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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Bye-bye Winter (including two separate mentions of bird poo!!)

As you may have gathered from past blog posts, I’ve been busy writing a book about our garden: A FENLAND GARDEN: Creating a haven for people, plants, and wildlife.  It’s being published by Head of Zeus, the independent London publisher who did such a great job on my previous three books, Stonehenge, The Fens and Scenes from Prehistoric Life. All these books were edited by Richard Milbank who did an exemplary job. I’m often asked about editors, especially by people who are thinking about self-publishing. The general opinion by non-professional writers seems to be that editors aren’t really necessary. Computers can check your spelling and to an extent grammar, too, but there’s far more to editing a book than merely tweaking a few words. My best books all owe a huge amount to my editors. In fact while I’m actually writing – and especially during those opening few chapters when I’m trying hard to establish the book’s voice, character and direction of travel – my editor can become more of a co-author, having to put up with frequent emails, texts, and phone calls. When I was starting-out as an author I’d often find myself heading for a cheap, off-peak train down to London for a lunchtime editorial session in a pub around the corner from the publishing house…

The three most influential editors I’ve worked with were Richard Johnson at Harper Collins (Seahenge, Britain BC, Britain AD and Britain in the Middle Ages), Georgina Laycock at Penguin Books (The Making of the British Landscape) and Richard Milbank at Head of Zeus (Stonehenge, The Fens, Scenes from Prehistoric Life and A Fenland Garden). Georgina Laycock and Richard Milbank’s advice and gentle guidance has been such a help as I have navigated the rather choppy waters away from archaeology towards more general history in The Making of the British Landscape (2010) and more recently in The Fens (2019). Richard’s help in shaping an even bigger transition away from archaeology, in A Fenland Garden, has been invaluable. I should also add here that while a general editor is very good at shaping text and many are also experienced copy editors, the actual detailed word-by-word editing of the text is done by copy editors who are able to approach the text with new eyes. This fresh approach allows them to spot those annoying repetitions and minor errors that can so often spoil a book. Oh, and one other pet gripe while I’m on the subject: indexes, or indices, if you’re feeling pedantic. I love a good index, compiled by somebody who can imagine what readers might want to look up or check in the future. My largest non-academic book, The Making of the British Landscape has a superb, reader-friendly index, compiled by a professional indexer, Auriol Griffith-Jones. Sometimes I like to read through it just for pleasure: ‘traditions, revived and invented 680’ is somehow emblematic of the times we are living through. Today, sadly, most indexes are done by computers. I think they lack any fizz, humour, or sparkle… But I digress. It’s late spring; the sun’s shining and it’s time to think about the garden.

It has been a strange season so far – and I am writing this in later May, 2023, after one of the wettest springs on record. For most of March, April and May the garden was semi-flooded. All the flower bed edges were beautifully defined by strips of water that gleamed in the low sunlight. And, of course when you stood on the lawn, close by a bed’s edge, you could feel the soft ground slowly start to give way beneath your feet. It could be very disconcerting. I can remember when I first took the garden tractor/lawnmower out to cut the grass, it left behind it dark muddy tyre-tracks. Some people like stripy lawns – but not when the stripes are made from mud! Recently I cut the lawn twice in less than a week and it has worked: the grass looks much better. AT long last the weather forecast for the next two weeks looks much drier. This might sound like great news, but our heavy clay-silt soils set like concrete when they get too dry. So that will be our next challenge. Whatever else it might sometimes be, gardening is very rarely boring.

            My first picture is of snowdrops in the wood, taken in mid-February, 2023. I like the effect we are now getting where snowdrops line paths and form distinct bands beneath the trees. I’m less keen on huge great sheets of them, which are very spectacular, but rather samey if, like me, you have to walk through them regularly. In my case I’m usually being dragged along by two muscular dogs, our assertive Jack Russell, Baldwin, and Pen, a Border Collie cross Labrador bitch whose great pleasure in life is to sit alongside me in the wooden kiosk (seen in the background), where she will set about trying to remove the skin on my face with huge adoring licks. Being brought-up in the Fens, both dogs adore rolling in the heron poo found alongside most drainage dykes. In the past the poo smelled strongly of eels, but today most of the eels have gone and the heron poo is still fishy, but altogether less distinctive. Climate change can be horribly subtle in its impacts.

The same day I took the picture of the snowdrops, our neighbours came round with a stock-trailer loaded with ewes and lambs. These twins are probably only one or two weeks old. They tend to stay together, but otherwise they move about freely. Young lambs almost immediately recognise their mother’s voice and I’m also quite convinced that they very quickly get to recognise the bleats of grand-mothers and other close relatives. There’s a whole world of complex family relationships out there in a seemingly featureless field of ewes and lambs.

Every springtime the garden produces a few surprises. This picture was taken in early April and the large white snowdrop-like bulbs growing alongside the front driveway are Summer Snowflakes (Leucojum aestivum ‘Gravetye Giant’). They look good against the dark pinkish-red blossom of the Japanese Quince shrub (Chaenomeles japonica), which has been particularly spectacular this year.

 And now for something completely different. Bird flu (or Avian Influenza) has been rife in Britain during the winter of 2022-3. In the autumn the Government announced that people who kept poultry would have to keep their birds under cover in a barn, shed or shelter where wild birds could be excluded. It was wild bird poo that carried the virus that was so deadly to chickens, geese, and ducks. So, we did as we were told and duly confined our two chickens within a small barn. At the start of last summer we had five chickens, but sadly three were soon taken by a greedy fox (or more probably a vixen, feeding her young). So now we had just two hens: a small brown hybrid of the sort that inhabits most commercial egg-laying farms (sadly, not many have survived Brexit) and a larger mostly white-feathered Light Sussex, reputedly one of the earliest traditional breeds of English chickens. Both chickens laid magnificently throughout the winter. So, we were determined to look after them carefully. Every day, throughout their confinement I would feed them sprouts or cabbage leaves or handfuls of the chickweed that grows plentifully around the farm. Thanks to the green leaves, their eggs lost none of their colour or flavour during that long, cold, wet winter. And they are still as delicious as ever.

Then in early April came that Government announcement that imprisoned chickens could be released out into the open. We decided to keep them confined for a single extra day, because on Tuesday April 18th one of our most loyal and diligent garden helpers, Linda Ireson, was coming to spend the day in the garden. Linda loves our eggs and is such a steadfast gardener – partly I suspect because she is a retired hospital nurse and the National Gardens Scheme, which supports our garden Open Days gives most of the money it raises to nursing and medical charities. We told her about the planned release – and she was delighted!

The chicken release took careful management. First, I went into the barn where I fed, watered, then released the two hens from their secure over-night roosts (which protect them from rats, foxes, and other predators). I then ran outside, grabbed my camera, and stood back from the open hurdle, which was being held open by Linda and Maisie. This picture shows the first chicken to emerge: the small brown hybrid.

A few moments later the Light Sussex joined her, to the delight and spontaneous applause of their human audience. I’ll never forget the look of delight on Linda and Maisie’s faces as those chickens returned to the farmyard, the muckheap and freedom. Ah, the simple pleasures of country life…

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Restorative Autumn

I do apologise that most of my recent blog posts seem to have been apologies about not writing blog posts – and I suppose this is another one, but I also hope it’s a return to something a bit more normal. I hesitate to use the dreaded term ‘the new normal’, because nobody will be able to judge what that is until we’ve all been enjoying it for an extended period (anything else and it wouldn’t have had the time to become an established norm – or am I not making myself clear…?). Let me change tack, as I think I’m going nowhere with that one.

What I’ve been trying to say is that I think I can spot glimpses of light at the end of what has become a very long, dark tunnel, which began with the Brexit referendum, followed by the 2019 General Election, then Covid and a succession of mind-bogglingly incompetent Westminster governments, plus rather lacklustre, uninspiring Opposition parties. While all this was taking place we had to endure the hottest UK summer on record, which peaked on July 19th, when 40.3°C was recorded just up the road, at Coningsby, Lincolnshire (presumably at the RAF station). Meanwhile, as if to pour a mixture of salt and chilli powder into the wound, Putin had invaded Ukraine and the dictators running China and North Korea started strutting around in a rather threatening way – and as for Trump and his QAnon followers! Frankly there seemed no hope for the world: climate change was not going to be defeated by egomaniacs and thanks to Russia, economies everywhere were starting to inflate. Closer to home, the UK’s shortest-lived and arguably most incompetent Prime Minister, Liz Truss, told King Charles he was not to attend COP 27 in Egypt. I don’t know why he didn’t whack her with his sceptre. So what has turned up to improve things? And why the optimistic title to this blog post?

Various happenings have provided grounds for hope. Biden is doing a competent job as U.S. President. Bolsonaro is no longer in power in Brazil. With Rishi Sunak we now have a Westminster Prime Minister who seems to be taking his responsibilities seriously. I don’t share his very right-wing political philosophy, but at least he seems to be competent and on the whole (so far) trustworthy. The Opposition is also starting to get galvanised and people in the UK are starting to talk in a more positive way about Europe.

Much closer to home things are also looking up. I’ve been doing many local book signings, most of which have been sell-outs. People are definitely returning to printed books over e-books and audio books are also having quite a revival. The trend towards local shops, markets and services seems to be gathering pace and it’s great to see so many craft fairs in parish churches; farmers’ markets are also seeing something of a revival. I particularly like events that take place in parish churches. This morning Maisie and I went to one in Holbeach Parish Church, a stunning Medieval building. It’s great to see whitewashed Victorian severe reverence being replaced by smiling faces and children dashing through the pews – and nobody was whispering, as used to happen in churches when I was a boy. I’m sure its Medieval builders and worshippers would have approved whole-heartedly.

Things have also got better in the garden. When we opened for the National Gardens Scheme, back in September (17th-18th) we were both very worried indeed. I hadn’t mown the lawn for almost two months and as a consequence the grass still looked green. When I did mow it, I set the blades much higher than normal. Sadly many long-established shrubs were looking very poorly and the ground was starting to form wide cracks, which I marked with twigs and leafy branches (flags looked terrible). Still, on the whole the garden looked pretty good. This I think was largely due to a spell of heavy rain, following an exceptionally hot first two weeks of August. The rain continued until a week before we opened for the NGS  – and frankly it saved our bacon. Early October was quite dry and then the skies opened and between October 20th and 23rd we had no less that 65mm (two and a half inches) of rain. To put it very mildly, that rain saved the garden and it makes me very worried indeed about the survival of lush green English gardens in the future decades of global warming.

Cars in the meadow car park during our open weekend for the National Gardens Scheme in mid-September. The grass looks green, despite a long, hot summer.

The NGS Open Days were quite well attended – I say ‘quite’ because they were about 10% down on what we would have expected in pre-Covid years, but having spoken to other NGS members and people who organise events like village Fetes, this seems fairly typical for the summer of 2022, when many vulnerable people were still worried about catching one of the new variants of the virus. The good news is that although admissions were slightly down, visitors’ expenditure on tea, cakes and plants was well up, so that in the end we contributed about £2,300 to the NGS Charities. That was pretty pleasing.

The golden Metasequoia glyptostroboides ‘Gold Rush’ that you see when you enter the garden from the yard alongside the barn. This picture was taken in mid-October.

In my experience the leaves of plants that are strongly coloured during the main growing season often lose their impact in autumn. One exception to this is the Golden metasequoia ‘Gold Rush’ whose tall conical form is so striking when you first enter the garden. Metasequoias shed their leaves in the autumn and normally this is quite a dull process: green turns to brown and the next thing you know is that you’re raking them into a barrow. But ‘Gold Rush’ is different: the brown somehow enhances the pale gold and gives the tree a subtle air of something a bit different – maybe solemnity?

There are one or two places in the garden where you can get a good display of autumn colour every year. In the past garden designers were well aware of such views and used to make the most of them in their new projects. In our garden the Long or Main Border is one good example and the trees around the meadow (such as the Red Oaks and Golden Ash) are another. I tend to use these set-piece scenes as a way of judging how the season is progressing. They can be pleasingly predictable. Speaking for myself, I get most of my enjoyment of autumn colour from those unexpected displays, which often appear for a few days in the most unusual places. This next picture is a good example. It’s hard to put your finger on precisely what makes it so appealing, but it’s very effective. I am very fond of those aspects of gardening that are hard to pin down or define. Arts and crafts should always have a bit of magic.

An early Autumn view across one of the soakaway beds behind the barn, towards the Birch Grove, with the tall trees of the Black Poplar Walk in the background.

The Long Border, which I have decided to rename the Main Border in my forthcoming book on the garden, to avoid confusion with the Long Walk, is one of those ‘set piece’ garden views, which can look spectacular at many times of the year – and early autumn is no exception:

The Long or Main Border, looking north-west towards the large oak seat and the tightly-clipped yew hedge, which is kept in perfect condition by Jason Gardener.

I suppose that most visitors to our garden would judge the Main Border to be at its most spectacular in mid or late June, when the roses are in full flower. And it does look very special, with delectable scents an added bonus. But to me the autumn border is the one that has special appeal. I love the second flowering of old roses, when the blooms are less faded by the milder sunlight, but their scents are as strong as ever.

A view across the Dome Garden towards the ‘doorway’ through the surrounding hornbeam hedge, with the meadow visible beyond.

 An embarras de richesses is a phrase one doesn’t hear much in these days of supply-side problems and Austerity, but it certainly applies to the Dome Garden this year, where the roses have grown hugely and the normally quite restrained asters are threatening to take over the lawn. Indeed, as you can see from this picture, those sprawling asters prevented me from mowing the lawn on at least one occasion. I can imagine a few readers might be saying that we should have supported the asters with wire frames – and we did, but this year they didn’t prove strong enough. But I also think there’s a limit to the extent that you can force plants to restrain themselves. Gardens are similar to family homes: plants, like people, shouldn’t be over-constrained.

The sink bed in the Rose Garden.

The sink bed is something that ultimately began over forty years ago when  Maisie was walking along a path in her old house and noticed that one of the stone paving slabs had a hole in it. Being Maisie she she dug it up, turned it over and yes, that hole was the drain hole for a large, shallow limestone sink. If you tried to buy a similar one in a modern garden centre it would cost you a fortune. Much more recently, our collection of dry-loving sempervivum house leeks, which we had slowly acquired for informal displays around the Poop Deck, had grown and given rise to many spare plants. We planted these in the sinks and various tubs in a very sandy, free-draining compost – and they have thrived. A few months ago we added plants of the grey-leaved Euphorbia myrsinites which now grows around the sinks and I think sets them off very effectively. Most of the work on the sink garden is done by our neighbour, Jessie Githiri, who has a great eye for such semi-formal plantings.

The wirework Dome in the front garden. This fuchsia (F. magellanica, var. gracilis) flowers from midsummer to the first frosts of late autumn and is at its peak this year (2022) in early-mid November.

When we first started laying out the garden at Inley Drove Farm, in the mid-1990s, the soil was in very poor condition and was very slow-draining. Many plants, including fuchsias, found it difficult to thrive and were particularly vulnerable to hard winter frosts. Over the years we have added mulch and manure to the flower beds and although the soil isn’t quite as good as it is in the frequently dug-over vegetable garden, it has improved hugely. Fuchsias now do very well and some of the best are in the front garden where they either grow as free-standing shrubs, or as informal climbers, such as the F. gracilis on the wirework dome, which I can’t remember ever flowering as freely as it has this autumn. I think I’d much rather remember 2022 for its gorgeous fuchsias, than its creepy politicians. And on that positive note, I’ll sign off!

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Welcome Back!

Many things have been proposed as the ‘new normal’, but I would suggest it’s when you repeatedly find yourself having to apologise. Quite often it’s due to things beyond our control, such as a madman in Russia or the insanity of Brexit, but occasionally it’s down to something you’d like to be able to control, but for some reason, you can’t. In my case I’ve found it’s completely impossible to write about our garden from two different perspectives. I’m aware, of course, that the two perspectives aren’t actually that different: the first is my current book (which is about the garden); the second of course is this blog. I suspect that one reason for this inability to write from two points of view is somehow connected with the subtleties of interpretation. This is something that journalists and other professional writers manage to cope with daily. I have to confess I find it almost impossible – and hence the rarity of garden blogs while I’m still in the process of writing a book about the garden. With luck I’ll have the book finished in a few weeks and then this blog will return to life. So I’ve briefly set book writing to one side so that I can concentrate on the upcoming opening of the garden for the National Gardens Scheme (NGS). This year the weekend we open is on September 17th and 18th. I do hope you can come. You can find out more here.

Inevitably in such a horrendously dry summer our main focus has been on keeping the garden as green as we can, without using lots of mains water. We’re quite good about catching rainwater, but we could and will do more. As our garden’s so large we always try to keep the application of water to a minimum – carrying a heavy watering can is very tiring. Most plants that have been in the ground for over a year won’t need added water, but not this year, when we’ve been wetting shrubs showing advanced symptoms of drying out after they’ve been planted for four or five years. But there is hope in sight. The day before yesterday (August 15th) we had 2mm of rain. Then yesterday we had 3mm. But last night we had thunderstorms and an astonishing 25mm of rain! And there’s more forecast for this morning (August 17th) and next Sunday (the 21st). The inundation last night wouldn’t have done as much good as one might expect, because the ground is still very, very hard and dry and much of it would have run down the deep cracks that are everywhere. Still, it gives us hope that the open weekend won’t be quite as grim as it seemed a few days ago. So here are some pictures of the garden during the worst of the drought. If you want to see how it has fared after the recent rain, you’ll have to visit us in September!

The main feature of the garden is the Long Border. In a normal year we would have cut back many of the herbaceous plants, leaving patches of bare soil at the front of the bed, where we could then plant colourful annuals. But even in early June the forecast was for a very dry summer. So we decided on a policy of minimum intervention: don’t disturb anything, unless it’s urgent. This also meant that we did less pruning and cutting back, although Maisie had to prune roses – especially if they were the kind that had a second flowering late in the season, as otherwise the open weekend would look horribly colourless and drab. Lawn-mowing was something I stopped doing early in June and didn’t resume until Monday August 15th when the thundery breakdown we have just had was being reliably forecast. Even so, I set the blades twice as high as normal. I only wanted to cut the thickest grass and any seeding weeds. I took the pictures shortly before I cut the grass.

The Bamboo Garden was the least drought-affected area in the entire garden. Certainly the lawn retained a good, even green colour, although the horse chestnut trees in the background look a bit brown and have shed about half their leaves. I don’t think it helps that they’ve been suffering from horse chestnut leaf blotch (a fungal infection), which turns the leaves brown in summer

From green and fairly lush to brown and arid. This is a view along the narrow mown grass path that runs along the west side of the rose garden, close by a North American River Birch, a cut leaved alder (nearest to the camera, left) and our single plant of the common Leylandii hedging tree (Cupressus x leylandii), which I planted sometime around 1995. It is now a massive tree. Birches, alders and cypresses have root systems that extend to the surface, which explains why the mown path looks so very sad. I think it will recover, but having said that, I’ve never seen it looking quite so dead. Fingers remain firmly crossed.

The grass in the Serpentine Walk looks very dry too, which can easily be explained by the many birches growing nearby. But the irises and herbaceous plants don’t look too badly affected, with the notable exception of hardy fuchsias, which have proved difficult to keep alive, even with frequent watering. But three or four metres away from the birches, the grass rapidly becomes greener. This is well illustrated by the lush lawn of the Round Garden in front of the covered seat. I’d like to say that we planned for this effect when we designed the garden – but we didn’t. Like so much in gardening, it’s a happy accident.

Here’s another view of the Serpentine Walk, showing the deep cracks that have opened up in the clay-silt soil. I accidentally dropped a weed-knife into one of those cracks and I had to use a couple of canes to retrieve it. Some of them are about three or maybe even four feet deep. We’ll have to put warnings up when we open to the public.

And now for something completely different: the Vegetable Garden. Here I keep young plants wet using water from tubs fed from gutters off the greenhouse and tool shed. The two mesh-covered rows in the foreground contain the brassica plants that will supply us with green vegetables over winter: early and late Brussels sprouts, purple sprouting broccoli, Kalettes, Savoy cabbages and cauliflowers. Later, I’ll add spring/early summer cauliflowers and pointy cabbages. The main role of the mesh covering is to protect the plants from attack by cabbage white butterfly caterpillars. Beyond the brassicas are four plants of courgettes and a row of French beans. Beyond them is the cane frame for runner beans (which I like to plant for autumn cropping) and just beyond that is a row of San Marzano cooking tomatoes. I think we’re going to get a good big crop of these fabulous plum tomatoes. Gosh, but aren’t the Italians civilized people: delicious wine and heavenly tomatoes!

The next picture is a behind-the-scenes shot of our preparations for the Open Days Plant Stall, which will be managed and run by our friend and volunteer Linda. As everyone will be aware, we are living in inflationary times, with prices rising constantly. Last year we decided to raise our prices of admission in 2022, by 50 pence, to £5.00. We did the same for tea and for cake, which now together cost £3.50 (and a free refill!!). We will do the same for the plant stall but are still working out the details. It’s also worth mentioning that all our takings go to the Charities supported by the National Gardens Scheme – we don’t deduct our costs or expenses (nor do our volunteer helpers).


My final picture is a reminder that soft fruit can thrive, even in the hottest of dry summers. We have a large bush of the excellent blackberry, Merton Thornless which has been very prolific. Sometimes supermarket blackberries can be very bland and tasteless, but Merton Thornless never disappoints. What I particularly like about it (apart from the complete lack of thorns) is that it tastes just like the wild blackberries that grow in roadside hedgerows everywhere in Britain. The trouble is that these can be polluted by the lead and other emissions given off by modern cars and lorries. They’re also very thorny.            

I always like to end a blog post with a bit of dramatic breaking news. So how about this: yesterday (Aug 17th) Holbeach recorded the highest rainfall in Britain, with 146.2mm falling in just 24 hours ! Our garden is five miles away, and we saw 30mm fall over the same period. There was quite bad flooding in Spalding, so I’m actually quite relieved we missed the main rain, which did look very spectacular indeed – from a safe distance. I think the garden will be looking much greener when we open for the NGS in a month from now. I do hope you will be able to join us.

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Keeping Things Together

I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that the world around us is in danger of disintegration. The trouble is, nobody seems at all clear about what we should do to put things back on track. We saw this quite clearly in the results of last week’s local elections where the ruling Tories were given a clear vote of no confidence, but Labour only did really well in London and the Lib Dems were greatly improved, but are still not an immediate threat to the Tories – on their own, but maybe in alliance with Labour; that, however, still seems a long way off. The disillusion with the Tories was also plainly visible in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the situation is even more complex: for the first time ever there is now a small majority in favour of Sinn Fein (the one-nation Irish party) while the hard-line pro-United Kingdom, Unionist parties are losing much of their erstwhile popularity. Younger Irish voters clearly dislike the old Protestant/Roman Catholic split, which they see as irrelevant to the Ireland of today (and I agree with them!). So what on earth is happening? As the title of my Blog suggests, I think we must try to take A Long View and try to place recent events in a broader historical perspective.

On the face of it, it seems to me that the United Kingdom is splitting up. Scotland, with its long historical links to France will probably have another independence referendum and may well end-up part of the EU once more. Northern Ireland will become part of Eire/Ireland and also in the EU. England (and Wales???) will have Brexited. All very odd at a time when the countries within the EU are coming closer together in the face of a growing threat from Russia. It’s hard to be very optimistic about these historical trends and what they say, or don’t say, about uncertain England’s future. And on that cheery note I want now to retreat to my garden.

I cannot remember a drier spring. The vegetable garden has wide cracks and newly planted shrubs are having to be watered every few days. Hand-weeding works quite well, but hoes simply bounce off the surface and fail to remove the roots. Happily I set the mower blades quite high back in early March and haven’t lowered them since – as I would normally have done, were it not so horribly dry. So the lawn still looks nice and green, unlike the brown, parched, doormat-like patches I see around me. This is what the main border looked like on March 30th. I think you’ll agree, it’s all very luxuriant.

I took the following four pictures a couple of days ago, on May 9th. Conditions are very, very much drier. The first shows the wisteria on the front of the house. The one at the back, that covers the poop deck is quite good, but we lost plenty of flowers in a sharpish frost in mid-April. For some reason that frost didn’t do much damage at the front and I can’t remember it flowering more freely. So I think it wasn’t the cold so much as the rapid transition to early morning sunshine which did the damage. Early morning sunshine can be disastrous for hydrangea flowers.

Every year brings fresh surprises. This year the bluebells and wild garlic in the wood have been very free-flowering, but I don’t think they’ll last very long in the drought. Squirrels have dug up many bulbs, but they also re-bury them as hidden food supplies for the following winter. Often they forget about these hidden mini-larders. I think this explains how bluebells are slowly spreading along the Nut Walk as you can see in the next picture.

In Britain we think of bluebells as the most spectacular of woodland plants, forming vast sheets of blue in the later spring. But in North America their equivalent prefers to grow in damp meadows. The Quamash (Camassia esculenta) is a slightly paler blue and very much taller than the British bluebell and rather strangely it’s a relative of asparagus, our favourite vegetable, which Maisie and I devour in silly quantities, when the Quamash are in flower. Our garden provides ideal, damp meadow-like conditions and Camassias really thrive in it. Here are two clumps growing around the white-bark trunks of the two silver birches that from the entrance into the meadow from the formal garden.

We originally planted the two soakaway beds behind the barn as semi-formal bog gardens, but over the years they have acquired characters of their own, as has the narrow ‘spit’ of dry ground between them. They get very full of water (from off the large area of barn roof) following even medium-heavy rain, but this year they have been horribly dry. I haven’t yet been reduced to sprinkling them with watering cans or hose pipes, but as soon as I spot any plants wilting, I might. The soakaway nearest the house is dominated by a large Skunk Cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) which I had to plant on my return from Canada where run-over skunks can scent the air along rural roads for many days. I also love the reaction of visitors when they first smell the stink. The soakaway nearest the vegetable garden, which features in the next picture, is dominated by the native Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris). They thrive in the bottom of the soakaway and provide a wonderful attraction for bees and butterflies. I think the pure, radiant yellow of the flowers is close to absolute perfection. Just behind, and slightly to the left, you can see the pendant white bell-like flowers of the variegated Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum x Hybridum ‘Striatum’). Solomon’s Seal is another relative of asparagus.  Incidentally Shakespeare mentions Marsh Marigolds, which he calls Marybuds; Marsh Marigolds have numerous other memorable names including kingcup and Molly-blob.

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Sorry About the Silence

I apologise for the long gap between this and my last blog post. Of course just over a fortnight ago (Feb 23-4) Russia invaded Ukraine. I think history will judge it to have been one of the most evil actions of modern times – certainly the equivalent of Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September, 1939. Hitler’s attack triggered the start of WW2 and I think everyone is hoping and praying that Putin’s doesn’t have a similar outcome. We sometimes forget that WW2 was brought to an end by two massive nuclear explosions in Japan. Recent world events have been very upsetting and I must admit they have played quite a large part in my long blog silence: somehow my words about a garden in the remote Fens of Lincolnshire seemed rather irrelevant. For the same reason I haven’t done much work on my current book, which I can now reveal is also about our garden. I suppose the obvious analogy is of the ghastly Emperor Nero scraping tunes on his fiddle, while around him Rome burns. Given the scale of the horrors taking pace in Ukraine, everything else seemed pointless. But now the days are slowly getting longer and while we all feel deeply for those brave people in Ukraine, life does have to continue and a little hope is starting to return.

My last blog post was about Long Sutton Market, which I’ve continued to visit every week, first during the Covid pandemic and now during the Ukrainian war. Every time I went there I came back refreshed and revitalised. It was great to see so many people who were busy getting on with their lives and selling wonderful fresh food at very reasonable prices. I know we’re all about to be hit by record levels of inflation, but I also know those market traders won’t exploit us. I can trust them – and that’s what matters. Life is about love and trust. Sadly it’s far too late now, but that simple message is something Putin should have been taught many, many years ago.

I suppose you could say that charity begins at home and we have always taken pride in seeing that as many wild birds as possible can thrive over winter. So every autumn we drive out to Vine House Farm, Deeping St Nicholas, where Nicholas Watts sells bird food, much of which he grows on the (large) farm. Deeping St. Nick is six miles long and is thought to be the longest village in Lincolnshire and maybe in Britain. So who says the Fens are flat and boring? We subscribe to his Newsletter and follow his excellent blog. Nicholas Watts is far more than a mere birder: he understands birds and wildlife at a very profound level and plainly loves living and working in the Fens. I have to say that the antics of goldfinches, blue tits and long-tailed tits as they cluster around the different feeders at the back of the house have helped keep us smiling in these bleak times.

Bird feed (Niger seed, mixed seed and peanuts) about to be added to the feeders hanging from the pergola over the Poop Deck at the back of the house.

As a general rule gardeners tend to fall into two broad groups: those who like to clear their beds and borders in the autumn and those who prefer to do it in the spring. Hitherto, we have very much belonged to the latter. The main reason for this is that birds and other wildlife can feed over-winter on the seed heads and leaves of last season’s annuals and perennials. I also feel that the neaten-everything-up-as-soon-as-it’s-over school of gardening is very un-wildlife friendly. I have to say I find mega-neat gardens deeply depressing: they say so much about their owners’ aspirations, which are often more about status and local prestige than anything else. So I freely acknowledge that our garden can look a bit wild and un-kempt over winter.

A late winter/early spring scene: the yew hedge at the west end of the long border with the seed heads of Formium tenax (New Zealand flax) looking magnificent.

Recently, however, we have been forced to reconsider our late seasonal clear-out of the borders. This has been caused by a series of very wet winters, which have led to widespread partial flooding. The persistently high ground-water levels have made the lawn around the borders almost impossible to walk on. I leave the grass very long, which helps to cushion the ground, but even so it’s very difficult to move about and even harder to do any meaningful work. So maybe we’ll have to think about doing some of this clearing-out in the autumn, when the ground is still good and hard. Maybe we could leave the seed heads in heaps out in the meadow? It’s a thought. But sadly we can’t go on as things are. Wetter winters will be more common, I’m told, as climate change gathers pace.

Some plants just love the wet, which is why we have always been able to grow a very wide variety of willows. One of our favourites, that’s looking particularly beautiful this year is the black catkined Salix gracilistyla ‘Melanostachys’. We planted two bushes next to each other on the edge of the pond. Here’s a close-up of the catkins.

The black catkins of the willow Salix gracilistyla ‘Melanostachys’ in early-mid March.
A view along the drive in the orchard, looking towards the gateway back into the open Holbeach Fens

Our house and garden are set back from the straight, narrow droveway which passes for a country lane out here in the Lincolnshire Fens, and to get to them you must follow a curving drive through the orchard, past the front garden  and into the yard. Here’s a view of the drive as it passes through the orchard, with the open fen just visible through the gate. We planted a few daffodils in the orchard, but not many as we wanted cowslips to be the dominant spring flower here. I show this view because it feels quite enclosed and ‘safe’. It is such a contrast with the vast space of the open fen outside our gate.

The view north across Holbeach Fen.

But now for something completely different. On March 16th I had the huge pleasure of taking a train all the way from March in the east to Penrith in the north-west. From Penrith I was taken the short distance to Keswick in the heart of the Lake District. Keswick sits on the edge of  Derwent Water and is the home of the Theatre by the Lake. I’d been asked to give a talk about my current book, Scenes from Prehistoric Life as part of the Keswick Literary Festival. I hadn’t done a Lit Fest for almost a year and to be confronted by an audience of real, living, breathing human beings was lovely. I really was very moved. I find it SO important to stay in touch with my readers, because if I lose contact with them there’s a danger that my books will lack focus, warmth and direction. I always have a few individuals in mind when I write a book. I’ve even been known to dream about them. Am I odd? Maybe. But I don’t care. I’m motivated by people.

That morning in the Theatre by the Lake undid much of the hate that Putin had started to instil within me. And it’s always best to get rid of hatred. It’s so negative and pointless. It’s time for something soothing and relaxing. And what could be better than a view across Derwent Water taken a few paces from the Theatre, where I had the pleasure of sipping wine while I ate my lunch after giving the talk and signing numerous books. It was such a lovely experience. I owe a special debt of gratitude to the festival’s wonderful organisers, Ways With Words. I’m hoping to be invited to speak at their Dartington Festival, in Devon, in July (14th-18th), if that is, they have the space. Even if they can’t fit me in, I do recommend going there. I’ve done it several times and it’s always worthwhile. Friendly and relaxed. Meanwhile, keep smiling!

A view over Derwent Water from the Theatre by the Lake, Keswick.

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A New Localism: Hope for 2022?

It’s early morning. I’m sitting at my desk, about to start writing. Then, thirty seconds ago it was announced that in December inflation rose to 5.4%, the highest it has been since 1992. Blimey. Brief pause while I gather my thoughts. Turn off the TV sound. Ah, that’s better. Look out the window: very slightly lighter, but only very slightly. Then crows start cawing from the wood – a harsh sound, but a welcome sign of the approaching morning. Glance across to the television. Now they’re discussing what has come to be known as Partygate – all those Downing Street boozy parties that Boris held during the depths of lockdown a year ago. Apparently about 50 Tory MPs are discussing writing letters saying the Prime Minister should resign. And so it goes on. Brexit, Boris. Boris, Brexit. Meanwhile, dominating the way we actually lead our lives: it’s Covid, Covid, Covid. Plus, of course, a struggling NHS and collapsing, poorly staffed, care homes, all due to under-funding; a decade of Austerity, metres of new Brexit red tape and further labour restrictions. Politicians in Westminster, Washington and Brussels are becoming much harder to understand. They seem to be living in different worlds to us. Of course, I appreciate that we do need them, if only to co-ordinate the fight against climate change and the forces of evil, such as powerful, autocratic dictators; but even so, it’s increasingly hard to feel any warmth towards them.

I find I keep asking myself if I can take much more of this in 2022? And if it’s bad for me, living in a comfortable farm house without a mortgage and a large garden with a self-sufficient vegetable patch, what must it be like for people in rented inner-city flats, without so much as a window-box? No, something has to change and if central government can’t do it, then we must take matters into our own hands. So I sincerely believe that 2022 will see the development of a tendency that is already starting to grow: a new, reimagined form of localism. However I don’t want to confuse the sort of localism I can see starting to emerge around me, as anything to do with ‘local government’ as we used to know it. That was mainly about semi-corrupt councillors and very wealthy developers. Huge (and I mean VAST) housing estates are currently being built around Holbeach. I gather that these houses aren’t advertised much locally and I’m told they are being pitched at residents currently in Essex and around London, where people are looking for more rural locations (and presumably have the money to pay well for them). I can remember when Peterborough New Town was being built, the planning authorities insisted that new housing estates had to include pubs and community centres. But not today. I really dread to think what problems these vast new estates will bequeath us in a few decades. It’s scary. As it is, Holbeach only has very limited school, medical or veterinary facilities. No, the sort of localism I can detect is genuinely home-grown and wonderfully uncoordinated. I first identified it on a Friday. I can’t remember precisely when, but I do know it was a Friday. Let me explain.

Long Sutton market was set up in the early 13th century, at a time when the town’s early medieval prosperity was growing. Today you can see that prosperity immortalised in its church (St. Mary’s) with its magnificent lead-clad timber steeple – one of the earliest and finest in Europe. It’s hard to get your head around such an early date, but the tower was built in the decades after 1200.

The tower and steeple of St. Mary’s Church, Long Sutton. 13th Century.

The market is held every Friday in the Market Place next to the church. At first glance it’s a fairly typical Georgian and Victorian setting, but sadly some of the buildings are very run-down (this can be seen in their upper storeys). The main coaching inn has been empty for many years. Unlike its equivalents in the south-east the town has not been prospering in the late 20th and 21st century and seemed to have been hit quite hard by the recession of 2007-8.  The same can be said for Holbeach, where shops and market traders in the town centre were hit particularly hard by the arrival of a Tesco supermarket. Its equivalent in Long Sutton is run by the Lincolnshire Co-op; it’s smaller, less ruthlessly run and if anything, it actually attracts people to the town centre. I’m happy to shop there; whereas you’ll never see me in the Holbeach Tesco!

The Co-op in Long Sutton, with the Church of St Mary’s in the background. I know it’s no architectural masterpiece, but the shop is in scale with its setting and helps keep the town centre socially and economically alive.

For years local government officials seemed to be trying to kill-off town markets in the area. In Long Sutton traffic was allowed through the Market Place and the number of stalls diminished and the stalls themselves grew smaller. Then Covid hit. The market was closed and briefly moved to a small car park on the edge of the town centre. We both decided to stay locked-down at home and on my last visit to the market I had a word with Dan, who runs the excellent Rout’s of Wisbech fish stall at Long Sutton. I don’t know where I’d be if I couldn’t buy fresh mussels in winter, fresh oysters in season and wonderful green marsh samphire in summer. Dan also has a wide selection of fresh white fish (cod, haddock, plaice, skate wings, conger eel, Dover sole etc. etc.) and shellfish, including crab (dressed and undressed), cockles and my personal favourite: small brown shrimps. It turned out that Dan was planning to deliver fresh fish to the homes of regular customers during lockdown and he lived-up to his word. Thank you Dan, you made sure that neither Maisie nor I went mad or suffered from malnutrition!

The Bread and Cake stall at Long Sutton Market, with the side of Rout’s of Wisbech Fish-stall in the background.

Every Friday I follow the same routine when I visit Long Sutton Market. First I buy a freshly-baked loaf and rolls at the Bread and Cake Stall. Then I visit Routs Fish Stall, where Dan tells me what’s particularly good that morning. Occasionally he’ll tell me that something wonderful has sold-out. So I try not to get there much after 10.00 AM, but don’t always succeed.

Dan and his wonderful selection of fish.
The fresh fruit and vegetable stall, with stalks of Brussels Sprouts very prominent.

Next to Dan is the largest stall in the market, which sells fruit and vegetables, most of it freshly picked from local growers. There’s always a queue waiting to be served, but there are half a dozen people looking after us, so the delay in never for long. The stall is carefully laid out, with gorgeous-looking bunches of carrots, complete with bushy leaves, and complete stalks of Brussels Sprouts, not to mention potatoes, celeriac and broccoli in open boxes beside the queue. That way, you can carefully inspect what you plan to buy. The far end of the stall is given over to fruit, including bananas, oranges, clementines, apples (local) and grapes. They also stock Seville oranges. Two weeks ago I bought 3 lbs of them and Maisie made 10 jars of her ambrosial marmalade. Stuff Covid!

The flower stall.

If you head round to the other side of the Market Place there is another row of stalls, including the ubiquitous homemade cup-cakes and fudge bars, plus useful things like replica railway signs from the steam age, a man selling watch batteries and another selling crisps and all manner of crunchy, salty nibbles – all very cheap. There’s also someone selling double-glazing, although I’ve never seen him with an actual customer. Still, he’s always very friendly and greets me with a cheery smile every time I pass by.  But chief among all these is the large flower stall at the far end, which sells cut flowers (very good value) and bedding plants for the garden. I often buy two or three bunches from him to brighten winter days indoors. Those flowers have been a godsend during lockdown.

But the good news is that the market is getting busier and word is spreading locally, which is excellent. I also notice that while prices are starting to rise quite steeply in local supermarkets, the market prices remain remarkably low. Talking to the stall-holders, it’s clear to me that they feel considerable loyalty to their customers, many of whom are friends and local people. In return, we feel solidarity with them. It’s so nice to encounter trust and faith in others in these times when suspicion and conspiracy theories seem to rule supreme. The new localism is based on some very old and much-cherished values. We mustn’t let it fail.

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Flag Fen is Back!

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote a blog post Always Look On the Bright Side… about Flag Fen and how it had just been taken under new management, following the demise of Vivacity, the organisation that ran most of Peterborough City Council’s cultural facilities. I won’t say how I feel about Vivacity and how they ran Flag Fen, but let’s just say it’s now in very safe hands. More to the point, the new management care deeply about the site, the people who work there and, of course, its many thousands of visitors. The new organisation behind Flag Fen will be familiar to all Peterborough residents, present and past, when it was known as Brook Street college; today it’s still based in its old campus off Brook Street and is known as City College Peterborough. Click here to visit the new Flag Fen website, which I should add is still under development. Over the years, I’ve done countless talks and lectures there because the College has always been focussed on outreach to local people – who are precisely the audience we were trying to appeal to in the early days of Flag Fen. Today archaeology is much better known than it was forty years ago, when sometimes visitors would come up to us and say words to the effect that ‘I thought excavations only happened in places like Egypt, I’d no idea we had such things here, in England.’ So I was absolutely delighted when City College asked me to join their Flag Fen team.

 We’ve had to organise a huge number of things in order to get Flag Fen back on the rails, as it were. One important aspect of Flag Fen’s re-launch has of course been purely archaeological: we need to know just how rapidly the timbers are drying out and how well the Mere is keeping the core of the site wet. To do this we called on the expertise of the highly experienced team at Cambridge University Archaeological Unit who carried out the superb, and internationally important, excavations at Must Farm, just over a mile away from Flag Fen, on the Whittlesey side of the River Nene. I need hardly add that we keenly await the results of their excavations at Flag Fen. The dig was funded with a generous grant from Historic England (known as English Heritage a few years ago). I must confess, it was great to see archaeologists once again at work in Flag Fen.

One day I would like to see a plaque erected somewhere out in the Flag Fen park to thank David Savory for his extraordinary devotion to the place and its continuing existence during some very challenging years. Whenever I did manage to summon up the courage to visit Flag Fen when it was being run by Vivacity, I would always nip round to the barn and there I’d meet David. Over the years he has done a huge amount of work improving the park as a haven for wildlife and now it is really starting to show. I’m delighted to say that David is now Manager of the park at Flag Fen. Every time I visit I seem to spot something new. I’d known for some time that David knows a huge amount about wildlife and was invariably willing to help me with problems identifying birds. He’d always have a broad smile and would tell me about the latest animals who’d paid them a visit. What I didn’t realise back then was that he was a brilliant photographer, too. Here are three great examples of his pictures, all taken at Flag Fen:

 Covid-19 has, of course, complicated every aspect of all our lives, but it has also led to the establishment of government-funded local recovery programmes, some of which are aimed at assisting the cultural sector.  With the help of these funds the new governing body appointed a General Manager to run Flag Fen. Jacqueline Mooney took up her new job in September and is already making a big impression.  Jacqui’s recent employment has been within the visitor side of organisations like English Heritage and the National Trust, where she ran important attractions and led teams that sorted out several long-term problems. But hidden near the start of her CV was something I had been looking for: she earned an archaeological honours degree from Sheffield University, which, until its very recent and – to my mind – scandalous closing down, was one of the finest archaeology departments in Britain. Over the years, experience has shown that prehistoric archaeology lies at the heart and soul of Flag Fen and whoever is in charge there must have considerable experience and knowledge of the subject. So welcome to Flag Fen Jacqui!

The new General Manager at Flag Fen, Jacqueline Mooney, at a well-known prehistoric site in Wiltshire.

Flag Fen’s first full season of rebirth started memorably with a summer solstice fair, which featured stalls and displays in the park and attracted good crowds of visitors. It was great to see craftsmen and women using Bronze Age axes, spinning nettle fibres and threading prehistoric looms. David Savory patrolled the exhibits accompanied by a bottle-fed Soay lamb, which behaved for all the world like a well-trained Labradoodle. David’s lamb was very popular with the many children, whose screams of delight helped to lift what was already a very relaxed and cheerful afternoon. While I was walking around the displays I also recognised the faces of many of our old Flag Fen volunteers, who I hadn’t seen for many years. David made big efforts to attract them back to Flag Fen and now, with Jacqui’s added support, our long-missed volunteers are returning. Flag Fen’s survival and future prosperity always depended and will continue to rely heavily, on its force of dedicated volunteers. In the past they helped us survive the hard times, and as new variants of Covid are sadly still showing us, these are not about to end any time soon.

 Back in the early-mid 1990s Maisie set up the first Young Archaeologists’ Club (YAC) at Flag Fen and it was a great success, with the young people helping with the excavations and going on trips to visit sites and places of interest further afield. Over the intervening years the Flag Fen YAC has waxed and waned, but it has recently been given a big rejuvenation, as part of the larger Fenland YAC, under the excellent supervision of Alex Fryer. In September YAC members were able to closely examine the trenches being excavated by the Cambridge Archaeology Unit. This went down very well indeed, as the cheerful faces of the youngsters in the following photo show.

Photo courtesy of Fenland Young Archaeologists’ Club.

When Maisie and I were running Flag Fen full-time, back in 1980s and ‘90s, we always liked to keep the site open twelve months a year, seven days a week. Of course our visitor flow slowed down quite dramatically during winter weekdays, but that was when we’d be able to get on with research and writing-up. One of the best things about our days of winter opening were the smiling faces we’d welcome on weekends. People loved walking through the park, visiting the Museum and of course the café was always well-packed with customers in bobble hats, clutching steaming mugs of soup, coffee and tea. I’m sure many of our regular winter visitors went on to become volunteers and helpers. Sadly, winter opening was soon abandoned when Fenland Archaeological Trust handed over the management to Vivacity, but now I am delighted to report that the site is open again and selling particularly good cups of real coffee, snacks and cakes. We have also applied for an alcohol licence and I hope one day to enjoy a glass or two of ale there (strangely we might be selling Pryor’s Bronze and Iron Age Ales – which are delicious and brewed by a local craft brewery).           

The new team at Flag Fen have made an exciting addition to the winter delights at Flag Fen. The Ancient Lights illumination trail will be will be open from December 10th-16th. It will consist of a spectacularly lit journey through the Flag Fen park, where children might happen to meet Father Christmas – and who knows, his mythical origins  might well lie back in the Bronze Age? Because of Covid-19, visitors are advised to reserve a time in advance. Here’s a foretaste of what’s to come:

 We had all sorts of problems to sort out, not the least being the two wooden bridges across the Mustdyke, which should have been given urgent repairs some time ago. A temporary metal one will shortly be in place. Covid has meant that some of our displays aren’t currently available, but we are hoping to open them soon. Meanwhile we soldier on. Do come and visit, but not just to show your support: when you come, I think you’ll agree that we’re making great progress – and much of that is due to the sterling efforts of David and Jacqui. Keep up the good work: it makes me feel humble to see a huge prehistoric presence slowly returning to life.

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Autumn in a Light Touch Garden

First a quick word of apology: I’m so sorry that I haven’t updated this blog for almost seven weeks, but life has been rather frantic of late. However, I had my booster Covid jab a few days ago and I now feel ready for anything. Meanwhile, autumn has suddenly arrived. This morning (November 3rd) I looked out of our bedroom window to see the lawn and paddocks glistening white in the early sunshine. The actual temperature didn’t fall below 2 degrees Celsius, but that was low enough for what people of my father’s generation used to call ‘a grass frost’. We’re close enough to the North Sea not to have full air frosts (zero Celsius and below) until early January. Recently there have been winters when you could count the number of air frosts on the fingers of one hand. Who says global warming isn’t happening? Time for my first photo, which was taken when the garden was open on September 25th and 26th.

It’s such an English scene: people taking tea in a country garden. The decked wooden pergola at the back of the house, which we call the Poop Deck, is now almost completely covered in blue-flowered wisteria which provides very welcome shade in summer and early autumn. Happily for us, we were allowed to serve tea, unlike last year when Covid restrictions meant we could only offer pre-wrapped cake. It took a few days to work out our expenses and donations, but we finally sent the National Gardens Scheme (NGS) a cheque for £1,922.

Over the past two years of pandemic we’ve all owed so much to nurses and the medical profession and I’m glad to say these are the principal charities supported by the NGS. Here’s one other picture of the NGS Open Weekend:

The meadow nearest the house becomes the car park and we generally move sheep out of it a few days in advance, to prevent drivers and passengers treading in warm, soft sheep poo. It’s not quite so bad when it’s hard and dry. This year the poo was nice and dry and members of a local car club must have heard, because they brought some of their vintage autos to the Open Weekend. Here you can see a Riley RM – a wonderfully elegant series of cars produced in the decade following the last war, from 1945-55. Behind it is a pre-War (I think) MG sports car. I love its wire-spoked wheels and flared mudguards. Thanks to these visitors, who arrived appropriately dressed and smiling broadly, for a few hours the car park looked very classy indeed.

It always takes us a couple of days to clear up after the open weekend and then I found myself doing a series of signing sessions at local bookshops, promoting my new book (which came out in early August), Scenes from Prehistoric Life. It has been more than I year since I did a book-signing and it was really great to meet-up with my loyal readers once again. Very few signings were cancelled, but now they seem to have slowed down, and I can detect more than a slight feeling of trepidation as Christmas approaches. Indeed, Maisie and I have decided that from now on we’re both going to be very careful. There’s bound to be a new variant sometime over the winter. And besides, the general national and political atmosphere is so toxic that we both think we’ll be happier at home, with people we know and trust. Sad times.

I returned to earth after an October of signings and took some photos of the garden in the final week before the start of November. There’d been very little autumn colour when we opened the garden at the end of September, but a month later things were very different, although I must say that some things were rather disappointing. Our screen of huge black poplars, for example, just shed their leaves without changing colour. Hawthorn hedges are remaining resolutely green, but viburnums are turning a good red and their berries are positively gleaming. This view across the two main borders has the Poop Deck on the left (now free of tea-drinkers) with the larger trees of the garden in the background. The cut-leaved Rhamnus frangula ‘Asplenifolia’ at the centre of the picture is looking particularly fine. It loves wet, heavy soil.

Maisie and I have never been great enthusiasts for tying up and restraining plants. It’s part of our ‘light touch’ approach to gardening: if a plant is going to bend or collapse we might try to prop it up somehow, preferably with another plant, or with something permanent, like a post, pot or rock. In some situations, like where peonies are growing along narrow paths, we might use permanent frame-like edge supports, but by and large we try to steer clear of temporary fixes, which rarely blend with the rest of the garden. Autumn, however, is when plants really like to flop over and this wet season has been great for floppies, as this view of asters in the main border illustrates. For what it’s worth, in autumn I often carry a lance-like broom-handle pole when I mow this border. I feel a bit like Sir Galahad as I expertly flip the flower stems above the rotating knives of the mulch-mower.

Autumn is also a season of surprises. The long borders and the carefully contrived views into beautifully managed landscapes in great country gardens can come alive in new ways, as the various colours come and go; but in our own garden I also enjoy those unexpected glimpses of old friends, from new angles. We normally look along or down borders but I was strolling through the garden a few days ago when I happened to look across the main border and caught this rather unusual view of ground-cover leaves, perennial seed-heads and shrubs against the green of the still summer-like hornbeam hedge. That view was taken at the centre of the long border at the point where it is crossed by a mown path. Here’s another view of the same area, but now we are viewing it in the way we intended when we laid out the garden.

I’m not saying this more structured view doesn’t work – because it does. Indeed, it’s very ordered and structured, with the clear separation of the pinky-red Euonymous ‘Red Cascade’ and the golden leaf willow ‘Golden Sunshine’. The curving hedged path in the background looks very inviting, too. Yes, it certainly works well, but… But…I know: it lacks the anarchy of the previous picture. Maybe anarchy’s the wrong word, because the plants are all structured and you can’t have structured anarchy (not even in today’s Parliament!). So I think it does come down to a lightness of touch: the second, more structured, view lacks that informal, relaxed element. I believe strongly that a good garden should combine structure and spontaneity. I suppose that’s what I mean by ‘a light touch’.

I made another effort to capture the structured informality of our autumn garden by an even more distant view, which I took through the branches of a screen of pleached limes that runs part of the way between the barn and the house. I make no apology for the huge lime tree leaves framing the picture, which features the two bog garden-style soakaways behind the barn. The red Euonymus and the golden willow that featured so prominently in the previous picture are still at the centre, but at the left-hand end of the prominent hedge (part of the tall one surrounding the vegetable garden). There are several components of the garden’s underlying framework here: two soakaway beds, the small border, the main border and the veg garden hedge, yet they are all drawn together by the mystical forces of autumn to form a unified and harmonious composition. That’s one of the things I love about gardening: every year it produces new surprises. As if to prove myself wrong, I want to end this blog post with a view that I never tire of: the two pampas grasses in the meadow that frame the path into the wood. This year they were looking gorgeously fluffy. I also must confess that I like this view (taken below two white-trunked birches at the edge of the formal garden) because it’s not a welter of emerging autumn colours. There’s something rather sad about the stubborn persistence of dark, late summer greens in certain trees: it’s as if they dreaded winter. I think this year I rather share their forebodings.

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

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

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

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

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

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A Torrid Early Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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