Review of the reads – August 2023

Words by:
Yusef Sayed
Featured in:
August 2023

Yusef Sayed’s review of the reads.

A Fenland Garden
By Francis Pryor
Published by Head of Zeus, price £27.99 hbk

Archaeologist Francis Pryor is best known for his excavation of Flag Fen and other ancient settlements, helping to give us a better sense of how the land and communities interacted in centuries past. In his new book he tells the story of how he and his wife, and fellow archaeologist, Maisie made their own Fenland haven, a well-stocked garden and sheep farm at Inley Drove in south Lincolnshire beginning in 1992.

Their professional methods and academic curiosity perhaps unavoidably coincide with their home project.

But Pryor not only gives us an insight into the personal motivations and preferences that have informed the pair’s artfully integrated borders, gardens, hedges and fields – but also an engaging, sometimes touching, often humorous, survey of famous garden designers, acquaintances, friends and the occasional miscreant who have left their mark; from Gertrude Jekyll to the careless developers who prompted them to leave their previous Wisbech farm; the inspiration of Sissinghurst and an elusive snowdrop thief; cuttings snuck out of the Cambridge ‘Bot’ Garden and dearly missed friends remembered in the couple’s Birch Grove…

Of central importance to Pryor’s vision is that Inley Drove Farm inspire a childlike surprise and delight, as well as providing a place of peace and sustenance. Each chapter details the care and practical considerations of each aspect of the couple’s land and conveys a sensory and scientific knowledge of plants, soils and wildlife. Pryor writes as the UK emerges from Covid restrictions, when the vitality of outdoor spaces were newly valued by many, only to then face the stark reality of extreme weather conditions.

As against design schemes where all too often ‘pattern dominates and purpose is almost absent’, Pryor champions a more informal environment that might offer a sting as much as a heavenly scent, where insect life and native plants and human emotions as varied as joy and loneliness might be experienced. Rich in detail, know-how and passion, the book will inspire a more attentive, appreciative relationship with our own gardens and loved ones.

Humberston Fitties
By Alan Dowling
Published by Independent
Publishing Network, price £12

This recent reprint of a book first published in 2001 draws on an array of archival research and many personal reminiscences to record the history of the coastal camp that has provided recreation since the Victorian era. From an informal arrangement of tents and later bungalows and repurposed railway carriages to today’s chalet park, Alan Dowling conveys the sense of freedom, relaxation and fun that the Humberston Fitties has provided.

Despite the interruptions of the war and the restrictions on developments that followed the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, the spirit of the ‘plotlands’ that sprung up along the coast throughout the twentieth century – offering city-dwellers an escape – is still embodied in the Humberston Fitties camp, according to Dowling.

Individual family stories are brought to life not only through the text but also the wealth of evocative photographs which are presented in excellent quality. Aerial views of the changing makeup of the Fitties contrast with ground-level memories of children catching ‘dabs’, hiding away under the blocks on which many bungalows were raised for illicit cigarettes, or to retrieve a rabbit snare. There is a sense of serenity in the names of bungalows past: Lingalonga, Sunglow – and a sense of the noisome reality that came with the ‘dilly cart’, collecting refuse and nightsoil.

As the Fitties developed there was more local authority oversight and a move to council ownership. Later, in the 1980s, chalet owners shared their concerns over plans for investment by private enterprise. This is also a story of balancing public access and private leisure, environmental considerations and personal aspirations, public funds and investment potential.

The book will have an added personal resonance for those readers who have spent a happy summer of three-wheeler biking and fishing for sticklebacks at the Fitties, or who recognise one of the many family names mentioned. Dowling provides a factual history and shares the unique charm that many still find in this part of the Lincolnshire coast. The book is available to order by post from: annie.smyth@ntlworld.com



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