Hi Pressure in Command!

You can’t beat a good, challenging title – until, that is, you start writing. Then you have to face reality. It’s late-ish April (the 23rd) and I’ve just turned the television off because the screen is a mass of pixilated blobs and the sound is, if anything, worse. This always happens around here in high pressure weather, because the signal out in this part of the coastal Fens is so poor. Outside in the front garden two doves are sitting on the fence in the early morning sunshine, seemingly chatting over the events of the day. Many of the shrubs and plants around them are cloaked with a light covering of hoar frost and the large dark pink flowers of the small magnolia bush look a bit droopy in the cold. This is the third week of high pressure and it’s starting to have quite a serious effect: crops aren’t growing due to a complete lack of rain and heavily grazed pastures simply aren’t recovering. Normally at this time of year you can’t spot the ant hills in the meadow beyond our front garden, but this morning they stand out prominently – as do the green woodpeckers feeding off them.

And then of course there are those other, more metaphorical high pressures: the appalling surge of Covid in India, the continuing disaster that is Bolsonaro’s Brazil and then there is always Putin – and China. And Brexit… But there are also signs of hope: thanks to the NHS, both Maisie and I have had our second Covid jabs and as one doctor wisely said, it looks at last as if Britain is moving from a pandemic to an endemic state. So with luck I’ll be signing books again later this year. Talking of which, I’ve just been sent my corrected page proofs for Scenes from Prehistoric Life in Britain, which is due to go to the printer in a few weeks’ time. Other signs of hope include President Biden who seems to be reversing most of Trump’s incompetent blunders. His latest initiative, a digital conference of world leaders about climate change does really seem to have made progress. Having said that, I do hope that Britain’s loudly proclaimed ambitious carbon-reduction targets won’t be like our Prime Minister’s other ‘world-beating’ test-and-trace programme, or his government’s failed attempt to help house-holders install better insulation. Like most other sane people in Britain, I remain far from convinced that the government can achieve any of their lofty targets, unless, that is, they can pass the project on to competent people outside the increasingly suspect Westminster Bubble – which is why the NHS vaccination project was such a success. But enough of that. Let’s take a walk in the garden and consign politicians to the mental muck-heap where so many of them seem to belong these days. It’s time for some fresh air!

I shall start with the view that greeted me a few days ago, when I opened the long curtains covering the French doors leading out onto the Poop Deck, the sitting-out space at the back of the house. Directly in front is the small border, with the main double border running parallel to it, to the right. As you can see, we’ve largely cut back the herbaceous seed-heads and last season’s stems. In many public gardens these are removed in the autumn, to keep things looking neat and tidy and also to prevent the appearance of seedlings where you don’t want them, but we dig them up and if they’re good enough, we’ll sell them on our plant stall to raise money for the NGS. Also the seed heads provide food for the hundreds of long-tailed tits, sparrows and other finches that populate the garden during the coldest months of winter. In our garden the removal of the seed heads normally happens (with Jason Gardener’s help) in later March before the new season’s growth gets under way.

Four days before I snapped the frosty scene I took my camera out into the Long Border where I took this view of the two small trees of Amelanchier grandiflora ‘Robin Hill’, which we planted about fifteen years ago. At the time we were still planting lengths of the hornbeam hedges that form the border’s backdrop. By far and away the most reliable and high quality hedging supplier was Buckingham Nursery and in their catalogue Maisie spotted the Amelanchiers – and bought a couple, along with a few dozen 3 year-old hornbeam plants. They flower regularly every springtime and require virtually no maintenance – and what’s more they seem to tolerate – even enjoy! – our wet, heavy soils. I’m also delighted to report that Buckingham Nursery are still going strong: I’m always delighted when family-run businesses succeed. There’s something so cold and soulless about huge corporations – as we’ve just seen in England with the collapse of the European Super League – a bare-faced attempt to make the sport of soccer yet another marketable commodity. I’m so glad it failed.

We thought back in late March that spring had arrived: the ceaseless rain stopped and there were quite prolonged glimpses of the sun. I think I even started wearing one of my broad-brimmed Canadian Tilley hats to ward off the possibility of sunburn. The forecast didn’t look too bad so I decided to take the opportunity to plant my first early potatoes, which had been chitting on a windowsill indoors for about two months. The chits (sprouts) should be tight and dark green for the most vigorous growth – and these ones looked good. I normally try to get the first earlies in by the end of March; this should avoid the possibility of frost damage, but in 2020 some of them got quite badly damaged by an unexpected late air frost. As I write (April 25th) the first leaves are just poking through the surface and I’m having to earth them up to protect them from continuing regular frosts. English weather is so unpredictable!

I took three other pictures on the 24th of March and I’m pleased to report that they’re slightly more interesting than that row of seed spuds (and the wonderful 50+ year-old Dutch hoe I use to earth them up). After planting that first row of early potatoes I took the camera out into the meadow as the sun was shining and the daffodils were looking at their best. Back in 1994-5 we planted several drifts of the supposedly native British daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) in the area we had staked out as our semi-ornamental hay meadow. I say ‘semi-ornamental’ because it had a job to do: to provide fodder for the ewes when they came into the barn for their six weeks of lambing in March and early April. In certain cold, wet years the daffs can be very poor with short flower stalks and poor blooms. But not in 2021: I don’t think I have ever seen them looking so good!

Having snapped the daffodils I started to head back to the house, when my attention was caught by a loud ‘yaffle’ – the distinctive call of the green woodpecker. It came from somewhere near Chicken Lane and as the chickens were still confined to our small barn (as per regulations, to avoid avian flu), I thought I might get a chance for a good picture of a woodpecker feeding off an ant hill, for this blog post. But when I arrived at Chicken Lane I was astonished by the pale blossom of the sloes and wild plums in the low sunlight of early spring. We planted the trees and shrubs that line Chicken Lane in the mid-nineties and I don’t think we could have done any better – even if we had employed an expensive, fashionable garden designer. Sometimes you just stumble upon perfection.  

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