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.

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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.







Posted in Broadcasting, My life, Time Team, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , ,

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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My York Hon Doc (January 21st)

When I was young and had left home for a day, or even longer, my mother would enthusiastically ask me for a full account of what I had done. Her first question was almost invariably:

“So you got on the train…??”

Being a slightly bolshie teenager I was always determined to thwart her thirst for knowledge with a polite, but firm, put-down. Then her wide-eyed enthusiasm would always be too much for me, and I invariably ended-up by giving her a full account – albeit omitting my worst excesses of drink, and inept attempts to attract girlfriends.

So to answer my mother’s question: we got onto a very crowded train at March station, and by chance bumped into our old friend, Jeremy Purseglove, who was also heading north to York. Some may remember Jeremy’s documentary series on BBC-2, Taming the Flood, and the excellent book (published 1988), which inspired it. Well, he has written a much-revised second edition, which I can heartily recommend. It’s already on our shelves. Most of Jeremy’s predictions about flooding have been proved to be only too real, and at last planners and developers are starting to realise that paved-over front gardens and huge car parks lead to rapid drainage and a greater flood-risk. Farmers are now being urged to encourage streams to flow more slowly through wet areas. Better forty years too late than never, I suppose. Jeremy was also very gloomy about the prospects for the landscape after Brexit. And I have to agree with him, although I have been trying not to think about it. Trump is more than enough gloom and despondency than I can cope with for now. Brexit and Trump. Trump and Brexit: reactionary populism for dim-wits. I thought Jeremy remained remarkably cheerful as we discussed a probable future of factory-farming and abandoned conservation schemes. We arrived at York Station in high spirits.

The University looked after Maisie and me handsomely. We were met by Richard, the University’s driver, in a large, smart Mercedes-Benz and were whisked to our hotel, the Hotel du Vin, where we were staying, along with the other Hon Doc graduates and their partners. I don’t think I’ve ever stayed in a hotel before that was so full of Dames and Professors.

To my complete and utter amazement, I remembered how to knot my black tie and got it right, first attempt!!!! Then it was time for all of us to be chauffeur-driven, this time in a swanky Mercedes mini-bus, to the university campus for a wonderful dinner. The food and wine were superb – as was the service. We had a great time.

The following morning, I put on my suit, the one I used to wear twenty years ago, on my only trips down the corridors of power, when I served on the Ancient Monuments Advisory Committee for English Heritage. I remember once sitting opposite Virginia Bottomley in First Class. She was with two Civil Servants and was deeply enmeshed in Cabinet Papers. I wanted to introduce myself, as she was then the Minister in charge of National Heritage, but I didn’t have the guts to push myself forward. And anyhow, I’m not sure what I’d have said, except that I knew her husband Peter quite well at Cambridge and that, perhaps predictably, and behind his back, the non-Tories among us sometimes called him Bumley. In actual fact, he was, and is, a very nice chap, without the vast ego of some politicians. He also has an excellent mind, which should come in useful in the near future. But I digress.

We slept quite well, because before we left for the dinner, Maisie had discovered the room’s thermostat and had turned the heating a few notches below what it would have taken to bake a potato. The following morning, and after an excellent Full English at the hotel, we arrived back at the university. The other Hon Docs had received their degrees at ceremonies on the previous day and earlier that morning. So ours was the last session of the January degree conferrals. My co-Hon Doc was Annamarie Phelps CBE, the distinguished oarswoman and Chairman of English Rowing. I felt a bit lumpy and scruffy alongside her statuesque figure.

Now, and as a matter of very minor interest, I very rarely write out any speech or talk in full, because there’s then a danger I might just read it out, verbatim – which can be disastrous as it rules out any spontaneous responses to the audience. On this occasion I had been asked to keep my talk quite short – no more than three minutes – and I knew it had to be uplifting and congratulatory. So I decided to start on an anthropological note (was that wise, I still ask myself?), with a short mention of Rites of Passage. I named five of them: Birth, Marriage, Graduation, Retirement and finally, Death. I pointed out, and of course in hindsight it seems blindingly obvious, that the students seated before me in their smart gowns were going through the third one, Graduation. I could see from their faces lined up before me, that they agreed with me, but were not quite sure why I was telling them. Then as an afterthought to cover my slight confusion, which I immediately regretted, I suggested that I was now looking forward to Number Five: Death. To my huge relief, and complete surprise, that got a huge laugh! From then on, the speech was straightforward and seemed to go down quite well.

I’ll close with two pictures taken by my old friend, the Director of the CBA (Council for British Archaeology), Dr. Mike Heyworth, who was sitting near the front of the auditorium. I think they capture the atmosphere of the occasion splendidly. The first, is a general view of the audience, with the graduates-to-be sitting in a block at the centre. The second, is of yours truly holding forth from the podium. I’m so relieved Mike didn’t have a video camera with him!



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January 2017: Hit the Ground Running – or Swimming!

I’m aware that as one gets older, time is meant to pass faster, but so far January has been ludicrous. It’s passed in a couple of blinks. And I know it’s still passing, but I seem to be missing it. First there was Christmas, which was delightful and was made even more cheery by my sister Caroline, who was with us for four days. We laughed and supped a lot. Great fun! Then the New Year was upon us and so was Colin our magically quick and competent local painter and decorator, who painted the entire hall and upstairs landing, two coats, in just two days. No sooner had he gone, than a team of tree/hedge surgeons from Farm Linc arrived to cut-back the encroaching woodland along the dyke. It’s been just over 20 years since we planted the main wood and both cherry and blackthorn suckers were starting to seriously encroach on the grazing. Now that they’ve been tidied-up, I reckon we’ll cut at least another two large bales of hay there every season. Incidentally, if you live in or near Lincolnshire and need fencing and other jobs done, I can wholeheartedly recommend Farm Linc. They’re excellent people: fast, efficient and very good value for money.

The hedging crew finished on Friday the 13th, traditionally not the luckiest of dates, which this year just happened to be my 72nd birthday. I’m sure the Devil must be after me. So I’ve walked under as many ladders as I could find, sprinkled salt around the floor, crossed table knives, cracked mirrors, opened umbrellas indoors and stacked shoes on the table. That should put him off. Maybe we should cut a turf maze in our garden, like the extraordinary one in the Huntingdonshire (now, sadly, Cambridgeshire) village of Hilton, which was cut in 1660. The idea was that if you were being followed by the Devil you could carefully trace your path to the centre of the maze, with him following you. Then, when you’d arrived at the centre, you made a HUGE leap back to where you’d started – leaving nasty Mr Devil behind you, unable to find his way out. That at least was the theory, but it would have taken an Olympic athlete – even a doped-up Russian one – to have got half-way across, from a standing start. And anyhow, I don’t think the Devil was particularly stupid – even if he did resemble Mr Trump. Incidentally, I think Andy Hamilton got him (the Devil, that is, not the other man) to a T on that wonderful Radio 4 series, Old Harry’s Game. Now I think I’m starting to digress, which is not the right way to begin the first of my blogs for 2017. So back to the unfolding narrative, such as it is.

There was another, rather more real, blot on the horizon of Friday the 13th. The TV and radio News had been full of dire warnings about an expected tidal surge down the east coast, which would be amplified by strong northerly gales. It was expected to hit Sutton Bridge, about five miles away from us, in the early morning. Luckily, however, the winds had dropped, so there was no damage reported. Maybe we were completely foolhardy, but Maisie and I then decided to keep our lunchtime appointment at The Olive Branch in Clipsham. The village is architecturally very fine, with beautiful 18th Century stone buildings. If you didn’t know you were in Rutland, you might think you’d stumbled across an outcrop of the Cotswolds, except that property prices were half as expensive. But we didn’t go there for picturesque houses: the food at the Olive Branch is, as they say, to die for. So just like 2016 we celebrated my birthday in fine style. Another fabulous meal!

On our way home, the news about the later high tide at Sutton Bridge wasn’t so good. And then we checked the Flood Information Service on the web: if the coastal defences were breached, our farm would be about 3-4 miles away from the inundation. But it was a very worrying time, as in a flat landscape distances don’t mean much – and water can flow fast along dykes. So as a precaution in case I had to drive, or swim with my exhausted wife slung across my back, I decided not to start on the sherry until 7.30 when the most severe risk had abated. That was a British compromise, very much in the tradition of Keep Calm and Carry On. I will confess, however, that my first sherry was a generous tumbler-full. Cheers! I hope you all have a happy, prosperous and worry-free New Year.

PS On second thoughts, Maisie is probably more at home in water than I am. So I could have had a drink, as she’d have been carrying me. Dammit!

PPS Oooo, I forgot to mention that next weekend I’ve got to get really tarted-up – black tie and lounge suite (although not, of course, at the same time, dear boy!) – for a prestigious award. To be honest, I’d be better-off wearing brown than black trousers, given my present state of nerves. I’ll try to persuade Maisie to take some nice, relaxed pics of it all. Then we can be gracious and matter-of-fact about the entire pant-wetting procedure. So stay tuned!

PPPS For her many fans, I’ve decided to post two pictures of Pen: one of her looking noble, the other when she was in the grips of a Wallace and Gromit moment.



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The Last Post – of 2016

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

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

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


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

Dog-in-a-Doublet Sluice

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

Nene Washes

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

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

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

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