Cutting the Mustard

And now for something completely different: a guest blog. It’s by Mrs. Pryor, aka Maisie Taylor, who is not writing about her favourite topics of ancient wood-working, gardens or our new puppy Baldwin (and there’ll be more about him in another post, shortly). Anyone who has stayed with us on the farm will know that Maisie is also an excellent cook with very strong views about the quality of ingredients. I think that comes across quite forcibly in what follows. And just for the benefit of our non-British readers, Waitrose is a food supermarket chain operated by the John Lewis Partnership. The J.L. Partnership is an enlightened company that is owned by the workforce, who are known as Partners. Both Maisie and I are great supporters of John Lewis’s who did, and still do, much to pioneer fair trading and support British farmers and farming. Anyhow, I hope that has whetted your appetites. Now read on – and I can promise: you won’t be disappointed!

Cutting the Mustard

By Maisie Taylor

For many years I have been of the opinion that Waitrose English Mustard is the best. To open a new jar and inhale sweet essence of mustardiness is to set taste buds aquiver and saliva glands squirting. It is actually wrong to say ‘is the best’ because a while ago it became ‘was the best’. The first inkling that something was wrong came when a new jar was opened and there was no quivering or squirting – just a mustardy smell. Initially there was no panic and my cold-ridden sinuses were blamed.

The perfect ham roll is made with a freshly baked, crusty white roll – the sort which are more or less bright orange on the outside, and which shatter when you take the bread knife to them. The butter must be salty, cold and slightly hard so that it doesn’t spread, so much as roll itself up in the soft white crumb. The ham should be purchased from a proper butcher and must have plenty of fat, which should be very white so that it contrasts yummily with the pink of the meat. It should be newly and thickly sliced and stuffed into the roll generously and not too neatly but only after English mustard has been enthusiastically spread over the bread and butter of both halves of the roll. The roll has to be squashed quite a bit before you can get it into your mouth. The crust should crackle and craze and the first mouthful should be a perfect balance of tough crust, soft bread, cold butter, sweet ham and enough mustard to almost, but only almost, make you sneeze. Waitrose English Mustard used to do the job every time.

As well as failing to make things quiver and squirt, the new jar tasted different: bland and slightly sweet. It was all very strange. The jar looked the same but could they have changed the recipe or was it that the taste buds had started deteriorating with the onset of old age? The level of mustard in the jar gradually went down but it didn’t taste any better and continued to be a disappointment.

A new jar! Perhaps this one would return to form… but no. The mustard was still bland, strangely sweet and not terribly English.

At this point something interesting happened.

Living in the country, I tend to keep a well-stocked larder and a full fridge. (‘But Darling, you live how far, 20 miles, from a Waitrose store? I’d heard there were pockets of deprivation in the countryside, but I hadn’t realised it was that bad!’). I have to admit I do occasionally uncover things at the back of the fridge which surprise me. Searching for a jar with something nice preserved in oil in it, I found myself travelling deeper and deeper into parts of the fridge that had seldom seen a human hand. Eventually, having abandoned the search and cramming everything back in, I discovered that I was left with not one, but two identical jars of Waitrose English Mustard.

The two jars of Waitrose English Mustard. The earlier one (2015) is on the right.

The two jars of Waitrose English Mustard. The earlier one (2015) is on the right.

Not being a great believer in ‘use by’ dates, my first reaction was to unscrew the lid of the nearest one and sniff:

Kerpow! Perzang! Splurt!

Taste buds quivered! Saliva glands squirted! Wow!

My second reaction was to unscrew the lid of the second jar and sniff:

Sigh! Unexciting, slightly bland, mustardy smell.

My third reaction was to look at the use by dates on the lids. Bland mustardy smell is Apr 2017 (Oops, two months out of date – no wonder it wasn’t quite the thing.) The date on the Kerpow! jar lid is quite hard to read, as it is rather faint… could it possibly say Nov 2015? How embarrassing. That is not good even for me.

But wait! I whip the lid off Nov 2015 (as it will now be known) and inhale deeply. Wow, fabulous! – this should be illegal.

There must be a reason for the difference. The labels seem to be identical including the bar code but detailed analysis begins to reveal differences. Nov 2015 is described as ‘A traditional English mustard providing the classic accompaniment to hot or cold meat.’ Apr 2017 is described as ‘A [?] English Mustard providing the classic accompaniment to hot or cold meat.’

The nutrition table is very different on the two jars. April 2017 has more calories, less fat and nearly twice as much carbohydrate. Really? That seems a big difference. Sugars are even more startling. Per 100g, Nov 2015 has 8.9g carbohydrates of which 2.9g are sugars. This compares with 15.5g in Apr 2017 of which 13.3g are sugars. Presumably the rise in sugar needed to be balanced by the rise in salt – from 5.05g in November 2015 to 8.5g in April 2017.

And so to the ingredients:

Nov 2015 – Water, mustard flour (31%), salt, lemon juice from concentrate, mustard husk, ground turmeric.

Compare that with:

Apr 2017 – Water, mustard flour (22%), spirit vinegar, sugar, salt, mustard bran (3%), turmeric, stabiliser xanthan.

So all is explained: 9% less mustard, added sugar and other stuff.

So what to have in my ham roll?

More rummaging, this time in the larder, produces a tin of Colman’s English Mustard Powder. It doesn’t seem to have a use by date – too faint to read? It can’t be that the tin dates from before ‘use by’ dates, because it has a plastic lid and not a tin one… Oops, sorry, I’ve found the best before date: 07/16. That’s clever. Almost half way between the two jars. The label on the tin has no list of ingredients and just says ‘mustard powder’ and suggests that the mustard should be made up ten minutes before use. Armed with an egg cup and a Mickey Mouse tea spoon I make up a quantity of mustard – just mustard powder (which I happen to know was grown in the Fens!) and cold water, as instructed. I leave it to stand while I assemble the roll, the butter and the ham. Then I press the crust, lift it slowly and bite. At last, the moment of truth…

Freshly-made Coleman’s Mustard in an egg cup, waiting to be enjoyed with a fresh pork pie from the village butcher.

Freshly-made Coleman’s Mustard in an egg cup, waiting to be enjoyed with a fresh pork pie from the village butcher.

Chewy crust, soft bread, cold butter, sweet ham and – yes – is that a sneeze I feel coming on? Yes…? Yes…? No! Phew. Aah, but the taste:

Bliss! Perfection!

And now an afterthought. I’ve just returned from Waitrose in Peterborough, where I failed to find any Colman’s Mustard Powder. All they stocked was the new, bland, pre-made stuff in jars (although I’m pleased to say that they did have the indispensable mustard tubes, which are perfect for the picnic basket). But really: just prepared ‘condiment’ and no real mustard powder! All I can say is:


Posted in food, Tirades | Tagged , ,

The Garden in Early Summer

It never rains, but it pours – even in dry weather. All of which is, I concede a bit Delphic, but that’s how I’ve been feeling lately, as events pile up to make life difficult. And, to add yet another inappropriate simile: is there light at the end of the tunnel? What tunnel, I ask, and how do you know it’s dark? Confusion heaped on chaos. Disorganisation structures anarchy and meltdown. Or am I going over the top? Probably, but what the hell, my hip hurts and I can’t think as clearly as I once did.

The saga of woe began a few years ago, when a washing machine sprung a big leak and poured water all over the floor of the room next door to the kitchen, where we wash vegetables, do the washing-up, prepare lambs’ milk, wash pieces of ancient wood and eviscerate the occasional rabbit, pigeon, pheasant or partridge. We call it the scullery, and it’s a space that can be found in any rural house or cottage, where food isn’t bought-in ready-washed, cleaned and prepared. Well anyhow, that leak caused the scullery floor to rot and before we knew it, our feet were standing on something distinctly spongy. Then I went and put a step ladder foot through the floor, down to the concrete raft three inches below. Cue for a call to our insurers, who agreed to pay (it was our first claim in 23 years!). And now we’ve got the builders in. They’re a small local firm: very friendly and extremely competent, which is a huge relief, but it still doesn’t remove the noise of drills and the constant coming and going.

While all of this was happening, the sheep had to be shorn. At the same time I had to meet an urgent publisher’s deadline and a sudden hot dry spell after heavy rain set the grass everywhere growing like mad. Then about two weeks ago, my hip began to give me a lot more pain. Our local NHS hospital (the North Cambs., in Wisbech) X-rayed it, and this showed heavy wear on my left hip with both bone and cartilage worn away, such that my left leg is now 10mm shorter than my right. I saw an orthopaedic surgeon at Wisbech on Monday and he was in no doubt: a total left hip joint replacement was needed. I asked when that would happen and he reckoned within 2-3 months. So to celebrate (and on his advice) I bought a pair of matching, adjustable walking sticks – which have made a huge difference. At least I can now get about without too much pain.

So let’s try to look on the bright side. Ninety-nine percent of modern hip replacements are 100% successful. So the prognosis is good, and I’ve just got somehow to struggle through the next few months. But, as I said, let’s look on the bright side. There’s nothing like a few personal and domestic problems to put global issues in perspective: creeps like that chap who runs North Korea, or Tweetie-Pie Trump, or even those Brexiteers on the hard right of the Tory Party, who seem to be running things at present, somehow seem slightly less poisonous and rather more pathetically laughable, given all my other problems. And then of course there’s that ghastly tragedy at Grenfell Tower. But even so, there are signs of hope, especially in France – or am I being hopelessly naïve?

The other alternative is to disengage from the world entirely. And in my case, that means I take a walk – or rather a hobble – around the garden, trying not to look too closely at the weeds, which I’m finding increasingly difficult to pull out now that the hip is so stiff. And I must admit that the borders have been looking pretty stunning throughout June. So here are four pictures I took on the 25th, when it wasn’t so hot that flowers everywhere were wilting.

Oh, and one final thing. My next blog post will be quite soon and will be written by Mrs Pryor, aka Maisie Taylor. It’s all about what happens when a qualified archaeologist carries out a close survey of the many items that lurk towards the back of the fridge… And I think you’ll be surprised at what she revealed!

Poop Deck wall

A view along the base of the Poop Deck wall, with the Nut Walk in the far background, across the pond lawn. Wall bases are difficult places to plant, often being either too wet or too dry. This one is both: too wet in winter and too dry in summer. We have found that the Hemerocallis Bonanza does very well here.

Small border

The Small Border was rather a sad place when we first laid it out, back in 1993. It had to be there, if only to provide access to the back of the Main Border and an edge to the very wet rose bed behind the house. But over the years it has developed a character of its own. The Hemerocallis closest to the camera is Burning Daylight. The focus of this view is the Arts and Crafts jardinière, which I featured in an earlier blog post; it’s planted with a variegated Cornus.

Entrance from yard

If the garden can be said to have a formal entrance, it’s from the yard, down a short grass path, towards a golden Metasequoia Gold Rush. This spring and early summer, despite some gales which damaged the foliage, it has looked very spectacular and is well set-off by the red Hemerocallis and scarlet Pelargoniums in the tall, slightly flared Yorkshire Pots (which are reliably frost-resistant and well worth the slight premium you have to pay for them). By the end of the season, the plants in the pots will have doubled in size. I will then take cuttings, which will be over-wintered indoors

Main Border

The Main Border looking NW, with the house on the left. This view is taken from half way along the border. Various old and David Austin roses can be seen. Note also the vivid red flowers of Lychnis chalcedonica, which seems to thrive in our heavy, damp soils.

Posted in Gardening, My life, Uncategorized | Tagged , ,

The End of Spring 2017

First, I must apologise. Lambing finished in mid-April and since then I’ve had my nose pressed firmly to the grindstone, working through alterations and corrections to my latest book for Penguin (which will be published in March 2018). I’m also busy on the farm (we shear next week) and am promoting The Way, The Truth and The Deadwhich was published on May 17th (copies are now being sent out to subscribers). And then to cap it all, my left hip joint has become painful and an X-ray in late April showed it to be very worn. Can’t think why. My physiotherapist at Wisbech Hospital is recommending that I have a replacement. She says (and she was smiling broadly at the time) that I shouldn’t have spent fifty years on my hands and knees, or swinging mattocks and certainly not pushing fully laden wheelbarrows up steep spoil-heaps. Oh well, at least we all revived ourselves in the evening with vast volumes of beer. Happy days! But now I’ve got to pay for them. I gather hip joint replacements are becoming far more common, if not actually routine: apparently over 70,000 operations were performed on the NHS last year. I also gather that the six weeks after surgery are crucially important, so I’ll be following the physio’s instructions to the letter

But enough about me: tomorrow is the General Election and it seems the country is going completely barmy, with politicians who live on another planet and deranged murderers rampaging through our streets, picking on defenceless youngsters. Sanity and humour seem to have flown out of the window. Forget fake news: image, self-delusion and irrelevance are the new realities. So it seems to me that if you want to retain a grip on the real world, I suggest you turn off the television, the radio and above all, the phone, laptop or iPad, and then step out of doors. Take a deep breath. Listen to the birdsong. Those birds are tweeting more good sense than those highly-paid numbskulls in Westminster – or indeed the biggest idiot of the lot, in Washington. I’m lucky enough to have a lovely garden, but if you don’t, I suggest you take a long walk in a park or the country. Anything rather than the media. And if you’re a resident of the UK: despite the insanity of the current situation, I do hope you voted! Democracy, despite its many weaknesses is still by far and away the most humane system of governance that society has ever evolved. And who knows, one day the UK might abandon the first-past-the-post system, which worked quite well in the Victorian era…

By the time this post gets published, we will be in post-election mode, which for me at least, will mean a stunned sense of unreality, because whatever happens, it is bound to be barmy: Corbyn or Hard Brexit. La-La Cake or Crucifixion. So let’s instead take a leisurely stroll through our garden in May, the last month of spring. I took the photos on the 10th and the 27th, both warm sunny days. And now it’s June and the sun has vanished. There are strong winds from the north-west and yesterday it rained for 18 hours. Ah, the joys of an English summer! I do hope you enjoy your stroll.

Nut Walk

A view along the Nut Walk with the bluebells still in flower. I think it looks better now that we have pruned the hazel bushes higher. It gives a more arched, almost church-like feel. Or is that being a bit pretentious?

Long Border

The Long Border in early May. I love the subtlety of the many hues of green in plants that are still fresh, or have only just come into leaf. Even the grass looks gorgeous – reminds me of summers spent in Ireland, justly called the Emerald Isle (but you have to put up with the ceaseless rain. Doubtless that’s why they invented Guinness).

House wisteria

Although the house we built in 1995 isn’t as ugly as some of the massive monsters that now blight our countryside, towns and cities, most architecture can be improved by a vigorous wisteria. And this year ours was particularly floriferous.

Flag Iris

We dug the pond to take run-off from the house roof and I planted these yellow-flowered flag irises around its fringes in honour of Flag Fen. I found them in a nearby dyke, where they have since been sprayed to extinction. My ones are only just under control, but even so, they always look gorgeous.


In some of the smartest gardens it is fashionable to have an arranged pile of logs and call it a Stumpery. To my sensitive ear that’s a bit too close to Trumpery. So this is our Loggery. It’s made of willow logs, which are being pecked by woodpeckers and bored by beetles. Already (and it’s starting its third summer) it’s a mini nature-reserve.

Long Walk

This is the Long Walk, which skirts the Rose Garden and leads into the Serpentine Walk. The roses were very early this year and the pink hybrid musk ‘Cornelia’ is looking particularly good – and smells gorgeous.

Steps Path

And finally, to the Front Garden and the Steps Path, which we created a couple of years ago and is now starting to come into its own. As I write, the lupins outside my office window are looking a bit tatty and will need another cut-back soon, or else they will overshadow the peonies, which are starting to look splendid. Herbaceous gardening can be a high-maintenance business.

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Lambing’s Nearly Finished…

I’m writing this on Tuesday, April 11th and we’re approaching the final week of lambing. Easter, late this year, is next weekend and we are down to just four ewes who haven’t yet lambed – and one of them, I’m fairly sure, isn’t in-lamb (or pregnant, to use the human term). We reduced the flock to a third of its former size three years ago and in those days it paid us to have all the ewes scanned. That way we could separate out the multiples from the singles and indeed the empty – to use another shepherds’ term. We recovered the scanning costs by being able to feed the flock more efficiently and it also meant that empty ewes didn’t get over-nourished, and frankly, fat. So if that single empty ewe doesn’t very soon show some sign that she’s going to lamb, she’ll be put on a crash diet, as very fat sheep are prone to all sorts of health problems – heart attacks etc. – just like their human counterparts.

It’s been ideal lambing weather: dry and not-too-hot, but with the notable exception of last weekend, when Cambridgeshire reached 25o C (almost 80o F). Mercifully, we’re much closer to the coast, so we didn’t get quite that hot, but it was warm enough to make the milk in the orphan lambs’ feeding bucket start to go off – and that’s very unusual indeed. All the warm weather has also meant that the grass has grown strongly. Back in mid-March, I was seriously concerned that we would have to keep the ewes and lambs in the barn until mid-, even late, April, but in the event that didn’t prove necessary. We let them out on Sunday April 2nd and, as always, I took a photograph.

The first ewes are turned out with their lambs. Note the very long, and lush, grass.

The first ewes are turned out with their lambs. Note the very long, and lush, grass.

The sheep that have been turned out still have access to the barn, where they can take their lambs at night, or when it turns wet. We continue feeding the ewes who have lambed for about three or four weeks, as they need very high levels of nutrition to maintain a supply of rich milk, during those first crucially important weeks of a lamb’s life. The feed is spread along wooden troughs standing on the paved yard outside the barn. While the ewes jostle for food, the lambs, very wisely, get out of their way. And this is where the lamb flock begins to form. In the past, I have seen lambs badly trampled in the scrum for food; so now I always give plenty of warning that I’m approaching with the buckets. That way, the lambs have time to beat a hasty retreat.

Feeding the turned-out ewes in the yard outside the barn.

Feeding the turned-out ewes in the yard outside the barn.

The lamb flock begins to form.

The lamb flock begins to form.

I love watching the way the lamb flock starts to develop its own style and identity. It always begins at feeding time and often with a few, very tentative, leaps and races. By late spring these have developed into fully-fledged steeplechase-style-stampedes that reach a crescendo in the hour or so before sunset. In most years, the balance of male to female lambs is roughly 50:50, but this year something has gone wrong with the genetic statistics, and the current score is 17 females and 28 males. I can remember learning about the research of the great Czech geneticist (and monk) Gregor Mendel, who died in 1884. Mendel effectively invented the modern science of genetics and in my opinion his name should be up there alongside the likes of Darwin and Einstein. A very great man. He predicted the 50:50 gender split, and I have been amazed at how often he has been shown to be correct. Indeed, this is the one year in the thirty we have been keeping sheep, that proves that the normal is indeed what it is: statistically (i.e. probabilistically) normal. I only wish that the imbalance had been the other way around, because we get far more money for our female than our male lambs. Still, that’s life.

The imbalance began at the start of lambing, with three successive male twins. It then slowly redressed itself, before slewing back and is now showing a slight tendency to favour females. As normal, the later singles have been huge, because the ewes have had longer to feed. This female lamb, only about three hours old when I took the picture, is a fine example:

A big single female Lleyn lamb, with her mother.

A big single female Lleyn lamb, with her mother.

And finally, to a sad story that began with a mistake. When I was looking through the pictures of lambing on my mobile phone, I came across one that had happened, in error. For some reason, presumably when I was putting my phone back in my pocket, I had photographed the front of my very, very tired, torn and, frankly, malodorous lambing trousers. At the time, it made me smile. And to my amazement I had just enough phone signal in the barn (a very rare event indeed!), so I Tweeted it. To my amazement, it got ‘liked’ by lots of people – who might well have changed their minds, had they been able to smell the image! But you, my faithful and forbearing blog followers, deserve, and expect, a better-composed and altogether higher quality picture. So here it is, taken with my Lumix camera, which is fitted with a Leica lens (no less).

The last picture of my trousers: eloquent witnesses to the ravages of time and the shepherd’s life. Farewell, old friends.

The last picture of my trousers: eloquent witnesses to the ravages of time and the shepherd’s life. Farewell, old friends.

And as you can see, the trousers are just finishing their third lambing season. They began life as moleskin jeans, but about four years ago all the hairy knap had worn away, leaving just the bare cloth beneath. So they’re not particularly warm or damp-proof any more – which is why they will have to go. They’re altogether too foetid to recycle. So I’m afraid they’re for the dreaded black bin of death. Landfill. Burial: a common grave, together with Kentucky fried chicken bones, dead goldfish and broken tape cassettes. As I said in that Tweet: it is so sad. Farewell old friends. Your time for immortality has come…

Gulp, …           gulp, …            gulp.

Posted in Farming, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , ,

Spring is Here – if Not in My Step

I’ll remember the winter that has just, but only just, finished as the winter that dragged on, and on, and on. I think it’s over now (March 28th), but I cannot be certain: we’ve had so many returns of cold, wet, clammy conditions. I have never known the garden feel so wet underfoot, and yet the actual rainfall hasn’t been particularly heavy – we’ve had no great lakes form out in the meadows. Anyhow, the grass is now growing quite vigorously and the earliest lambs will be ready to put out on it shortly. The first lambs arrived on March 25th, one day late, and the first three ewes all podded-out twin males, two of which we decided were good enough to keep on as replacement rams, as our old boys will be running out of steam before very long. I’ve included a couple of pictures here, one (slightly fuzzy, I’m afraid) of the first lambs, the other of the ‘scamper pen’ where we confine the newly born ewes and lambs, after they’ve been released from their individual lambing pens. They spend a few days in the scamper pen, before being given access to both the barn and the yard and meadow. The idea is that ewes get to identify, and bond with, their own lambs, in a controlled crowd.

First lambs

Scamper pen

Apart from the run-up to lambing, my blog silence can be explained by an approaching deadline (March 31st) for my latest book for Penguin. Like my Stonehenge book for Head of Zeus, which I’m glad to say is still selling well, it’s a bit shorter than normal, but will be highly illustrated. Sadly, I’m sworn to silence for the time being, but will be able to tell you about it shortly. But if finishing a book wasn’t enough, I’ve been plagued by irritating, minor health problems, which have seen me through the doors of Kings Lynn Hospital more often than I would like. I’ve had skin cancer checks (all clear!) and now I’m doing exercises three times daily to combat a stiff hip (probably caused by ‘wear and tear’). I had a prostate MRI scan almost four weeks ago, which I don’t think revealed cancer, or else I’d have been told by now. So that’s potentially good news. I love it when I get ‘All Clears’.

And that brings me, very sadly, to the main news that my good friend and colleague, Dr. Geoff Wainwright died, of prostate cancer, on March 6th.

Dr. Geoff Wainwright (1937-2017)

Dr. Geoff Wainwright (1937-2017)

Geoff was Chief Archaeologist at English Heritage (now Historic England) for most of my active digging career and it was directly down to his support that we discovered Flag Fen. He also supported the earlier long-term landscape projects at Fengate and Maxey/Etton, in the Welland Valley, just north of Peterborough (but also on the edges of the Fens). Geoff was a pioneer of open-area excavation, where huge tracts of landscape were stripped of topsoil, to reveal entire settlements and field systems beneath. I think that’s why he enjoyed our projects, which often covered many acres. And then Flag Fen happened, and suddenly we had to make the switch from open areas to small trenches, where much of the digging was done with trowels and dental picks, rather than shovels and mattocks. I know he was impressed at the way our small team made the rapid change (a process that was made simpler by the digital recording he had encouraged earlier). He also liked the fact that we opened our digs to the public, as he was always very aware that archaeology would soon die, if it didn’t maintain a good high profile. It sounds like we never disagreed over anything, which certainly wasn’t true. Geoff had very clear opinions, as did I, and we did fall out from time to time. Sometimes he was right; sometimes it was me. But he never held grudges, and even if we had had a big show-down earlier, he would always finish the day with us in the local pub – Geoff loved his beer. I later discovered, when I visited him and his wife in retirement in their much loved house in Pembrokeshire, that we had another interest in common: vegetable gardening. He will be sorely missed.

Meanwhile, and back in the Fens, I’m now doing physiotherapy exercises three times a day to try and get on top of a sore hip, which has slowed me down so much this winter. I’d started to develop an old man’s stiff walk, and although I’m now 72, I think that walk was more appropriate to 92, so I intend to fight it – with help from the wonderful physios at Wisbech NHS Hospital. Right now, and after 6 weeks of exercises, I’m definitely starting to feel a bit more frisky. But make no mistake, you have to work at these things…

As I began to say earlier, out in the garden it has been a very strange late winter and I reckon we’re now about three weeks behind average. Hawthorn hedges are just coming into leaf, and the first cowslips are starting to poke their flower heads through the grass, in the orchard and meadow. Normally, by now we would have cut at least two meals-worth of asparagus, but not this year: I haven’t yet managed to detect a single shoot. Meanwhile, we’re frantically busy trying to get the border cut-back, now that it’s just dry enough to stand off the mown areas. Maisie is out there for hours on end, desperately pruning roses. But we’ll get there! Now I must go out and check the sheep. I’ll try to write the next blog post a bit more promptly. Sorry about the delay. Blame publishers and deadlines, but please not the sheep. Baa, baa…

P.S. Good news for all my loyal and patient subscribers to The Way, The Truth and The Dead: the folks at Unbound have told me the manuscript went off to the printers yesterday (March 29th). So we’re on our way! You should all get your copies in May.

P.P.S. I recently saw proof copies of the end-papers of the hardback (subscribers’) copies: they’re very droll, and slightly evil. Made me smile.

Posted in Uncategorized

The Camera That Hibernated for Over Two Years

Anyone reading my last blog post must think me the unluckiest person alive. But what I have to report today is far more worrying, because I have recently discovered incontrovertible evidence that inanimate objects can come to life – and if that isn’t a miracle, I don’t know what is. The story begins back in the early summer of 2014. I was about to take part in my last television documentary, a film about the life and death of a Copper Age man, whose frozen body was found high in the Tyrolean Alps on the Italian/Austrian borders. He is known throughout Europe as Otzi, the Iceman.

Come to think of it, the story actually starts two years earlier, when Time Team was making Series 20, and I was told we were to film an episode about 16th and 17th Century copper mines, near Coniston, in the Lake District of Cumbria. As readers may have gathered I was never somebody who used to read Health and Safety information at all closely, but even I couldn’t fail to realise that excavating old mines in mountains would require heavy-duty footwear. So I went along to an outdoors shop (and by that I mean a place that sold stuff for outdoors, rather than one that was roofless) and bought myself some stout boots with good, grippy soles. They seemed very light and strong and I suppose I ought to have tried them on more thoroughly first, but it was getting late, I was famished and Maisie had bought fresh crab in the market. Need I say more?

When we got home, I put the boots straight into the special bag I took with me on Time Team shoots. Incidentally, I discovered long ago that all regular members of TT had a TT bag that lived, ready packed, in a convenient corner of the bedroom. Then, a week or two later I went to the Coniston mines. Everything went well – very well – until about two in the afternoon, when I noticed that my toes were starting to feel rather constricted. By the tea break, my boots felt like clamps. I removed my socks and loosened the laces and that was a little bit better, although I’m still not certain whether the relief was actually caused by the near-freezing waters that flowed around the floors of the abandoned mines. To this day I can’t remember how I managed to survive for two more days’ filming in those boots. But I did – I was tough, back then.

Now fast forward to August 2014 and picture the scene: I am packing my bag for four days in the Tyrol. It was all going quite well, then something unfortunate happened: Maisie suddenly remembered those damn boots. She looked very pleased. She obviously thought I’d forgotten all about them.

‘I’ll go down and get them, shall I?’ she asked brightly. ‘It would be a shame not to wear them, as they weren’t particularly cheap.’

Of course I knew she was right: they were quite pricey. And she’d paid for them, as I’d also forgotten to bring my wallet and my Visa debit card, so she had had to use hers.

‘Oh yes,’ I said brightly, ‘Well remembered. I’ll put them in the bag in the morning.’

That way, I could hide them somewhere and then slip them into the charity box in the village hall car park, when I returned from filming. But she was having none of that:

‘No, don’t be silly, you know what we’ll be like tomorrow morning. There’s bound to be a panic and you’ll forget them. No, go downstairs and pack them now.’

What could I say? I smiled bravely and brought them upstairs. To my surprise they weren’t coated in blood.

Happily for me, the actual shoes I wore for travelling were fairly heavy-duty and I was able to wear them for the three days of filming. So all was well. It had been a couple of years since I did my last Time Team and the industry had changed a great deal: the big shoulder-mounted cameras were replaced by jumped-up SLRs that looked no bigger than my Nikons at home. The cameraman was also the lighting man and the sound recordist – and the driver of the car. We started filming early in the morning and didn’t stop until the light began to fail. Meal breaks were short and sharp. Having said that, the crew were great and there was a nice, relaxed atmosphere. But it certainly wasn’t Time Team. Sadly, those days were well and truly over.

I didn’t take one of my clunky digital SLRs, as I reckoned, correctly, they’d put me over the airline luggage weight-limit. So I carried a small, tough and lightweight Olympus camera I’d bought a year previously. It was an excellent camera and I had become very fond of it. So I took lots of pictures in those rare moments when we weren’t filming.

On the last day of the shoot, the Director treated us to a splendid evening meal in a very good restaurant, and I have to confess I drank rather more local wine than was good for me. The next day I was catching a morning flight from Milan and it was quite a long drive to the airport, so I had to get up, shower and have breakfast, with a thick-ish head. In fact, I remember having flashbacks to my days as a naughty student, as I fought off occasional waves of nausea. After a couple of Alka-Seltzers I began to feel a bit better and I was able to grab a bite to eat – and we set off for the airport. At the airport, however, disaster struck.

I had a firm memory of having put my camera in my knapsack, but when I removed it from the tray that had just passed through the baggage X-ray machine, lo and behold: the camera had vanished! Suddenly I saw the friendly, rather garrulous Italian security men, and women, who were standing all around us passengers, in a harsh new light. Their ‘friendliness’ was all just an act to get me to lower my guard and relax my natural vigilance. Somehow, and with devilish Continental cunning, they were able to pilfer the X-ray chamber, doubtless with extra-heavy lead-lined gauntlets. For a brief moment, I could see what the Brexiteers were on about. I felt let down, sad and depressed, because I knew the memory card in the stolen camera held some great pictures.

On my return from Italy, I used one of two photos I’d taken with my then new iPad to illustrate an Alpine scene for the blog post I wrote on August 19th. I’d hoped to have offered my readers a wealth of stunning views, but those Italian security guards had put an end to that. In fact, I couldn’t bring myself to write anything more about that trip until the following May (2015) and if you’ve read it, you’ll have noticed it wasn’t illustrated at all. But now my story takes a very unusual turn.

This winter we decided it was time to have a big clear-out, because some rooms, especially my office, were close to becoming no-go areas, such were the vast accumulations of unsorted clutter and unread journals. I can’t remember the last time I managed to run a vacuum cleaner across my office floor. The place was a tip. In amongst a pile of old shoes in a rack near the door I came across those boots I’d worn in the Cumbrian mines. They looked in good nick, and I decided to do what I should have done when I returned from Italy: put them in the Salvation Army recycling box in the village hall car park. So I picked them up to dust them off, but one boot felt distinctly heavier than the other. Gingerly, as I didn’t want a finger removed by a lurking Italian Tarantula, I reached inside. Whatever it was, had nestled right into the toe of the boot, as if seeking refuge. I expected to pull out a nest of mice, or a dead rat, maybe pickled like Otzi. But no, it was my Olympus camera! I was exultant. Delighted. But also puzzled: how had it hidden itself away there? Doubtless it had been trying to escape the greedy clutches of the Italian security guards, because the only other explanation, that I’d stuffed it into the boot when half-pissed after the end-of-shoot dinner, is too ludicrous even to contemplate.

So here are a few Tyrolean views, rescued from my camera’s memory card. They make a refreshing change from the diet of flat Fen landscapes that normally adorn, if that’s the right word, the pages of this blog. Oh, and I’ve absolutely no idea what they show, but I can vouch for them being genuine. Or at least I think I can. Given my current confused state of mind, I sometimes wonder whether Otzi might not have snapped them.







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Thwarted at Every Turn

As an atheist of long-standing, there are times when I have to concede that those religious chappies might just possibly have a point. Then that idiot Trump makes another barmy evangelical utterance and I’m reaffirmed – a thousand-fold – in my non-beliefs. Even so, and despite my rationality, there are times when I think there must be Someone Up There who has it in for me. I had one of those days yesterday, Sunday January 29th, 2017.

It had been a lovely morning. We had slept in after getting home rather later than normal following a wonderful wedding service the previous day (in Ely Cathedral) and a splendid celebration afterwards, in a 16th Century Norfolk timber barn. The Cathedral is arguably the most beautiful building in Britain and sun was streaming down into the Choir. It was breath-taking. The bridegroom, our neighbour, had provided the beef from his own herd, and it was superlative! The entire meal was delicious. The ceremony in the Cathedral had been fabulous and it was great to see so many rural people having such a relaxed and good time. We both felt really at home.

As I said, the following morning was sunny. Lovely. We got on with clearing-up-after-winter-type jobs in the garden. Then, just after one o’clock, it started to rain lightly and we decided to break early for lunch. So far so good. No hints of menace on the horizon: just darker clouds and slightly heavier rain. But that was entirely normal for late January.

‘So what shall we do this afternoon?’ I asked Maisie brightly, when we had finished eating.

‘I know,’ she replied, and as she spoke I could see she was growing more enthusiastic: ‘Let’s nip over to Crowland, you can get your sand and we can then look for a couple of seed-feeders.’

I had been planning to lay some paving-slabs, but couldn’t get started without sand and Pen (our adorable black Border Collie x Labrador) had used two of last year’s seed-feeders from the bird-table, to hone her chewing skills. So this seemed an excellent plan.

‘Oh yes,’ Maisie added, her brain now firmly in gardener mode, ‘And we can then nip up to Bourne and see if the garden centre there has any nice wire obelisks. We need three for the main border.’

There was much to do, so we decided not to have any tea, and got straight into the car. Looking back. I wonder whether that was the moment when we offended the Great British Tea Gods? To skip a cup of tea: in England? On Sunday? I know, it didn’t seem quite right. But we went ahead, anyhow – regardless. Were we being foolhardy? As we walked out of the back door, I began to sense something was going wrong. When we drove down the drive, I started to have feelings of foreboding. But I said nothing. What’s the point? Nothing had happened.


At Crowland, the garden centre was almost deserted, which wasn’t surprising, given the gloomy, wet afternoon. So we decided to have a cup of coffee. I know it wasn’t tea, but it might have warded off the evil presences that I, at least, could detect. Later, Maisie told me she had begun to sense them too.

We had a good look around. They had some obelisks, but they weren’t quite what we wanted. Or were they? We dithered. Were there three? Yes, came the reply, there were two more in the shop over there. More dithering. In the end we decided not to get them, as they weren’t precisely what we were looking-for. But we did get two bird-feeders, which was something. Sadly, we forgot the sand.

Navigating in the Fens is never simple – and it’s vastly more difficult with a sat-nav (which I refuse to buy, on principle). The main problem is getting from A to B, without being diverted by large drains and rivers. You can be within sight, almost touching distance, of your destination, only to find a river’s in the way and there’s no bridge for five miles. So we decided to head towards Bourne, via Spalding. And all was going well until we found that the patent little road (that only we know about) was being completely rebuilt, from the foundations up. It was absolutely closed. To Hell with that, we thought, we’ll go to Baytree. We’ve been going to Baytree for at least forty years. It’s a vast nursery and garden centre on the other side of Spalding.

So we headed across the narrow bridge and out into the fen that skirts the town. We arrived at the main road and turned right, only to discover that that road, too, was closed. So we turned around and retraced our steps, turning left this time. Maisie thought she knew how this road passed through the vast new housing estate. But she was wrong. Every turning we took was residential and dead-end. Eventually we extricated ourselves and got back, once again, to the main road. This time we went straight ahead, back out into the fen. The road was now skirting the new estates. On and on we went, as the afternoon light faded away, and darkness descended.

About half an hour – it could have been two hours for all I cared by now – we arrived at Baytree, to discover the entrance to the car park closed off. They had shut at four: ten minutes previously. By now we were ready to weep: we’d driven the best part of fifty miles for two bird-feeders!

‘Sod it!’ I declared, ‘That does it. We’re having large gin-and-tonics when we get home, whatever the bloody time.’

We normally try not to start drinking before six, but I could see from Maisie’s face she agreed with me. Sod it.

I had pulled up in the roadway. So I had to do a U-turn. I eased the car backwards, then swung forwards at full lock. We both needed to get home for that drink. Then suddenly the steering wheel felt strange. It had happened to me before. I knew immediately what had gone wrong: total power-steering failure.

In the end we did get back, albeit very slowly, and by the time we had watered the sheep, put the chickens to roost, and fed the cats and dog, it had gone six when we poured out our G and Ts. And then it came to me. Perhaps I’d got it all wrong? Maybe it was never anything to do with the Gods of Tea? The failure of the power steering was just the final act of a different, but benevolent deity who didn’t want us to start drinking alcohol too early. Was I being allowed a glimpse into the medieval conscience? And did I care?

Oh to hell with everything: religion, Trump and Brexit. I’ll put my faith in GIN!!!

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