Un-Designed Effects (or, Gosh, That Looks Better Than I’d Intended!)

I don’t want this late winter garden blog post to become a piece of anti-designer invective, because I have to concede that some of the finest gardens ever created were actually drawn in advance of their creation, on sheets of paper. Of course the garden designers, or landscape architects (as we would call men like Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown today), would nearly always visit or survey the sites in question before they began their work, but the fact is, by the very nature of their jobbing profession, they rarely got to live in the spaces they were transforming.

Stowe, Buckinghamshire: the Temple of Concord and Victory, with Capability Brown’s Grecian Valley, beyond.

Stowe, Bucks. The Temple of Concord and Victory, with the Grecian Valley beyond.

Brown’s early work at Stowe (where he wanted to site a lake, which the geology wouldn’t accept!) is an exception, because he joined the great estate’s staff as a very young (age 25) Head Gardener, in 1741 – and I still think his planting there, is a wonderfully sensitive reflection of the gently rolling Buckinghamshire landscape, even if it doesn’t remotely resemble the craggy landscapes of Greece. I somehow doubt if this scheme would have been quite so restrained, had he simply visited Lord Cobham’s magnificent house. Incidentally, 2016 is the 300th anniversary of his birth, and we’re going to hear a lot about the great man when the stately home garden-visiting season hots-up, after Easter. I’ve subscribed to an Unbound book on him, which promises to be an excellent and highly informative read – and there’s still (just) time to subscribe.

As I’ve started this digression into garden designers, I might as well continue. Our neighbour for many years was the leading modern garden designer Arne Maynard and the flat Fen landscape seemed to suit his architectural style of designing, which has always stayed clear of modern minimalism. Maisie and I were actually chatting to him at Chelsea when he was told the news that he’d just won the most coveted Best in Show award – and for his first appearance there! It was a stunning achievement and was greeted with a lot of hugging and jumping about, before we slipped away as soon as the Press started to materialise. We’re still in touch, and our garden has several plants that he has given us, including the first of the snakeshead fritillaries that will probably be out in early April, or even in March, as this season is so far advanced. Although our styles of gardening were very different, I think Arne rather liked our rather chaotic and slightly hit-or-miss approach. Of course as a professional, he couldn’t afford to make mistakes and I know he learnt from ours. I mention Arne because a book has just been published which describes and illustrates some of his better-known gardens. I haven’t read it yet, but if it’s anything like his other books, it’ll be well worth buying.

Our garden has a few structural elements that act as a basic skeleton. These bones can be tweaked or modified, but they are unlikely to be removed. The curving front drive (and I have to admit I don’t like the modern Americanism ‘driveway’) is such a feature. When we laid the garden out, it was just a flat, open Fenland field and we needed privacy and protection from the north-easterly winds that are such a feature of the Fens in winter. So the drive curves through a small orchard, which stands between the house, garden and the outside world. The rural lane that runs down one side of our holding is raised on a very low bank, and marks the edge of the parish drainage in the early Middle Ages. Beyond the bank was the open parish grazing, on land that would then have been less reliably dry, especially in wintertime.

I laid-out the front drive long before we started building the house or barns, back in 1993. And the method I used was highly sophisticated: I drove onto the field in my four-wheel drive and we pegged-out the tracks left by my wheel-ruts in the soft soil behind me. Simple, really. Then it took a tracked excavator, plus 16 forty-ton loads of bricks to build-up the foundations of the drive and farmyard. They’ve had some abuse over the years, but are still looking as good as new. And passing tarmac contractor cowboys please note: I don’t want a ‘neat’ black-top approach. Tarmac spills water; our bricks absorb it. Besides, I like our twin wheel-rut drive and the crocuses that grow in the shallow soil that’s built-up above the bricks along the verges.

After we had built the house and laid-out the garden we dug a pond just to the north of the house (but sufficiently far away to avoid any subsidence problems). This takes run-off from the roof. It’s natural and un-lined with a healthy population of newts (which are back again, swimming around, this year). Sadly it dries-out in prolonged droughts, but I daren’t deepen it further, in case it destabilises the house and drive.

The drive separates the house and garden from the sheltered paddocks that we use to graze the ewes and young lambs in the spring, when they’re first put out. We wanted to plant a rose hedge along it. So Maisie did some research. We didn’t want the long viciously thorny shoots of the native British wild rose, which can also be very invasive; neither did we want a rose that would somehow look too formal and ‘gardeny’. So we opted for an American variety, Rosa suffulta which grows about six feet (2 metres) high when fully mature. It isn’t very thorny or invasive and it forms a thick clump when cut back. It has delightful pink flowers throughout the summer and stunning hips in the autumn. These hips are an important food-source for blackbirds and thrushes throughout the winter. We cut the hedge back to the ground two and three years ago so the new shoots are a wonderful, deep red colour, which they’ll gradually lose over the next three years.

The Rosa suffulta hedge bordering the paddocks closest to the house. This hedge was cut back to the ground in the winter of 2013-14.

The Rosa suffulta hedge bordering the paddocks closest to the house. This hedge was cut back to the ground in the winter of 2013-14.

The Rosa suffulta hedge along the front drive. This length was cut back in the winter of 2014-15.

The Rosa suffulta hedge along the front drive. This length was cut back in the winter of 2014-15.

You can’t say that many things in life or gardening have been a huge success, but Rosa suffulta certainly has been. It’s both beautiful and practical and it provided an effective screen and windbreak when the garden was still young and immature. Now in its old age, we’ve renewed it by cutting back its entire length in two sections and it has rewarded us with some stunning winter colour.

But there is a second component of our drive in wintertime that has also been surprising. It, too, has been the result of some rather drastic renewal surgery, in this case caused by the re-pollarding of some white willows that we planted between the drive and the pond – in part to consolidate the latter’s banks. The variety we chose (Salix alba, Chermesina) was noted for the colour of its young wood. I’ve featured this willow in an earlier blog post, but then I was writing about mature trees in winter. The fresh young wood of recently pollarded trees is much more strongly coloured.

Pollarded white willows (Salix alba) of the red-stemmed variety Chermesina. These trees were cut-back in the winter of 2014-15.

Pollarded white willows (Salix alba) of the red-stemmed variety Chermesina. These trees were cut-back in the winter of 2014-15.

Best of all (and I must confess this wasn’t exactly planned), the reds of the pollarded willows and the young roses set each other off superbly. And they lighten up what has been a very grey, wet, overcast winter. Let’s hope spring turns out to be a bit drier – and colder. Cold, dry weather is much the best for lambing, as it discourages the spread of bacterial diseases. We start lambing on March 19th. So stay tuned for over-excited blog posts. Even though I’m now an old hand, I can never take lambing for granted.

Our front drive in late February, 2015, with Rosa suffulta (left) and pollarded willow Chermesina (right).

Our front drive in late February, 2015, with Rosa suffulta (left) and pollarded willow Chermesina (right).

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Weathering the storm

This is a very thoughtful piece, beautifully written, by Rob Hedge. I first met Rob in the final two or three years of Time Team. It’s really GREAT to have the view from the trenches so elegantly and accurately described. I think you’ll enjoy it. If you do, please follow the blog – I have.

the incurable archaeologist

There is no corner of these islands that is not stuffed full to bursting with physical, material evidence of the people and human processes that shape our sense of place. Britain is also fortunate in having a grand and proud archaeological tradition, both voluntary and professional, and a planning system that acknowledges archaeology and heritage. Yet 2016 is shaping up to be a difficult year for archaeology in Britain. Why?

Doug’s latest blogging carnival asks us to consider ‘What are the grand challenges facing your archaeology?’. So here’s my answer.

Culture secretary John Whittingdale said recently that: “Removing places and things that have helped to give people a shared sense of history and identity helps to undermine social cohesion”. A sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. But he wasn’t talking about this country. He was launching a government-funded initiative to “protect cultural sites from the destructive forces of war and…

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Writer’s Traffic Jam

You would have thought that after 71 years on this planet I might have learned something about planning my life. But, no. Things still creep up on me and my best laid plans go awry. As a gardener and farmer I often have to blame the weather, and it has been the wettest, windiest winter I can recall. I only finished digging the vegetable garden at the start of the last week in January – normally it’s the end of the old year – and I completed the cutting back of the pleached lime trees on February 1st – a job I usually finish in the week after Christmas. And all of that is down to the fact that you can’t dig sodden soil, nor rest a ladder on a lawn that’s more mud than grass. But by way of compensation, the snowdrops were out before Christmas and there are early daffodils (February Gold – a lovely, delicate variety) in flower, both in the garden and in vases indoors. Yesterday, I picked tender young spinach, which would normally be burnt off by winter frosts; and the parsley is as fresh and green as in high summer. Hell, I’m starting to write a gardening post: back to the point.

In early January, I decided to switch back to Apple, after many years with Windows. My very first computer, which I bought in 1978 was an Apple 2, which I bought with 16k RAM. On my last trip back to Canada (I then worked at The Royal Ontario Museum), later that year, I bought another 16k of microchips when I stopped-off in Boston on my way home, from Toronto. I would have to have paid Customs Duty on them at Heathrow, so I smuggled them into Britain in my socks, and my friend Ian Grahame, the computer whizz at the Institute of Archaeology (now UCL) in London, plugged them into the Apple’s motherboard. I remember Ian took off his shoes and socks to avoid any static. All very dramatic. But it worked, and our project now possessed a 32k RAM computer – larger than anything at Peterborough Tech!!! It had double 5 ¼-inch floppy disk drives and I’m telling you it was very Hi-Tec. But there was no data-base software available, so we had to write our own, which we called Maxarc (the site we were then digging was Maxey) and Ben Booth (who worked it all out) even wrote it up in The Journal of Archaeological Science. So there! But again, I’m digressing.

A couple of years ago I bought an iPad mini, which took a little getting used to, but which I now love. The thing is, it didn’t spend all its time downloading updates to its security software, unlike my old Windows machines. So far, my MacBook Pro works fine, although all things Apple have come a long way since my Apple 2. I think I’ll have learnt to drive it half competently in six months’ time. Anyhow, my creakiness on the new computer has slowed me down a bit (I’m writing this, incidentally, on the MacBook). Then, to complicate matters further, something slightly unexpected had happened a few weeks earlier.

Late last summer my agent, Bill Hamilton, was contacted by a relatively new publishing house called Head of Zeus who were producing a series of Landmark books about well-known places and events. The first, by Dan Jones, was Magna Carta and the second, by Suzannah Lipscomb, The King is Dead, is about Henry VIII and his will. Bill knew about the series and was very impressed: the writing was lively, but well informed. They weren’t too long, either, but they also had good notes and useful appendices. But their two big features were the high standard of production, design and colour illustration, plus an unbeatable price – and they are only published in hardback. Anyhow, to get to the point, they asked if I’d be interested in writing a book about Stonehenge? Was I interested – I almost bit their hands off! Of course I was interested: any prehistorian has to be fascinated by Stonehenge. I’ve visited it dozens of times. But then, quite rapidly, I came to my senses.

The thing is, the past fifteen or so years have seen a massive surge of research into Stonehenge. In fact it has barely been off our television screens for more than a week or two, as the recent excellent documentary on BBC4 (presented by Alice Roberts) so ably demonstrated. By far and away the most revealing insights have been produced by Mike Parker Pearson and his team on the Stonehenge Riverside Project. Incidentally, Mike has produced two excellent popular books, Stonehenge: Exploring the Greatest Stone Age Mystery (Simon and Schuster, 2012) and Stonehenge: Making Sense of a Prehistoric Mystery (Council for British Archaeology, 2015). But I couldn’t possibly write such a book without getting Mike’s blessing first. So, very tentatively, I approached him and I determined not to go ahead if I detected even the slightest hesitation. But there wasn’t any. In fact he bombarded me with links and offprints to use when I started. That’s one of the reasons I love our subject: it’s the people, not the finds (but try telling that to the treasure-hunting brigade!).

So I sat down at my desk and started work. Head of Zeus wanted quite a short book, of just 25,000 words (my Home book, for example is about four times that). But I knew I had to digest a lot of information and somehow make it a good read, too. And I knew that wasn’t going to be easy. It would have to be quite a concentrated style of writing, but at the same time it had to flow and keep the reader intrigued.

Normally when I used to write academic reports, I could often manage up to three thousand words a day. All my attention would go into making them accurate and clear and I spent less time trying to couch them in flowing language. Then, when I started writing more popular books I found I could normally manage about 1,500 words a day, and with fiction it has dropped to 1,000, although I rarely work for more than three hours, now that I have a farm and large garden to maintain.

So I started work on Stonehenge late in October and soon found that if I was lucky a three-hour session produced just 500 words. On some days I’d be happy with 300! It was that concentrated. Everything mattered, right down to individual commas. By the time I’d finished the first draft, shortly before Christmas, I was ready for a stiff glass of something fizzy – and I may even have had two.

I don’t yet have a publication date for Stonehenge, but I would imagine it’ll be in the autumn, although often these days’ publishers like to release new books after Christmas, to get away from the celeb rubbish and other ‘gifty’ books. This also applies to my second Alan Cadbury book*, which is now on hold while I edit Stonehenge. The thing is, it took me so long to get my mind into the complexity of the subject, that I want to finish the project entirely, before I try to think about anything else. And it always takes me a few days to get my head into fiction mode.

As things currently stand, we have arranged that I’ll send a fully tweaked and edited manuscript of The Way, The Truth and The Dead* to my editor, Liz Garner, at Unbound, by March 20th, the day we start lambing. Then she can work on it, while I slip into my ovine charge-nurse role. Once lambing’s over, I’ll have to respond to Liz’s edits, which will probably take a week or two. Incidentally, Isobel Frankish, the Managing Editor at Unbound tells me that I’m currently the only one of their authors who keeps sheep. John Mitchinson (one of the three co-founders of Unbound) of course keeps pigs, but I think everyone is agreed that pictures of woolly lambs trump snorting snouts every time. So my sheep photos always go down very well in the Unbound office. Sadly, we won’t have any lambs till March, so here’s a picture of their expectant mums in the barn, in the background they’re feeding on the hay we made last summer. And here, too, is an interesting fact: sheep have very sweet-smelling, odourless breath, unless they are having trouble bearing twin lambs, when suddenly a perceptive shepherd will detect a slight hint of acetone on the air. You then have to get close and personal with every ewe, sniffing their breath. And if looks of disdain could kill…

These Lleyn ewes will lamb after March 20th. The coloured marks show their male bloodlines. This is important to avoid inter-breeding.

These Lleyn ewes will lamb after March 20th. The coloured marks show their male bloodlines. This is important to avoid inter-breeding.

Slightly later, and by now we’ll be well into the summer, we’ll have to think about a cover design. With any publisher the process of editing, designing and printing a book takes from 6-8 months. It’s something that can’t be rushed, and most writers don’t want to: the look and feel of a book has a big effect on its sales. I’ve spoken to the management folk at Unbound and they have big reservations about trying to publish before Christmas. January and February tend to be rather dead months for book launches, which generally happen in the spring. So as things currently stand, it looks like your copy of The Way, The Truth and The Dead will be thudding onto your doormat sometime in the spring of 2017, although of course subscribers will get their copies well before the book is released to the book-trade. I’m only too aware that this must seem like a very long time, but I’m afraid these things can’t be rushed: good books take time to happen, even in our world of instant gratification.

And while I’m on the subject of writing, I’m currently thinking about Alan Cadbury’s third adventure and a follow-up to my HOME book for Penguin. I’ll probably write the HOME follow-up first, as I find I need much time for my sub-conscious to mull over Alan’s plots. Since I’ve been creating his world and circle of friends, they’ve taken on lives of their own and I now find I can’t hurry things along: they have to take their time, if everyone is to remain true-to-character. I simply can’t imagine how so many authors – and good ones, at that – manage to churn out books every few months. I know it must sound strange, having just announced that The Way, The Truth and The Dead won’t be appearing for just over a year, but I’m really looking forward to writing Alan’s third adventure. He’s been telling me about it – and it’s not very pleasant. Quite nasty, in fact.

*The Way, The Truth and The Dead is fully funded but you can still support it and get your name in the back by pledging on the Unbound website.

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

Publicity and Benefit

‘Publicity and Benefit’? Gosh. I must admit that’s a bit Delphic, even for me. It’s the sort of title I’d expect in an academic journal: sonorous, a hint of gravitas – and sod-all meaning. But actually this blog post will be about two things: publicity/PR/media attention, and who benefits from such increased popular attention.

All publicity has to be managed, but I hope not in the over-spun way that characterises the Westminster Village. One of the minor appeals of archaeology to the public has always been our slightly amateur communication skills. We tend to have untended hair and sometimes patches of mud on our knees and even faces. If we allowed spin-doctors into our profession we’d either be scrubbed squeaky clean, or would appear before the cameras looking like we’d just crawled out of a First World War mud-filled dug-out. Lesson one: spin doctors and PR advisors cannot convey Truth, because it’s fundamentally inimical to everything their profession stands for. This means that the archaeologists with the story to convey to the public must retain complete control over the content of their stories. By all means, be prepared to accept advice on how to present or pitch your message (as sometimes we can all slip into verbosity and jargon, especially when a bit wired-up), but never allow them to so much as tweak the message itself. That guru of the media, Marshall McLuhan, was 100% wrong when he declared that ‘the medium is the message’. It’s the message, not the medium that’s the message, not the medium that’s the message, not the medium that’s the message (repeat ad infinitum).

So, in case you missed it, you and your work or project won’t benefit from any publicity if you hand the content over to local authority spin-doctors, corporate PR Departments or television producers. You MUST retain control. So tell them as little as you can in advance. By all means hint darkly at your discovery’s importance and significance – that’s fine – but don’t give them too much detail. If revelations are going to be made, you should be the one, or ones, that do it. Then, with luck, you and your project should get most of the credit. If like me, your work hasn’t been too severely affected by the powerful PR departments that are becoming such a feature of the modern corporate world, then you must give serious consideration to who will benefit from any publicity. And it won’t always be the particular body who has enabled or sponsored your work. Yes, you must always look after the interests of your principal funders, but do, please, remember that archaeology is important in its own right and that future projects will be needed if our subject is to continue advancing. That will only happen if we can retain the public’s support and interest in the subject.

I have always regarded the team I work with as my first priority. Without them, the project wouldn’t exist. So do try to ensure that they get the chance to talk or write about their work. I know it’s still quite trendy to present ‘integrated’ reports, where the various specialists’ contributions are blended into a seamless narrative that may (or more often may not) summarise their views correctly, but surely it’s much better to include extracts and quotations, wherever possible? These are intelligent people and they’re quite capable of writing something succinct in their reports, which you can then use in the main discussion.

If you only have your team and project to consider, bear in mind that publicity can bring in sponsors and donors. So think about what you need or what would improve your work, before you start a PR campaign. And you can be quite blatant in you appeals for help, especially on local media, where people will understand the problems you face. I’ve always found local newspapers to be incredibly supportive.

One thing that does concern me is communication skills. I won’t say that the current generation of archaeologists are bad speakers and lecturers, as that would be a gross over-simplification, but nonetheless I’ve noticed that people have trouble sticking to their time-slots and over-running. There is also a tendency to speak in jargon and not to project the voice. If I could have £5 for every time I’ve seen a speaker address the screen, with his or her back to the audience, when reading from a PowerPoint screen, I’d be a rich man. For thirty years I gave almost weekly talks to local and farther-flung archaeological societies, where such bad habits were soon ironed-out by some trenchant comments from the back row. Audiences today seem more restrained: I don’t think I’ve heard a shout for a speaker to ‘speak up’ since the turn of the century. I suppose you can understand why so often they mumble.

Good communication requires a clear message if anyone is to benefit. And this brings me to my biggest worry. Archaeologists seem to be frightened of the Big Issues. I’ve always assumed this was a result of academic caution – which has its place, of course. But sometimes one has to come out of one’s secure comfort zone and make a slightly controversial claim. My advice is to think about it carefully first, but then to do it. And do it whole-heartedly – preferably with a smile. When you’ve done it, you will almost always be hounded by academic colleagues, and if you’re prepared for this, I can assure you, it won’t be so bad. Anyhow, make your claim and stick to it. You can always modify it later ‘in the light of new evidence’ – a wonderful get-out-of-jail card that only archaeologists can play with any conviction. Also bear in mind that many of your professional critics are only motivated by jealousy, and the fact that they wish they’d had the guts to come out and say something interesting.

Finally, imagination. Yes, archaeology is a social science and as such demands rigour. Indeed, that was something that we successfully fought for with the New Archaeology of the late sixties and seventies. But as archaeologists we are meant to be researching the lives – the whole lives – of people in the past. These lives weren’t just about food, subsistence, building materials, the availability of water, or the price of eggs. They were also about love, humour, belief, fear, death and trust. These are all things that defy quantification and demand imagination. In the eighties and nineties, post-Processual movements were meant to address these aspects of life in the past, but I don’t think they have taken us very far. I personally believe that the teaching of archaeology has become much too restricted and programmatic. More progress has been made by creative individual thinkers, such as Mike Parker Pearson and the superb Stonehenge Riverside Project; by Mark Knight and the unit at Must Farm, or Nicky Milner and the team at Star Carr. I believe we should encourage such individual creativity, wherever it occurs. We should also foster it from an early stage in an archaeologist’s training. So instead of just having links to subjects like sociology, anthropology and geology I would like to see university archaeology departments forge closer ties with English Language, art – even music. Let’s put a little imagination, a little poetry, back into archaeological communication. But this will require us to change too. We need to loosen-up as a profession and become less conservative and oh-so-portentously analytical. Remember, you will never bring the past to life, if you’re scared of being creative, yourself.

This blog was written a part of an archaeological blogging festival. To find out more go to Doug’s Archaeology

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Some Good Books, 1: Shire Library

I was originally intending to write a book review blog post before Christmas, but a publisher’s deadline (December 31st) intervened; so my plans had to change. And then I thought about it further. What was it that irritated me about Christmas? Half a second’s reflection gave me the answer: recommendations of things that would make good Christmas presents. That’s fine so far as it goes, but books are more long-lived, more important than a mere festival. So this post will be about books you should buy for yourself, to enjoy over the long evenings of the early New Year. I decided to postpone writing it till the New Year – and I’m currently tapping away on my computer in front of a roaring fire while outside the rain is pouring down. It’s the early evening of New Year’s Eve, on a warm, wet El Niño winter.

Book reviews can be deadly dull. And academic ones are the worst: not only are they boring, but all too often they are intended to show readers that the reviewer is far better qualified to write the book than its actual author. So I tend to avoid the review pages of most learned journals. I’ve also long had a penchant for books that are far less pretentious than the sort reviewed in the major journals. These are the kind of books that are read by people who ‘have always had a bit on an interest in’ – whatever it might be: garden gnomes, seaside piers or shell-work grottoes. All of these have tickled my fancy over the years – and some still do. ‘And what’s so wrong with that?’ I hear a strangled cry from behind the sofa, as Maisie searches through a pile of books that’s been waiting for a place on our over-crowded bookshelves for at least five years. Quite.

So this post, if I can ever get round to starting it, will be the first of two about unpretentious books that convey information in an interesting but comprehensible fashion. And I shall concentrate on two publishers. The first will be Shire Books, the second the Geffrye Museum, Kingsland Road, north-east London.

Shire Books have long had an interest in archaeology. Indeed, I’ve even written a book for them, on my excavations at Fengate, Peterborough, but long since out-of-print. But it’s not their archaeology titles that I want to consider now. The four books I’m interested in are in the Shire Library Series and are, I suspect (having thumbed through others while browsing in Toppings Bookshop, Ely), fairly typical of others in the Series. I chose just four (a) because their titles interested me, (b) because I couldn’t afford any more and (c) because our shelves are already over-full.

I’ve always been a fan of Shire books. They were founded in 1962 by John Rotheroe, who was a charming man and had a very clear idea of what his customers were looking for: good, clear English, many illustrations and a compact, slim format. Initially Shire books were motivated by a widespread feeling of nostalgia that accompanied some of the disillusion of the post-war decades. Quite rapidly they established their own identity, which stresses accurate, up-to-date information and jargon-free writing. The Shire Library lives up to these ideals. The books are big enough (210×150 mm) to slip in your pocket when travelling. They are printed on high quality paper and feature colour illustrations throughout; each book also has an excellent Index. As you will discover, they are very reasonably priced.

The English Seaside in Victorian and Edwardian TimesI read my first choice in just two sessions as soon as we had returned from Toppings. The English Seaside in Victorian and Edwardian Times, by John Hannavy was published in 2003, and with 128 pages is slightly longer than most in the Series (£9.99). It makes a special feature of using contemporary photographs, many of which were machine-tinted or hand-coloured in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Some of these images look disturbingly modern, with crowds of visitors and children playing on the beach. Only the absence of cars, and the fact that ships have sails and ladies billowing skirts, betrays their true age. You can almost smell the salt on the air. The book begins with a very clear Introduction and overview of the subject, which features a useful discussion of early photography and colour tinting processes. The resorts are then considered one-by-one in alphabetical order, starting with Bexhill on Sea and ending with Worthing. The photographs of Clacton-on-Sea pier in 1896 were frankly jaw-dropping, as was the view up a narrow cobbled street in Clovelly, complete with men and boys accompanying donkeys with side-panniers, taken in the same year. It’s great overview of something we English have always done very well and it does the subject justice. I only wish I had come across it when I was researching The Making of the British Landscape.

It will not have escaped assiduous followers of this blog that I have a slight penchant for garden gnomes. I can’t say it’s something I’m particularly proud of, but it’s there: it’s a part of my make-up; it’s who I am, as an individual. Not pretentious, no, Heaven forefend, but a caring, sensitive person who is not ashamed of confessing his minor weaknesses. The matter is made more difficult by my wife who openly encourages this tendency and has been gnown to slip the occasional gnome into our trolley of groceries at Aldi. There! Our shameful little secret is out. We will never be taken seriously as gardeners again. Gone are the days when we could hold our heads up at the annual Chelsea Flower Show – where so much as a sitting gnome’s bum-print in your potting compost would forfeit your hard-earned Silver-Gilt medal.

Garden Gnomes: a HistorySo it must have taken the most extreme courage, not to mention bare-faced cheek for the eminent garden historian Twigs Way to write the second of our Shire books, Garden Gnomes: a History (2009, £6.99). This book is a straight, but not too straight-faced, history of garden gnomes in British gardens. It starts with their first appearance as porcelain copies of German originals that were allowed out of the house in the 18th Century, to the first robust garden versions, which appeared in the new rockery of Lamport Hall, Northamptonshire in the mid-19th Century. Lamport’s rock garden was purged of gnomes by its builder’s two, presumably rather prim, Victorian daughters so that only one survives to this day. He is known as Lampy and is insured for £1,000,000. But even Victorian propriety could not eradicate gnomes, which began to feature heavily in many larger Northants gardens in the latter half of the century. However their real explosion in popularity happened in the 1920s when mass-produced gnomes invaded suburbia. Today their victory is near-complete, except in gardens of Good Taste where a sense of humour is as unwelcome as it was in the closely similar rarefied and snobbish Aesthetic households of the 1880s and 1890s. Gnomes and Good Taste make uncomfortable and inappropriate bed-fellows. Happily gnomes are currently enjoying something of a renaissance and caricatures of Tony Blair are proving particularly popular (a fine one is shown on p. 5). Doubtless they are enjoying a big export trade to the Middle East.

The English Rococo GardenMy final two books are devoted to garden history and to periods I have never really understood. I have always regarded Rococo as an architectural movement/style that was mostly confined to the continent and never really took hold in Britain. But in gardens it did. The English Rococo Garden, by the noted garden historian Michael Symes (2011, £7.99) is a clear and concise introduction to the subject that avoids all the obscure terminology of art history. It takes you through stage-by-stage and covers topics such as Chinoiserie, garden sculpture and shell houses, before turning to individual garden designers and major Rococo gardens. The book includes a bibliography with a separate listing of books on specific garden designers and architects. Finally there is a list of gardens to visit, complete with phone numbers and websites. The book would be worth getting just for the Bibliography and list of gardens.

Having spent my childhood and teens years in a small Hertfordshire village a few miles outside the first Garden City at Letchworth, I had acquired a rather jaundiced view of the Arts and Crafts scene. Letchworth was notorious locally for having no pubs (Ebenezer Howard, the founder of the Garden City movement, didn’t approve of public drinking) and consequently the Closing Time buses and trains from nearby Baldock (home of Pryor’s Brewery, later bought up by Simpsons and Greene King, then demolished by a Philistine local authority) would be very rowdy. Unfortunately for those who were to live there subsequently, Letchworth was built a few decades before the introduction of cars, so none of the houses had garages – which also made locals a bit irritated, not that the well-intentioned Mr. Howard could have seen into the future. But I’m starting to digress.

The Arts and Crafts GardenThe Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th Century was undoubtedly a major British contribution to European culture and I personally would rate the Movement’s gardens even higher than the architecture, the furniture or the art. I also suspect they may last rather longer. It’s the variety of British Arts and Crafts gardens that is so remarkable and my final recommended book covers them all – and not in too much detail, either. The Arts and Crafts Garden by Sarah Rutherford (2013, £7.99) is something of a triumph, if only because the author manages to cover the entire field, without any obvious omissions. You could think of it as a delightful taster menu. There are many new photographs, but illustrations from old books are also used quite extensively. In fact the short lists of the Rococo book are here replaced by three substantial appendices. The first (in actual fact it’s the final chapter) is an illustrated survey of the main books produced by the various designers. This is followed by a full Bibliography and then a summary of the principal designers and their gardens. The indispensable list of places to visit is very full and covers Britain, region-by-region (I know I shouldn’t admit it, but I’ve already photocopied that list and put it in the car glove box).

I’m fully aware that bookshops are full of expensive and lavishly illustrated books on garden history. And good luck to them. But if, like me, you are the sort of person who would rather visit a garden than look at photos (which can never do the real thing justice, if only because they lack movement, sound and scent), then I would suggest you invest in a few of the modest volumes in the Shire Library. Then next summer you can spend the money you’ve saved on a slap-up cream tea in an English country garden. Could anything be more pleasant?

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2015, the Best Autumn Colour for Many Years

We are told that this year’s astonishingly good autumn colours were down to cold nights and not too many strong winds, that would bring the leaves down. But for some reason, too, the colours have been incredibly subtle. Yes, the reds and yellows have been good and very strong, but plants with less strident hues – grasses for instance – have never looked better. And the other thing about autumn in England is the way the colours change and develop from one day to the next. I used to love Fall when I lived in Canada and would head south to New England for weekends. Screaming scarlet Virginia Creeper looks superb, for example, growing up tall hardwoods on the edge of woodland. Across the Atlantic it’s the first frosts that trigger leaf fall, but once the process has been started in earnest, the season thunders along, often being finished in two or three weeks. Over here, our gentler, maritime, Atlantic climate allows autumn colour to extend over six to eight weeks. The only colour we tend to lack are the reds of North American oaks and Japanese maples. The scarlet leaves of sumac, Rhus glabra, the equivalent of our elder, are a feature of the fringes of New England woods and make a wonderful display alongside Virginia Creeper, in the eponymous State. Sadly, we don’t have anything remotely comparable on this side of the Atlantic.

This year the autumn colours were looking pretty good in mid-November and a few oak trees and hazels are still (just) in leaf, in the first week of December. In fact a couple of the hazels in our wood have already produced catkins, which they did in the last week of November, before all the leaves had dropped off. Although as I write, a series of quite severe storms are currently doing their best to blow everything to Kingdom Come. Normally I reckon hazel catkins should start sometime after Christmas. Then they begin to fade away as the first snowdrops start to appear, towards the latter part of January. This is going to be a very early winter and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we didn’t have snowdrops and aconites in early January. In cities like London they’ll probably be in flower before Christmas. Global warming? Almost certainly, but remember, we’re talking here about weather, as opposed to climate – something that climate change deniers (why does that word put me in mind of ladies’ stockings? The spelling looks odd, but it’s even odder with a ‘y’: deny, denyers? No. That won’t do at all. But I digress…). Anyhow, those people don’t seem to understand that it’s part of a process that can be statistically linked to the first industrial-scale burning of coal in the mid-19th Century.

My obsessions aside, this has to be an example of a situation where one picture can say a thousand words. So here are eight pictures. All were taken on November 2nd, 2015. Just a month later some of the colours already look improbable, compared with the drabness of early winter. How time flies!

The back of the barn with the scarlet red of Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus tricuspidata.

The back of the barn with the scarlet red of Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus tricuspidata.

Pen strolls through the Glade, oblivious to the leaves of golden alder above her.

Pen strolls through the Glade, oblivious to the leaves of golden alder above her.

The top end of the long border where Maisie has successfully combined yellows and blues.

The top end of the long border where Maisie has successfully combined yellows and blues.

The tassels of the giant grass Mecanopsis sinensis against the bright red of the Virginia Creeper on the back of the barn.

The tassels of the giant grass Miscanthus sinensis against the bright red of the Virginia Creeper on the back of the barn.

A selection of grasses and sedges in the Glade, against the turning leaves of Golden Alder and the hornbeam hedge.

A selection of grasses and sedges in the Glade, against the turning leaves of Golden Alder and the hornbeam hedge.

A view along the Serpentine Walk towards the Glade with the turning leaves of various birches catching the low afternoon sun. And why are modern gardeners so obsessed with sweeping up leaves? I think they add a much-needed touch of variety to an otherwise uniform green lawn.

A view along the Serpentine Walk towards the Glade with the turning leaves of various birches catching the low afternoon sun. And why are modern gardeners so obsessed with sweeping up leaves? I think they add a much-needed touch of variety to an otherwise uniform green lawn.

A view across the Meadow towards the trees at the edge of the wood. Pen has never appreciated the colours of autumn, but she does like it when the leaves have gone, because then she can see and bark ferociously at the unfortunate grey squirrels.

A view across the Meadow towards the trees at the edge of the wood. Pen has never appreciated the colours of autumn, but she does like it when the leaves have gone, because then she can see and bark ferociously at the unfortunate grey squirrels.

We planted this young northern red oak (Quercus rubra), from North America, to provide autumn contrast with the yellows of the birches behind it. It’s a very fast-growing tree which loves our heavy, wet soils.

We planted this young northern red oak (Quercus rubra), from North America, to provide autumn contrast with the yellows of the birches behind it. It’s a very fast-growing tree which loves our heavy, wet soils.

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Why the Fens Aren’t Flat and Boring

I hate our boring preconceptions about places. London isn’t rich, crowded and stuck-up, any more than Liverpool is gritty and down-to-earth. They’re just places where people live, love and wish-away their lives. Reality is what we all want to be real. Anyway, that’s why I wrote this brief post about the Fens. That, and the need to sell more subscriptions to my latest Alan Cadbury crime thriller! So read on:

Why the Fens Aren’t Flat and Boring

The bog oaks of the Fens come from trees that were fell thousands of years ago. Gradually buried and preserved in peat bogs, they lay undisturbed until the draining of the Fens.

The bog oaks of the Fens come from trees that were fell thousands of years ago. Gradually buried and preserved in peat bogs, they lay undisturbed until the draining of the Fens.

If you think this place looks flat and boring, well, you’re very much mistaken. It’s full of archaeology and is the perfect place to dispose of a body, but only if you choose the right spot…

When I was first contemplating writing a murder mystery set in the Fens, most people would look at me a bit oddly, as if to say: are you sure that’s such a good idea? After all (the unspoken message went) they’re so very flat and boring.

But they are neither of those things. For a start they aren’t all that flat – especially in the south, where the Isle of Ely dominates the surrounding landscape and can be seen from dozens of miles away. Ely Cathedral is known locally as The Ship of the Fens because of the way it seems to float across the horizon.

Which is appropriate, because this is a watery landscape where the many ancient dykes, drains and rivers conceal more than archaeology. There are dark secrets, and local communities who retain long memories …

– See more at:    DigVentures

 

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