Beds as Pictures

Before you jump to the wrong conclusion: no, this won’t be a blog post about Tracy Emin’s early work. In fact it won’t be about any of her work, because the beds are garden beds, but this time I want to think about them as elements of composition. And if that sounds a little bit pompous and posey, I’m sorry, but gardening is ultimately about creating impressions and sensations – and in that respect it’s an Art, with a capital ‘A’. Indeed I’d go further: traditionally artists have worked in two, or if they’re sculptors, three dimensions. But gardeners have also to deal with the added complexities of scent and weather. Time, too, is another dimension that often gets overlooked: part of the genius of men like Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton was the way they could foresee the way their created landscapes would appear in a hundred years’ time. I’ll never forget seeing an avenue of saplings – they were limes I think – that had been planted at Wimpole Hall, outside Cambridge, to replace elms killed by Dutch Elm Disease. They looked puny and frankly ridiculous, as those trademark clumps of trees must once have done, that today grace the middle distance, often beyond a picturesque lake, complete with bridge, in so many Brown and Repton country house parks. It’s no wonder that Repton gave clients his famous Red Books. I think I’d have needed something similar if I’d just spent a fortune on what must have looked like a devastated scene.

Now much as we’d like to work on a big scale, ours is a much smaller problem, albeit massive by modern urban standards: our wood, orchard, hay meadow and garden together probably occupy about 15 acres, at the very most. But now I want to examine the basic unit for most practical gardeners: the flower bed. Some are formal, others informal or informal-verging-on-the-chaotic. Some include ground cover; some have clear ‘islands’ of particular plants or flowers, while in others the plants blend or even fight among themselves. And then of course there are the trees and shrubs that rise above or beyond the beds. These are essential, as they give the bed its distinctive light, shade and shelter. They also determine the sort of plants that can be used around them: the shed needles (leaves) of pines, for example, tend to acidify the soil. And that’s another reason why we tend not to be very tidy gardeners: we don’t religiously sweep everything up, because sometimes it’s good to have acid patches if you want to grow lime-hating bulbs, for example. Tidy gardens are also very unfriendly to wildlife, so we tend not to cut our border perennials back in the autumn. We’d rather the birds had their seed-heads to keep them going over winter – even if that does mean a few more seedlings to weed-out the following spring. Remember: a ‘weed’ is just a plant in the wrong place.

So for this blog post, I took my camera around the garden with bed composition in mind – and came up with a few thoughts.

Veg garden

I suppose the most rigidly formal beds in our garden are in my vegetable garden (I say ‘my’ because I mostly work there; Maisie’s bed is the long border, where she can usually be found bent double over a geranium or three). I took this photo shortly after hoeing-off the late spring weeds. Note the high hornbeam hedge, which protects the garden against north-easterly winds. As this garden produces food, I don’t use weed-killers, or indeed slug pellets which kill the hedgehogs that feed on the slugs. There’s not much to say about it, other than the onions are doing well. I’m aware the micro-mesh ‘fleece’ isn’t very slightly, but then it prevents cabbage white butterflies from laying their eggs on next season’s brassicas. So that’s too bad. And anyhow, I think there’s a big difference between business-like and ugly. Some contrived mixed flower and veg gardens are neither one thing nor the other. I want my veg garden to produce good, tasty food. And lots of it. So yes, it is formal and quite disciplined, but that makes it easier for me to water, feed, weed and harvest.

Long Walk

This is a view along one of the paths in our rose garden. Now our rose garden is what you might call a ‘mixed’ rose garden. Yes, there are roses, but we both firmly believe that roses look rather sterile on their own, so we like to plant around them. They also don’t flower all year. So in this view the roses have yet to come into flower and the stage is taken-over by the wet-loving Iris pallida Dalmatica. The small splash of red at the end of the walk are oriental poppies. The tree on the left is an unusual cut-leaved form of the native British alder, Alnus glutinosa (which we bought at the superb Scottish botanic garden at Dawyck – a name that finds its way into my crime thriller, The Lifers’ Club). But note the space between the plants. Here I think the bare soil, although a pain to keep weed-free, is making a statement. It enhances the irises and adds to the formality of the set-piece.

Path in rose garden

This path, which bounds the rose garden to the north-east, continues the somewhat formal theme of the first picture, but we’re now moving into less formal territory. Yes, the beds and path have straight, cut edges, but the planting is becoming less regimented: seedlings, for example, are not always weeded-out. Here the tree-cover is provided by the Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) and in the distance is a hornbeam hedge (our land is too wet for beech). The areas of bare earth between plants are smaller, and most will get grown-over as the summer advances. This bed features narcissi, followed by hemerocallis, and (for later in the year) fuchsias. The white flowered shrub is Viburnum opulus compactum. And that’s another thing about effective bed-management: this should change with the seasons. I always get rather fed-up when I visit great country gardens and discover that a particular garden is, say, for late springtime hyacinths – only. For my money, that’s a cop-out.

Strawberry ground cover

Not all beds can be carefully structured. Sometimes the location, in this case it’s very damp and shady, is challenging; in other cases a bed might still be in its infancy. In this particular instance, both apply. The bed is close to our small summer house, the Tea Shed  (which I described in an earlier blog post), which sits on the edge of the wood, not far from the meadow. As a result, weed seeds blow in constantly. So we needed a rapidly spreading ground-cover. We happened to have a few plants of the pinkish-red flowering strawberry, Fragaria chiloensis, whose small fruits are rare, but not unpleasant if dropped into a glass of white wine. It flowers from spring right through to later autumn, so is excellent value, but it hadn’t spread much where we had it, which was too dry. So I took a chance and moved half a dozen plants to the new bed. That was in the autumn of 2012. By the same time next year the bed was a quarter covered. By the end of 2014 only ten percent remained bare earth. And as you can see, now we have total cover – which is convenient if we happen to be enjoying a glass of something cool and refreshing in the Tea Shed.

Back door path

But there is a time and a place for contrast. We both dislike over-controlled gardens – you know, the sort of places where they knot the daffodil leaves tidily, as soon as they’ve finished flowering. Maisie has a wonderful eye for colour and we’re constantly looking for new effects. Self-seeded plants can form wonderfully unexpected associations – again something one rather misses in so many of the large country house gardens run by the great national bodies (I shall mention no names), where everything has to be planned. And of course spontaneity – and yes, horticultural humour – suffer. Anyhow, this picture shows the path to our back door. It’s a scene of barely controlled anarchy. An overgrown box hedge is being clipped by our neighbour into a Loch Ness monster, with ears. The second asparagus bed forms a backdrop to the planting, which at this time of year consists of oriental and opium poppies, plus various geraniums. I’m delighted to say that while horticultural snobs might turn up their noses, this bed is very popular with drivers delivering things to the farm. I love it, too, because no two years are ever the same.

Posted in Gardening

An Extract from The Way, The Truth and The Dead

Several people have asked me if I could give them a flavour of Alan Cadbury’s filming scenes in his new adventure, The Way, The Truth and The Dead. Now obviously I don’t want to give away the plot, but here’s an extract which describes the film crew arriving on site and the start of the very first sequence. At this stage Alan’s dig was being filmed and recorded, to be edited into a documentary later. The actual ‘live’ programmes were to happen subsequently (which is often what happens in the real world). Frank Jones is the film’s Director; Davey is the digger driver. So here’s the extract:

Alan drove the Daihatsu onto the old pig yard and drew up. When he turned off the headlights he could see that far away on the south-eastern horizon the sky was just starting to lighten up. He peered out of the window. Not too bad. Light cloud cover, a slight breeze. The farmers’ forecast had said the next three days would be dry, with just the occasional shower along the east coast. Ely was well inland, so they should be OK.

He got out, walked round to the back, opened the big single door and took out his steel-toecap rigger boots. Then he sat on the edge and started to pull them on. As he was finishing, his eye was caught by three sets of headlights turning into the drive from off the Ely-March road. That must be the crew. He reached into the back and dragged out a large and very dirty hi-viz topcoat which he struggled into. It always felt cold – he much preferred good old-fashioned donkey jackets, but they’d long gone. He returned to the front and reached onto the sill, where he kept his trowel. Instinctively he thumbed it clean. Nothing worse than a dirty trowel.

By now the three vehicles had drawn up alongside him. Two VW vans and a very clean Citroen hire-car. The car was closest and both passenger’s side windows wound down as it drew alongside him. Through the half-light Alan could discern two faces. In the front was a woman in her mid-forties; in the back a younger girl. The lady in the front was the first to speak:

‘You must be Alan Cadbury?’

Alan nodded and stepped closer.

‘I’m Sonia Hawkes, the Production Manager. I always like to visit any major new locations, so I know what I’m dealing with. Offices and screens can be so impersonal. Normally we’d send an AP.’ Then she turned towards the back seat, ‘And this is Trudy Hills our PA on this shoot.’

It had been several months since Alan had last filmed and for a moment he couldn’t remember the difference between an AP and a PA. Then Trudy stepped out of the car and he could see she was very young; barely out of school. Probably on work experience. But she proved him wrong:

‘This is my second shoot, Alan, so you must be patient with me.’

Alan couldn’t think of anything to say that didn’t sound hopelessly patronising. So he smiled benignly. Then the driver’s side door opened and Frank Jones stood up. He gave a huge stretch, his arms straight out and yawned widely.

‘Ah, that’s much better. Morning young man. I trust you’re feeling alert. Lively and well-informed. We’ve got to get this film off to a good start you know.’

Alan could see these words were just a long way of saying hello and good morning. Frank opened the boot and hunted around for his wellies. Alan had to ask, if only to break the silence:

‘Sonia Hawkes. She was a very famous Anglo-Saxon archaeologist. Married to Christopher Hawkes. They related at all?’

She shook her head, but got no chance to reply, as Frank had jumped in:

‘Great minds think alike, Alan. That’s the first thing I asked her when Lew introduced us last week. But we’re both wrong.’

By now Trudy had her wellies and coat on.

‘Alan, be a treasure and show young Trudy here where you keep the tea-making stuff. I think we’re all desperate for a cuppa.’

Trudy produced two large bags from the boot. Alan took one and escorted her around the perimeter duck-board walk, past the Reed Barn, to his Portakabin office, where he had a small fridge and an electric kettle. He told Trudy, who was looking rather anxiously at the tiny shelf, that over the weekend contractors would be delivering two more Portakabins for the dig, and one would have a larger sink and more power points. Meanwhile they would just have to make do. Some people are never grateful.

As he walked back, this time taking the direct route across the disturbed surface left by the removal of the cellular paving grid, he was in time to see Davey’s van arrive. By now the two other members of the film crew had got out of their vans and were preparing their equipment. Speed was frowning as he wrestled with the settings of the HD camera he had had to hire for the shoot. He hated hired cameras; they were never set-up right. His sound recordists and long-time side-kick was Dave Edwards, known to everyone in the business as ‘Grump’. In fact Grump and Speed had become something of a legend, a few younger people even referring to them as ‘G and S’. When Alan had heard this he assumed it was a pun on Gilbert and Sullivan. But it wasn’t.

Alan stood by his Fourtrak and watched. He liked to see how directors handled their subjects and crews; it told you so much about them. He’d seen Frank having a few words with Speed as he was walking back from his Portakabin, but now he was nowhere to be seen. That was odd. Then he noticed that Speed had stopped fiddling with his camera’s settings and was filming, while sitting on the tailboard of his van. His camera was pointing at Davey who was pulling on his boots. He continued to film as Davey extracted two heavy Jerri cans of diesel from the back of the van and carried them the few paces to his digger. He was still turning over as Davey collected a third can, plus a large yellow plastic funnel and began to fill-up. He only stopped when Frank, who had appeared from nowhere, tapped him lightly on the shoulder. Alan was very surprised. This was the first time he’d worked on a shoot where the subject didn’t know he was being filmed. He decided to have a word with Frank, as he was blowed if anyone was going to treat him like that; but then he paused. Would that be entirely wise? No, he reminded himself, he was here for the long-haul. Best put up with it for now.



I do hope you enjoyed that. If you did, then it would be great if you could subscribe – and why not persuade a friend to do so too!

Here’s the link that’ll take you to Unbound, who are publishing the book:

The Way, the Truth and the Dead

Posted in books | Tagged ,

Help! The Second Crime Book Needs a Boost…

It would be tempting to blame Alan Cadbury for not promoting his own adventures, but I knew he wouldn’t lift a finger to help when I began writing the series some three or four years ago. Apart from anything else, he said so quite clearly and with – how can I put it? – strong emphasis. So I can’t really blame him. And besides, he’s always away in the field excavating sites or discovering dead bodies – or sometimes both.

The fact is, the campaign to fund Alan’s second adventure, The Way, The Truth and The Dead seems to have hit the buffers. We got off to a cracking start, far, far faster than the Lifers’ Club’s rather hesitant beginning. And subsequent progress was very rapid, too. We were also hugely helped by the good reviews and enthusiastic response to his first adventure and I couldn’t help noticing that many of the early subscribers to what I call AC2 (Lifers is AC1), had also subscribed to Lifers. Then things started to slow down around 45% and we positively creaked across the half-way point. So I did a second emailing to all my (long-suffering) contacts and that gave things a bit of a lift – up to about 55%. We’re now at 57%, some six weeks after reaching 50% – and if anything, we’re slowing down further. Help!

The trouble is, I’ve never been any good at taking professional advice, especially when it comes to marketing. I can remember when we were launching Flag Fen I was told never to release negative news and above all, never admit when you made a mistake. And I cheerfully ignored both. I worked on the principle that people are adults: they can take the rough with the smooth. And besides, life is about contrasts: light and shade, good and bad, rough and smooth. You can’t appreciate the one without the other. Indeed, the big problem with modern politics is that it’s just about light, smooth and good. Anything that might be construed as negative has been removed by the various Westminster spin-doctors, with the result that politicians are not seen as normal humans any more. I have to say I’ve found the new Scottish Nationalist MPs a welcome breath of honesty and fresh air. But I fear I digress.

Anyhow, when the numbers of new subscribers started to slow down, I took my eye off the ball. Two other things intervened as well. First it was lambing and then, from early April, weeds started to grow in carpets out in the garden. In normal circumstances those weeds would be a manageable problem, but this year has been one of the driest  springs on record (I recorded just 10mm of rain in the whole of April!) and our clay-silt soils have turned to concrete. We both knew that if we didn’t get on top of those weeds, years of work would be wasted. So thanks to the drought, weeding has taken twice as long. But now we’re through the worst of it and I think we’ll have avoided the wholesale seeding that happened last year – and gave us so many problems now.

So what am I saying? It’s simple, really. If you’ve already subscribed to AC2, please spread the word, especially to those who’d told you that they would join us, but haven’t yet got round to doing it. We’ve all been there, and I don’t think a gentle nudge would cause offence. Second, if you enjoyed Lifers Club, but haven’t yet subscribed to The Way, The Truth and The Dead, please do so soon. We, I, need your encouragement – and your name in the back! And here’s the link:

The Way, the Truth and the Dead

You can watch an interview with me about the book for the online journal The Doctrine Magazine:

And finally, I’ve been asked many times if I’m planning any more Alan Cadbury books. Well, despite our current problems, I am. The third book, in what I’m thinking of as a Fenland Trilogy, will be set at Flag Fen (Death Comes to Flag Fen?). In it, Alan will get to meet the man who discovered that remarkable site: and he’s every bit as extraordinary as the place he found. Although not in the first flush of youth, he’s a practising athlete, and can speak eight languages, six of them fluently. He is blessed with a thick shock of dark hair, which he makes no effort to control and which members of the opposite sex find irresistibly appealing. He has been a don at both Oxford and Cambridge, but now prefers to manage his large country house with its Capability Brown park in the Northamptonshire countryside. I think you’ll have to admit, it sounds almost too good to be true!

Posted in books, Gardening | Tagged , , ,

A Rainy Day in London Town

Last Thursday I attended a meeting – a brain-storming session, actually – of Unbound authors, in a room upstairs in the theatrical pub The Swan at Shakespeare’s Globe, on the south bank of the River Thames in Southwark. The last time I’d been there was back in, I think, 2001 when I was invited to an authors’ party at HarperCollins, shortly after I’d published my first book, Seahenge, with them. The great Sam Wanamaker’s reconstruction of the original Elizabethan theatre (which was demolished in 1644) had only opened two years previously, and it was by no means finished. One gets to meet the Great and the Good at such gatherings which is sometimes a pleasure. My first of several encounters with politicians was with Edwina Currie. Ms Currie had just ceased being a Conservative Member of Parliament, although we didn’t yet know about her affair with the former Prime Minister John Major. And for the benefit of my non-British and younger readers, I should point out that she was still rather notorious following a disastrous decision about salmonella and eggs when a junior health minister – and which led to her resignation. I shall say no more. Anyhow, she had become a novelist and had published books with some (so I’m told!) very fruity sex scenes. Again, I shall say no more.

So you can imagine Ms Currie’s surprise when somebody at HarperCollins introduced her to a scruffy archaeologist that nobody had heard of. The man from the publishers then vanished, leaving us alone. I don’t suppose it helped that I began our ‘conversation’ with the news that I kept three chickens. In retrospect, that was almost certainly a mistake. I’m not stupid – or at least I don’t think I am – so I tried to make matters better by mentioning that we also kept quails. Again, this was a big error. I could see she wasn’t enjoying our one-sided chat. So I studied her face for some clue as to what to do, but throughout our brief encounter she studiously avoided all eye-contact. Instead she looked past my shoulders (she was much shorter than me) for somebody more interesting to talk to. I even started to feel sorry for her. She was so DESPERATE to escape. Then something odd happened. Instead of feeling resentful, I began rather to enjoy her discomfort.

It was a strangely surreal moment. I felt I was observing our discourse from above. Next I discovered that I had begun to give her an account of recent theoretical developments in Bronze Age archaeology. I tried to enliven it as best I could, but as topics went it was on the dry side of stimulating, and very different from a bonk-buster. Anyhow, by now she was making absolutely no effort to conceal her anxiety-ridden stares past my shoulders. She had to talk to somebody – anybody – else. And I must admit, I didn’t help, either. If she was looking to my right, I’d gently move my body in that direction. Then she’d switch left and I’d react. But it was much, much better if I could anticipate her moves. That really was good fun! After about five minutes of this – which must have seemed like five hours to her, poor woman – you could almost cut her frustration with a knife. Then eventually some kind person came to rescue her.

Hey-ho. Happy days. But I digress.

I’m pleased to report that the Unbound authors’ meeting was a huge success and I’m sure there’ll be many more. I think I was the oldest person there by some years, yet I managed to score a big tech hit with the business card I’ve had printed for my second Alan Cadbury mystery, The Way, The Truth and The Dead. It features a QR code, the black-and-white square at the centre. QR stands for Quick Response and the codes were developed by clever tekkies in the Japanese automotive industry, or so Wikipedia tells me. Anyhow, you must download a (free) QR reader for your iPad or smartphone. One you’ve done that, you can point the camera at the QR square and you’ll be taken instantly to the bit of the Unbound website where you can have the huge, the vast, the enormous pleasure of subscribing to my book. Try it here and now. I have, and it works!

Finally, I’ve included a couple of shots I took of London from the Millennium Bridge, which I had to cross to get to The Globe. It was raining, not hard, but persistently. And I think London looks its best in the rain. Why are we so obsessed with sunshine in the modern world? Oh dear, I feel a digression is creeping up on me. I’m being stalked.  I shall escape to the garden and cut some asparagus.

QR Code


Tower bridge




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

The Death of ‘Otzi’ , the Alpine Iceman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

High Spring, 2015. Part 2: Among the Trees

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

The native British bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta.

The native British bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis).

Bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis).


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

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

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

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A bit more about Alan Cadbury

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

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

Read more….

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