The Death of ‘Otzi’ , the Alpine Iceman

The film I made last summer in the Alps was screened at 9.00 PM on May 11th  as part of a new documentary series, Mummies Alive on the Yesterday channel. The programme was about the internationally celebrated ‘iceman’, now known as Otzi (after the mountain range where he was found). The body was discovered by hikers in 1991 and was removed from its findspot by police and emergency services, unaware of its archaeological importance. The dead man was in his mid-forties, fully clothed and has been radiocarbon dated to around 3300 BC. I well recall that this date caused some surprise in archaeological circles, largely because it pushed the Copper Age back by some 500 years. He was carrying a copper axe. This early date would accord well, too, with the copper axe-marks found in supposedly late Neolithic chalk-cut pits near Stonehenge.

Now I don’t want to get involved in the minutiae of Otzi’s death. Indeed, I think people have become bogged down in detail – to such an extent that they have missed obvious parallels between this find and other preserved human remains in northern Europe: the so-called Bog Bodies. I also think we are seeing a split here between the more theoretical/anthropological approaches to prehistory in Britain, compared with a more functionalist approach on the continent. Normally my loyalties would lie somewhere in the mid-North Sea, but not in this instance, when I stand firmly with the Brits.

Unfortunately I never saw any of the latest forensic evidence when I filmed my bits. But so far as I can judge, it was very competent and well presented. The trouble was, it treated Otzi’s killer or killers (which I think more probable) as if they were 21st Century criminals, with modern motives and patterns of thought. The filmmakers seemed to share this view, as well. But Otzi and his killers weren’t modern – not even slightly. They were prehistoric with prehistoric ways of thinking. So the forensic scientists thought that the killer left the copper axe at the scene of the ‘crime’, because he believed it would link him to the murder, were he to be found with it! I have to confess, I laughed out loud when I heard that. Oh dear. As a friend of ours likes to say on such occasions: ‘There’s too far to travel…’

So let me summarise why I am absolutely convinced that Otzi’s death was not accidental, nor indeed the result of a ‘crime’. I don’t think it was a simple ‘sacrifice’ either – any more than Lindow or Tollund Man were. And I’m not saying, either, that these three deaths were part of a long-lived cult. I am saying, however, that there are broad parallels that link them quite closely together as part of what one might call ritualised killings. For all we know, the victims, like modern jihadists, might have welcomed their deaths. We just don’t know.

We know from the pollen in his lower bowel that Otzi began his final journey in the valley. He then made his way up the mountain, through the tree-line. High in the snow-belt he ate a final meal of meat. Special meals are a frequent feature of many north European bog body finds. At some point near his death his hand was cut, possibly by a flint dagger, but it wasn’t a fatal cut. Again, non-fatal wounds are often associated with bog bodies. His death was caused by an arrow which entered high on his back/shoulder and lodged against his ribs. There was further forensic evidence to suggest that the arrow caused his death. In addition, the back of his skull had also been bashed by a heavy object (a rock?), leading to a severe bleed within the cranium. This pattern of multiple causes of death, sometimes jokingly referred-to by archaeologists as ‘overkill’, is a pattern we observe at Lindow, Tollund and other bog body finds, and it’s one of the reasons I suggest his death may have involved a group of killers.

The body lay face down and does not appear to have been disturbed. A rather strange group of finds, including a seemingly incomplete bow-shaft, plus several arrows and a fine hafted copper axe had been placed on a low rock alongside the body, which had also fallen on a rock. Had this deliberate arrangement on the ground been viewed by even a student prehistorian, I think they would not have come up with any of the (to me) ludicrous murder/robbery hypotheses.

And then of course there is the actual findspot at 3,210 metres (10,530 feet) above sea level. This is a classic ‘liminal zone’. And just like a bog or fen, it is far removed from the world inhabited by man. It would have been seen as lying on the very doorstep of the Next World, the realm of the gods and ancestors. Otzi and the people who killed him (who may have been his friends and family for all we know) had made the journey and had found closure there. The very least we can do, some five thousand years later, is give them cultural credit: this wasn’t an act of barbaric savagery. The people who were capable of making that axe, the bow, the flints and those superb shoes knew what they were doing, as did Otzi himself. The pathologist believed his death would have been a surprise, that he was unaware that his killer was behind him. But was he? I very much doubt it. I suspect all the players in this grim final scene knew only too well what it was they were doing.

My personal venture into the world of modern crime in ‘The Lifers Club’ and more recently in ‘The Way, The Truth and The Dead’ (which is still in need of subscribers), has given me huge respect for forensic science. The trouble is, it needs to be applied with great care, as we have seen in a recent review in Britain and of course in the high profile Amanda Knox case. The results of science have always had to be interpreted in context, and this applies most particularly to this ancient ‘case’.

Sadly It seems that 100 years of archaeology and prehistory don’t pull as much weight as one man with a scanner and an electron microscope. It also says quite a lot about the modern world and our uncritical acceptance, indeed our worship, of the god Technology. Sadly, the mis-interpretation of forensic evidence can also lead to judicial slaying, as the barbaric rituals still practised in penitentiaries in the United States continue to demonstrate. So I leave you with this consoling thought: are we really any better than our Copper Age ancestors?

Mummies Alive is available to watch online until May 18th 2015

 

Posted in Archaeology, Broadcasting | Tagged , , , , , ,

High Spring, 2015. Part 2: Among the Trees

I mentioned in Part 1 of these High Spring blog posts that we had planted trees between our house and garden and the open Fen country that lies between us and the Wash. North-easterly gales from the North Sea can be bitterly cold, but the proximity of the sea also has an ameliorating effect: frosts, for example, are many times worse around Peterborough, just twenty miles inland. Although the wood was originally planted as a wide screen against the weather, we were also keen to see it develop into something of a nature reserve, which is what has happened – even if some of the nature, such as Muntjac deer, is not altogether welcome. We brought a number of bluebell bulbs from our old garden and we know that these derived from local woods, so there is none of the Spanish DNA which taints most bluebells bought in garden centres. This year the half-acre, or so, of bluebells out in the main ash wood has been concealed by a thick growth of grass, largely, I suspect, because the overhead leaf canopy had been so slow to develop – another result of the cold, dry early spring. This year it has been a case of ‘Oak before Ash’ and so, as the old saying has it: ‘We’re in for a splash.’ But the bluebells beneath the cultivated hazelnut trees have never looked better. In fact it still mystifies me why growers prefer to offer the public the larger, but slightly paler Spanish Bluebell. Nothing, but nothing can beat the deep, rich Royal Blue of the British flower.

The native British bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta.

The native British bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta.

The 400 trees of the ash wood are under dire threat of Ash Dieback disease, so I am making no efforts to cut out or remove the many alder, hawthorn, oak and field maple seedlings that now litter the woodland floor. Incidentally, I still can’t think of that terrible introduced disease, especially just before a General Election, without cursing the spinelessness of our chair-bound Westminster ‘elite’ (ha-ha). The ash wood merges into the oak wood. Here the main trees are oak and alder, with one or two ash and the occasional small-leaved lime and hornbeam. As the oaks have grown I’ve used the more numerous alders to draw them up, before I fell them, to give the oaks’ crowns room to expand. Just over twenty years since we planted them, I would reckon that the ratio of oaks to alders has shifted from 1:20 to 1.3. This was the woodland where I was planting those hundreds of snowdrops and aconites in the late winter. At long last, this part of the wood is starting to look much more like mature woodland. I love its simple grace and dignity.

The oak wood, some twenty-three years after planting.

The oak wood, some twenty-three years after planting.

Beyond the oak wood, oaks continue to dominate as so-called ‘standards’, but in the long, narrower, plantation parallel with the dyke the under-storey is made-up of some 450 hazel bushes, which are regularly coppiced, to provide pea sticks and long, thin wattles which are used to make hurdles and other structures in a large neighbouring garden. This is very much a working part of the wood, but even so, there is room for flowers, including some fabulous primroses and a few examples of the non-native dog’s tooth violet (Erythronium dens-canis, Var. ‘Pagoda’) and the bleeding heart (formerly Dicentra spectabilis, now classed as Lamprocapnos spectabilis). I know these two species aren’t native plants, but too bad. They’re gorgeous.

Dog’s tooth violet (Erythronium dens-canis, var. ‘Pagoda’).

Dog’s tooth violet (Erythronium dens-canis, var. ‘Pagoda’).

Bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis).

Bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis).

 

Finally, to a plant which is a native to most of Europe. I honestly don’t know if it made it to Britain before the Channel formed – many plants just missed the boat, as it were. The grey alder, Alnus incana is a case in point. It was spreading across Europe as the climate grew warmer after the last Ice Age, but just failed to make it over before Britain became an island (around 6000 BC). You can see vast numbers of them in Holland, France and Germany. Anyhow, I don’t think that particular accident of geological history really matters – although of course pedants would disagree – because the plant I’m referring-to feels like it ought to be a native. It’s the summer snowflake (Leucojum aestivum) and readers of this blog will know I love it. It grows vast in our garden because it’s completely at home in our damp, heavy soil. The variety we favour is Gravetye Giant, named after the former home of the important late Victorian and Edwardian landscape gardener William Robinson (and now a superb hotel), in West Sussex. I discussed its much smaller cousin the spring snowflake (Leucojum vernum) in an earlier post. Anyhow, here’s a picture of its slightly mis-named summer version in flower, set in a rose bed beneath the pleached limes, which are just coming into life – almost a month late. Maybe after next winter I’ll risk removing the poles and wires, as the trees are now quite big. But on the other hand the winds around here can be ferocious. Hm…, can’t decide. Roll on summer!

The white flowers of summer snowflakes (Leucojeum aestivum, var. Gravetye Giant) in a damp rose bed, against a background of pleached limes.

The white flowers of summer snowflakes (Leucojeum aestivum, var. Gravetye Giant) in a damp rose bed, against a background of pleached limes.

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A bit more about Alan Cadbury

Francis and BrutusMy books about the exploits of Alan Cadbury are based on a series of informal interviews or discussions between him and me. In the case of The Lifers’ Club nearly all our talks happened several months after the events I describe in the book. The only exception was the episode that started me writing the book in the first place. I happened to bump into Alan, purely by accident, in a pub in Crowland. He was returning to his brother Grahame’s farm in the Lincolnshire Fens and had stopped-off for a much-needed beer on his way back from the outskirts of Leicester. I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years and it was good to renew our friendship. He then told me about the things he had just witnessed, which I immediately wrote-up on my return home, and which later became the Epilogue, the final scene of The Lifers’ Club. Anyhow, it was immediately apparent to me that the traumatic events described in the book had bruised his confidence and I flatter myself that our subsequent sessions in most of the pubs between Peterborough and Grantham had a restorative effect – greatly helped, of course, by the great food he was enjoying with his brother. Grahame’s wife Liz was, and is, a wonderful cook.

That scene described in the Epilogue happened in mid-July, 2010 and the book itself was researched that autumn. The first of many drafts was written-up over the following winter and spring. But I did nothing about finding a publisher, as all my time was taken up writing the last of my Britain books for HarperCollins and in promoting the paperback edition of The Making of the British Landscape for Penguin. I think it was the following year that I stumbled across Justin Pollard at the Hay-on-Wye Festival, where I’d been talking about The Birth of Modern Britain. Justin is, of course, a co-founder of Unbound.

Read more….

Posted in Archaeology, books | Tagged , , ,

High Spring, 2015. Part 1: Away from the Trees

One of the great pleasures of the English climate is the way that each season has its own character and indefinable atmosphere, both of which vary from year to year. This year started with an average January, after a much milder than normal December. It was followed by a colder than usual February. After a dampish start, March proved dry and cold and this weather continued throughout April. It was ideal weather for lambing, with very little bacterial disease, but plants in the garden grew slowly and reluctantly. I’ve never known such late crops of asparagus and rhubarb, both of which only came through in the last week of April – in quantities worth picking. The dryness has just persisted into May, although at last – and typically during the May Bank Holiday – there are signs of real rain arriving, hopefully tonight. I’ve kept rainfall records since Maisie and I bought our first house together, in 1980, and I don’t recall lower figures for April (just 10mm!); March was somewhat below normal, too, at 30mm, most of which fell in one short spell.

I wrote the first paragraph yesterday (Saturday May 2nd) morning, then had to break off to inoculate the lambs and dose them against a condition that gets worse in wet weather. I’m so glad we did that, because it looks like the next few days are going to be very wet and it’s pouring with rain at the moment. It now looks like we are seamlessly slipping into what I always think of as Late Spring. So what was the garden like in High Spring? And the answer to that is simple: it was absolutely fabulous. I don’t think I can ever recall a better display of bulbs and early spring flowers. As we saw in an earlier blog post (March 17th), primroses (the native British woodland Primula) were superb almost throughout the winter and then right through and into April. They even overlapped with the first flowers of the native British Primula of open damp pasture and road verges, the cowslip.

When I was a boy growing up in the hills of rural north Hertfordshire in the 1950s, cowslips (Primula veris) were everywhere. I loved the flowers, their subtle fragrance on the air, especially in the warm sunshine of a May morning, and I adored their name, even if I couldn’t understand how the pale yellow delicate flower could ever have been likened to the large, wet lips of a cow. Subsequently I have discovered that the name probably refers to wet cow dung (so ‘slips’ rather than ‘lips’), or just to marshy land, because wet pasture is the plant’s principal habitat in Britain.

We sowed our first cowslip seeds when we bought the field that became our wood and garden, back in the winter of 1992/3. We had saved some seed-heads from cowslips growing in our old garden about eight miles away and one day I simply strewed these along the brink of the large dyke which runs down one side of our holding. It only took me ten minutes and I thought no more about it. That nine metre-wide strip had to be kept clear of trees to allow the Internal Drainage Board access to clean-out the dyke alongside it, every autumn. So we knew it was potentially a good spot for cowslips and indeed, a couple of dozen tiny plants did appear the following spring. Over the next few years the display improved, but even so, I wouldn’t have described it as overwhelming.

About five years later, I transplanted about twenty young plants from the dykeside strip, across to the flower hay meadow we had laid-out between the main garden and the wide belt of woodland that was then just beginning to get established. Those trees were planted to protect the house and garden from the biting north-easterly winds that howl from off the nearby Wash – Britain’s largest bay (and incidentally by far the most important refuge for over-wintering birds). To our amazement the small cowslips took to their new habitat enthusiastically. Accordingly, over the following three or four years I moved many more. Soon the display in the meadow and in the small orchard nearby had completely eclipsed the original planting which, to be quite honest, I rather forgot about. We used it as a grass strip for hay and grazing and as a droveway to get sheep from our yard up to the main land just north of the new wood. And sure, cowslips survived there, but they didn’t exactly thrive. So I sort of forgot about the original area of planting along the dyke, and concentrated instead on the hay meadow and orchard, as readers of this blog will be aware.

Then late last autumn I was taking our new puppy, Pen, for one of her two daily high-energy, mad scampers (‘walks’ they were most certainly not), when I noticed the ground along the dyke, that had been closely grazed-down a week or two previously, was covered with cowslips which were growing in their tightly compact, ready-for-winter dormant pattern. They started to get larger in March, and into April began to throw up a few shy flowers. By mid-April the display was fabulous, but most of the plants themselves were still quite small, so the flower heads were nothing like as huge as in the hay meadow. Still, given a warm, moist early summer, the display will be even better next year. So what had happened to cause this population explosion? I can only conclude that the sharp frosts of the winter of 2012/13 had made seed lying on the ground surface germinate – a process known as ‘stratification’, which you can duplicate on a small scale, using a freezer.

Oh, and I nearly forgot: the snake’s head fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris) in the hay meadow were better this year than they have ever been. But the really good news is that pheasants were almost completely absent, so all the flowers were able to bloom and set seed, without being pecked off. With luck their population will start to grow rapidly soon – fingers crossed and a few frosts. Anyhow, I’ll write about the flowers in the wood, shortly. So stay tuned!

My ageing border collie sheepdog Twink picks her way through the original spread of cowslips I planted along the dykeside back in 1992.

My ageing border collie sheepdog Twink picks her way through the original spread of cowslips I planted along the dykeside back in 1992.

A close-up of cowslips (Primula veris) in the hay meadow.

A close-up of cowslips (Primula veris) in the hay meadow.

A group of self-seeded snake’s head fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris) in the hay meadow.

A group of self-seeded snake’s head fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris) in the hay meadow.

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Lambing, 2015: no two years are ever the same

Young Lleyn lambs. These are slightly smaller than in previous years.

Young Lleyn lambs. These are slightly smaller than in previous years.

I’ll discuss the actual lambs and their mothers shortly, but I want to start with what you might think is a digression, but is nothing of the sort. In fact I sometimes think it’s the main reason I like to do practical things such as tending a garden and running a small farm. It was also why I decided to become a field archaeologist: somebody who worked out of doors with his hands. I don’t know, maybe it’s the Buddhist lurking deep within my secular psyche, but I have always found physical work the greatest aid to thought. Put me in a library and my mind usually goes blank.  No, for whatever reason, my imagination works overtime when I’m actually doing something useful. Physical work also helps me relax and of course it keeps me fit. But most of all, it gives me an unusual perspective on life, which still frequently surprises me. You might think that being grounded, it would inspire reactionary, right-wing views. But in my experience the opposite is the case. Take the current lambing season, which is nearly over.

Lambing began on March 21st, which was more or less when the current General Election campaign notched up a gear from a tolerable level of background bickering to an intrusive, ubiquitous cacophony, which is getting increasingly hard to ignore, without smashing radio sets or televisions. And they’re all so rehearsed, with an army of spin-doctors guiding their every move. I’m glad to say, however, that these are not the kind of thoughts one has in the barn during lambing. I can remember a wonderful cartoon in the Farmers Weekly, which showed an old shepherd gently snoozing in the lambing shed, sitting on a rickety car seat, with slumbering ewes chewing the cud and lambs asleep all around him. A cat and Border Collie lie snoring at his feet. Even a blackbird on its nest is dreaming. Then a radio perched on a straw bale blares out: ‘It’s the final run-up to the General Election and the whole country is urgently discussing the issues that separate the two major parties…’ But in the barn nobody moves a muscle. The snoring continues.

I have to say that when I’m in with the ewes and lambs I feel a bit like the great William Cobbett when he was on his famous Rural Rides (1830). These sketches of rural life are far more than just local portraits: they’re searching journalism and satire, too – which is why they remain relevant to this day. I would never presume to be a patch on Cobbett, who would thunder against the financiers in the Great Wen (a boil), his name for the City of London, but I do find that my sheep, like his rides, keep me grounded. They help me sort out what really matters in modern life by providing a benchmark of sanity in an increasingly weird world.

I believe passionately that the simple things of life hold the clues to happiness. I remember back in the 1980s when I had been driving a mechanical digger for over a month, painstakingly removing alluvial flood clay from the surface of the Neolithic site at Etton. I was at a reception at a Cambridge College when a highly successful and hugely ambitious academic, who was a year or two younger than me, asked me what I’d been doing of late. So I told him about driving the digger. I’ll never forget the look of incredulity that crept across his face as I described my work. When I’d finished, he asked me how I had managed to survive the sheer boredom of the task. I can remember looking at him and thinking he would never understand the truth in a thousand years: such jobs are only tedious if, like him, you think you’re somehow above them. If, on the other hand, you enter into them wholeheartedly you discover they are both stimulating and rewarding. But I knew I could never explain that to him. So I didn’t try. What the hell. But I was very happy with the way things had actually gone. Not only did I improve my digger-driving techniques, but I had an extended opportunity to think long and hard about the site: why it had been constructed over 5,000 years ago and how it had been preserved by the flood clays I was so carefully machining-off. In fact those thought processes haven’t stopped, as you’ll discover when you read chapter 3, of my latest non-fiction book, Home. I still recall those early weeks at Etton, because when I returned home at the end of the day, just as I do now after a stint in the lambing shed, my brain was as tired as my body.

So much for my initial digression. Now what sort of a season has 2015 been? The first thing to say is that it has been very good – far better than last year when losses were quite high and we confronted some genetic problems, which was why we bought-in two entirely new rams from Wales. As I write we’ve only got one ewe (of 33) left to lamb and so far we haven’t lost a single lamb. That’s never happened to us before. The vast majority of ewes have produced twins, so we don’t have any cade triplet third lambs to raise on bottles. And again, that’s never happened to us before.

Some of this is doubtless due to nature. The late winter was cold and dry, which didn’t encourage disease. The hay we made last summer was excellent and remarkably free from dusty fungal spores, which certainly make Maisie and I cough, let alone the sheep. Then the weather warmed-up quite sharply in the first week of April, giving us an excellent first flush of grass, when I turned the sheep out on April 7th, last Tuesday. We continue to feed the lactating ewes with a high protein (20%) compound for a minimum of three to four weeks after lambing, as this gives the lambs a good start in life and spares the poor ewe from depleting her own reserves of fat and even of muscle.

In the past I have started to feed the in-lamb (pregnant) ewes about six weeks before the first lamb was due to appear. This was fine when our aim was to raise large fat lambs for the market. But recently we have switched our focus from meat lambs to gimmers, in other words, to future breeding ewes, which command far higher prices. By delaying the pre-birth feeding we have reduced the size of new-born lambs and with that, birthing problems. Even so, some of the last-born have been pretty huge, especially the singles.

So there’s still plenty to be done – to keep both body and mind active. Oh, and one other thing I should have mentioned at the outset: lambing is great fun: we all enjoy it – even the poor ewes, once the painful bit is over.

One and two week-old lambs. The young lambs grew very well this year.

One and two week-old lambs. The young lambs grew very well this year.

The ewes and lambs were housed for the first three weeks of lambing, until the grass  was ready to receive them. As spring was late in 2015, this wasn’t until the end of the first week in April.

The ewes and lambs were housed for the first three weeks of lambing, until the grass was ready to receive them. As spring was late in 2015, this wasn’t until the end of the first week in April.

April 7th at 2.46 PM: the ewes and lambs about a minute after first turning-out onto the new pasture.

April 7th at 2.46 PM: the ewes and lambs about a minute after first turning-out onto the new pasture.

Posted in Farming, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , ,

The Partial Solar Eclipse 2015: a newt’s eye view.

I must admit, the media mega-hype leading up to the event did not put me in a particularly receptive frame of mind. The Breakfast Show on BBC1 was particularly inane. They seemed to think we all had a mental age of two-and-a-half:  ‘Be sure to wear these safety glasses and never look at the sun without protection. Remember, dark glasses aren’t enough.’  That’s fine every hour or so, when new viewers turn on, but not, please, every five minutes… And then the explanations were ludicrous. At one point I even heard a presenter explaining that the moon was smaller than the sun. REALLY? Are you certain? Surely, my photos clearly showed it to be the other way around. Otherwise, why would the moon over-shadow the sun….? Grrrrr…. Time to tear your hair out in handfuls.

And then there was that idiotic footage from Salisbury Plain, or the Western Isles, with Stonehenge or the Callanish stone circle in the background. I couldn’t believe the inconsequential rubbish the various spokespeople spouted. Did they honestly think that Neolithic communities erected those stunning monuments because ‘eclipses were important to them?’ Christ, if I wasn’t an atheist, I’d call down Hell’s fires to consume these so-called ‘experts’ and subject them to everlasting torment. But I digress.

[Takes deep breath. Thinks calming-thoughts-verging-on-Mindfulness. Then resumes:]

So I was in no mood to get exercised about a mere eclipse. At nine o’clock I headed out to the barn to check the sheep and let the chickens out. But as soon as I stepped out of the back door I was aware that the light was different. Normally our mornings are noisy affairs with birdsong everywhere. But not then. I barely heard so much as a tweet. It was eerily silent. And the light was subdued too, with a very slight reddish tinge. No, it could not be denied, everything somehow seemed very special.

I fed and let the chickens out of their fox-proof hutch; then I went in and collected various cameras. I also shouted to Maisie, who was up-stairs catching-up with her emails, and together we headed down to the pond. Over twenty years ago she had seen a solar eclipse beautifully reflected in the waters of the Flag Fen Mere, so we decided to repeat the experiment and use our pond as a mirror this time, too.

As we walked down to the pond we could see there was a thin covering of cloud which was thick enough to allow me to take a few few shots directly, with my ISO set around 1250 and the thickest filter I could find. They were OK, but not brilliant. Then the clouds started to clear and we turned our attention to the pond. The trouble was that the warmth of the sun made the newts frisky and soon it became impossible to see anything. But as the eclipse progressed, the temperature around us dropped and it grew darker. The newts were fooled into thinking it was night – and time for bed. Suddenly the activity stopped and the waters became icily calm. And then I got this view. It may not be National Geographic and there’s no Corona, but it was worth the wait. And I’ll never, ever forget it.

The solar eclipse viewed directly.

The solar eclipse viewed directly.

The pond surface as stirred-up by newts.

The pond surface as stirred-up by newts.

The solar eclipse as reflected in the pond.

The solar eclipse as reflected in the pond.

Posted in Broadcasting, My life | Tagged , ,

The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring, Tra La!

I can remember rehearsing for the Mikado (I think I was in the chorus, but am not too sure), when I was about eleven. And that song has been with me ever since. Anyhow, this year really does make me want to sing out Tra La! The snowdrops have only just finished flowering after an amazingly long run of almost two months. The first ones were emerging in the second week of January – which is why I still think they are the best value flowers in the garden. But from now on, the pace begins to quicken.

Last Wednesday was fabulous. I’d just fed the sheep and was about to head indoors and catch up with emails etc., when my eye was caught by a glint of white on a shrub down by the pond. It was the sun shining off the newly emerged catkins of a wonderful pussy willow we acquired about five years ago, and which has now come into its own. I cut it hard back every year, which encourages new growth and a fresh display of catkins. The willow in question also has wonderful bluish decorative bark, which looks like somebody has dipped it in fine flour:

Pussy willow, Salix acutifolia ‘Blue Streak’.

Pussy willow, Salix acutifolia ‘Blue Streak’.

Next to the white pussy willow, but actually planted about fifteen years previously, are two shrubs of the black pussy willow. In my experience this willow is far less vigorous and doesn’t benefit from regular pollarding. So I leave it alone. Maybe that’s why it isn’t always wonderful, but this year I’m delighted to report that it has been superb:

Black pussy willow, Salix gracilistyla ‘Melanostachys’.

Black pussy willow, Salix gracilistyla ‘Melanostachys’.

I then took myself and my camera into the wood where the wild primroses were still in flower. They began shortly after the snowdrops and were rather disappointing in January, but little did I realise they were saving themselves for a magnificent display in early March. I’ve never known anything like it. They’re all over the wood, hundreds of clumps, and they light it up. I didn’t know you could, but I can also smell them on the air. And a few picked flowers in a tiny glass of water on the kitchen table last for about five days.

The common British woodland primrose, Primula vulgaris.

The common British woodland primrose, Primula vulgaris.

The largest clumps of primroses are in a part of the wood dominated by ash trees, all of which (and we planted about 400 in 1993) are now threatened with imminent death, thanks to Ash die-back disease. So I’ve been turning my attention to the part of the wood where oak trees reign supreme. This is where I was planting those snowdrops I mentioned in a recent post. On my way there, I passed by a clump of Siberian Squills which I am encouraging to naturalise. They seed quite freely and I was careful to buy a couple of pots of plants which were still in flower. Some cultivars can be a bit wishy-washy, with blues that tend more towards Cambridge (light blue) than Oxford. In the matter of squills, but only of squills, I am a firm supporter of the dark Oxford blue. Anyhow, after the recent hard winters they seem to have seeded freely and are forming nice patches below some hazel bushes.

The Siberian Squill, Scilla siberica.

The Siberian Squill, Scilla siberica.

Once in the oak wood proper, I headed past my new patches of snowdrops and remembered briefly how my back had ached after four days of intensive bulb planting. I was heading for a plant we had only discovered three or four years ago. Our garden soil is heavy silty clay and it’s also very wet. These are ideal conditions for growing the popular Summer Snowflake, or Leucojum aestivum (the variety we favour is ‘Gravetye Giant’) and it flowers freely with us, although more in later spring than summer, proper. But the Giant has a more diminutive, and dare I say it, more subtle, cousin, the Winter Snowflake, or Leucojum vernum. As I said, we discovered the plant a few years ago and I can now report it loves our soil, too. It was quite expensive so we bought just six bulbs, which I managed to sub-divide into a dozen and these are now forming small, but free-flowering clumps, which I’ll be able to divide next year. But it’s the flowers. They’re as subtle as snowdrops and twice the size, They are also gorgeous when seen from below. I love their dainty hat- or bell-like shape and they are just large enough to bob about in the wind – which was what they were doing on Wednesday. The sun shone. Birds twittered and my naughty black puppy Pen was behaving herself. A perfect day. Ah, the flowers that bloom in the spring:

Tra-La!

Winter Snowflake, Leucojum vernum.

Winter Snowflake, Leucojum vernum.

Winter Snowflake flowers.

Winter Snowflake flowers.

 

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