If it’s depressing to be a Brit in his seventies, younger people must be going out of their minds. And somehow things seem so much worse at the end of the year, especially when the BBC and newspaper journalists produce reviews of British politics in 2018 that are so consistently, and relentlessly, depressing. So as Christmas approached, I felt I needed something practical and all-absorbing to take my mind off the doom-laden farce being acted-out so ineptly in Westminster. And the new greenhouse was just the project I was seeking. Maisie and I had decided that our old greenhouse was starting to get dangerous: the wooden frame was rotting in places and several sheets of glass had either cracked or fallen out. Still, it was 25 years old and to be honest I hadn’t looked after it very well – I always had too many other things to do. Then, by a happy coincidence, we discovered that old friends and archaeological colleagues of ours, Nick and Liz, who live in the Norfolk Fens, about half an hour’s drive away from us, had given themselves a large greenhouse, as a retirement present. Nick is a very practical person, as is his son, and with another friend’s help they erected their new greenhouse themselves. Maisie and I were hugely impressed by it. It was so sturdy and well designed. It was more like a real building – something you might encounter at Kew – than the sort of greenhouse found on allotments. It also looked rather too expensive for our budget, so we decided that although it was lovely, we’d probably best look for one a bit cheaper, elsewhere.
During October and November we visited all the larger garden centres around us, but we couldn’t make up our minds: there was always something that wasn’t quite right – especially when compared to Nick and Liz’s wonderful greenhouse. So eventually Maisie emailed Nick for information on the supplier. It was Rhino Greenhouses and we checked out their website www.greenhousesdirect.co.uk to see if their prices were as high as we had feared. To our amazement they weren’t that expensive. But both Maisie and I are very suspicious about websites: so often they make unrealistic promises at fairy-tale prices. We’d seen Nick and Liz’s great greenhouse, but we didn’t know what smaller Rhino houses would be like. And I was blowed if I was prepared to spend serious money on a new greenhouse, unseen. Nick had told us that their factory, and a permanent display, were only in Thetford, which is just over an hour’s drive away, on the sandy Breckland Heath soils, of Norfolk. So that’s where we headed. When we arrived we were met by helpful staff, none of whom tried to do a hard sell. They let us decide what we wanted, which is so refreshing, these days. In the end we bought an 8 ft. by 10 ft. greenhouse in their Premium range. It’s entirely made from aluminium; so it won’t rust. Even the nuts and bolts are aluminium – so mustn’t’ be over-tightened, in case they shear-off (only two did that to us, but there were plenty of spares, so it didn’t matter). The finishing paintwork is a very restrained Tuscan Green, which blends into the garden superbly. But the best bit was that all the internal shelves were on special offer until the end of December. There were other offers too – leading to an eventual saving of £500.
Nick and his friend Martin were able to join us on the weekend of December 8-9 and thanks to their experience and know-how we were able to erect our new Rhino in just a couple of days. Nick’s stands on a concrete slab base, but I have always preferred an earth or soil floor. I find they stay cooler in summer and drain better, if you have to do a lot of watering in summer. Late November and early December were quite wet, so the unglazed frame tended to slide around a little on our clay-silt soils. We got round this by pegging it in place using long road-spikes. Unfortunately one of these whacked a large sheet of reinforced safety-glass and shattered it into thousands of tiny fragments. Nobody was hurt, but we were all shaken-up. Two days later we nipped down to Thetford and collected a replacement pane of glass. When that was safely installed I was able to erect the internal shelves. The first plants were four rooted cuttings which I potted up on Christmas Day. They now sit in solitary splendour on the end shelf.
My immediate task is to finish digging the plot for next year’s potatoes in the vegetable garden, while at the same time I’m cutting back the pleached lime trees. Physiotherapists who have helped me recover from the hip operation (which happened 14 months ago) have advised me not to spend too long on any one task. So I switch between the digging and the pleaching. When those two jobs are done, I’ll return to the area around the greenhouse and will try to beat the growing sea of mud with gravel and a few well-placed paving stones. Later in the spring, I will install the auto-opening window vents, the external shading and finally the finials, which will grace both gable-ends. But now for some pictures of us building the greenhouse.
Finally, a thought to take us towards the New Year. I fitted the piping shown in the last photo in the week before Christmas, because the weather was pretty unfriendly and I didn’t fancy poaching-up the ground surface too much. It is a vegetable garden, after all. The weather forecast on the BBC Weather App, which I’d installed on my iPad and smartphone a couple of years ago, predicted settled, high-pressure-dominated conditions would persist through to the end of the first week of January. I immediately recognised this as a case of the so-called Dog Days, which are quite a feature of England in mid-winter – and often just after Christmas. Essentially the Dog Days are an anti-cyclone (area of high barometric pressure) which establishes itself over southern Scandinavia and across the North Sea, to Britain. This so-called ‘blocking high’ causes Atlantic weather fronts, including storms and showers, to bounce off the high pressure and head north-eastwards, often clipping NW Scotland and the western Isles. In summer, of course, high pressure brings settled warm, even hot weather. In winter it’s different, if settled, with much cooler days and frosty nights; mists, fogs and persistent all-day dew are a common feature of the Dog Days. Sometimes the sun does shine later in the winter, but not often in December or early January. I think the term ‘dog’ refers to the gloom. Dog Droves in the Fens (and there’s one within walking distance of our farm) were muddy, unsatisfactory places in the Middle Ages. The word has nothing to do with our canine friends – with which we segue seamlessly into my final picture, which was taken while I was returning with Pen and Baldwin, our two dogs, from their last walk before bed. It was Christmas Eve and I was heading towards the farmyard. The sun was setting to the south and mists were creeping along the dykes. It’s a memorable scene. And it could only have been taken in the Fens – at the start of the Dog Days.
I hope you had a merry and relaxed Christmas. Let’s hope and pray 2019 is a bit less chaotic than the year that’s rapidly drawing to a close. I certainly feel much more fit, but I can’t pretend I feel particularly optimistic.