

The brick foundations of the drive are being consolidated by a Hy-Mac tracked excavator (spring, 1993). This view is taken from the gateway off Inley Drove, as seen in the previous photos. Work on the house and barn could not begin until the access had been finished.

Because the fundamental motivation for the new house was ultimately the garden, we began work on it before building began. In fact, we had laid out the main elements (the two borders, the orchard, the wood, the vegetable garden, the meadow and the paddocks), before we had managed to sell the old house. That house had been built in 1907 and was poorly insulated and cold in winter. I had lived in Toronto during the 1970s, and knew how warm modern timber-framed houses could be, even in the coldest of Canadian winters. So we decided our new house should be timber-framed, too. Timber-framed houses are also much lighter, which suits the soft land of the Fens.

The house under construction in mid-summer 1994. Being timber-framed, construction of the interior could begin while the outer brick ‘skin’ was being laid. The Long Border and the Small Border had been laid-out and planted the previous year. The golden Metasequoia had yet to be planted.

The house under construction in mid-summer 1994. Being timber-framed, construction of the interior could begin while the outer brick ‘skin’ was being laid. The Long Border and the Small Border had been laid-out and planted the previous year. The golden Metasequoia had yet to be planted.

In common with most rural developments, our Planning approval had depended on us running the small farm successfully. So by 1994 we had built the two barns and had laid-out the field and paddock around the house. We took our first crop of hay from the meadow in 1995. At this early stage, we had still to acquire the larger fields on either side of the house and garden and were renting additional land for our growing flock of sheep. The smaller paddocks close to the barns were intended to provide sheltered grazing for ewes and their lambs in the very first months.

Some of our Lleyn ewes, with their two-week-old lambs, being turned out to grass on March 11th, 2011. The surrounding trees and hedges provide shelter against spring gales and the barn is freely available in wet weather.

Some of our Lleyn ewes, with their two-week-old lambs, being turned out to grass on March 11th, 2011. The surrounding trees and hedges provide shelter against spring gales and the barn is freely available in wet weather.

Maisie and I are keen to preserve and encourage wildlife on the farm and in the garden. All the grasses of meadows, paddocks and lawns, for example, are native to Britain. That is also why we have planted so many native wet-loving trees, including the endangered Black Poplar, host to the Poplar Hawk moth and visiting pairs of Golden Oriels. Our timber barns are home to hedgehogs, swallows, tits and other birds, and barn owls shelter there in winter. Despite a purpose-built nestbox, we have only managed to provide home for one brood of three young Barn Owls, in October 2011.

Two barn owls on either side of one of their chicks, October 2011. The two other chicks have yet to emerge from the nestbox immediately below the main roof beam on which the birds are perching.

Two barn owls on either side of one of their chicks, October 2011. The two other chicks have yet to emerge from the nestbox immediately below the main roof beam on which the birds are perching.

The garden’s focus on wildlife means we are not obsessive about weeding: even ragwort, which is poisonous to sheep, is sometimes allowed to flower briefly, as it is host to Cinnabar moths; but it is never allowed to seed and is promptly uprooted! In the old garden we managed to to get cowslips established in long grass and we took seed with us to Inley Drove Farm and spread it along the dykesides and in the hay meadow in 1992. Five years later we acquired bulbs of Snakeshead Fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris) from our then neighbour at Guannock House, just a mile to the south, the now famous garden designer, Arne Maynard. Both cowslips and fritillaries love our wet, clay soils and have seeded freely. The cowslips have even migrated across to the orchard, where they have also thrived. Meadow wildflowers are a major feature of the garden in April.

A view of the orchard in April 2012, with a fine display of self-seeded cowslips which thrive in the wet, clay-rich soil.

A view of the orchard in April 2012, with a fine display of self-seeded cowslips which thrive in the wet, clay-rich soil.

Anyone who has ever grown their own vegetables knows how good they taste. They may not always look as attractive as their supermarket equivalents, but our meals are based on taste, not appearance. So we determined to be almost self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables (and I say ‘almost’ because we will never be able to grow carrots in our heavy soil). The veg garden is fringed by pleached apples and pears and is sub-divided into four plots to allow for regular manuring (with our own sheep muck) and crop circulation. It is highly productive.

The vegetable garden in July 2015. In the foreground are rows of onions, shallots and garlic. Beyond, and beneath the fine mesh, are next winter’s sprouts, cauliflowers, broccoli (both purple and white) and cabbages. The canes, top right, are for runner beans. The hedge in the background is hornbeam – a good wet ground substitute for the more widely grown beech.

The vegetable garden in July 2015. In the foreground are rows of onions, shallots and garlic. Beyond, and beneath the fine mesh, are next winter’s sprouts, cauliflowers, broccoli (both purple and white) and cabbages. The canes, top right, are for runner beans. The hedge in the background is hornbeam – a good wet-ground substitute for the more widely grown beech.

We tend to think of gardens in spring, summer and autumn, the warmer months of the year. We also imagine them with our mind’s eye at ground level. But one of the great pleasures of creating a garden in a flat landscape has been viewing its changes and development from above. And it doesn’t have to be from far above, either. My last picture, taken in mid-December, 2012, from the first floor of the house, shows the now fully-formed skeleton of the garden, wonderfully enhanced by a heavy Fenland hoar frost. The top of the pergola, which we added in 2006 at the back of the house, somehow echoes the layout of the rest of the garden.

Winter garden from upstairs

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The End of Early Summer

We all have different ways of dividing up the seasons. I’ve always thought of summer in three parts: Early Summer, High Summer and Late Summer. All three are about the shade of the colour green. In Early Summer (although not this year which was very late) all trees and shrubs are in leaf. Theoretically, spring ends and summer starts on June 1st, but as any farmer or gardener knows, that’s rubbish: it could be up to three weeks on either side of that date. Usually, in these days of climate change, it’s often somewhere in mid-May. Anyhow, in Early Summer the shades of green are fresh and varied: you could no more mistake an oak for an ash for a field maple; hedgerows and woodland fringes are full of distinctive colours and shapes. Then all of that changes in mid-July: the greens blend together and, yes, they harmonise, but unlike close harmony singing, the result isn’t fuller, richer and more satisfying. No, it’s just British mid-summer universal green. But don’t get me wrong: it isn’t at all unpleasant. It’s just green. Take it or leave it. It’s the green you drive by on your way to summer holidays by the seaside. It’s the colour of British summertime, along with the painful pink of sunburnt shoulders and the hazy blue of mid-summer skies. By now all freshness has gone from the scene and won’t be back until autumn. Late summer colours are a bit more varied: often there’s a hint of yellow in ash trees, and poplars turn a strange shade of grey.

In this blog post I want to look at other symptoms of transition from Early to High summer, which has been both late, and as often happens in a delayed season, abrupt. Two thousand and sixteen has so far been very strange – and oh so wet.

We started cutting asparagus very late in mid-April and because it rained so hard the crop was huge, if slightly less tasty than usual – which I put down to lack of sunshine. A bitterly cold March meant the crop was almost a month later than usual. I decided to stop cutting in mid-May as the spears were starting to get slightly fibrous and what taste there was was starting to decline. Sadly, it wasn’t the best year for my favourite vegetable. About three years ago, we decided to make more of the garden that fringes the asparagus bed. It’s unlike the rest of our garden, as that’s where we buried all the old bricks and battered roof-tiles, plus sand and anything else that was left-over from the building of the house, back in 1995. We did this deliberately, as we knew asparagus likes to grow in tidal sandy mudflats, which are better drained than our usual claggy stodge. So this well-drained bed has proved great fun to plant and has been colonised by some wonderful dry-loving annuals and short-lived perennials. The mullein, Verbascum olympicium, with the grey-green felty leaves and tall spikes of yellow flowers loves the dry edges of the yard, but must be thinned-out in the spring, or else it tends to dominate. Although I concede it is more than a little contrived (like most flower gardening), I love this rather chaotic screen which hides the asparagus behind it.

Asparagus bed

The path which runs from the yard and barn, to the back door of the house, was one of the first things we built once the house had been finished, as that was the route from the lambing pens to the house – and you soon get tired of squelching through mud when carrying syringes, or bottles of warm milk. I can’t say we planted the box hedge that lines the path at all deliberately. If anything we used it as a place to heel-in rooted cuttings and seedlings. But after a few years, it managed to establish itself and last year our neighbour Obie, who is a natural master of topiary and has now thoroughly taken over the management of our hedges, decided to reshape the emerging box hedge that separates the path from the asparagus bed. There’s a large box plant at one end, which is slightly off the alignment of the rest of the hedge. So Obie clipped this larger plant into the head (complete with nose, ears and eyes), of a very long Loch Ness Monster – which of course made clever use of the bigger and smaller plants of what had up until then been a very informal ‘hedge’. I like the way Obie’s Nessie is turning her head, as if looking around at people emerging from our back door. This view is taken from her tail, with the barn in the background.

Hedge Nessie

The gravel path from the back door to the small, informal cottage garden-style front garden, is plank-lined and a tiny bit utilitarian. Essentially, we need it as access to the house. So recently we’ve tried to enliven the front garden with a Feet Path, leading to a small urn. If it sounds a bit odd, then it is. But at the point where the Feet Path springs off the main access path there’s a short, but tall, length of panel fencing, covered by a rose and by jasmine, which acts as a wind-break in winter. Last winter I had the bright idea of making a simple hazel arch, to bridge the gap between the tall fence and the house. I’ve trained a perennial sweet pea (Lathyrus latifolius) to climb the two hazel rods, which I’ll have to replace every few years, when the pea dies back, in winter. So it’s not a lot of work and I think the result is rather pleasing – though I say so myself.

Feet Path

If you follow the gravel path to the front of the house, you come to one of my favourite roses. It’s Rosa Mundi (more correctly, Rosa gallica versicolor), one of the oldest roses still currently grown in British gardens. Its precise history seems to be slightly obscure, but it is undoubtedly medieval and of great antiquity. One of its common names, Fair Rosamund, refers to the mistress of Henry II (1133-1189). It could have been introduced when troops returned from one of the early Crusades. We will never know for certain. It’s only drawback is that the flowers are damaged by rain, which of course has been terrible this year. You can see this in the sad brown-paper-parcels (which we should have removed, but there have been too many) alongside the central blooms in this picture. This bush flowers just outside my office window and I am admiring some flowers as I write this.

Rosa Mundi

And now, a pair of pictures of the front garden, which we took in hand two seasons ago – and at last all that early work is starting to pay off. The popular ground-cover polyantha rose, The Fairy, has been particularly good this year, but its flower stalks will need quite a vigorous pruning, if it is to to look good when we open the garden in mid-September (17th-18th). We’ll also have to tie-in the fuchsia on the wire dome. We tried weaving the stalks into the lattice of wires, but they grew so fat and round that they began to distort the structure. So last winter we cut them out and replaced them with stems that were tied-in. That seems to have worked very much better.

Front Garden

Urn Path

Finally, a health warning. Last Friday I went to the Day Surgery Centre at Kings Lynn Hospital, where I had an umbilical hernia stitched-up. I’m still recovering, but it has meant that I mustn’t lift anything heavier than ‘a sheet of paper’ for at least a week – and then nothing ‘heavy’ for maybe three months. Somehow, but God alone knows how, I’ve got to stick to that rule. And then next week, the busy surgeons at Kings Lynn are going to have a second crack at a small carcinoma on my face. They say the skin op’s more precautionary than anything – but better safe than sorry. So with those two bits of surgery out of the way, I’ll be able to return to full vigorous health. I think my first job in the autumn will be chain-sawing logs for winter. And do you know what? I’m rather looking forward to it (the sawing, that is, not the winter!).

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My New Book: Stonehenge

SronehengeI was approached to write Stonehenge late last summer by the Commissioning Editor of a relatively new publishing house called Head of Zeus. At first I have to admit I was slightly sceptical: books on Stonehenge aren’t exactly hens’ teeth. And besides, how could I, a specialist in the Fens, contribute anything even remotely original, or interesting? But the nice man at H of Z was very insistent. And then he offered lunch.

I have to say, I have always been a sucker for a free lunch, especially if it comes with a reimbursed rail fare. So I said yes.

To be quite frank, I can’t remember much about the meal, except that it was in the bar of a local pub in Clerkenwell – about a twenty minutes walk from King’s Cross station. When I lived briefly in London in the late ‘60s it wasn’t a particularly salubrious district, but now it is very different: pop-up bistros and sandwich bars everywhere and people sipping coffee in the dappled late summer sunlight. Nobody could possibly have guessed that in less than a year the country would decide to commit collective suicide and leave the EU – so the atmosphere was relaxed, cosmopolitan and yes, remarkably Continental. I suspect the vibe is rather different there today.

Magna CartaI found the publisher’s offices and was met by Richard Milbank, Head of Non-Fiction Publishing. He told me about their Landmark series and produced the first book on Magna Carta, by Dan Jones. And I must admit, it was very handsome: a compact hard-back, in full colour throughout, but it didn’t seem at all dumbed-down. There were footnotes and detailed explanatory appendices. I was beginning to warm to the idea. Over lunch and a pint of London Pride (Richard drank orange juice), he explained that they were after a book on Stonehenge that put the site in its setting and which brought it alive. They didn’t want something dry and descriptive.

The King is DeadI started reading Dan’s Magna Carta on the train, and had finished it by the time I went to bed. In other words, I couldn’t put it down. It was a real page-turner – and I learnt so much. Since then, Suzie Lipscomb has published the second in the series (on the Will of Henry VIII), and it too, is a cracking good read – and like Dan’s, beautifully written. By now, I was on my mettle. My Stonehenge had better be good.

I had originally reckoned that a book of 30,000 words would take me a couple of months to write. I normally produce about 1,000 words a day, so that would allow me a month or so to catch up with current research, visit the site (again) and produce a working manuscript. Or so I thought. Even with the help of Mike Parker Pearson and Josh Pollard – two of the current leading researchers into Stonehenge – it took me the best part of six months to produce something, which I hope can stand alongside the first two books in the series.

Obviously I have drawn heavily on the mass of recent research, but I have also used my own experience of Neolithic and Early Bronze Age sites, too. While we were starting work at Flag Fen our team were also excavating a causewayed enclosure at Etton – which predates Stonehenge by several centuries, but which has many intriguing parallels with it. Before we dug Etton we had excavated a massive timber henge at the nearby site of Maxey, and in subsequent years we dug three small henge or henge-like sites. So I did have a certain amount of relevant experience.

I think my main problem with the way Stonehenge has been perceived in the past has to do with how we envisage the development of ancient sites. We tend to see them as the prehistoric equivalent of modern construction projects, with fixed phases of development and re-development. This structures the way we interpret the radiocarbon dates and gives a misleading impression of rigid planning and synchronicity – which I’m fairly sure didn’t apply in prehistoric times. Prehistoric shrines were not like medieval churches or modern buildings. They were built for different purposes entirely. In some respects, their construction was their use. It’s a complex topic and intimately bound-up with the development of the landscape and the way people perceived their lives within it.

Anyhow, I’ve tried to touch on some of these issues in the book, which doubtless explains why it took so long to write. Addressing complex themes in clear language can be challenging – and I’ve tried to eschew obfuscation (my favourite phrase of all time), and to avoid academic jargon, too. So it was hard work and took several drafts. But it was fun to do, and it was great to meet old friends and talk about their work. All I can say is that I do hope you enjoy it (and at a list price of just £16.99 it’s incredibly good value!).

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More Soggy Than Blazing…mid-June, 2016

A couple of days ago I dug the first early potatoes of the season. It had been raining on and off for the previous ten days and the soil was more like porridge than earth. My heart sank as I looked at the mess of mud and spuds: there were slug holes everywhere. I won’t say the crop was ruined, but if the damage continues it will be. Very depressing. In fact, this is the first time in over forty years of vegetable-growing that my first earlies have been slugged. As I said: very depressing. So let’s try and look on the brighter side.

And what could be more cheering than an early rose? Maisie is something of a rose enthusiast and our garden has dozens of different varieties. I tend to like the older, more scented ones and am very fond of natural species, or very slightly improved ones. A good example is Rosa moyseii ‘Geranium’. This is a tall species that loves to grow through low trees, such as birches. We’ve got one in a birch and one (seen here), which scrambles over the tall brick wall which protects the front garden from the cold north-easterly winds of winter. Some of the more highly bred older roses lose their blooms at the first sign of rain, but not Rosa moyseii, which was looking particularly good when I took this photo, on June 10th.

Rosa moyseii geranium

A couple of years ago we decided it was time to take the small garden in front of the house in hand. This was where the readi-mix concrete lorries stood when we were pouring the house’s foundations, back in 1995. Later, the ground got further messed-up when we added the back porch and built-on a couple of walls. Rather than face the problem, we dumped loads of muck on the ground and planted a few shrubs, in the hope that nature would repair the damage we’d inflicted on it. And it seems to have worked. I won’t say the soil is anywhere near as good as in the vegetable garden, but at least it is soil – and not just gleyed silt.

So two years ago we cleared some over-grown shrubs and laid-out a new path, which we fringed with perennials. One or two plants had managed to survive from the previous garden including my favourite Delphinium, ‘Summer Skies’, which had struggled to survive for some fifteen years, but which was quite suddenly thriving, now that the shading shrubs had gone. I don’t think it has ever looked this good.

Delphinium Summer Skies

About a couple of metres away from Summer Skies are two plants of my favourite peony, with the slightly cringe-making name, Bowl of Beauty. Again, it’s looking superb and is flowering freely, if a couple of weeks late. Peonies can take the rain better than roses, but this year hasn’t been at all easy and I suspect the season is going to be very short indeed.

Peony Bowl of BeautyI suppose the horticultural polar opposite to the exotic and highly improved Bowl of Beauty is the native British species Iris pseudacorus, or flag iris. It gave its name to Flag Fen and I can see it flowering along dykesides as I drive through the fens near here. It always lifts my spirits, which is why we planted it around the little pond in our garden. It can be a bit invasive, so needs to be controlled in the autumn.

Flag irises

And finally, something completely different: strawberries. Fortunately I got mine strawed-up the day before the weather broke. It’s important to push straw underneath as many young green strawberries as you can. Do this while it’s still dry and you won’t lose your crop to slugs. I suppose those slimy little garden terrorists have eaten 5% of my crop, but that’s a lot better than having nothing. And a sprinkling of sugar can compensate for the lack of sunshine. The taste, the underlying flavour, of home-grown strawberries is so, so, so much better than those bland supermarket ones. We like them with Greek yogurt, which is far less fattening than cream. And as we are forced to eat strawberries twice a day for some three weeks, you have to take these things seriously. Cheers!

Oh yes – and death to all slugs.

Strawberries

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The Garden in Late Spring

In a normal year the second half of May is to all intents and purposes part of summer. But not this year – oh no, certainly not this year…

As I write, bitter north-easterly winds, sharp showers and even thunderstorms are lashing the entire east coast from off the North Sea. It’s the coldest, most windy start to summer I can remember – and you can see it in the garden, where some spring bulbs (like bluebells) are still hanging on. Most of the trees are now in leaf, although ash, oak and alder still look rather sparse. A few very early roses are in flower, but the growth of winter-pruned varieties is well behind what I’d normally expect for this time of year. Taken together, I’d say we’re at least two to three weeks behind an average year (whatever that might be). One of the characteristics of this winter and spring has been the high energy of the weather: lots of strong winds, flash floods, fierce showers and more thunder than usual. This is precisely what climatologists say will happen as a result of man-made climate change. And some people still deny it! Leaves me speechless…

From a gardening perspective, this has been the season of weeds. I’ve never seen so many. They were bad last autumn and I waited for many of them to be killed off by the first frosts of December. But they never materialised – nor in January, either, which turned out to be the warmest on record. This meant that the annual weeds had all the time in the world to flower and seed, so that when the first sharp frosts did arrive – in later February – it was too late. On the plus side, all the rain has meant that weeding has been better – the roots come out more easily, but then one’s boots compress the soft soil. So it’s never a win-win (even if one did use such clichés).

Enough moaning. Let’s start with a look at the wisteria across the front of the house. It’s the common form of the unimproved species, Wisteria sinensis, and it’s invariably good. I gave it a very sharp pruning last August, as bits of it were getting rather tangled and straggly. But instead of resenting such treatment, it has rewarded my efforts with the best display I can recall. And they smell gorgeous!

Wisteria

Mindful of the ever-present weed problem, my next two views of the garden were taken at its fringes, where the surrounding countryside starts to enter the garden – or at least that was my slightly pretentious idea when we laid it all out, back in 1993. And I’ll start with my favourite native British tree: the Black Poplar. This particular stand of trees was planted from hardwood cuttings I took in the depths of winter and then simply shoved into the ground. It was a wet season and to my immense surprise they all rooted. It’s sobering to think that a handful of cuttings that could be carried in the back pocket of my jeans are now trees that weigh tons, each. This year the leaves are looking particularly fresh and green.

Black poplars

My next view is along the track that leads from the farmyard and muckheap to the main wood and the belt of black poplars that skirt it. It’s where our chickens have always liked to scratch about and hence it’s name: Chicken Lane. Earlier in the spring the grass is studded with cowslips that look lovely against the blackthorn and hawthorn blossom on either side. In May the cow parsley, or keck as it is generally known around here (its scientific name is Anthriscus sylvestris), takes over everything. In the past I’ve made efforts to control it, but I hate spraying blanket areas, and besides, the spray would kill the cowslips underneath. So now I let it flower, and when it’s finished early in June, I’ll cut it down with the tractor-mounted pasture-topper. Keck is generally regarded as a weed, but I prefer the old gardener’s definition of a weed: a plant growing in the wrong place. For my money, the keck growing so lushly along Chicken Lane is every inch a garden plant – and again, the scent, on a warm May day, is to die for.

Chicken lane

And finally, I come to a corner of the garden which we always keep hand-weeded throughout spring. It’s a damp, dark spot and often flooded in a wet winter, as this year. Hemerocallis and hostas thrive there, but so do bog or wet-loving Primulae. A few years ago Maisie bought some from a local nursery. Unfortunately, they’d been mislabelled, but they were very, very cheap. So what the hell: we bought two pots. Since then they’ve seeded themselves very freely. They’ve also arranged themselves into two zones, with darker flowered hybrids towards the back. The darker ones were once named Primula beesiana and the more yellow were Primula bulleyana. Today the vigorous hybrids are grouped together as Primula bulleesiana. I don’t think they’ve ever looked better. They die down over winter, but the patch is still spreading, so with luck the display next season will be even better.

Bog primulae

An old gardener once told me that if you can get on top of the weeds by the end of June, you’ll be OK for the rest of summer and into the autumn. As we’ll be opening to the public, under the National Gardens Scheme on September 17-18th, I pray he did actually know what he was talking about…

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Britain and Europe: The Long View

Followers of this blog will know that one of my pet hates is the obsession modern politicians have with short-termism. And hence the name of this blog: In the Long Run. Over the past few months my posts have mostly been about my new books, our farm and our garden, with the occasional foray into reviews and the like. Meanwhile, out there in the supposedly real world of British politics, the EU In/Out Debate has become more shrill, personal, unpleasant and BORING! It has got so bad that whenever I hear that predicable, manufactured word ‘Brexit’, I turn the radio off. So why has it all gone so horribly wrong?

The Debate has lost its way quite simply because the journalists and politicians who populate the Westminster Bubble are only concerned with five-year parliaments and anything more distant than the next, or indeed the last election, is irrelevant. But surely, the EU Referendum is about the long-term? It has been in existence for over half a century and, with luck, should continue for at least that time, or longer. Even politicians have said that In/Out is the decision of a lifetime, or a generation. And yet they behave like it’s a change in customs rates, or taxes – and nothing else. Can’t they understand, any of them, that it’s far more important than that? The existence of the EU has links to everything, from farming, to academia, from terrorism, to geo-politics and Russian ambition, to the migrant crisis and world trade. Quite simply, the EU is about the way we govern ourselves and government is what distinguishes human beings from other animals. So we should take it seriously.

I think we have all heard Out campaigners declare that the EU is like the Roman Empire. One or two slightly more informed pundits have compared it to Charlemagne or the Holy Roman Empire and I’ve even heard Napoleon’s name bandied about. Of course all of these are wide-of-the-mark. The empires of the past came about by conquest or dynastic take-over. None of them was even remotely democratic – although in the later Roman Empire some provinces did manage to acquire a degree of autonomy. Are the United States a closer parallel? Yes, they are, but they began with three unifying factors: a wish to leave the British Empire, the English language and Christianity. They were also blessed with some extraordinary leaders and thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, both of whom took the Long View, of history and the future.

In perhaps over-simplified historical terms, the EU arose out of the ashes of not one, but two, closely-linked, World Wars. At the heart of both conflicts was the age-old rivalry of France and Germany – albeit rather reluctantly aided and abetted by Britain. When the fighting stopped, the people of the original nations of what was to become the EU, had had enough of conflict that resolved nothing and merely fuelled old resentments. Their politicians realised this and some of them had the intelligence and foresight to appreciate that something altogether different was now needed. And they also had the good sense to start slowly, with a customs union; then the rest followed from that. By the time Britain joined, in 1973, the institutions of the EEC were well-developed. And they’ve continued to grow since then. Of course many regard the modern EU as far too bureaucratic – which it undoubtedly is. But we can address this problem through the ballot box. We do not need to destroy the entire system.

Taking a long view, it seems to me that the EU is a completely new form of governance. True, it is still far from perfect, but its presence on the world’s stage is enough to frighten the likes of Putin. On the other hand its constitution is sufficiently flexible to accommodate countries as diverse as Italy, Romania, Germany and Britain. More to the point, it works. Moreover, we shouldn’t forget that it was Britain who played a big part in laying out the European Convention on Human Rights. Such concerns were not a major feature of the empires I mentioned earlier. The point I’m trying to make is that the modern world is complex; people are better educated and they are aware they have rights. It seems to me that the EU is a form of governance that has its roots in the modern world. It respects national and individual interests, while providing the other services (education, infrastructure, defence and security) that we all expect of government. In other words, the EU is about far, far more than trade and commerce alone. Yes, such things are, and have been, central to its creation, but they no longer dominate. Today the EU is becoming more rounded and balanced as an organisation. And that brings me back to where I began: namely, the Debate and what it says about British politics.

Frankly, sensible debate has stopped and has been replaced by a slanging match, mostly centred around a very right-wing agenda which is almost entirely based on xenophobia. Immigrants and migration are the only two issues that the Brexit camp seem to care about. Indeed, talking to friends and colleagues I get the impression that they, too, are now heartily fed-up with the trivial way this highly important Referendum is being discussed. There is also a strong feeling that the debate has been taken over by loud-mouthed men in suits, and I haven’t met anyone who hasn’t felt patronised by those ghastly battle-busses – the creations of highly-paid PR consultants. I’m not a member of the Green Party myself, and I find some of their ideas impossibly naïve, but their MP Caroline Lucas was absolutely right when back in January she pointed out that the voices of women and younger people simply weren’t being heard in a Referendum that is supposedly about everyone’s future. If anything, the situation since then has got even worse.

Sadly, I don’t suppose for one moment that the loud-mouthed Westminster MPs (plus hangers-on, like Farage) will suddenly start to focus on the long-term implications of the Referendum. They are too deeply rooted in what is essentially a Victorian party-political and Parliamentary system, which is itself in far more urgent need of reform than any EU institution. So my appeal is to younger voters, who in my experience often share the views I have expressed here. And my message is simple:

Please, please VOTE!

That is all that matters. And tell your friends, too. I firmly believe that if we in Britain are ever to change our creaking, non-representative political system, it will be from within, not outside, Europe. Despite what some would have us believe, Brexit wouldn’t mark a return to a glorious past, so much as a dismal future, where our principal legacy would be the destruction of a truly innovative system of multi-national government.

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A Frozen Stroll

I don’t think I can ever recall such a bitterly cold April. We’re now in the last week of the month, the wind has refused to switch west or south, so stubbornly chills us from the north and east. Normally these breezes, though bitter, are fairly dry, but this year they’re bringing us stinging showers of sleet and hail. And of course the poor young lambs hate it and stand alongside hedges and barn walls looking pinched and frozen. All we can do to help is provide lots of dry straw in the barn and, of course, plenty of food for their mums. Having said that, when they do come into the barn, they do look very well and seem to be growing quite rapidly. But out in the garden things are looking remarkably wintery. There are still more than a few daffodils in flower, albeit rather wind-blasted and tattered, and the late bulbs – tulips especially – are just coming into flower, fully three to four weeks behind an average season. Oaks are just starting into leaf, but ash refuses to budge – even alder, normally quite an early bird to leaf-up, is struggling to burst its buds. Brrr…

Yesterday, the sun came out between the clouds, so I decided to take a stroll and show you what the garden looks like in this cold Spring. And bits of it, I have to confess, look almost welcoming. I decided to take Pen (our adorable almost-two-year-old Labrador x Border Collie bitch) for a walk, too. She loves the camera and manages to appear in several of the images, for which I make no apology. We began our stroll in the long strip of grazing that runs alongside the Drainage Board dyke that bounds our property to the east. When we bought the land, back in 1992/3, I sprinkled a pocketful of cowslip seeds onto the freshly sown grass. Today they form a carpet, but this year I wanted to draw your attention to the clean white blossom of the wild pear trees that are mixed into the trees that fringe the main wood. I don’t think they have ever looked better.

clean white blossom of the wild pear trees that are mixed into the trees that fringe the main wood

From the walk along the dykeside Pen and I then headed into the wildflower meadow which we planted to the south and east of the wood. Here the snakeshead fritillaries and cowslips were looking stunning and I couldn’t help being reminded of my cousin, the distinguished ecologist and pioneering environmentalist, the late Professor Norman Moore, who planted his own nature reserve near Cambridge and which gave Maisie and I much inspiration. I can remember Norman getting wildly excited about the dragonflies (on which he was the leading authority) at Flag Fen, at a time when all most people could detect was the stench of raw sewage from the neighbouring treatment works. Norman and his wife Janet were lovely people – smiley and warm, yet highly intelligent. They are both hugely missed by all who knew them.

Wildflower meadow

When the winds are chill, I find my feet tend to lead me towards the inner and most sheltered parts of the garden. These areas aren’t always to Pen’s taste, as she prefers to rush about following the scent of hares, squirrels and Muntjack deer, none of which she ever actually catches. Squirrels particularly enjoy teasing her. They scratch around on the ground as she careers towards them, then hop nimbly onto a low branch, just out of reach, which drives poor Pen berserk with frustration. I have to confess this makes me roar with laughter. One of the quietest parts of the garden is around what is now quite a large Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). Our late, lamented sheepdog Twink used to take a shortcut here, which we’ve subsequently covered with wood chippings. At this time of year the Euphorbias along it are looking quite good, but I like the woodland feel and the lack of formality, here. So does Pen. I doubt if she realises that informality often takes harder work to achieve than the more architectural plantings of borders and rose beds.

Twink's shortcut (with Pen)

There has been a lot of fuss lately about the National Trust charging people to visit a bluebell wood near London. But bluebells also look good in fringe areas, away from the great expanses of blue that we are all so familiar with. We’ve been at pains not to include any Spanish bluebells in our plantings which are, I think, fairly pure native British varieties. Here they’re looking very good when viewed from the outside of the Nut Walk, with a crab apple (Everest) in full flower above them. I like this sort of under-stated garden scene. It’s very English. Very laid-back.

Bluebells

At the house end of the Nut Walk there’s a lawn which runs down to the pond. At this time of year it’s packed with newts who have to put up with Pen joining them occasionally – and especially on hot days. This season she was in the pond more frequently in January than April. In this picture her nose is facing the northerly wind and it’s clear from the way she’s standing that a quick swim with her newty friends is out of the question. Below her, the summer snowflakes (Leucojeum aestivum) are looking pretty good. Around the fringes of the water, you can see the long pointed leaves of the flag iris (Iris pseudacorus) just starting to emerge. I suspect they’ll be flowering a bit late this year, maybe even in July. I think this picture also illustrates that wildlife-friendly gardens aren’t particularly neat and tidy: they’re under control, but not obsessively so.

Newt pond and lawn

Which leads me neatly, if not tidily, to my final picture: a solitary cowslip surrounded by closely mown grass. Now I have to confess, I’m not a lawn person. Don’t get me wrong: I like them. I even like stripey lawns, but I’m quite happy to live with a few dandelions, clover and of course daisies. I’ve even been known to plant them – with a nice red flush to the back of the petals. The thing is, a ‘weed’-rich lawn is host to large numbers of bees and other pollinating insects, which are sadly becoming increasingly rare. Clover also helps keep the lawn green in the driest months of summer, which can be very problematical here in eastern England. So no, you won’t find me in the lawn-care departments of garden centres and with an acre and a half of grass to cut, you won’t find me feeding it either; that’s because the nitrate nodules in the clover roots do that job for me. And that’s why I find it hard to mow cowslips that find their way into the grass. They’re everywhere now, and are far, far too numerous to transplant. Obviously I can’t avoid them all, so some get a couple of weeks to feed the bees and flower – before the mower catches them. But then that’s life in the garden: here today, gone tomorrow. But never dull.

Cowslip

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