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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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A Symbol of Hope: Our New Greenhouse is Now Built, Glazed and Will Soon Open for Business!

If it’s depressing to be a Brit in his seventies, younger people must be going out of their minds. And somehow things seem so much worse at the end of the year, especially when the BBC and newspaper journalists produce reviews of British politics in 2018 that are so consistently, and relentlessly, depressing. So as Christmas approached, I felt I needed something practical and all-absorbing to take my mind off the doom-laden farce being acted-out so ineptly in Westminster. And the new greenhouse was just the project I was seeking. Maisie and I had decided that our old greenhouse was starting to get dangerous: the wooden frame was rotting in places and several sheets of glass had either cracked or fallen out. Still, it was 25 years old and to be honest I hadn’t looked after it very well – I always had too many other things to do. Then, by a happy coincidence, we discovered that old friends and archaeological colleagues of ours, Nick and Liz, who live in the Norfolk Fens, about half an hour’s drive away from us, had given themselves a large greenhouse, as a retirement present. Nick is a very practical person, as is his son, and with another friend’s help they erected their new greenhouse themselves. Maisie and I were hugely impressed by it. It was so sturdy and well designed. It was more like a real building – something you might encounter at Kew – than the sort of greenhouse found on allotments. It also looked rather too expensive for our budget, so we decided that although it was lovely, we’d probably best look for one a bit cheaper, elsewhere.

During October and November we visited all the larger garden centres around us, but we couldn’t make up our minds: there was always something that wasn’t quite right – especially when compared to Nick and Liz’s wonderful greenhouse. So eventually Maisie emailed Nick for information on the supplier. It was Rhino Greenhouses and we checked out their website www.greenhousesdirect.co.uk to see if their prices were as high as we had feared. To our amazement they weren’t that expensive. But both Maisie and I are very suspicious about websites: so often they make unrealistic promises at fairy-tale prices. We’d seen Nick and Liz’s great greenhouse, but we didn’t know what smaller Rhino houses would be like. And I was blowed if I was prepared to spend serious money on a new greenhouse, unseen. Nick had told us that their factory, and a permanent display, were only in Thetford, which is just over an hour’s drive away, on the sandy Breckland Heath soils, of Norfolk. So that’s where we headed. When we arrived we were met by helpful staff, none of whom tried to do a hard sell. They let us decide what we wanted, which is so refreshing, these days. In the end we bought an 8 ft. by 10 ft. greenhouse in their Premium range. It’s entirely made from aluminium; so it won’t rust. Even the nuts and bolts are aluminium – so mustn’t’ be over-tightened, in case they shear-off (only two did that to us, but there were plenty of spares, so it didn’t matter). The finishing paintwork is a very restrained Tuscan Green, which blends into the garden superbly. But the best bit was that all the internal shelves were on special offer until the end of December. There were other offers too – leading to an eventual saving of £500.

Nick and his friend Martin were able to join us on the weekend of December 8-9 and thanks to their experience and know-how we were able to erect our new Rhino in just a couple of days. Nick’s stands on a concrete slab base, but I have always preferred an earth or soil floor. I find they stay cooler in summer and drain better, if you have to do a lot of watering in summer. Late November and early December were quite wet, so the unglazed frame tended to slide around a little on our clay-silt soils. We got round this by pegging it in place using long road-spikes. Unfortunately one of these whacked a large sheet of reinforced safety-glass and shattered it into thousands of tiny fragments. Nobody was hurt, but we were all shaken-up. Two days later we nipped down to Thetford and collected a replacement pane of glass. When that was safely installed I was able to erect the internal shelves. The first plants were four rooted cuttings which I potted up on Christmas Day. They now sit in solitary splendour on the end shelf.

My immediate task is to finish digging the plot for next year’s potatoes in the vegetable garden, while at the same time I’m cutting back the pleached lime trees. Physiotherapists who have helped me recover from the hip operation (which happened 14 months ago) have advised me not to spend too long on any one task. So I switch between the digging and the pleaching. When those two jobs are done, I’ll return to the area around the greenhouse and will try to beat the growing sea of mud with gravel and a few well-placed paving stones. Later in the spring, I will install the auto-opening window vents, the external shading and finally the finials, which will grace both gable-ends. But now for some pictures of us building the greenhouse.

1. Our friend and neighbour Jessie is helping level the ground. This has to be done with considerable precision and Jessie did a wonderful job.

1. Our friend and neighbour Jessie is helping level the ground. This has to be done with considerable precision and Jessie did a wonderful job.

2. Nick (right) and Jessie starting to glaze the roof.

2. Nick (right) and Jessie starting to glaze the roof.

3. Disaster strikes: one of the panes of reinforced safety glass was accidentally caught by a metal stake. It shattered in a very spectacular manner.

3. Disaster strikes: one of the panes of reinforced safety glass was accidentally caught by a metal stake. It shattered in a very spectacular manner.

4. Glazing is completed (minus the broken pane).

4. Glazing is completed (minus the broken pane).

5. Digging holes for the concrete ground-anchors. This one is nearing completion (it needs to be a little bit wider and deeper).

5. Digging holes for the concrete ground-anchors. This one is nearing completion (it needs to be a little bit wider and deeper).

6. Installing the pipes to take rainwater from the gutters to the water-butt (which we haven’t yet bought).

6. Installing the pipes to take rainwater from the gutters to the water-butt (which we haven’t yet bought).

Finally, a thought to take us towards the New Year. I fitted the piping shown in the last photo in the week before Christmas, because the weather was pretty unfriendly and I didn’t fancy poaching-up the ground surface too much. It is a vegetable garden, after all. The weather forecast on the BBC Weather App, which I’d installed on my iPad and smartphone a couple of years ago, predicted settled, high-pressure-dominated conditions would persist through to the end of the first week of January. I immediately recognised this as a case of the so-called Dog Days, which are quite a feature of England in mid-winter – and often just after Christmas. Essentially the Dog Days are an anti-cyclone (area of high barometric pressure) which establishes itself over southern Scandinavia and across the North Sea, to Britain. This so-called ‘blocking high’ causes Atlantic weather fronts, including storms and showers, to bounce off the high pressure and head north-eastwards, often clipping NW Scotland and the western Isles. In summer, of course, high pressure brings settled warm, even hot weather. In winter it’s different, if settled, with much cooler days and frosty nights; mists, fogs and persistent all-day dew are a common feature of the Dog Days. Sometimes the sun does shine later in the winter, but not often in December or early January. I think the term ‘dog’ refers to the gloom. Dog Droves in the Fens (and there’s one within walking distance of our farm) were muddy, unsatisfactory places in the Middle Ages. The word has nothing to do with our canine friends – with which we segue seamlessly into my final picture, which was taken while I was returning with Pen and Baldwin, our two dogs, from their last walk before bed. It was Christmas Eve and I was heading towards the farmyard. The sun was setting to the south and mists were creeping along the dykes. It’s a memorable scene. And it could only have been taken in the Fens – at the start of the Dog Days.

I hope you had a merry and relaxed Christmas. Let’s hope and pray 2019 is a bit less chaotic than the year that’s rapidly drawing to a close. I certainly feel much more fit, but I can’t pretend I feel particularly optimistic.

Christmas eve

Posted in Gardening, My life | Tagged , , ,

A Small Tribute to a Good Friend of Flag Fen and Peterborough: The Late Peter Boizot.

I was so sad to read of the death of Peter Boizot at his home in Peterborough on December 5th, aged 89. Peter had been a good friend of Flag Fen and Fenland Archaeological Trust, the charity we set-up to open and manage the visitor attraction and to research into Fenland Archeology. On several occasions in the mid-1990s, when times were tough and money was hard to raise, Peter’s generosity quite simply kept us going. We owe him a HUGE debt of gratitude. He, Maisie and I got on very well personally, too. Like him, I shared a huge love of jazz and of pizzas and I have always made a point of eating at a Pizza Express whenever I’m in a town that I don’t know very well. Peter supported many enterprises in Peterborough, including Posh (Peterborough United, the city’s football club) and theatres, cinemas etc. He even agreed to honour our Trust by becoming a Patron, along with HRH The Duke of Gloucester, who had the terrible misfortune of playing in the same cricket team at school as me; I think we were both equally inept with bat and ball.

I have many fond memories of Peter, but one that will stay with me was during the excavation of the timber circle known as Seahenge, at Holme-next-the-Sea in Norfolk, back in 1999. One day I was with the archaeologists because Maisie, who was in charge of digging and recording the wood, had asked me to help her and the team lift some heavy posts across the beach to our trailer – which would then take them to Flag Fen for washing and drawing. At the time we had been having a lot of trouble from people who thought Seahenge shouldn’t be excavated and should be ‘left to the waves’. Of course this ignored the fact that it had deliberately been positioned in 2049 BC behind about a quarter of a mile’s worth of coastal dunes that would have protected it from the sea. I’m sure its constructors would have been as appalled as us, if they knew it was bound to be destroyed by the sea. Anyhow, the protestors made our lives very unpleasant with nasty threats and lots of insults. Sadly, I detect similar feelings in our country at the moment.

All the nastiness was starting to get us down and then one day we noticed a large and slightly portly gentleman walking slightly uncertainly towards us along the beach. He was bare foot and wore pale and capacious cotton shorts and a loose-fitting shirt. It was Peter. Normally he had a broad smile and I don’t think I have ever seen anyone less pompous or patronising. But today he seemed less confident than usual. I gather he had been taken for a short break in Norfolk and was plainly rather unused to be doing nothing. I’m just guessing, but I don’t think holidays ever loomed large in Peter’s life. But he had agreed and so off he went. Of course he had read about Seahenge, so he thought he’d look us up – which is what he was doing. Needless to state, Maisie and I greeted him warmly and showed him the dig. All the diggers took to him immediately. Quite rapidly, his hesitancy gave way to enthusiasm. And of course Peter was delightful: he asked lots of questions and by the time he left, everyone’s spirits had been lifted. He made it clear that he thought we were doing a very important job, under near-impossible conditions. And he was right: as I recall, the tide was starting to come in when he left and water levels were rising in the trenches.

After he’d gone, everyone on the team wanted to know who that nice man was. So I told them: ‘That was Peter Boizot, the founder of Pizza Express.’ I might just as well have said: ‘That was Her Majesty the Queen, or Nelson Mandela.’ Because everyone was gob-smacked. We all loved Pizza Express. And in the minds of those chilled diggers Peter Boizot could walk on water. He still can. We miss you Peter.

Peter Boizot (1929-2018)

Peter Boizot (1929-2018)

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Things That Matter Most: Breakfast Cups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Autumn Reflections

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in History, Tirades | Tagged , , , , ,

2018: A Climactic Autumn

Following the success of this year’s NGS Open Garden, I was preparing myself for something of an anti-climax autumn. But first I had to head north for a Time Team/Dig Ventures event which took place on Lindisfarne, Holy Island, the following weekend. For non-UK followers of this blog, Holy Island is a tidal island in the North Sea, just off the English coast, close to the Scottish Border. It’s famous in archaeology and history as the place where Viking raiders made their first attack in AD 793. It also gave its name to the Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the greatest illustrated manuscripts of early medieval Europe. I think this photo of the Castle captures the atmosphere of the place, quite well. I suspect the rest of Britain will feel a bit like this, after Brexit.

Lindisfarne Castle, completed c. 1570. Heavily (over?) restored by Lutyens, as a country house, 1903-6.

Lindisfarne Castle, completed c. 1570. Heavily (over?) restored by Lutyens, as a country house, 1903-6.

The Lindisfarne event was great and it was fantastic to get together with Time Team pals: Tony Robinson, Stewart Ainsworth, John Gater, Helen Geake and Carenza Lewis. All were on top form and didn’t seem any older. Odd that. Meanwhile, back home in the real world, I have been very busy doing the final editorial work on a book on the Fens I’ve just written for Head of Zeus (the people who published my Stonehenge book). The Fens book will be published next June. Earlier in the New Year (on January 1st, in fact) Penguin will be releasing my Paths To The Past in paperback – and there are one or two very minor corrections I need to get sorted out in the next few days. And then of course there’s the follow-up book to The Fens, which I’ll be working on in late autumn, winter and next spring. But that must remain confidential for the time being. No rest for the wicked!

Out in the garden, we thought the dry conditions of August and September would soon improve, but in fact we were wrong: heavy rain didn’t arrive until last weekend (October 13-14) when I recorded an astonishing 40mm in the rain gauge! That’s almost a record for this dry part of England. Maybe it was the extended dry spell, but autumn colours have begun quite early, as these views of the garden (all taken a week ago, on October 10th) show. The first shows the meadow, with the two clumps of pampas grass in their full glory. Sadly, the tall tassels hadn’t come fully out for the Open Weekend.

A view of the meadow in early October, with autumn colours just starting to appear.

A view of the meadow in early October, with autumn colours just starting to appear.

My second garden view is taken along the Serpentine Walk (sorry if this sounds pretentious, but we called it that as a joke – and it’s stuck!). The colour changes here aren’t very obvious and are mainly confined to some low-growing hostas and sedges. But the big change from the summer is in the leaf-density of the alder and birch trees, which were quite hard hit by some fierce gales in September. The thinner leaf-cover gives a wonderful pale, dappled feel to the sunlight, which you can really notice when you walk along the path. I often think that dappled shade is one of the great secrets of a good English garden. Too often people think in terms of ‘sun’ or ‘shade’ or (worse?) ‘part shade’. The reality of nature is far more subtle.

A view along the Serpentine Walk, with the Glade in the middle distance.

A view along the Serpentine Walk, with the Glade in the middle distance.

The southern side of the Long Border is bounded by the tall hornbeam hedge, which protects the vegetable garden behind it from the worst of winter’s sharp north-easterly gales. This side of the border has proved quite challenging to plant, being both wet and shady. The planting and planning of the borders is Maisie’s responsibility (I just lift and divide large perennials when instructed to do so) and I know she has found this particular stretch very challenging. Indeed, I have heard the words ‘impossible’ and ‘bloody’ muttered under her breath from time to time, between loud and lengthy sighs. Yellow is the theme-colour here, to lift some of the dark shades thrown by the hedge. This year those yellows have proved to be more than usually vivid – yet harmonious. I think this picture captures that quite well.

A shady part of the Long Border, where yellow flowers predominate. Note the Black-Eyed Susan (from Sarah Raven) on the small obelisk (left, foreground), 2 varieties of Rudbekia in the mid-foreground and the tall Helianthus Lemon Queen, in the background.

A shady part of the Long Border, where yellow flowers predominate. Note the Black-Eyed Susan (from Sarah Raven) on the small obelisk (left, foreground), 2 varieties of Rudbekia in the mid-foreground and the tall Helianthus Lemon Queen, in the background.

After a rather hesitant start, following the cold, wet spring, the fuchsias really got going later in the summer. They were particularly good in the autumn. Maisie bought a fuchsia off a roaside stand in north Norfolk. The old boy who manned it swore blind it came from the royal garden at Sandringham. Believe that, if you will. We reckon it’s either ricartoni or gracilis – probably the latter. In March it was severely cut back by the late frosts and we were inclined to write it off for the Open Weekend. But we shouldn’t have worried. It came back – and with a vengeance. I don’t think it has ever looked so good.

The front garden, with Fuchsia gracilis climbing up the wirework dome and the rose Sharifa Asma in the background.

The front garden, with Fuchsia gracilis climbing up the wirework dome and the rose Sharifa Asma in the background.

Posted in books, Gardening, Time Team | Tagged , , , ,

What a Great Weekend That Was!

I have to confess that late in July, at the height of the summer’s blistering heat-wave, we seriously wondered whether there would be any flowers in the garden to show our visitors in mid-September, at all. The grass was brown, about half the plants we’d planted in the spring were dead, despite repeated watering. But there was an up-side, too – or so we thought: weeds weren’t growing, either. By early August the garden was almost weed-free, or as good as we are ever likely to get it (we don’t do obsessively tidy gardening).

Then it rained. And rained again. Weed seedlings germinated, then grew a few leaves, then threw all caution to the winds and started to grow like so many athletes stuffing their faces with performance-enhancing drugs.Weeding was a nightmare: more rain, more weeds, further rain etc. etc. But eventually we came out on top, thanks to some very willing local helpers and a lot of hard work by Maisie and me. In the end, the garden looked better than I can ever recall at this time of year. Incidentally, the lawn remained much greener than many others in the area and I’m sure this was because I use a mower with a mulch deck. This doesn’t blow the cut grass out to the side, or into a bag or hopper, but chops it up finely and lets it drop back to the ground, where it gets re-incorporated into the turf. The thicker, slightly more spongy, turf that is the result of mulch-mowing is far more drought-resistant than ordinary lawn grass. I’ve been doing it for almost 20 years and I highly recommend it.

The weekend of September 15-16 was dry and generally sunny and people came in large numbers. In total they contributed £1,510.71 to the charities supported by the National Gardens Scheme (NGS), and that’s a record! The plant sales were particularly successful, and that’s largely down to a massively increased selection and a good stock. We sold huge numbers of the red-flowered strawberries that provide a wallpaper-like ground-cover around the tea shed. Maisie’s brother, Nigel, who is an independent book-seller, provided a wonderful selection of second-hand gardening books, which sold very briskly. Nigel gave all the proceeds to the NGS. Many thanks, Nigel!

The tea team (from left to right in the photo: Mark, Nigel, Rachael and Jessie) were the same as last year when they had to cope with 7mm of rain, which fell on Sunday afternoon – our busiest time. This year the weather was kinder, but the crowds were larger. I don’t think I’ve ever had to discard so many used tea-bags as I did on Sunday evening. Cake was consumed in disarming quantities.

The admission desk and plant stalls had different teams on Saturday and Sunday. My photo shows the Sunday team on the plant stall. When I got round to taking the pictures the admission team was having a cup of tea, so I got Kate (who used to be a Time Team director) to stand in. I think she looks very convincing. Laurence was another Time Team director; he also mixed and directed some of the ‘live’ shoots, such as the royal palaces show – where I was the archaeological director at Holyrood House (or should that be Hoose?), in Edinburgh. Happy days!

The atmosphere behind the scenes when our garden is open is a cross between a live Time Team shoot and an archaeological excavation: organised, friendly chaos – and lots of smiles.

The Tea Team

The Tea Team

The Plant Stall

The Plant Stall

The Entrance Desk

The Entrance Desk

1 I decided not to mention the athletes’ country of origin, as I often visit Salisbury and plan to return safely afterwards.

Posted in Gardening | Tagged , , ,

The First Day (Saturday Sept 15 th)

WOW! What a wonderful day it’s been. Lots of visitors, but not a crowd, so everyone had time to stroll around, see the garden, walk in the woods, drink cups of tea and devour a bottomless supply of cake. The morning was wonderfully sunny and not too hot. A perfect English late summer afternoon. The roses were in their second flowering and looked gorgeous. Red hot pokers were looking particularly fine and the lawns had greened-up after the parched horrors of July and August. Even the hares, buzzards and woodpeckers seemed bright and cheerful.

We did very brisk business in the tea-and-cakes department and for the first time ever we’ve introduced an old gardening books stall – which is almost half sold-out. The plant stall was better stocked than in previous years, so we sold almost as many plants on Saturday as we did on both days of the weekend last year. Sadly, it rained on Sunday last year, so visitors numbers were adversely affected, but tomorrow looks like it’s going to be fine, so we’re expecting a good turn-out. Fingers crossed!

I don’t think the garden has ever looked this good, with quite so many late summer and early autumn flowers in bloom. Though I say so myself, it looks stunning. Certainly our visitors today loved it and were amazed by its size – long walks and quiet strolls. Several people enjoyed tea-and-cake on two separate sittings. And now for our special contest for Sunday:

Somewhere in the garden there’s a solitary small frog who likes to sit on a stone. Now how’s this for a really generous offer: the first person to spot it and bring back photographic evidence can claim a free cup of tea or coffee!!!!

frog

Here are some pictures of the day:

Book stall

Book stall

The Long Border

The Long Border

The Pond Garden

The Pond Garden

Front garden looking through The Dome.

Front garden looking through The Dome.

Cake portion control

Cake portion control

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