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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 Garden in Mid-Autumn, 2017

Mid-autumn is one of my favourite times of the year. By now we’ve shaken off the humid hot days of high summer and the garden starts to come alive with a new, physical, energy as winds and breezes start to pick up. Yes, I concede, there are the occasional intimations of approaching winter, but these merely serve to heighten my enjoyment of the present: make the most of it while you can. I always think of autumn as more informal than summer. It’s a time when you can sit back, say ‘Phew!’, and start clearing up the accumulating seed heads, leaves and debris. In summer, for some reason, I always religiously put my wheelbarrow and tools away in the shed at the end of the day; but not so in autumn, when somehow it seems OK to leave them out over-night – providing, that is, there’s no rain in the forecast. In autumn, I often stray away from the more formal parts of the garden and find quieter places where I can enjoy the deep shadows and once-luxuriant, but now slightly fading, plants around me. This year, with my left hip hurting so much, I’ve taken to sitting down quite a lot. In fact I sat on the seat shown in the next picture immediately after I took the photo. One or two people have been kind enough to ask if there’s any news about the hip replacement surgery. I phoned the surgeon’s secretary a month ago and she told me there were 15 people in the queue ahead of me and that I could expect to undergo surgery in early November. So that’s something.

Deep shade

Maisie and I are fairly conservative gardeners, inasmuch as we try not to take too many risks – especially if they involve financial expense! A few years ago we felled an old willow which wasn’t thriving and while I was able to log-up most of the branches and burn them in the house, the trunk had heartwood rot and was too much trouble to convert into firewood. So we decided to make one of the fashionable ‘stumperies’, which you can see, for example, at Highgrove or Biddulph Grange. There are even books and articles on how to construct them. But life’s too short to start ‘constructing’ a pile of old wood, so I dumped them in a heap, kicked them a few times and then stuck one or two plants in the ground around them. Over the following winter the Stumpery began to acquire a life of its own. Some wood mice took up residence, as did a hedgehog. Slugs loved the wet surfaces of the logs and the birds fed on them, covering everything with bird poo. One bird, and this was completely without our permission, poo-ed out the seed of a Formosan fuchsia (Leycesteria formosa), which promptly germinated. It was a tiny seedling, growing on the logs, last year and then, this summer, it decided to get going, and now looks splendid. We also planted a variegated ivy, which was also quite slow to start, but which loved the warm, wet summer and is now looking very decorative. I just hope it’s a variety that is frost hardy. Only time will tell.

Stumpery

The Stumpery aside, there is only one other set-piece mini-garden. The tiny sink garden consists of three of old stone or ceramic sinks set on a patch of paving in the Rose Garden. We’ve planted it with sundry succulents and Alpines and we stand pots around it, filled with with similar sorts of stuff. The main problem is the hardy geranium that fronts this little garden. It’s too tall, even after a good cutting-back in late summer, after the first and main flowering. We’re currently contemplating Euphorbia myrsinites, which grows very well with us, but I fear it might be a bit too vigorous. Can’t decide.

Sink garden

The previous three pictures were taken a few days after we opened the garden for the NGS in mid-September. It’s now approaching mid-October and the weather hasn’t improved much. It’s still quite cool, and although we haven’t yet had a frost – not even a ground frost – the grass is growing rapidly. I’m still having to mow the lawns every week and tomorrow I plan to cut the hay meadow with the farm tractor, because the grass is too long and rank to go into the winter. More to the point, it’s too long to allow the cowslips and snakes head fritillaries to flower, in the spring. The wet summer meant that the potato crop was depleted by blight, which has also hit the tomatoes, although the superb Italian cooking variety, San Marzano, doesn’t seem to be particularly prone. And we’ve had a HUGE crop! This photo shows a week’s production from the vegetable garden. The greenhouse plants were far less productive – so I don’t plan to do that again.

Tomatoes

The large pergola, which we call the Poop or Poop Deck, at the back of the house has been bare for about ten years. Five years ago we planted a wisteria, following the success of the same plant at the front of the house. It took three years to get established, as I now realise I had planted it too close to the house wall, where growing conditions were too dry. Eventually I realised this and emptied buckets of water on its roots throughout the summer of 2014. As a reward, in 2015 it sent out two long shoots which I trained up to the top of the pergola. Then in 2016 these sent out two further shoots which I managed to tie in about half way across the great expanse of roof. Last summer (2017) I assiduously tied-in the side-shoots from the two leading shoots and despite winds and rough weather, managed to keep most of them intact. The result is quie impressive: about three quarters of the Poop roof is now covered by at least one shoot. Next year these will send out their own side-shoots and with any luck that should complete the job.

Wisteria

When one plant takes possession of a space, in this case the Poop roof, others have to give way. In that instance it was the later autumn-flowering Clematis maximowicziana (now called c. terniflora). We were going to remove it entirely, but at the last minute relented and cut it back severely to half-way up one of the Poop’s supporting posts. It had to be cut back three or four times over the summer, but eventually gave up trying to reconquer the roof and decided, instead, to burst into flower, which it did a week ago. I took this photo yesterday and I have to confess it’s looking much, much better than ever it did up there, high above our heads.

Clematis

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Our Garden Opening for the National Gardens Scheme (NGS), 2017: the Final Reckoning

All the weather apps, not to mention Radio 4 and the morning programme on BBC-1 had predicted that the first day, Saturday 16th, would be showery and breezy. In the event, it was much better, with virtually no rain. Over supper, as is wont to happen in this digital age, some of us, myself included, I am ashamed to say, produced phones and iPads to check the BBC and Met Office weather apps for the following day, Sunday. And bliss! It would be bright and sunny, without so much as a hint of rain. So we drank another toast to the NGS – and stumbled off to bed, while Maisie slaved away at the sink, washing-up the wonderful meal she had cooked us all (I still feel guilty about that). The next day dawned bright and sunny. Birds were singing. Sheep were gently grazing the verdant paddocks. A pair of green woodpeckers were yaffling in the wood. I strolled out onto the Poop Deck where soon we would be serving teas, and breathed deeply the sweet smell of Madame Isaac Péreire (the rose, not the lady). Breakfast was delicious: our own eggs and dry-cured, smoked Lincolnshire bacon. I looked across to the Long Border which was gorgeous in its emerging autumnal hues. I knew people would have a lovely day with us and worried slightly that we might sell out of cake.

The Long Border looked more than usually gorgeous.

The Long Border looked more than usually gorgeous.

After a couple of hours getting things ready, it was time to welcome the first visitors. Some had come from quite far afield: Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. All had seen the weather apps and were confident of a dry, sunny day in the Fens. After a few welcoming words, I sent them on their way, rejoicing. And then The Wash decided to make itself felt. Over to the north-east a dark cloud began to grow. And grow. And grow. Then it burst, with a rumble of thunder. I dashed to the barn and retrieved a large umbrella we’d bought for the occasion, but hadn’t bothered to unpack, because the weather apps were so positive. Despite the downpour, people kept on arriving and everyone was very stoical and British about the clouds that were now growing for a second time. By the end of the day we’d had about a dozen showers and no less than 7mm of rain – which is a Hell of a lot by our, usually very dry, standards!

The Car Park in the meadow south of the house was beginning to fill-up when I took this picture.

The Car Park in the meadow south of the house was beginning to fill-up when I took this picture.

On the Friday before we opened for Day 1, I had decided we wouldn’t mow the meadow closely, partly because I didn’t want to lose so much grazing and also because I reckoned that chopped-up mowings would cause all sorts of problems, when wet. In the event we compromised by mowing the access and exit routes. That worked quite well and was a useful lesson for the future.

Mark Allen behind the tea table on Day 2, before the rain began. His customers seem delighted!

Mark Allen behind the tea table on Day 2, before the rain began. His customers seem delighted!

As anyone who has ever visited an NGS Open Garden knows, the garden is only part of the experience. The other, very English, component are teas, with home-made cakes. I thought the cakes were particularly toothsome. In fact I felt obliged to test each and every one of them: quality control is so important. This year our teas raised £232.50 for charity, which is no mean achievement, given the dire conditions. We also retrieved £158.80 from the donations bucket. Incidentally, those new £5 notes stick together when wet and are very hard to separate.

The Plant stall, before the rain struck. This year’s selection was twice the size of 2016 and plants sold very well indeed, thanks to Linda (in the barn, with her back to the camera), who did so much to assemble and sell them.

The Plant stall, before the rain struck. This year’s selection was twice the size of 2016 and plants sold very well indeed, thanks to Linda (in the barn, with her back to the camera), who did so much to assemble and sell them.

This year we moved the Plant Stall into the barn, which was just as well, given the heavy rain. Sales of plants raised £162.00 (£1 higher than in 2016!). Admissions (at £4 per person, children free) raised £586. So if you add everything together, we made a total of £1,139.30, and all for charity. That’s slightly down on last year (we had about 50 fewer visitors, but they spent slightly more per capita). I suspect local visitors, who were planning to come out and see us at teatime, stayed at home (and I can’t blame them) because the rain in the afternoon was terrible. So, despite the rain, it was a great weekend and I know for a fact that everyone, volunteer staff and visitors alike, had a splendid time. Everyone said they’d return next year, when we open on the same weekend. So mark your diary in advance: September 15th and 16th, 2018: NGS Open Garden, with lots of tea and cake!

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Ready for Day 2?

To be absolutely honest, I was really worried about today’s Open Garden. The weather forecast was dire: rain and winds. The lawn was wet-to-seriously-soggy and the barometric pressure wasn’t rising as fast as had been predicted. Frankly, the outlook was dire. Then eleven o’clock came and suddenly there were cars in the car park. The black clouds to the north were building and getting more menacing. But then something strange happened: it didn’t rain. Yes, there were a few spots, but nothing to worry about. By lunchtime there were people happily drinking cups of tea and munching on cake. In the end, we escaped any significant rain. PHEW!!! And the lawn has started to dry out, too.

Tomorrow the forecast is very much better: a possible shower around 1.00, but otherwise, it looks dry and very sunny in the afternoon. So the prospect is good and as the photo (taken this afternoon at 2.11) shows, the garden is looking wonderful. Everyone says the borders are much better than last year. So do please come if you can. And there’s plenty of tea and cake to be enjoyed by one and all. See you tomorrow!

2017-09-16 14.11.39

 

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Our Open Garden, September 16-17, 2017: Something to Look Forward To!

Please forgive the silence of August and no, I wasn’t lying on a beach somewhere exotic trying to nurture skin cancer. In actual fact, I was hard at work in two places: at my desk, trying to kick-start a book on the Fens (about which more later), or out in the garden hobbling about with one of my three sticks, attempting to keep on top of the grass, the weeds, the vegetable garden – or just luxuriant growth, in general. Incidentally, I’ve got three walking-sticks, because I’m always losing one or two of them – usually they’re left on straw bales, the garden tractor trailer, or under cabbages in the veg garden. Once they were locked in the chicken hutch overnight. They looked a bit lumpy and colourful the following morning. Sticky stuff, chicken poo! But the good news is that my hip replacement surgery is due in later September or October. So with luck, it’ll be farewell to sticks and hobbling. Fingers crossed, I’ll be mobile again in time for Christmas – thanks to our wonderful NHS.

The main meadow shortly after hay-making. We got all the bales safely into the barn before it rained.

The main meadow shortly after hay-making. We got all the bales safely into the barn before it rained.

It has been a terrific growing year. We made the hay in early July and it was superb. I’m glad we didn’t do it any earlier, as many of our neighbours did, because some of our grasses come late and this year they were luxuriant. I think the sheep will feed well this winter.

The small border in July. I have never known growth to be so luxuriant.

The small border in July. I have never known growth to be so luxuriant.

As we saw in an earlier blog post, early summer started well and the borders looked excellent. The first flowering of roses was good, but quite short, so Maisie was able to get on top of the summer pruning promptly. This has meant that the second coming of the roses has already started and promises to be superb when we’re open in mid-September. I can’t recall seeing so many flower buds forming. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that there isn’t too much rain, as wet tends to damage old-fashioned roses. Already I’d have said the rose show this year is better than when we opened, on more or less the same weekend in mid-September, last year. Our other main feature in September are the Asters, which again, weren’t fully out last year, but are far more advanced this year: in fact some are already in flower. All in all, I think the borders are going to be looking superb, I really do. So, if you can, do try to come. Remember, every penny we raise goes to charity: we aren’t a charity ourselves and don’t charge for expenses or administration and we certainly don’t employ expensive publicists. But we want to do what we can to help.

A group of local carers spent an afternoon with us in mid-August. This is the scene during afternoon tea on our ‘poop deck’, with the share-out of the group’s lottery in full flow.

A group of local carers spent an afternoon with us in mid-August. This is the scene during afternoon tea on our ‘poop deck’, with the share-out of the group’s lottery in full flow.

The National Gardens Scheme, who organise garden open days across the country, came up with a new idea for this year. It’s called Gardens and Health Week and it took place on August 12-20th. Our event was on the afternoon of the 17th, when a group of local carers came for a relaxing afternoon in the garden. I feel very strongly that people who care for others with long-term problems, such as dementia, deserve our thanks and our support, which is why we offered them the use of our garden during the NGS week. It was a great success, even though we were hit by a sudden and completely unexpected sharp rain shower, the moment they arrived. Cups of tea were rapidly brewed and the house was instantly full. Then as soon as the rain passed everyone spilled out onto the patio-like pergola at the back of the house, that we call ‘the poop deck’ – God knows why. The photo shows how the wisteria has suddenly started growing in earnest and now covers most of the pergola. It doesn’t yet provide much shade, but it certainly will next year. I have spent days tying it up: fiddly work, but worth it.

Baldwin, our new Jack Russell puppy.

Baldwin, our new Jack Russell puppy.

And finally, visitors to the garden may well be savaged by our new Jack Russell puppy, Baldwin. He’s been adopted by Pen (our much larger 3 year-old Labrador x Border Collie bitch) and the two make a charming, if turbo-charged couple. They’ll be sure to welcome you. To find out more about the garden opening, click on this link: https://www.ngs.org.uk/?bf-garden=13908

Now I must stop and return to weeding the veg garden. Then I’ve got to cut edges and mow the lawn, trim the wisteria, dead-head the roses, tie-in the sweet peas, look for my sticks…

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Cutting the Mustard

And now for something completely different: a guest blog. It’s by Mrs. Pryor, aka Maisie Taylor, who is not writing about her favourite topics of ancient wood-working, gardens or our new puppy Baldwin (and there’ll be more about him in another post, shortly). Anyone who has stayed with us on the farm will know that Maisie is also an excellent cook with very strong views about the quality of ingredients. I think that comes across quite forcibly in what follows. And just for the benefit of our non-British readers, Waitrose is a food supermarket chain operated by the John Lewis Partnership. The J.L. Partnership is an enlightened company that is owned by the workforce, who are known as Partners. Both Maisie and I are great supporters of John Lewis’s who did, and still do, much to pioneer fair trading and support British farmers and farming. Anyhow, I hope that has whetted your appetites. Now read on – and I can promise: you won’t be disappointed!

Cutting the Mustard

By Maisie Taylor

For many years I have been of the opinion that Waitrose English Mustard is the best. To open a new jar and inhale sweet essence of mustardiness is to set taste buds aquiver and saliva glands squirting. It is actually wrong to say ‘is the best’ because a while ago it became ‘was the best’. The first inkling that something was wrong came when a new jar was opened and there was no quivering or squirting – just a mustardy smell. Initially there was no panic and my cold-ridden sinuses were blamed.

The perfect ham roll is made with a freshly baked, crusty white roll – the sort which are more or less bright orange on the outside, and which shatter when you take the bread knife to them. The butter must be salty, cold and slightly hard so that it doesn’t spread, so much as roll itself up in the soft white crumb. The ham should be purchased from a proper butcher and must have plenty of fat, which should be very white so that it contrasts yummily with the pink of the meat. It should be newly and thickly sliced and stuffed into the roll generously and not too neatly but only after English mustard has been enthusiastically spread over the bread and butter of both halves of the roll. The roll has to be squashed quite a bit before you can get it into your mouth. The crust should crackle and craze and the first mouthful should be a perfect balance of tough crust, soft bread, cold butter, sweet ham and enough mustard to almost, but only almost, make you sneeze. Waitrose English Mustard used to do the job every time.

As well as failing to make things quiver and squirt, the new jar tasted different: bland and slightly sweet. It was all very strange. The jar looked the same but could they have changed the recipe or was it that the taste buds had started deteriorating with the onset of old age? The level of mustard in the jar gradually went down but it didn’t taste any better and continued to be a disappointment.

A new jar! Perhaps this one would return to form… but no. The mustard was still bland, strangely sweet and not terribly English.

At this point something interesting happened.

Living in the country, I tend to keep a well-stocked larder and a full fridge. (‘But Darling, you live how far, 20 miles, from a Waitrose store? I’d heard there were pockets of deprivation in the countryside, but I hadn’t realised it was that bad!’). I have to admit I do occasionally uncover things at the back of the fridge which surprise me. Searching for a jar with something nice preserved in oil in it, I found myself travelling deeper and deeper into parts of the fridge that had seldom seen a human hand. Eventually, having abandoned the search and cramming everything back in, I discovered that I was left with not one, but two identical jars of Waitrose English Mustard.

The two jars of Waitrose English Mustard. The earlier one (2015) is on the right.

The two jars of Waitrose English Mustard. The earlier one (2015) is on the right.

Not being a great believer in ‘use by’ dates, my first reaction was to unscrew the lid of the nearest one and sniff:

Kerpow! Perzang! Splurt!

Taste buds quivered! Saliva glands squirted! Wow!

My second reaction was to unscrew the lid of the second jar and sniff:

Sigh! Unexciting, slightly bland, mustardy smell.

My third reaction was to look at the use by dates on the lids. Bland mustardy smell is Apr 2017 (Oops, two months out of date – no wonder it wasn’t quite the thing.) The date on the Kerpow! jar lid is quite hard to read, as it is rather faint… could it possibly say Nov 2015? How embarrassing. That is not good even for me.

But wait! I whip the lid off Nov 2015 (as it will now be known) and inhale deeply. Wow, fabulous! – this should be illegal.

There must be a reason for the difference. The labels seem to be identical including the bar code but detailed analysis begins to reveal differences. Nov 2015 is described as ‘A traditional English mustard providing the classic accompaniment to hot or cold meat.’ Apr 2017 is described as ‘A [?] English Mustard providing the classic accompaniment to hot or cold meat.’

The nutrition table is very different on the two jars. April 2017 has more calories, less fat and nearly twice as much carbohydrate. Really? That seems a big difference. Sugars are even more startling. Per 100g, Nov 2015 has 8.9g carbohydrates of which 2.9g are sugars. This compares with 15.5g in Apr 2017 of which 13.3g are sugars. Presumably the rise in sugar needed to be balanced by the rise in salt – from 5.05g in November 2015 to 8.5g in April 2017.

And so to the ingredients:

Nov 2015 – Water, mustard flour (31%), salt, lemon juice from concentrate, mustard husk, ground turmeric.

Compare that with:

Apr 2017 – Water, mustard flour (22%), spirit vinegar, sugar, salt, mustard bran (3%), turmeric, stabiliser xanthan.

So all is explained: 9% less mustard, added sugar and other stuff.

So what to have in my ham roll?

More rummaging, this time in the larder, produces a tin of Colman’s English Mustard Powder. It doesn’t seem to have a use by date – too faint to read? It can’t be that the tin dates from before ‘use by’ dates, because it has a plastic lid and not a tin one… Oops, sorry, I’ve found the best before date: 07/16. That’s clever. Almost half way between the two jars. The label on the tin has no list of ingredients and just says ‘mustard powder’ and suggests that the mustard should be made up ten minutes before use. Armed with an egg cup and a Mickey Mouse tea spoon I make up a quantity of mustard – just mustard powder (which I happen to know was grown in the Fens!) and cold water, as instructed. I leave it to stand while I assemble the roll, the butter and the ham. Then I press the crust, lift it slowly and bite. At last, the moment of truth…

Freshly-made Coleman’s Mustard in an egg cup, waiting to be enjoyed with a fresh pork pie from the village butcher.

Freshly-made Coleman’s Mustard in an egg cup, waiting to be enjoyed with a fresh pork pie from the village butcher.

Chewy crust, soft bread, cold butter, sweet ham and – yes – is that a sneeze I feel coming on? Yes…? Yes…? No! Phew. Aah, but the taste:

Bliss! Perfection!

And now an afterthought. I’ve just returned from Waitrose in Peterborough, where I failed to find any Colman’s Mustard Powder. All they stocked was the new, bland, pre-made stuff in jars (although I’m pleased to say that they did have the indispensable mustard tubes, which are perfect for the picnic basket). But really: just prepared ‘condiment’ and no real mustard powder! All I can say is:

YOU’RE NOT CUTTING THE MUSTARD, WAITROSE: PLEASE DON’T LOSE THE PLOT!

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The Garden in Early Summer

It never rains, but it pours – even in dry weather. All of which is, I concede a bit Delphic, but that’s how I’ve been feeling lately, as events pile up to make life difficult. And, to add yet another inappropriate simile: is there light at the end of the tunnel? What tunnel, I ask, and how do you know it’s dark? Confusion heaped on chaos. Disorganisation structures anarchy and meltdown. Or am I going over the top? Probably, but what the hell, my hip hurts and I can’t think as clearly as I once did.

The saga of woe began a few years ago, when a washing machine sprung a big leak and poured water all over the floor of the room next door to the kitchen, where we wash vegetables, do the washing-up, prepare lambs’ milk, wash pieces of ancient wood and eviscerate the occasional rabbit, pigeon, pheasant or partridge. We call it the scullery, and it’s a space that can be found in any rural house or cottage, where food isn’t bought-in ready-washed, cleaned and prepared. Well anyhow, that leak caused the scullery floor to rot and before we knew it, our feet were standing on something distinctly spongy. Then I went and put a step ladder foot through the floor, down to the concrete raft three inches below. Cue for a call to our insurers, who agreed to pay (it was our first claim in 23 years!). And now we’ve got the builders in. They’re a small local firm: very friendly and extremely competent, which is a huge relief, but it still doesn’t remove the noise of drills and the constant coming and going.

While all of this was happening, the sheep had to be shorn. At the same time I had to meet an urgent publisher’s deadline and a sudden hot dry spell after heavy rain set the grass everywhere growing like mad. Then about two weeks ago, my hip began to give me a lot more pain. Our local NHS hospital (the North Cambs., in Wisbech) X-rayed it, and this showed heavy wear on my left hip with both bone and cartilage worn away, such that my left leg is now 10mm shorter than my right. I saw an orthopaedic surgeon at Wisbech on Monday and he was in no doubt: a total left hip joint replacement was needed. I asked when that would happen and he reckoned within 2-3 months. So to celebrate (and on his advice) I bought a pair of matching, adjustable walking sticks – which have made a huge difference. At least I can now get about without too much pain.

So let’s try to look on the bright side. Ninety-nine percent of modern hip replacements are 100% successful. So the prognosis is good, and I’ve just got somehow to struggle through the next few months. But, as I said, let’s look on the bright side. There’s nothing like a few personal and domestic problems to put global issues in perspective: creeps like that chap who runs North Korea, or Tweetie-Pie Trump, or even those Brexiteers on the hard right of the Tory Party, who seem to be running things at present, somehow seem slightly less poisonous and rather more pathetically laughable, given all my other problems. And then of course there’s that ghastly tragedy at Grenfell Tower. But even so, there are signs of hope, especially in France – or am I being hopelessly naïve?

The other alternative is to disengage from the world entirely. And in my case, that means I take a walk – or rather a hobble – around the garden, trying not to look too closely at the weeds, which I’m finding increasingly difficult to pull out now that the hip is so stiff. And I must admit that the borders have been looking pretty stunning throughout June. So here are four pictures I took on the 25th, when it wasn’t so hot that flowers everywhere were wilting.

Oh, and one final thing. My next blog post will be quite soon and will be written by Mrs Pryor, aka Maisie Taylor. It’s all about what happens when a qualified archaeologist carries out a close survey of the many items that lurk towards the back of the fridge… And I think you’ll be surprised at what she revealed!

Poop Deck wall

A view along the base of the Poop Deck wall, with the Nut Walk in the far background, across the pond lawn. Wall bases are difficult places to plant, often being either too wet or too dry. This one is both: too wet in winter and too dry in summer. We have found that the Hemerocallis Bonanza does very well here.

Small border

The Small Border was rather a sad place when we first laid it out, back in 1993. It had to be there, if only to provide access to the back of the Main Border and an edge to the very wet rose bed behind the house. But over the years it has developed a character of its own. The Hemerocallis closest to the camera is Burning Daylight. The focus of this view is the Arts and Crafts jardinière, which I featured in an earlier blog post; it’s planted with a variegated Cornus.

Entrance from yard

If the garden can be said to have a formal entrance, it’s from the yard, down a short grass path, towards a golden Metasequoia Gold Rush. This spring and early summer, despite some gales which damaged the foliage, it has looked very spectacular and is well set-off by the red Hemerocallis and scarlet Pelargoniums in the tall, slightly flared Yorkshire Pots (which are reliably frost-resistant and well worth the slight premium you have to pay for them). By the end of the season, the plants in the pots will have doubled in size. I will then take cuttings, which will be over-wintered indoors

Main Border

The Main Border looking NW, with the house on the left. This view is taken from half way along the border. Various old and David Austin roses can be seen. Note also the vivid red flowers of Lychnis chalcedonica, which seems to thrive in our heavy, damp soils.

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The End of Spring 2017

First, I must apologise. Lambing finished in mid-April and since then I’ve had my nose pressed firmly to the grindstone, working through alterations and corrections to my latest book for Penguin (which will be published in March 2018). I’m also busy on the farm (we shear next week) and am promoting The Way, The Truth and The Deadwhich was published on May 17th (copies are now being sent out to subscribers). And then to cap it all, my left hip joint has become painful and an X-ray in late April showed it to be very worn. Can’t think why. My physiotherapist at Wisbech Hospital is recommending that I have a replacement. She says (and she was smiling broadly at the time) that I shouldn’t have spent fifty years on my hands and knees, or swinging mattocks and certainly not pushing fully laden wheelbarrows up steep spoil-heaps. Oh well, at least we all revived ourselves in the evening with vast volumes of beer. Happy days! But now I’ve got to pay for them. I gather hip joint replacements are becoming far more common, if not actually routine: apparently over 70,000 operations were performed on the NHS last year. I also gather that the six weeks after surgery are crucially important, so I’ll be following the physio’s instructions to the letter

But enough about me: tomorrow is the General Election and it seems the country is going completely barmy, with politicians who live on another planet and deranged murderers rampaging through our streets, picking on defenceless youngsters. Sanity and humour seem to have flown out of the window. Forget fake news: image, self-delusion and irrelevance are the new realities. So it seems to me that if you want to retain a grip on the real world, I suggest you turn off the television, the radio and above all, the phone, laptop or iPad, and then step out of doors. Take a deep breath. Listen to the birdsong. Those birds are tweeting more good sense than those highly-paid numbskulls in Westminster – or indeed the biggest idiot of the lot, in Washington. I’m lucky enough to have a lovely garden, but if you don’t, I suggest you take a long walk in a park or the country. Anything rather than the media. And if you’re a resident of the UK: despite the insanity of the current situation, I do hope you voted! Democracy, despite its many weaknesses is still by far and away the most humane system of governance that society has ever evolved. And who knows, one day the UK might abandon the first-past-the-post system, which worked quite well in the Victorian era…

By the time this post gets published, we will be in post-election mode, which for me at least, will mean a stunned sense of unreality, because whatever happens, it is bound to be barmy: Corbyn or Hard Brexit. La-La Cake or Crucifixion. So let’s instead take a leisurely stroll through our garden in May, the last month of spring. I took the photos on the 10th and the 27th, both warm sunny days. And now it’s June and the sun has vanished. There are strong winds from the north-west and yesterday it rained for 18 hours. Ah, the joys of an English summer! I do hope you enjoy your stroll.

Nut Walk

A view along the Nut Walk with the bluebells still in flower. I think it looks better now that we have pruned the hazel bushes higher. It gives a more arched, almost church-like feel. Or is that being a bit pretentious?

Long Border

The Long Border in early May. I love the subtlety of the many hues of green in plants that are still fresh, or have only just come into leaf. Even the grass looks gorgeous – reminds me of summers spent in Ireland, justly called the Emerald Isle (but you have to put up with the ceaseless rain. Doubtless that’s why they invented Guinness).

House wisteria

Although the house we built in 1995 isn’t as ugly as some of the massive monsters that now blight our countryside, towns and cities, most architecture can be improved by a vigorous wisteria. And this year ours was particularly floriferous.

Flag Iris

We dug the pond to take run-off from the house roof and I planted these yellow-flowered flag irises around its fringes in honour of Flag Fen. I found them in a nearby dyke, where they have since been sprayed to extinction. My ones are only just under control, but even so, they always look gorgeous.

Loggery

In some of the smartest gardens it is fashionable to have an arranged pile of logs and call it a Stumpery. To my sensitive ear that’s a bit too close to Trumpery. So this is our Loggery. It’s made of willow logs, which are being pecked by woodpeckers and bored by beetles. Already (and it’s starting its third summer) it’s a mini nature-reserve.

Long Walk

This is the Long Walk, which skirts the Rose Garden and leads into the Serpentine Walk. The roses were very early this year and the pink hybrid musk ‘Cornelia’ is looking particularly good – and smells gorgeous.

Steps Path

And finally, to the Front Garden and the Steps Path, which we created a couple of years ago and is now starting to come into its own. As I write, the lupins outside my office window are looking a bit tatty and will need another cut-back soon, or else they will overshadow the peonies, which are starting to look splendid. Herbaceous gardening can be a high-maintenance business.

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