I’ll remember the winter that has just, but only just, finished as the winter that dragged on, and on, and on. I think it’s over now (March 28th), but I cannot be certain: we’ve had so many returns of cold, wet, clammy conditions. I have never known the garden feel so wet underfoot, and yet the actual rainfall hasn’t been particularly heavy – we’ve had no great lakes form out in the meadows. Anyhow, the grass is now growing quite vigorously and the earliest lambs will be ready to put out on it shortly. The first lambs arrived on March 25th, one day late, and the first three ewes all podded-out twin males, two of which we decided were good enough to keep on as replacement rams, as our old boys will be running out of steam before very long. I’ve included a couple of pictures here, one (slightly fuzzy, I’m afraid) of the first lambs, the other of the ‘scamper pen’ where we confine the newly born ewes and lambs, after they’ve been released from their individual lambing pens. They spend a few days in the scamper pen, before being given access to both the barn and the yard and meadow. The idea is that ewes get to identify, and bond with, their own lambs, in a controlled crowd.
Apart from the run-up to lambing, my blog silence can be explained by an approaching deadline (March 31st) for my latest book for Penguin. Like my Stonehenge book for Head of Zeus, which I’m glad to say is still selling well, it’s a bit shorter than normal, but will be highly illustrated. Sadly, I’m sworn to silence for the time being, but will be able to tell you about it shortly. But if finishing a book wasn’t enough, I’ve been plagued by irritating, minor health problems, which have seen me through the doors of Kings Lynn Hospital more often than I would like. I’ve had skin cancer checks (all clear!) and now I’m doing exercises three times daily to combat a stiff hip (probably caused by ‘wear and tear’). I had a prostate MRI scan almost four weeks ago, which I don’t think revealed cancer, or else I’d have been told by now. So that’s potentially good news. I love it when I get ‘All Clears’.
And that brings me, very sadly, to the main news that my good friend and colleague, Dr. Geoff Wainwright died, of prostate cancer, on March 6th.
Geoff was Chief Archaeologist at English Heritage (now Historic England) for most of my active digging career and it was directly down to his support that we discovered Flag Fen. He also supported the earlier long-term landscape projects at Fengate and Maxey/Etton, in the Welland Valley, just north of Peterborough (but also on the edges of the Fens). Geoff was a pioneer of open-area excavation, where huge tracts of landscape were stripped of topsoil, to reveal entire settlements and field systems beneath. I think that’s why he enjoyed our projects, which often covered many acres. And then Flag Fen happened, and suddenly we had to make the switch from open areas to small trenches, where much of the digging was done with trowels and dental picks, rather than shovels and mattocks. I know he was impressed at the way our small team made the rapid change (a process that was made simpler by the digital recording he had encouraged earlier). He also liked the fact that we opened our digs to the public, as he was always very aware that archaeology would soon die, if it didn’t maintain a good high profile. It sounds like we never disagreed over anything, which certainly wasn’t true. Geoff had very clear opinions, as did I, and we did fall out from time to time. Sometimes he was right; sometimes it was me. But he never held grudges, and even if we had had a big show-down earlier, he would always finish the day with us in the local pub – Geoff loved his beer. I later discovered, when I visited him and his wife in retirement in their much loved house in Pembrokeshire, that we had another interest in common: vegetable gardening. He will be sorely missed.
Meanwhile, and back in the Fens, I’m now doing physiotherapy exercises three times a day to try and get on top of a sore hip, which has slowed me down so much this winter. I’d started to develop an old man’s stiff walk, and although I’m now 72, I think that walk was more appropriate to 92, so I intend to fight it – with help from the wonderful physios at Wisbech NHS Hospital. Right now, and after 6 weeks of exercises, I’m definitely starting to feel a bit more frisky. But make no mistake, you have to work at these things…
As I began to say earlier, out in the garden it has been a very strange late winter and I reckon we’re now about three weeks behind average. Hawthorn hedges are just coming into leaf, and the first cowslips are starting to poke their flower heads through the grass, in the orchard and meadow. Normally, by now we would have cut at least two meals-worth of asparagus, but not this year: I haven’t yet managed to detect a single shoot. Meanwhile, we’re frantically busy trying to get the border cut-back, now that it’s just dry enough to stand off the mown areas. Maisie is out there for hours on end, desperately pruning roses. But we’ll get there! Now I must go out and check the sheep. I’ll try to write the next blog post a bit more promptly. Sorry about the delay. Blame publishers and deadlines, but please not the sheep. Baa, baa…
P.S. Good news for all my loyal and patient subscribers to The Way, The Truth and The Dead: the folks at Unbound have told me the manuscript went off to the printers yesterday (March 29th). So we’re on our way! You should all get your copies in May.
P.P.S. I recently saw proof copies of the end-papers of the hardback (subscribers’) copies: they’re very droll, and slightly evil. Made me smile.