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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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The First Day of Spring

As a gardener and farmer I prefer the simple way that meteorologists assign the seasons: three months each, with Winter consisting of December, January and February; Spring: March to May;  Summer: June to August; and Autumn: September to November. So using this system, last Sunday, March 1st, was the first day of spring. It was very cold and clear, with that bright March sunlight that seems to lift everything.  So I grabbed my iPad and took four photos that I thought would characterise the day, and the early spring season. We’re told that 2014-15 has been an average British winter: December was much warmer than normal; January was normal and February has been colder than normal. And early March is no warmer than late February. In fact the forecast warns of snow showers tonight, spreading down from Scotland, where I gather the late winter has been pretty dire.

On Friday I attended the annual Current Archaeology Conference, as my book HOME was short-listed for the Book of the Year. Sadly we didn’t win (my books never win such prizes, but people continue to buy them. Odd that). I met another short-listed author (and sadly, too, another runner-up) there, the great Brian Fagan, who was over from the States. Brian and I go back a long way. In my opinion he is by far and away the best writer of popular archaeology and history. Nobody can hold a candle to him. We first got to meet, back in the early 1990s, when he was over here researching a piece for the National Geographical Magazine. Shortly afterwards I was flatteringly portrayed in a chapter in his excellent book (Simon and Schuster, 1995) Time Detectives. Then in 2010 Maisie and I were deeply honoured when he dedicated his superb CRO-MAGNON: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans (Bloomsbury Press), to us both. I couldn’t think of a suitable book to dedicate to him until The Lifers’ Club happened. So I mailed it to him, and it arrived in California (he is a Professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara) on the actual day of his birthday! And I had no idea when that was. So perhaps, after all, God does exist (I don’t think).

Earlier in the winter we had offered Brian lunch at the farm. He had been in London, then at Cambridge, attending conferences and knew he would be in dire need of home-cooking. And that’s what Maisie gave him: leeks in wine sauce, carrots, potatoes (roast and boiled), rare roast beef from the village butcher’s, with, of course, Maisie’s Mum’s recipe Yorkshire Pudding and home-made onion gravy. That’ll teach him to dedicate books to us!

The photos I took before I set off to Ely station to collect Brian showed the wonderful Crocus sieboldii poking up through the thick layer of grit that we spread across the surface of the Arts and Crafts jardinière, which I wrote about last year. The grit is designed to thwart slugs – which it does very effectively. But it doesn’t deter grey squirrels and mice – both of which love crocus bulbs. Still, they didn’t get them all!

Crocus in jardiniere

I then moved into the vegetable garden and took a picture of work I was doing to prune-back old wood on our overgrown red and black currants. In theory you should do this every year, and I’m ashamed to confess that it’s been at least four years since they last had a good hair-cut. I’m determined not to let things slip so badly in the future.

Pruning currants

Moving further into the vegetable garden I came across the row of dwarf early peas (the variety is Meteor) I planted the previous week. If the weather warms up, they should be germinating soon.  I’ll probably plant another row of maincrop peas (Hurst Greenshaft, which I train up much taller hazel pea-sticks) in April (see blog post). I soak all my seed peas in paraffin to deter the mice – and, touch wood, it seems to work.

https://pryorfrancis.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/row-of-dwarf-peas.jpg?w=640&h=857

Finally, the cold February has held back the broccoli, although mercifully the cold winds and frosts haven’t killed-off any plants. Normally the purple sprouting is ready to cut first, but not this year, when one plant of white has already given us a small, but deliciously succulent dish for supper. The photo shows the pale white flower-buds nestling deep within the protection of the main outer leaves. White broccoli spears are particularly good lightly boiled, or steamed, and served with butter and freshly-ground black pepper.  Bliss! And with luck there’ll be plenty more coming soon. Although officially here, the real spring, like love in the old song, ‘lies just around the corner’…

White broccoli

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Missed Posts, 2: Alan Cadbury reveals the secrets of April 15th, 2014

Back in early December I posted a piece about the missed blog posts of 2014. Anyhow, it’s now time to write-up another one and I have to admit that resurrecting abandoned pieces of writing is a strangely archaeological experience. Now true, I do have the photos to guide me. But having said that, I’m also aware that those pictures were taken with a common, a linking theme in mind. Put another way, I didn’t just wander out into the garden to take a series of random pictures that later I could stitch-together into a coherent story. The trouble is I’ve had to fall back on forensics to try and work out what on earth that theme might possibly have been. It has been a distinctly archaeological process and happily I have had Alan Cadbury alongside me to help. He’s a really nice chap, Alan, and although he isn’t the greatest with computers and technology, he does understand the forensic process, having taken part in that landmark Forensic Archaeology course organised, I have since discovered, by the Home Office, at Saltaire University back in 1997-8.

Alan had been staying with us recently, telling me about the final events of his second adventure, The Way, The Truth and The Dead (which is still just a third subscribed, so we need your name in it soon, please!). So it was Alan who helped me reconstruct that day last April when I took those pictures. And for what it’s worth, I get really irritated when people, doubtless well-meaning, suggest that Alan is fictional. Yes, he appears in works that are conventionally categorised as Fiction, but I can tell everyone that there is plenty of truth in them. And him. Indeed, Alan himself is far from fictional. Yes, his name has been changed, but I can assure you there is an individual behind the Twitter username @AlanCadbury – and if you doubt this, I suggest you check out his geotags, which are very, very rarely the same as mine. I’m still trying to persuade Alan (and yes, that is his real name) to ‘come out’ and face the adulation of a rapidly increasing fan-base. But he won’t. In fact he gets quite grumpy whenever I raise the matter. But then, that’s Alan all over.

Now back to that day, April 15th, 2014. It was a Tuesday. As I look back on those pictures, I’m immediately impressed by the cloudless blue sky and the wonderfully bright air. It has to be spring: at no other time of the year would  conditions be so crystal clear. Now you may suppose that I simply thought: ‘What a gorgeous day. I think I’ll slip indoors, pick up my camera and take a few snaps.’ In fact, that’s what I’d have believed myself, if it wasn’t for Alan’s frowning face on the seat beside me.

‘It won’t be as simple as that, Francis.’ He paused, rubbing the short beard on his chin reflectively, ‘It never is. You, of all people should know that.’

Did I deserve that? I decided to let it pass.

‘So what do you think was going-on?’ I asked.

‘Well, look at the time and the timings.’

‘Yes?’

He flashed them up on the screen. I couldn’t see anything odd about them.

‘This picture here shows some sort of blossom, right?’

Malus  ‘Evereste’

 

‘Yes, it’s the crab apple, Malus  ‘Evereste’ . One of the best flowering crabs, I reckon.’

‘But where is it?’

‘At the bottom end of the garden, down by the summerhouse, or Tea Shed, as we prefer to call it.’

‘Well, it was taken at 16.39.’

‘Yes?’ I asked, more doubtfully even than before.

Again, I didn’t think this at all remarkable. Maybe Maisie and I had just been enjoying a cup of tea – who knows? Time has moved on.

But Alan had the bit between his teeth:

‘Now look at this one. It’s labelled the Main Border and it’s taken just two minutes later, at 16.41.’ He paused, and was staring at me intently. ‘Can’t have been a very relaxing cup of tea to get you whizzing about the garden like that, can it?’

Main border

‘I suppose not.’

I was beginning to see his point.

‘And look at the picture: the composition is good. Everything comes together at the same point. There’s lots of depth-of-field. That needs a very steady hand. So I think you’ve used a tripod.’

I nodded. Again, he could have been right. My reply was hesitant:

‘Yes, I concede, to have got to the Main Border, fitted the tripod, levelled it and fixed focus, ISO and everything else normally takes at least five minutes – or sometimes rather longer.’

‘Now look at the next one.’

Small border

I did. And if anything it was even better composed. In fact as pictures of the Small Border in springtime went, it wasn’t bad. That border only really comes into its own in the early summer when the grasses are up and the daylilies (Hemerocallis) are out. I thought the jardinière by the Compton pottery, which I discussed in March of last year, formed an excellent end-stop. Pity we haven’t yet found anything to go at the other end (behind the camera) – but that’s another story.

I wandered through to the kitchen to make a pot of tea.

From my study I could hear Alan call out from the computer:

‘So when do you think that was taken?’

‘Which one?’ My mind was on tea and cake.

‘The Small Border.’

I could hear gathering irritation in his voice. I couldn’t anticipate where this conversation was heading.

‘I don’t know, Alan,’ I replied, almost absent-mindedly, while turning off the tap and putting the kettle on the Aga. ‘I’d guess a good five to ten minutes later. Again it’s well-composed. Even better than the last one.’

Alan was now standing in the doorway. I turned round. He looked me straight in the eye. Suddenly I felt as if I’d committed some loathsome murder.

‘Well it wasn’t.’ He said this slowly, stepping forward.  He was starting to sound menacing:

‘It wasn’t ten minutes…’

He paused, then continued:

‘It wasn’t even five minutes…’

He paused again to let his words sink in. Then quieter:

‘No, it wasn’t even five seconds later.’

At that, he drew breath and almost screamed in my face:

‘It was at precisely the same time as the last one! Now how do you explain that, Mister Professor?’

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Alan Cadbury’s Abbey: Crowland

Fenland view from Bukehorn Toll, looking north-west (Crowland Abbey just visible on horizon)The Fens are open, flat and full of myths. One persistent myth is that Fenland is all the same; that there is no regional distinctiveness or identity. Outsiders cannot get beyond the straight roads, the even straighter dykes and the all-enveloping, level horizon. But the people are very different: yes, they do see themselves as Fen folk first and their county comes a distant second, whether it be any of the four Fenland counties: Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire (ex-Isle of Ely), Norfolk or Suffolk.    read more…

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Snowdrops: Divide and Rule!

I have long been a fan of snowdrops. They offer the best value of any garden plant and their crowning glory is their timing: they flower when almost nothing else is prepared to stick its head out of the soil. Yes, aconites are lovely, if rather short-lived, and hellebores can be stunning in a good winter garden, but taken as a whole nothing has the same impact as a good expanse, a vista no less, of snowdrops.

So if you’re new to gardening, how do you go about acquiring some? Ideally you want to make friends with a gardener who has a well-established snowdrop bed. Then arrange to visit him or her later in February, just after most varieties have finished flowering. It’s then that the bulbs are in the best condition for moving. Long-established clumps can become congested and then they don’t flower so freely. So that’s why it’s always a good idea to divide them up – or rather that’s what you tell the potential donor (and it happens to be true). Then, once you’ve scrounged a clump or two, take them round to your garden and plant them right away, but don’t make the mistake of planting individual bulbs: try to plant three or four at a time. Do that, and your new clumps will become visible far quicker. This way of planting-out growing bulbs is known as planting ‘in the green’ and I would strongly recommend it for aconites, and other non-bulbous springtime plants, such as anemones, too. And another useful tip: if you buy a pot of snowdrops in the garden centre, I’d advise waiting till March or April, when the nursery normally reduce prices by around 50%. And one final thing: always wash off the fluffy peaty compost that they’re nearly always grown in these days. If you don’t, the bulbs will dry out in hot summers – and snowdrops sometimes fail to break dormancy if they’re allowed to get too dry. Which is one of the reasons I rarely buy them as dried bulbs, because even if they do manage to germinate, they’re often very feeble the following year.

But there is one aspect of snowdrops that has never appealed to me. I suppose you could call it ‘snowdrop fancying’ and the people who practise this arcane, this black art, are known as ‘Galanthophiles’, after the Latin name for the snowdrop family, Galanthus. I’ve never actually dared take part in a Galanthophile conversation, but I have listened-in to one. And it was scarily obsessive. Indeed, I’m reliably informed that rare selections can change hands for hundreds of pounds. And often you need a magnifying glass to tell the various types apart.

I suppose we’ve got about half-a-dozen different varieties in our garden, but 99.999% of them are the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis. To my mind it’s perfection and cannot be improved upon; but there is a straight double version, if you’re looking for something that looks a bit more garden-like and less like a wildflower.

By and large, snowdrops prefer shade to direct sunlight, and they would rather remain dampish all year round. They very much resent having their leaves cut off before they die down naturally, over summer. So don’t plant them in grass that you intend to mow. Otherwise they require little or no attention, which is another reason I like them so much. They’re also superb in dark urban gardens at times of the year when the light is dim. But town being warmer than country, they often bloom two or three weeks earlier.

Over the years I’ve planted thousands of snowdrops and I set about it as a military operation, but one that’s short and sharp – as befits the brief days of February. Snowdrops are very forgiving, so it doesn’t really matter when you move them. The traditional time is after flowering, but often, like in the current season, it suits me to do it early. I also find that bulbs moved early ‘in the green’ seem to settle into their new positions a bit quicker. And it’s also worth bearing in mind that early springtime can be very busy elsewhere in the garden. So I tend to strike when the mood is upon me – which is now.

First, I dig an entire clump out of the ground with a small border spade. Then I remove surplus soil from the roots and use it to refill the hole, planting four or five new clumps as I do so. Then, I break my lifted clump into large pieces, from which I break-off individual bulbs to make mini-clumps of 4-5 plants. I then drop these onto the ground in what I hope looks like a fairly random pattern. Finally, I plant them where they fell – and I do this quite quickly and without much fuss, a process that takes less than half the time it took to form the mini-clumps. If the season’s very dry or your soil is sandy, I would suggest you water after planting. Using this system, I can plant roughly 50 mini-clumps in an hour, or so. I concede it’s very hard on the back. But be of good cheer: next winter they’ll look gorgeous. And then all the effort will be worth it.

Choose a source of snowdrops where the clumps are getting large and congested.

Choose a source of snowdrops where the clumps are getting large and congested.

Dig up a clump, remove surplus soil and put it in a container.

Dig up a clump, remove surplus soil and put it in a container.

Close-up of the lifted clump. Gently pull it into halves, then quarters. Then subdivide each quarter into ‘mini-clumps’ of 4-5 bulbs.

Close-up of the lifted clump. Gently pull it into halves, then quarters. Then subdivide each quarter into ‘mini-clumps’ of 4-5 bulbs.

A mini-clump lying on the ground, ready to be planted.

A mini-clump lying on the ground, ready to be planted.

5.Planted mini-clumps. If planted early in the season (say early February) the leaves and flowers will resume their customary upright position after a week or so.

5. Planted mini-clumps. If planted early in the season (say early February) the leaves and flowers will resume their customary upright position after a week or so.

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Death Comes to the Fens for a Second Time…

Dear reader, if you haven’t guessed from the title of this blog post, I have finished writing the second Alan Cadbury mystery. I’ve learned a great deal about fiction-writing over the past year and this time the process of producing the manuscript didn’t take a dozen drafts, as The Lifers’ Club did. But the process of writing wasn’t perfect by any means, if by perfect you mean, did it go entirely according to plan? Well the answer to that is, it didn’t. In fact the book acquired a life of its own: a villain turned out to be less villainous and the latter chapters kept surprising me with new and entirely unexpected things. It was all very odd. I also made some entirely new mistakes.

For a start, I under-estimated how time-consuming the Unbound subscription process would be. Having said that, all the nice people at Unbound now assure me that it won’t be quite so laborious the second time around. Believe that, if you will. Second, the editorial process was quite extended, but this was almost entirely because I was new to fiction and didn’t really understand the subtleties and complexities of plot-construction; I was also a bit naïve when it came to human motivation – which doubtless reflects my own rather straightforward view of the world. Maybe that’s why I hate, loathe and detest the behind-the-scenes intricacies of academic inter- and intra-departmental politics – which I’ve tried to steer clear of all my life. No, I think my main problem in 2014 was in time-tabling my work. So no sooner had I resumed writing the second Alan Cadbury (which for brevity I’ll call AC2) than I went off to film in Italy. Then I got re-started just in time to be greeted by the editing and proofs for HOME. I had only just got re-re-started, when I was overtaken by the HOME launch campaign, plus the autumn literature festivals, where both Lifers and HOME seemed to have gone down very well. Eventually I finished the first draft of AC2 on November 13th. I then did a couple of weeks on the farm before I read through the manuscript, tweaking it here and there. Only then did I send it off to my Editor, Liz Garner.

So this time around, I intend to handle things a bit more astutely – or at least that’s the plan. But already I’m hitting snags, because like the complete fool I am, I’ve had the idea for another non-fiction book, which I plan to be lighter in tone than HOME, but with a serious underlying theme, nonetheless. I also plan to write it in collaboration with a co-author. But more on that later. And of course I’m also thinking about AC3 which will be the third of what is shaping-up to be a Fenland Trilogy for Alan Cadbury. I’m still not certain where AC will be heading thereafter, if, that is, he manages to survive AC3, but perhaps I’ll know around Christmas 2015. Maybe he’ll settle down (with whom?) and tend his garden in suburban security, somewhere. Or maybe not. But whatever actually transpires, 2015 looks like being just as unplanned, ungovernable and chaotic as 2014 – for both AC and FP. And finally, and to make matters even worse, I’ll be trying to make sense of everything as I set out on my eighth decade on this planet. Or to put it another way, I’ll be 70 in a few days’ time – which is odd, as I currently feel about 85.

So what is the second Alan Cadbury book about? It’s title doesn’t give much away, but is, I hope, slightly menacing, if not actually evil: The Way, The Truth and the Dead. Sadly I can’t divulge the plot, other than to concede that it was the Bishop with the cleaver (and the mistress in Morocco) who did it – in the library, of course. Apart from that, the action takes place in the southern Fens, in a small hamlet called Fursby, a few miles from Ely, on the Littleport road. We are in the Black Fens –thus named because of the region’s dark peat soils. It’s a part of Fenland that I love, but it’s very, very different from the silt Fens further north. For a start, there really are hills – proper ones that you can look up to. The small city of Ely is on one end of a long, undulating ridge, which extends westwards to the large villages of Haddenham and Sutton. Encircling these hills, which would have been true islands in pre-drainage days, the fields are a deep dark and golden black, especially when lit by the low amber sun of a winter’s evening.

Like other Fenland landscapes, the Black Fens were very attractive to prehistoric, Romano-British and early medieval communities. Monastic settlers were also an important feature and history books tell us that they were attracted by the bleakness and isolation of the Fens. I suspect that lonely, cold image was what they wanted to portray. In reality, Fenland abbeys, such as Ely and Peterborough, were some of the richest in Britain – and I don’t think it should come as a surprise that two of the other hugely rich foundations, at Westminster and Glastonbury were both sited in marshy landscapes. Those old monks knew a thing or two when it came to PR – and economics, too.

A view of Ely Cathedral, looking towards the magnificent medieval ‘lantern’. The Cathedral was originally a Benedictine Abbey, which was founded by St. Etheldreda in 673.

A view of Ely Cathedral, looking towards the magnificent medieval ‘lantern’. The Cathedral was originally a Benedictine Abbey, which was founded by St. Etheldreda in 673.

Anyhow, Alan Cadbury finds himself running an excavation at Fursby, but it’s no ordinary dig. The archaeology is outstanding, and soon its fame gets to the ears of people in television. Much of the book’s action takes place ‘live’ and on-screen. Those scenes were a lot of fun to write and I’ve tried to capture some of the adrenalin and tension of a live broadcast.

AC2 has given me a great excuse to visit Ely ‘for research’. Sometimes I drive, but in winter the great washes between the Old and New Bedford Rivers (which I discuss in The Making of the British Landscape) are flooded and it becomes far quicker to go by train. The line passes close by the great nature reserve at Welney Wash, which is famous for its huge population of whooper swans, which pass over our house on their migratory route northwards, later in the spring. I love the sound they make as they fly overhead: it’s so conversational; rather like they were chatting to one another.

Despite its proximity to Cambridge and the construction of some vast new housing estates around its fringes, Ely still manages to retain its unique character. It’s a great place to eat and drink – everything from haute cuisine to fish-and-chips. And the independent bookshop, Toppings, is superb – in fact it’s where we’ve chosen to launch AC2, on the evening of January 20th. I’ll be there doing a talk and signing Lifers’ Club and HOME, so do please come along if you possibly can. It promises to be a convivial evening!

A view of Welney Washes when partially flooded. The huge ‘washes’ between the two 17th century canalised courses of the River Ouse are intended to flood, thereby relieving pressure on the river’s outfall into the Wash, at Denver, in Norfolk.

A view of Welney Washes when partially flooded. The huge ‘washes’ between the two 17th century canalised courses of the River Ouse are intended to flood, thereby relieving pressure on the river’s outfall into the Wash, at Denver, in Norfolk.

The RSPB Welney Washes Nature Reserve is one of the most important habitats in Europe for migratory species, such as thousands of mute and whooper swans.

The RSPB Welney Washes Nature Reserve is one of the most important habitats in Europe for migratory species, such as thousands of mute and whooper swans.

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Getting Ready for 2015

Since last year we’ve decided to lamb rather later than in the past – which means that we put the rams in with the ewes late in October and expect our first lambs in mid-to-late March (the actual date this year is March 21st, if the ewes are true to their often quite strict 21-week gestation). The reasons we’ve opted for a slightly later lambing are partly that we’re getting older ourselves, and it’s less physically demanding if lambing isn’t in the cold weather; that’s also why we’ve cut the flock size by over half. Time Team is no longer being made, so I don’t have to rush off and film in early spring and of course the grass is that much better in early April, which means that lactating ewes don’t have to eat hay and straw. So, all in all, I think a slightly later lambing makes plenty of practical sense. The only down-side is that lamb prices aren’t as good later in the year, but again, we really aim to raise breeding ewes, which aren’t affected by such fluctuations, as we sell them the following year. Anyhow, I’m really pleased with this year’s crop of breeding ewes, which are still looking good, despite quite a wet autumn.

As readers in Britain will be aware, 2014 was the warmest year on record, but it went out with a bang here on the east coast. We’d brought the in-lamb ewes into the barn on Boxing Day, then that night it snowed hard and we woke-up to a just-missed White Christmas. But there’d been a lot of rain with it, too (I measured 31mm in my rain gauge) and the ground was sodden. Still, it looked very picturesque when I took this photo on December 27th.

Snow along the drive.

Snow along the drive.

The ewes chewed the cud contentedly in the barn as we hurried to assemble hurdles to make a dry corral for last year’s female lambs, technically now known as gimmers, which we had to remove from nearly-flooded pasture. Later in the day we drove them in and I could have sworn I heard one or two thank me under their breath as they filed into the barn. The only person to resent their arrival was one of the farm cats, now known as Ginger or Ginge (her previous name was Death, as in Death and Glory – two kittens we found dumped in a dyke by the road a few years ago. Our nice vet wouldn’t allow the name Death to appear in his files, so gave her the name Ginger). Ginge was forced to move up to a higher bale, or risk being sniffed to death by curious young sheep.

Ewes in the barn, surrounded by bales of hay.

Ewes in the barn, surrounded by bales of hay.

The gimmers in the yard beside the barn (where they can shelter when it’s wet).

The gimmers in the yard beside the barn (where they can shelter when it’s wet).

Ginger aka Death.

Ginger aka Death.

As I walked around the farm I noticed that one or two large puddles were not decreasing quite as fast as I would have liked. So the following day, I decided to unblock the outfalls of the land-drains that run below our fields, wood and garden. They empty into a large dyke maintained by the South Holland Internal Drainage Board (the IDB), to whom we pay an annual drainage rate. So far as I can discover, the drains were laid in the 1960s. They consist of individual, foot-long, four-inch ceramic pipes which were placed directly in the ground. This would tend to confirm their earlier date, as by the 1970s pipes were nearly always bedded in gravel, and were often made of perforated plastic. Most of our drains were blocked when I discovered them in 1996 (I think). Then we had them jetted-out by a professional contractor, who did an excellent job. All I have to do is make sure their outfalls into the dyke aren’t blocked, which I do every year and it’s a job that’s best done after heavy rain, when water pressure in the pipes helps to wash them out.

As you can see from the photo, the IDB dyke is quite a large one and the sides always seem to be wet and/or frozen when I come to do the rodding-out. Several times I’ve fetched-up in the freezing water. First I have to find the drain, which is made easier by some wires I’ve attached to a nearby fence. Then I find the pipe with a small border spade and a road spike. Having carefully located a pipe (I don’t want to shatter it), I trowel away the surface mud, but with a long garden rather than an archaeological trowel, then insert a drain cleaning rod, fitted with double-spiral bit. By the time I’ve twisted that rod a few hundred times I’m ready for a beer with my luchtime pork pie from the local butcher’s. In fact my arms are still aching, over twelve hours later. But it was worth it. Security matters a lot. I’d much rather have a sore arm than a nagging conscience – and floods.

There’s still an hour to go before breakfast. Time to start the edit of my second Alan Cadbury thriller (The Way, The Truth and The Deaths) which my kind editor, Liz Garner, managed to return to me shortly before Christmas. We plan to launch the new campaign with Unbound on January 20th, when I’ll be doing a book-signing (Lifers’ Club and HOME) at Topping Bookshop in Ely – where the new book is set (in the landscape around the city, not the bookshop, idiot!). Then later in the morning I’ll return to digging-over the vegetable garden, which I had almost finished before the rain and snow hit us. Give me an active over a sedentary, passive Christmas, any day. Roll on 2015…

A view along the IDB dyke.

A view along the IDB dyke.

The hidden pipe revealed!

The hidden pipe revealed!

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The Accidental Shopkeeper

IMG_0193It’s not often that you read a book and realise that you are holding history in your hands. And I don’t want that to sound pretentious: I can’t imagine for one moment that The Accidental Shopkeeper, by Patrick Limming, will ever appear on the Reading List of university students; indeed, if it did, its author would probably die laughing. No, what I meant, is that without intending to – which is crucially important as it rules out bias and prejudice – this book has given future historians an invaluable resource. I’m sure the late 20th and early 21st centuries will furnish scholars with vast quantities of material on the digital revolution, on political devolution, on the rise of religious fundamentalism and the collapse of established Christian churches, all of these are if you like predictable themes. The trick is somehow to side-step the predictable and produce something that throws new light on aspects of contemporary life that people in three or four generations’ time will realise were important. And one of these must surely be the decline, or the survival – it is still unclear which it will be – of smaller towns and their economic basis, the High Street. True, the media are full of Mary Portas, but hers is the very metropolitan High Street of large chains and superstores. What Patrick Limming is writing about is a very different beast. And it matters hugely to local people. In fact I’ll be visiting his shop later today to pick up some Coarse Mix for our three rams, who have been closely confined together since their four weeks of frolicking with the ewes, which came to an end a fortnight ago.

So the book is essentially a work-focussed autobiography and it tells the story of how one man and his father set-up and established a small business, based around horticultural supplies, pet-food and garden furniture, in a provincial market town, Holbeach, in the Lincolnshire Fens, just a short distance from the Wash. It’s very much a warts-and-all story and I for one was fascinated to learn what lay behind the firm’s expansion and the creation of new premises. This involved the demolition of some Georgian buildings and it was good to read for once the other side of the story. As an archaeologist and landscape historian I rarely get to see ‘the other story’ and Patrick makes it clear that they had no alternative. We tend to forget that many buildings of this age were very Gerry-built and I honestly don’t think he could have done anything else – if, that is, the business was to continue and in the process employ local people, as it does to this day. Ultimately even old building have to make way for human well-being. It’s only when ambition and greed lead to unnecessary demolition that I get really angry: there was no need, for example, to have pulled down the Euston Arch. It’s also worth reminding ourselves that some of the finest country houses, that visitors now flock to in their millions, were constructed on the remains of destroyed medieval villages.

This book is based around the experience of success and of many small failures and that’s why it’s so important. It’s the sort of book that ought to appear in all university Local History Departments and indeed, in university libraries. As I implied earlier, it’s an historical building-block. The author is very modest about his achievements, which are considerable and the book is written light-heartedly and is replete with terrible jokes – just like the author. It’s also far better written than nearly all the dreary reports and formulaic papers produced by professional archaeologists that I still have to wade through from time to time. He jokes about his spelling (which is impeccable) and his grammar which it’s fair to say is individualistic. But his words and the pattern of his writing are helping to preserve a record of how people in the northern Fens currently speak. And it makes such a refreshing change from the ubiquitous Estuary. But at the same time it’s very good reading: from the very first page, the words flow with the natural, unaffected ease of a born writer. Whatever else he chooses to do next, I do hope Patrick never goes on a Creative Writing course.

Towards the end of the book, we are given some fascinating statistics about the rise and decline of Holbeach as a mercantile town. These are accompanied by a series of ‘then and now’ views of the High Street, which, as a local resident, I found most absorbing. Patrick spells out clearly what makes being a shop-keeper difficult and quite predictably it’s almost always either bloody-minded bankers or brain-dead local bureaucratic jobsworths. I think you get my drift. But he drives his grievances home with many pointed case-studies that you wouldn’t believe if he hadn’t told you. And that’s another thing about this book: it’s 100% truthful. I honestly couldn’t detect any signs of hyperbole or exaggeration – even when he was describing high speed exploits in his much-loved Lotus cars.

So if you’re looking for an original, thought-provoking Christmas present, you’ve just found one: Patrick Limming’s The Accidental Shopkeeper. And at £9.99 it’s the same price as The Lifers’ Club – plus it’s got pictures!

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