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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