The Last Post – of 2016

Gosh, 2016 was a strange year. Reason took a back seat and rationality seemed in very short supply. I also have a nasty feeling that 2017 probably won’t be that different, either. Heaven alone knows how the Euro is going to fare, as the French and Italian economies are looking increasingly shaky. And then there’s Trump. It baffles me how somebody who has made no effort whatsoever to hide his personal ambition and greed can be considered a populist. Using those criteria, Sir Philip Three Yachts Green is a populist too. To be honest, I don’t know where to look for something cheerful and inspiring. And when that happens, I usually fall back on the tiny realms I inhabit: my books, my garden, my sheep and my family. And to hell with the outside world!

Seen from the bunker of my own little world, 2016 was actually rather a good year: lambing went well, my second Alan Cadbury book reached its target of subscribers, I landed two new contracts for non-fiction books and my Stonehenge book was well reviewed and I’m delighted to say is selling very briskly. And gosh, I still can’t get over what a lovely job the design team at Head of Zeus have done with the artwork, the illustrations and the layout. It really is a very handsome volume – and damn good value for money, though I say so myself. Oh yes, and before I forget, a HUGE thank you to everyone who came to our Open Garden Weekend in mid-September, which was a great success and raised some £1,400 for charity.

Meanwhile life continues on its relentless way. On December 28th, on a horribly cold and foggy day, we housed all the ewes and last year’s female lambs (known as gimmers) in the main barn. I went out a few minutes ago to take this picture and I can assure you they’ve settled into their new home very well. All I could hear was the chewing of cud and one or two snores. Those are the sounds a shepherd always enjoys.


On the Bank Holiday that followed Boxing Day, the weather forecast predicted unbroken sunshine, so we decided to get away from the house for a couple of hours. It was a great opportunity to get some photos for a web piece I am writing for the Royal Geographical Society. With luck I might also get some pictures for one of my current non-fiction books, too. So I took my very best camera, a Nikon D300, plus some good lenses. And it proved well worthwhile, as I have always reckoned that winter sunshine gives the most magical of light, especially for views of the landscape. Here are a couple of the pictures.

Dog-in-a-Doublet Sluice

The River Nene from Dog-in-a-Doublet bridge, just north of Whittlesey. This view is looking upstream towards the tidal sluice gates. In the foreground is a pill-box of the GHQ Line – Britain’s major defensive work, built in 1940, when the threat of invasion was very imminent.

Nene Washes

The Nene Washes from the Green Wheel cycleway bridge, a couple of miles upstream from the previous picture. This photo shows the extent of the Flag Fen basin, with the uplands of Stanground and Fletton on the far horizon. Although not visible, Fengate and Flag Fen are to the right, and Must Farm to the left.

I must confess that even after forty years, I have never quite got used to the loneliness of the Nene Washes so close to the large modern city of Peterborough. You’re in another world. I well remember seeing a grey seal nonchalantly paddling his way beneath the place where they would eventually build the cycleway bridge. We now know of course, that the area was very well populated in prehistoric times. But, if anything, that adds to the atmosphere of remoteness and, yes, of melancholy. It’s one of my favourite landscapes.

And on that wistful note, I shall bring the blog year to a close. I do hope that you, and all my readers, have a very Happy New Year. And remember: you mustn’t let politicians get you down!

Posted in books, Landscape, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Your Last Chance to ASSURE YOUR LEGACY!

I know it has been quite a drawn-out process, but the production of Alan Cadbury’s second adventure, The Way, The Truth and The Dead, is now well in hand. The editing process is finished and the manuscript (or rather its digital equivalent) must now be finalised, in every detail, ready for sending to the printer in the new year. Subscribers will receive their copies in May. So I have done my level best to sort-out any inconsistencies in the actual text, and given that it’s a fairly substantial book, that has been a painstaking process. And now it’s your turn. If you’ve been kind enough to subscribe you will just have received an email asking you to check that your name (or names, as some people buy subscriptions for friends) have been copied-in correctly. If they are correct, then there’s no need to do anything. If not, click where the email shows you (‘change’ in green beneath the name/names). But if you haven’t yet got round to subscribing, now’s the chance to do it. You will be able to subscribe later, but if you do that, you won’t get your name into the back of the printed book. Do it now and there it will be: your name enshrined for ever, for future generations to wonder at.

If you do subscribe, people will see you in an entirely new light, as someone with wealth and taste, in equal measure. Your legacy will be assured. Prime Ministers and Presidents sweat blood worrying about their legacies to Posterity. But why? I’ve never understood, when all they needed to have done was to subscribe to one of my books. How vain of them to think of themselves alone! Can’t they see that a legacy, a genuine lasting legacy that will be universally acknowledged, won’t be guaranteed by attacking Iraq, or by building a wall, even if you can persuade somebody else to pay for it. No, if the likes of Blair and Trump had subscribed to The Lifers’ Club, they would now be seen in a more beneficial light. So please, don’t repeat their mistakes, don’t walk away from reading this blog post, having done nothing. Because if you do, you will regret it for life. Pause and think: Francis Pryor, that most generous, warm-hearted, gifted and kind – yes meltingly kind, as his many thousands of lady friends across the globe nightly attest – has offered me this final opportunity to subscribe to a book that has taken him months to complete, shut away, as he was, in his lonely Fenland farmhouse, with nothing to nourish his mind or body than the occasional oyster washed down with cheap Cava. How could you NOT subscribe??? I know I would. And I’d do it several times, under many variants of my name:

Frances Pryor

Francis Prior

Frank Pryor

Frank Prior

Professor F.M.M. Pryor

Professor F.M.M. Prior

Lord Pryor of Baldock

The Hon. Francis Prior

The Revd. Francis

Etc. etc.

So the List of Subscribers closes at the end of December. And then, that’s it. The steel-clad doors will have crashed shut. The portcullis will have dropped. The drawbridge will have risen. And cauldrons of boiling oil will be readied to drop on anyone stupid enough to try and join what will soon become the Hallowed List of Enlightened Subscribers. Who knows, one day the names on that list might appear on a memorial tablet in Poets’ Corner? God knows, those people have shown sufficient imagination and vision. They deserve to be there. Or to stand behind the saintly Bob when he fails to collect his Nobel Prize. So if you can, and haven’t done so already, please subscribe (even if only to the cheap and nasty lovely e-book). So click HERE. I can guarantee, you won’t regret it. In fact, future generations will… [that’s enough hyperbole for this blog, Francis. It’s time you shut up – Ed.].

Merry Christmas! Fx

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Later Autumn Colour

I do apologise for the late arrival of this blog post, but life has been rather frantic of late. My main priority was returning the final edits of the second Alan Cadbury mystery, The Way, The Truth and The Dead. In case anyone should think that crowd-funders somehow have softer (I hesitate to say ‘lower’) editorial or production standards, than more conventional publishers, I should point out that Unbound are extremely rigorous – maybe because of this fear. So my Script Editor, Liz Garner, made me tighten up everybody’s motives and characters and now the Copy Editor has been through the manuscript with the proverbial fine-toothed comb. Some of the problems she raised have been hard to sort out:

If Alan is arriving at Weybridge by helicopter on Thursday, how come on p. 127 you said he was planning to meet Trixie in her flat for a curry-and-chips on that very day? And why was she naked? Seems a bit odd for a Thursday. And besides, on p. 42 he vowed he would never set foot in Surrey ever again, even if his life depended on it. I’m sorry, but I think you will have to sort this out.’

Copy editors’ comments can be damning, but they are always impeccably kind and polite: there is never so much as a hint that the author is/was a brain-dead cretin. Anyhow, after a full week of battling with my own inconsistencies, I’m out on the other side – and a little wiser, I hope.

The publicity people at Head of Zeus have been arranging a series of signings for my Stonehenge book. This week I’ll be spending a day in London visiting bookshops and signing stock copies. The day ends with a visit to the Hatchards (Piccadilly) Christmas Party, where I’ll get to meet readers and sign their books. I might also be able to get my chops around some mince pies and mulled wine. Those are the sort of gigs I really enjoy: people, food and drink!

I have also signed a contract with Penguin to write a short book based around the British landscape. I’ve taken a few weeks to find my way into it. Penguin want the book (provisional title: Sketches) to be personal, but they also expect some new and original ideas that will fire readers’ imaginations. After several sessions with my Editor at Penguin, Thomas Penn, I think we’ve now cracked it and the words are beginning to flow more naturally. I find it very difficult to write a book whose purpose I don’t fully understand. To put it another way: I have got to know roughly where I’m supposed to be heading, if I am to have any hope of getting there – or indeed anywhere! And that’s what really scares me about Donald Trump. There’s a limit to how far any politician can follow a philosophy of drift. Taking a Long View of his up-coming presidency (which this blog is meant to do), I have to say I am scared stiff. Trump and Brexit. Has the world gone mad?

When I get too depressed by the antics of populists1 or the stupid, rich and powerful, I increasingly take refuge in the garden. Maybe I’ll become a hermit, although not an ascetic. Like the Carthusians, my cell will feature a hatch through which Maisie will pass fresh oysters and glasses of Viognier (a grape that goes superbly with shellfish). But, and this isn’t something I’ve had to say of late, I digress. Let us now return to the garden, this autumn.

As we’ve already discussed, the Opening for the NGS was a great success, but as so often happens in gardening, the best-looking displays arrived late. In particular, the asters didn’t reach their full glory for at least another fortnight, and when they did flower, the display was stunning. Walking past them in the warm days of late September, you couldn’t help noticing that the air around and above them was literally alive and humming with bees. What a wonderful, peaceful sound that is. Here are two pictures of asters in the Long Border. You’ll have to imagine the bees.

Long Border


The easterly, or pergola, end of the Long Border has a different colour scheme to the warmer tones of the seat end. Maisie can carry colours in her head to an extraordinary extent and can spot plants in garden centres that will blend with her plantings at home. I, on the other hand, always get colours wrong. So the plants I choose invariably clash with those around them, so have to be planted elsewhere – which can cause chaos. In her wisdom, Maisie has made the pergola end of the border, which is naturally shaded by the now very large black poplars nearby, a cooler colour area. Yellows, creams and whites predominate, with here and there splashes of something brighter – often in blue. This next picture shows how the cooler parts of the Long Border look in mid-autumn. I think this planting is superb in its subtlety.

Yellow Border

Away from the set-piece Long Border, the expression of autumn colour can be gentler. I love this corner of the Rose Garden. Note also the leaves on the lawn. I absolutely detest those ear-splitting leaf-blowers that afflict large gardens and public spaces at this time of year. Surely autumn is meant to be about peace, reflection and mellow fruitfulness, and not that God-awful din? I bet Trump has a huge personal collection of the noisiest leaf-blowers.

Rose Garden Seat

The previous pictures were all taken in early October, but it is now mid-November and the autumn tints are in their last stages. Severe gales have helped thin out the leaves, too. This final picture of the Meadow still retains some strong colours, but there is also a slight hint of melancholy. Winter cannot be far away now. So let’s make the most of November. Next month is the season of digging and cutting back. I must wheel-barrow muck to the vegetable garden. Time to get busy!

Very late colour

1 My definition of a populist: someone who is prepared to do, write or proclaim anything that might get him or herself elected.

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Pasteurising the Past

I recently visited a very popular historical site near London. It was a place I had always intended to go to, but for some reason it had never actually happened. I’m sure you know how it is. Anyhow, we’d both done a fair amount of preparatory reading and we were really looking forward to it. And it started very well: the car park was actually inside an historic building and we both felt suitably tiny and insignificant as we walked out of the vast enclosed space, towards Admissions and the coffee shop. We bought the new guidebook, which was well-written and beautifully illustrated. Gosh, this was going to be a great visit!

And it started quite well. We went round a couple of exhibitions, and although the noises from several conflicting digital displays was annoying, they didn’t actually drive us out. But our tempers were just starting to get a tiny bit frayed. Then we got to the first of the two displays I was particularly keen to see: a series of timbers that had been revealed in the 1990s, when I was on the Ancient Monuments Advisory Committee (AMAC), of English Heritage (now Historic England). I was very keen to see these, as I had missed the original AMAC trip, for some reason. When we arrived, there was a huge TV screen with a BBC newsreader blaring forth a commentary. Despite this, we started to look at the timbers, which were still in situ – and very impressive indeed. A few metres away there was another screen, where kids could reassemble the timbers (I think) and then another, where they could do something else digital. Both had loud commentaries that conflicted with the original one(s). So instead of the atmospheric, almost ghostly, display, which I’d anticipated, we were being driven mad by a cacophony of garbled commentaries and flashing screens. To make matters worse, zombies wearing those earphones (audio guides) would drift across whatever we were trying to examine, completely oblivious of our presence. I was strongly tempted to trip them up, but somehow resisted.

I’d hoped to spend at least half an hour with the timbers, but after just ten minutes neither of us could stand it any more – and we made a dash for the exit. I think another screen may have flashed: ‘We hope you enjoyed your visit.’ But I can’t be certain. Although it was still a bit early, we were now both desperate for a bite of lunch and a glass of something hop-filled and soothing. The second place we were both keen to visit was quite close to where we had lunch (which was very good, I have to say) and while we were waiting, Maisie nipped across and booked us into a tour at 1.30, I think it was. It was the only way you could visit, largely I suspect for security reasons, as the place was a major fire hazard.

After lunch, and now feeling refreshed and considerably calmer, we assembled for the guided tour. I was slightly surprised that we were greeted by a lady dressed in Victorian clothes, and warning bells should have sounded. But they didn’t. Such are the anaesthetising effects of good Kentish ales. About a dozen other people arrived and the tour began. Suddenly the lady in the Victorian dress slipped effortlessly into BBC East Enders cockney and we were treated to a hands-on re-enactment of an industrial process. The trouble is, that everything had been sterilised: the materials were clean and bright, whereas in reality they would have been dripping in tar. The lady and her clothes were clean and freshly washed. She had all her teeth, which were gleaming and white. She had no scars, her dress didn’t have a tear or rip on it. Her shoes were clean and well-soled. She didn’t take a swig from a dirty gin bottle. There were no rats. And the place didn’t smell. To be honest, we both found the entire ‘reconstruction’ excruciatingly embarrassing. But why? Surely, in a visual age, it’s better to make an effort to portray the past in three dimensions?

And here were come to the point. Laying aside the fact that I always prefer the vision of the past that inhabits my imagination to some re-enactment, it’s the cleaning-up, the pasteurisation, of pre- or historic times that I detest so strongly. It certainly wasn’t fun to be a Victorian factory or mine worker. Often it was hell on earth. And I wonder what impression of past times modern children are taking away with them after such an experience? I think such misleading impressions add to the complacency of our lives: things weren’t half as bad in the past as we’re sometimes told. Somehow, this adds to our increasing inability to appreciate just how horrible life must be in, say, a 21st Century Bangladeshi sweat-shop. If nothing else, history, and historic sites, should be teaching us how we humans can perpetrate horrors on other people. The recent re-enactments of the Battle of Hastings, that currently feature on News bulletins, never describe what happened to the wounded men – how arrow punctures would have festered. And we certainly aren’t told about the way the families of dead soldiers – on both sides – would have fared in the decades following 1066. All the stress is on those cleanly pressed soldiers on their gleaming chargers. Sorry, but life wasn’t like that then – or now. It’s high time re-enactment grew-up.

Posted in History | Tagged ,

The Way, The Truth and the Dead

It’s been quite a busy summer. Some non-horticultural readers of this blog might have found my obsession with the two National Gardens Scheme Open Days a bit obsessive – and I suppose I ought to apologise to them. But I’m afraid I won’t. This blog reflects the chaos that is life, although I do try to see longer-term patterns that are of more general interest and applicability. In the case of the Open Days, I’d ask any irritated readers to reflect that we raised some £1,400 for Charities, such as the MacMillan Cancer Nurses. As I get older, I realise that life and health are inextricably mixed and that disease and pain are not just about death: they profoundly affect the way we experience ourselves, and the times we are living through. Health matters: nothing lasts longer than pain and pleasure is sadly so fleeting.

Sometimes people ask me whether I’m enjoying retirement. My answer is that I haven’t retired, as such. I still do what I enjoy doing, even if sciatica, slightly creaking joints and an increasing intolerance for extremes of heat and cold, sometimes make simple tasks last an eternity. The same goes for Maisie, although her afflictions are different to mine. So we both lead active lives, but perhaps less energetically than was the case a decade ago. As our bodies have slowed down, we have both tried to cut time-wasting bullshit. So we neither of us sit on committees, if we can possibly avoid them. There are other things we stay clear of too, but perhaps it would be invidious to mention them. In a nutshell, for us, retirement means doing what we want to do and not what others expect us to do. And in my case, that means writing – and all the stuff that goes with publication and subsequent PR and publicity. Unlike some other more elderly authors, I don’t write for the sake of writing. I write for my readers; for people to read me. And that’s why I take the promoting of my books so seriously. And make no mistake, it’s great to meet readers – even those who are critical. You’re never too old to improve.

At this precise moment, I’m very busy promoting my book on Stonehenge, for its publishers, Head of Zeus. A couple of days ago I was signing stock copies at Hatchards in Piccadilly, and I’m delighted to say the book will be in their Christmas Catalogue. In a week’s time I’m doing an illustrated talk in Peterborough Library (in the John Clare Theatre) and there are signings later in the autumn in Salisbury, Spalding, London and others are being organised, too. Very shortly I’ll be receiving page proofs of The Way, The Truth and The Dead, Alan Cadbury’s second mystery. There was talk of editing this book down to a more commercial length (it’s a bit longer, even, than The Lifers’ Club), but I’m glad to say those plans have now been dropped. Neither myself, nor my editor, Liz Garner, could see how such severe cuts could not damage the mood and atmosphere of the book. And besides, we’d already cut it pretty harshly, ourselves. So the current plan is to print early in the New Year, with copies going out to our patient Subscribers, probably in March. Paperbacks would be published for release into the book trade, in May.

Over winter, I’ll be writing a short book on the British landscape for Penguin. And I have to confess, I’m looking forward to it enormously – and I’ll have more to say about it once I’m under-way. And for the first time in my life, I even know what I’ll be writing, when that one’s finished. So the next couple of years of ‘retirement’ look like they’re going to get a bit frantic. Which is fine by me!

Posted in books, My life | Tagged , , , , , ,

Our first Open Garden for 16 years: Day 2

I tried not to show it in my last blog post, but I can now confess we were rather disappointed with the visitor numbers on the first day we opened. I know from when we ran Flag Fen that Saturdays are often very slow, but this was a lot quieter than we’d expected. I put much of it down to the weather, which was very cold and windy, sometimes with drizzle. Having said that, the visitors who did come were very enthusiastic and bought lots of plants, cups of tea and slices of cake. But Day 2, Sunday September 18th, was altogether different, as was the weather: warm, wind-free, light cloud and sunshine. Perfect for a day out in a country garden.

The day began with a visit from BBC Radio Lincs., who parked their radio transmitter van in the visitors’ Car park, where Nigel Smith snapped it. With luck the interview with Maisie, based around a treasure hunt, would have alerted many local people.

Radio car

On Day 1 the first visitors arrived a few minutes before we officially opened (at 11.00), but on Sunday we were a bit disappointed that this wasn’t repeated. Still, we shouldn’t have worried: after fifteen minutes there was a steady stream of cars arriving, which continued all day, apart from a brief, half-hour, lull around 1.00, presumably for Sunday Lunch. The Car Park and Admissions teams did a wonderful job. Together they collected a very impressive £772.00.

The plant stall was overseen by Linda, who is one of our long-term volunteers at Flag Fen. In her professional life she was a senior nurse in the NHS, so she also looked after our First Aid. Linda’s sales were quite brisk on Saturday (I assume the few stalwarts who did venture forth were also avid gardeners), but she did almost no trade at all on Sunday morning and early afternoon. Then things suddenly picked up and the pots flew off her bench. In the end, Linda’s plant stall earned the NGS a very healthy £161.00.

Plant stall

Teas were served on the decking at the back of the house (we refer to it as the Poop or Poop-Deck, but don’t ask me why!). The tea team included some extraordinarily well-qualified archaeologists, among whom were a professor of conservation, a National Trust archaeologist and the CEO of a major contracting unit. And they worked together like the dream team they were. It was like watching a difficult excavation (which normally wouldn’t involve kettles and urns filled with boiling water) being carried out under enormous pressure. And boy, did those cakes fly off the shelves! Teas raised the NGS a very sweet £362.00.

tea cups

Although I say so myself, the garden, wood and meadow were looking particularly attractive. We didn’t set about doing a proper visitor survey (life’s too short…), but we all got the impression that almost everyone stayed for three hours, and many stayed for four – or longer. Certainly the tea team told me they’d sold two separate tea-and-cakes to many people, presumably at the beginning and the end of their visits. Another indication that people had enjoyed themselves was the Donations Bucket near the Tea Table. At the end of the day that was found to contain no less than £147.62.

Rose garden

And who was the greatest hit of the Open Garden? You’ve guessed: it was Pen, who greeted visitors with her customary high spirits and a few licks. By the end of the day (when Nigel took the final photograph), she was completely exhausted.


So, taken together, we raised a total of £1,442.62 for the National Gardens Scheme. And I am so grateful to the team who helped us look after the visitors so courteously (and who didn’t ask for a penny by way of expenses). We all had great fun – many said it was like being part of an excavation! And are we going to open again next year? You bet! And we even know the date. So put it in your diaries now:

Saturday and Sunday, September 16-17, 2017 (11am – 5pm each day)


Picture Credits

With one exception, the images for this and the previous post (on Day 1 of our NGS Open Garden), were taken by this blog’s editor, Nigel Smith. The single exception was the close-up of teacups (the 3rd picture above), which was taken by Rachael Hall. I am hugely grateful to both photographers, for their excellent pictures.

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The End of Day 1

Old tractors are always popular in Lincolnshire and this one was no exception. It went on display in the car park.

Old tractors are always popular in Lincolnshire and this one was no exception. It went on display in the car park.

Gosh it has been a frantic day! It started badly with high winds and heavy rain overnight. Anxiously, I checked my BBC Weather App every fifteen minutes and it simply looked worse: black clouds with bright yellow drips… By eleven o’clock, when we were due to open, Maisie was still driving around the neighbourhood sticking arrows on direction signs, and I was trying to arrange tables in the barn, up to my ankles in dry sheep manure. Then the rain failed to materialise and the car park was filling up. Soon we had three rows of cars and people were strolling through the garden, looking wonderfully relaxed and leisurely. But some of these folk were locals, and locals like their tea and cake. Would we be able to satisfy them? I had my doubts as it was so early in the day, but our teas team proved up to the task: they selected a series of light, suitable-for-the-morning cakes and cookies – not over-the-top icing or lashings of cream, but slightly severe, as befits a rural morning in the heart of the Fens.


All day, the teas proved a great success and the cakes went down a storm. Little did any of our visitors know there were huge reserves of cake and cookies waiting for the better weather of Sunday. As we learnt when running the Visitor Centre at Flag Fen, Sundays were normally four times as busy as Saturdays. So with luck, the cake supplies should just about last out.

One of my most pleasurable jobs was showing a party from Unbound around the garden. These were all people who had subscribed to Alan Cadbury’s second adventure: The Way, The Truth and the Dead. And they were a great group to show around. Felt more like showing round close family, than paying visitors. It reminded me of why I went with Unbound for my foray into the realms of fiction.


Although I say so myself, and despite the cold weather and strong breeze, the garden was looking fabulous. Everyone enjoyed themselves and most people stayed three or four hours. One or two even got lost! It was amazing how the size of the garden just seemed to absorb people. They arrived, then they vanished, eventually appearing, hours later, in search of tea.

So if you’re planning a visit tomorrow: do come. We’d love to welcome you here. And I’m sure you‘ll enjoy the cake!


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