I do apologise to my long-term followers for all the recent stuff about detectives and fiction. The thing is, a chap has to earn a living, or in my case something that approximates to a retirement, and to do that you need to keep working. I’ve found over the years (a) that digging, whether for archaeology or for vegetables, pays very little and (b) that I enjoy writing. So I decided that the best way I could ensure to continue with the former (i.e. [a]), was to diversify the latter (i.e. [b]) – if you see what I mean. Complex enough?
Meanwhile, having dipped my toe into the Twittersphere, and having rapidly withdrawn it, I have returned to my Fenland garden and looked around. And it was great to find myself back in the real world: I almost cried for joy when my boot revealed a crack above the sole in the lambing barn, and icy-cold liquid manure seeped into my sock. The smell and brown stain was very, very real. Wonderful. And quite un-Tweetable. Deliciously un-Tweetable…
I don’t think I’ll ever make it as an urban sophisticate, so I shall stop trying, and if my Twitter profile grows, it will be through natural causes. There’s no point in pushing things beyond, to use a handy modern cliché, my ‘comfort zone’. So, as I said earlier, back to the real world.
It has been a funny old season. Normally, cold winters are dry. This one’s been wet, and very cold for weeks on end. Speaking as a livestock farmer, I suppose it could have been worse: I haven’t had to get out on the land, which is just as well, because it’s waterlogged. That’s why I feel so sorry for arable folk: many of our neighbours around this part of the Fens haven’t yet managed to get their winter wheats drilled. And now it’s getting on for too late. Quite a lot of land isn’t even ploughed – and if you think it’s bad in the east, just head over to the west, and you’ll find it’s one Hell of a lot worse. I remember hearing farmers complain they hadn’t cut any hay or silage when I was filming that Time Team episode at Coniston, Cumbria, back in early July. And forage, whether hay or straw, is now incredible expensive, and that’s if you’re lucky enough to find any. As I said, it’s been a funny old season.
But sometimes bad seasons can have unexpected effects in the garden. The sustained low temperatures held back the aconites and hellebores, then the sudden recent snap of warm weather pushed the snowdrops forward. And the result? Everything’s now flowering at the same time.
On Saturday we met my brother-in-law (and web editor/advisor) Nigel and his family at Anglesey Abbey, the superb winter garden and snowdrop collection, just outside Cambridge. I nearly said I’ve never seen so many snowdrops, but then I remembered Walsingham Abbey in Norfolk, which is quite literally carpeted with the things: acres and acres. At Anglesey Abbey, they’re more concerned with the different varieties, of which there are dozens – and you can buy them there, too (albeit at National Trust prices). The snowdrop, incidentally, belong to the genus Galanthus and the (rather sad?) people who collect the different varieties are known as Galanthophiles. I like snowdrops, but I prefer to admire them from a distance. I can’t be bothered to pull out a magnifying-glass and examine the patterns on the under-sides of their sepals. Life’s too short.
Anyhow, the garden at Anglesey was superb, but Maisie and I nearly fell flat several times. It was so, so crowded. There were literally thousands of people there; the car park was heaving; the restaurant was packed. The reason we nearly fell was that Galanthophiles would crouch or kneel on the ground to get a closer look at their favourite varieties. I think they should have roped-off special areas for them, maybe labelled Sad Places or Galanthophile Reserve or just Grown-ups’ Playground.
This morning I went for a quick walk in our wood and the display of early bulbs was as good as I’ve ever seen. I approached it by way of the Nut Walk, which I’d trimmed-up in the autumn to look more arcaded. It seems to have worked. Then the first flush of hazel catkins, which appeared around Christmas, got delayed by the cold of January, but have now come into full display: so you’ve got snowdrops, hazel catkins and aconites all looking superb at precisely the same time. It really is something to behold.
I also don’t think the snowdrops in the wood have ever looked better and the hellebores, too, look stunning, although one or two have been grazed off by passing pheasants or Muntjac deer.
Still, we mustn’t get too confident. The weather talks of getting colder in three days’ time. Having said that, it could be a lot worse: cold conditions help cut down on the spread of disease during lambing. What we really don’t want is any more rain. If there is a benign God high up above those lowering rain clouds, then please, please restrain them. Do anything: you can even slip them some of my prostate medicine. I don’t mind, I’ll do anything. But please, PLEASE: let’s have no more bloody rain.