Real-life Archaeologists rarely become household names. Mick Aston is an exception. A defining voice in the development of Time Team and stalwart of the show since its first season in 1994, Mick’s resignation earlier this year ignited a media firestorm. He was in the news again in July after receiving a lifetime achievement award at the British Archaeological Awards. CA caught up with Mick earlier this year at his Somerset house to hear his reflections on archaeology past, present and future.

CA: How did you get into archaeology?

MA: My dad was a big influence. He was a fantastic professional cabinet maker. All the furniture in this house was made by him and yet in writing he could hardly string a sentence together. He was ignorant in that original sense of the word. But he was desperate to know more, and realised that unless I was going to be on the factory floor with him, I had to get educated. So he was over the moon when I passed the 11+ exam, and completely gaga when I got into university — this was another planet for people like him.

One Christmas, it was probably 1962 or 1963, I got two books. One was a list of scheduled ancient monuments in England and Wales— hardly a gripper of a Christmas present was it? — and the other was the Collins Field Guide to Archaeology, by Eric Wood. What was nice about Eric Wood was that he didn’t just talk about famous monuments, he included bomb craters and dew ponds — all the stuff you actually come across when you’re wandering about the countryside. I thought that was wonderful. And because of the list of scheduled monuments I decided to go and see them. That meant bunking off school, or at least when my class went on a trip, I went off on my own personal one. It usually involved a combination of buses, walking and trespassing. I’m a terrible trespasser, always have been, I don’t really acknowledge private property at all!

After I’d exhausted all the sites nearby I discovered the CBA list of excavations. The nearest dig was at Wall in Staffordshire, and it was run by a chap called Jim Gould — a school teacher who dug at weekends. A bypass was about to be built, so they were digging on the line of that. On the first day Jim said to me, ‘can you clean up this Roman road?’ so I looked in this hole, and there was just gravel all the way across. I couldn’t see a Roman road at all. But Jim was an excellent teacher, who patiently explained that the gravel was the road! Not long after I went to university at Birmingham to study geography.

At Birmingham you could take archaeology as a subsidiary for two years, so I did that — though it was all Classical Mediterranean stuff. But Philip Rahtz had just been appointed and was living in this lilac caravan on the university carpark. There were all these letters about him in the university newsletter, asking ‘who is this long-haired, bearded hermit in the carpark?’ Anyway, Philip put up this little sign saying ‘anyone who wants to go digging, come to me on Saturday.’ I thought ‘that sounds good.’ That was the beginning — and what an introduction!

I turned up early — as I was a young, enthusiastic man — and was offered a cup of coffee. So then I needed to go to the loo. The loo door was covered in pictures of various ladies, some of whom I recognised. I thought to myself ‘this is a very interesting world I’ve dropped in on here’. And then off we went in his little Renault camper van. Every time we went around a bend, a draw in the kitchen unit opened, and it was full of every type of contraceptive you can imagine. Then we’d go around another bend and it would shut again! For several years we spent our weekends and vacs and non-term time travelling from site to site that needed digging because it was going to be destroyed. It was one rescue dig after another.

Excavating with Philip was like an apprenticeship. We learnt archaeology by doing it, and that’s how we taught the volunteer diggers at Shapwick and teach the volunteer diggers at Winscombe [Mick’s field projects, Shapwick is now finished, while Winscombe is ongoing]. One of the things that troubles me about some universities is that you ask departmental staff what their field project is, and they don’t have one. They’re not going out. How can you possibly teach it if you’re not doing it? I think it’s really worrying.

 

CA: Was it this desire to reach the widest possible audience that led you to develop Time Team with Tim Taylor?

MA:  I saw it as an extension of my work as an extra-mural tutor. Time Team was a way of reaching 3 million people rather than 30 people in the village hall. But it didn’t alter the fact of what I was trying to do. Archaeology is not essential. It isn’t something that we need. The fact that some of us have done it for a living means that we are really fortunate. But if it comes to council housing, or hospital beds, there wouldn’t be any question. There are things that are more important. We need to make people realise how interesting it is, and we succeeded.

Years ago I was talking to a friend who has to advise on archaeology for gravel companies. She dreaded it, because it often involved selling the importance of archaeology to these big, self-made entrepreneurs. That could be hard. Then one day she went into a meeting and rather than being hostile the gravel company executive just said ‘Oh, is it like that programme with Baldrick on it?’ And she said ‘Well yes’. So they said ‘That’s all alright then. We know all about that.’ It’s a great example of how Time Team was reaching people that didn’t know or care about archaeology before.

But even though Time Team built up an incredible audience, the archaeological world never really ran with it. All the public interest generated in that first 15 year period was wasted. Our colleagues were too busy saying ‘you can’t do it in three days’, or ‘I don’t like the way you’ve done that.’ Nit picking really, but it could get nasty. If you went to a pub and mentioned Time Team to a bunch of archaeologists you’d instantly have a fight on your hands. People who got what the programme was doing thought it was great, but others just said ‘you can’t do archaeology like that’. I feel as though I’ve suffered from that for 20 years.

Professor Mick Aston

Born 1st July 1946

OxfordCityand County Museum Field Officer: 1970-1974

County Archaeologist for Somerset: 1974-1978

External Studies Department, Oxford University Tutor in Local Studies: 1978-1979

Extramural Department, Birmingham University: 1979-

Extramural Department and Archaeology Department, University of Bristol: 1979-2004

Time Team: 1994-2012

CA: Did you enjoy your time on the show?

Time Team are a great gang when you get them together. There are some real party people. And there was always a subtext of some running joke going on. It was really funny. I do miss that side of it. And there’s a real focus to what they’re doing — none of them is motivated by money or anything like that. It’s all the archaeology — and getting the story out of it. There wasn’t anybody who wasn’t like that. And the things that would emerge over those three days, you’d get to the end and think ‘that was bloody fantastic. All that stuff we know now, fancy sorting that out.’ They’re very fast and effective. The diggers know they’re going to be interrupted with the filming, because it takes a lot of time to film the stuff. And they have to make up that time. They work very fast and accurately. I think it’s tremendously impressive. Those were the days, in many ways. But not anymore I’m afraid.

 

CA: Why did you decide to leave Time Team?

MA:  It wasn’t that enough was enough. They had me down as archaeological consultant. I’ve always taken that to mean they can have endless advice and guidance out of me. The phone would go at all times of the day and night — a director, producer, researcher wanting to check things. I’ve always been there for them. I saw it as part of my job. If you want to guide it properly, you’ve got to be available. Then in September or October two years ago they had a meeting at Channel 4 in which they decided to play with the format, bring new presenters in, and get rid of five people on the archaeological side. And for some reason they didn’t think ‘oh, we’d better run that past Mick. He’s the archaeological consultant, he might have an opinion on that.’

I don’t play games like that. If they’d have said ‘Mick there’s a meeting in London, and we know you hateLondon, but it’s really important. It’s about the future of the programme, so we want you to be there.’ Then I would have gone. But I wasn’t given the option.

 

CA: You’ve talked about a feeling that despite inspiring a new generation of archaeologists you have not left a legacy. Why is that?

MA:  I don’t mean Time Team, I mean my life in archaeology. A lot of people write to me and say I’m wrong, but what will the situation be in 10 years time? There’ll be no legacy because the profession never picked up on it — cashed in if you like — and developed what we did with Time Team. It’s the same with extramural teaching. So it all feels like a waste of time. All the public education I’ve done will come to a grinding halt with me. So there is no legacy. And that really makes me angry and sad. I’ve spent much of the last 10 years looking for someone to replace me and I can’t find anyone. No one leaps out as the one to be the next celebrity archaeologist, if you like. It’s partly because extramural teaching has stopped. Running those courses was great training for television, because just like extramural teaching you never know where the brick bats are coming from next!

 

CA: As a celebrity archaeologist, your predecessor was Mortimer Wheeler…

MA: Surely not. I’m not in the same league. And we’re not the same sort of person. He was perfect for ‘Animal, Vegetable, Mineral’ in the 1950s. I might have been alright for Channel 4 in the 1990s. But what we need now is someone who’s good for X in the 2010s. Someone who will be as unlike me as Mortimer Wheeler. Whoever spots that person will be onto a winner. And I could give them some very good advice! Because I now know after 20 years what my mistake was.

 

CA: Go on!

MA: The first was that I should have got an agent — which I’ve never had — and taken the time to make sure it was someone who understood what I was trying to do. The second is that I should have become an Associate Producer on Time Team. Then I would have been part of the decision whenever there were changes to the personnel or format of the programme. As an annually hired presenter I was in a very weak position. So those are the two mistakes that anyone else should get right.

 

CA: Looking back over the last 40 years, how do you view the changes in archaeology since you started out in the 1960s?

MA: A lot of it is for the good. You see the big development sites of today and there is no way we could handle those without the organisations we have now: The York Archaeological Trust, the Oxford Unit, Wessex Archaeology and so on. If you look at the training and technology those people have, I am full of admiration for that. I remember when stuff used to fall out of the side of motorway trenches because there wasn’t anybody to dig it. There was no evaluation of what archaeology might be there or anything. It’s so important that’s changed.

The sad thing, I think, is despite the public interest in archaeology we don’t seem to be able to harness it. I don’t know why, because so much work does need doing. If every parish had a project like Winscombe going on not only would we learn a lot, but the spin-offs in terms of social cohesion and the involvement of people would be absolutely phenomenal. You need the big units to do the big projects – but there’s shed loads for everyone else too. There really is.

 

As CA thanked Mick and packed up its kit, he added a final thought.

MA:  A lot of what I’ve said here is very heartfelt, you know. It could get me into trouble. I’m too honest. I say what I think, not what I think I ought to say. It’s a great weakness really.


This interview was published in CA 271.

92 Comments

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  1. Mike
    June 15, 2013 @ 10:40 am

    Hi Mick. You have been, through Time Team, a breath of fresh air in a world of morbid fasination with money and audience figures equalling corporate success.
    Time Teams success has been solely down to your own unselfish belief, that our archological past should be aired for the masses rather than a select few.
    In saluting you and Time Team, I wait for your reappearance on our screens.

    Channel 4. It’s time you woke up and realised that Mick and Time Team placed your channel in the Public Eye.

    Reply

  2. tony
    June 25, 2013 @ 7:30 am

    How on earth could they (channel 4) have let Mick leave Time Team under those circumstances. being betrayed comes to mind. RIP Mick.

    Reply

  3. Stevie Flower
    June 25, 2013 @ 7:46 am

    RIP Mick, you’ll be missed

    Reply

  4. Jed
    June 25, 2013 @ 11:23 am

    The most inspirational man I have ever watched on TV
    He could make a shadow in the soil stand out and show you mud hut
    He will be greatly missed and his loss will leave the world of archaeology a poorer place

    Reply

  5. Al Drew
    June 25, 2013 @ 12:08 pm

    So sad to hear of Mick Aston’s passing. We have lost an archeological legend, who brought his ‘digging’ to the masses by way of television. Just gutted as even though I didn’t know him, I felt as if I did. 🙁

    Reply

  6. DT
    June 25, 2013 @ 1:10 pm

    Rest in Peace Mick. Thank you for all the wonderful history you showed us. You opened our eyes – we are just very sorry you didn’t know it.

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  7. Clare
    June 25, 2013 @ 3:32 pm

    My sympathies to Prof Aston’s family, friends and colleagues past and present. The World has lost a light. May he rest in peace (only to be excavated in a couple of centuries’ time ;-))

    Reply

  8. Simon Morgan
    June 25, 2013 @ 4:06 pm

    What heartbreaking news of Mick’s passing, and when I heard the news this morning, I just couldn’t quite believe it and quiet tears flowed. What a lovely man, a decent and humble man, who was worth far more than his modesty would allow. Rest in peace Mick, and my prayers and best wishes to your family. As long as Time Team is remembered, you will also be remembered, and hopefully well beyond.
    Simon

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  9. Sadat
    June 25, 2013 @ 8:33 pm

    Thanks very much for your sharing your love of archeology with all of us. Rest in Peace Professor Mick Aston.

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  10. Mel Shaw
    June 25, 2013 @ 9:12 pm

    What a top bloke, Prof Mick Aston has been a wonderful inspiration to me , a fellow black countryman for the past 19 years, i didn’t watch the last series.My sympathies to his family, rest in peace mate.

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  11. Karen Petersen
    June 26, 2013 @ 8:35 am

    Greatly saddened to hear of Professor Micks passing. Time Teams Professor Mick, Phil, Tony and the rest of the original cast have become like friends over the years. I started watching TT as young adult and my children grew up watching TT. You have created a legacy far greater than you ever thought possible. I live in Australia, a country with very limited archaelogical history. Professor Mick, Phil and Tony have inspired tens of thousands, if not millions of Australians to become intested not only in the archaeology in the ground where we live but in history itself. There will NEVER be another Professor Mick Aston…. archaelogy has lost a great man and we have lost a great friend. Rest in Peace.

    Reply

    • Andy
      June 26, 2013 @ 11:52 am

      I too am an Australian and have watched and managed to obtain nearly all the TT episodes since it started. I have visited the UK twice in my life, once on holidays and once for work reasons and I was fascinated with all the usual tourist architectural landmarks but was even more fascinated with the not so obvious ruins that I saw. It was not surprising to me that many people I met and who took these things for granted and thought I was nuts for being interested in even the simple things like just a stone wall which they see everyday. Sadly it is not confined to one nation Watching TT and the characters in it (even if they wore loud jumpers and hats) find and decipher the archaeology is and remains a genuine pleasure. I will miss the “ole fella” and hope his wishes, as stated in the interview come to fruition.

      Reply

  12. Carole-Ann
    June 26, 2013 @ 2:05 pm

    It’s taken me a day to actually recognise that we will have no more Mick to smile at. To all his friends and family, sincerest wellwishes. RIP

    I was fortunate to be taught all I know about Archaeology by Mick when I attended one of his Continuing Education Courses in Landscape Archaeology at Bristol University in the early 1990’s. It was an education in itself! Mick was always able to make ANYTHING interesting: his enthusiasm and knowledge were shining beacons which led us ignorant students into the light of recognising a great teacher (and subject)!!

    We eventually did wheedle out of him his relationship with Time Team (this was early 1994) and promised faithfully to watch all the programmes, and give him feed-back on how he performed. (Of course, we were smitten anyway, so he could have gotten away with anything at that time!!)

    I have been faithful to that promise and watched every series; even the most recent where the archaeology was fairly minimal. If nothing else, yes, Time Team will go down as a memorial to Prof Mick Aston; but what many viewers have never realised is that the man with the grey fly-away hair and the garishly striped sweaters has left us, his STUDENTS, with precious memories of the man who was so alive with the love of history (and what to do with it) that he made us all smile all of the time! His enthusiasm and love infiltrated us all, so I suppose you could call us Mick Aston’s Legacy. 🙂

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    • Andy Smith
      June 26, 2013 @ 4:39 pm

      What a special thing to be able to author and a wonderful legacy left by Mick Aston. A man measurable by the huge gap left by his passing.
      I’m envious as I always hoped to go to something to listen to him speak but feel enriched by the pleasure imparted through TT

      Andy

      Reply

  13. Terry S
    June 26, 2013 @ 10:05 pm

    Your legacy is safe and sure Mick. I dont know anyone who has a bad or negative word to say about you + time team. archeology has come of age because of our work, talent, academic & emotional intelligence. you made archaeology understandable to everyone and allowed them to see their own history through you work. thank you Mick

    Reply

  14. Adrian Walter
    June 27, 2013 @ 5:24 am

    Thank you Prof Mick Aston for your wonderful contribution and legacy left to the world of archaeology. Your knowledge and insight inspired me to learn more about archaeology and history and for that I am grateful. As one of Australia’s many avid Team Time viewers I have spent many, many hours watching Mick and the Team reveal and explain great historical finds and treasures. Mick Astons calm voice, vast knowledge and experience always added and extra something to each show and showed us all how even the smallest find could play such a large part of ancient history. Like the bright stripey jumpers, you will be missed but never forgotten and will be an inspiration to those who will follow in your massive footsteps.

    Thank you for sharing your lifes work, Rest In Peace.

    Adrian Walter

    Reply

  15. Allan
    June 27, 2013 @ 6:31 am

    Thanks Mick for your great expertise and making digging for ‘old stuff’ into a great learning program. I shall miss your knowledge and honesty on Time Team. You made me want to learn more each day. Sadly missed Allan in Australia .

    Reply

  16. Chris Light
    June 29, 2013 @ 5:35 pm

    I can not describe the grief I have felt since I heard of the passing of Mick Aston. He was a humble chap and was always giving. He was in the top 5 people who I would love to have had a pint with. There is no one to replace him, and as a country I think we have lost a unique curator of our heritage. Rest in Peace you old hippy, you will be missed by the many.

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  17. Cate
    July 1, 2013 @ 10:28 pm

    Hey Mic, saddened is not enough to describe how I feel at your passing. As an academic myself, the first in my family to go to uni, certainly the first to do a phd, and approach teaching with the same gusto, I could relate to you. You remind me of so many I work with. A life very much cut short… Rock on in the halls of Valhalla…

    Reply

  18. Terry
    July 3, 2013 @ 4:05 pm

    From America, sad beyond words – thanks, Mick.

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  19. D Christine Carr Bauer
    July 3, 2013 @ 9:48 pm

    67? Far too young!!!

    Reply

  20. Mike Feist
    July 17, 2013 @ 1:19 pm

    Sad that Channel 4 hierarchy couldn’t be bothered to put Time Team’s tribute programmes to Mick on the main channel rather than More4. We watched and enjoyed Time Team for many years, and it was disappointing to see the deterioration in the professional archeological input and the dumbing down which Mick refers to. Those responsible should be made to wear Mick’s characteristic knitwear in public every year on the anniversary of his resignation! Hopefully others will take Mick’s example and constructive criticisms to heart. That would be a fitting legacy for a man who has enriched understanding and appreciation of archaeology.

    We will greatly miss Mick and would extend our sympathies to Mick’s family and friends.

    Reply

  21. Nick Ward
    July 30, 2013 @ 4:57 pm

    Like many I have watched TT since its first showing & have enjoyed every minute of it. I was therefore greatly saddened to hear of Mick’s passing. There is little to be added to the comments made by many of his fans. He was clearly a very understated, knowledgable & inspiring man that certain others should have spent more time listening to. Probably the most distressing thought is that Mike went to his grave thinking that he didn’t make a significant impact on those he met in life (& by that I include us the audience). Mick you always inspired those you interacted with in whatever form that took. I am sure that your family are very proud of you & hope that they can see from everyone’s comments the legacy you left behind. God bless you.

    Nick from Leicester

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  22. PHILIP FITZSIMONS (DUBLIN VIEWER)
    October 2, 2013 @ 8:39 am

    YOU WHERE A JOY MICK.MAY HE REST IN PIECE’S !!!

    Reply

  23. Colin Airdrie
    October 11, 2013 @ 5:46 am

    From Colin Airdrie in Bangkok. I have been living in Asia for over 17 years and am writing this watching the excavation of a stone age site on the Sussex Downs. I love the series and it does me so much good to see the wonderful British countryside and the history underneath it. Other countries might claim longer histories, but it seems in Britain, we it is so close to us and Time Team brings it closer. Thanks to the whole Time Team, current and past, and RIP Mick. May you be excavated with feeling in the centuries to come.

    Reply

  24. David Thexton
    November 30, 2013 @ 11:21 pm

    I only found out about Mick’s passing a week ago, and have been in a daze for the last week, I would have flown from New Zealand to the UK to attend his funeral had I known. He really was the back bone of the Time Team programme and from what I have read he was treated very badly by Channel 4, they should be ashamed. We get the re-runs here on History channel and I watch them almost every day, a bit of an addict really but I always get something new out of each episode, and every now and then I see an episode I have not seen before because History channel here runs them out of any form of order. Good Bye Mick and thanks for all your fine work over the years- you will be missed by millions across the globe.

    David Thexton- New Zealand

    Reply

  25. Anne& Dave Stocks
    March 3, 2014 @ 2:25 pm

    We have watched time team for many years in the beginning living in the UK and over the last ten years watching the programme on the History channel here in Perth Western Australia. What a winning Time Team it was with Mick at the helm with Tony and Phil, Carenza, and the Stuarts doing their thing walking and geofis what professional people you all are we have enjoyed the knowledge and history you have brought into our lounge. Its a programme that has shown the world our past and the committed archaeologists with warm personalities. Time team will continue to be watched in our house and when out walking we will always be aware of what archaeology might be just under where we walk.Thank you Mick and the team you have shared a wealth of knowledge with us. Thank you.

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  26. Gordon Hazel
    May 30, 2014 @ 10:50 pm

    Mick,
    from down under, I wish to thank both you and your team for a fantastic look at our history, ( English father from Lancashire/ Yorkshire) I suspect as others have said, you don’t know who you may have influenced to take on this fascinating profession of the brush and trowel in the years to come.
    Down under we have seen most of you series over the years and is has been a much loved favourite in our household. As far as the intellectual snobbery goes, I guess in academia you will always have the nay sayers. My guess is a lot of prep work went on prior to the digs, and a lot of subsequent work after the cameras were gone, carried on by the local archeologists.

    Thank you all again

    Gordon Hazel

    Reply

  27. iLinder Kaur
    June 6, 2014 @ 11:30 pm

    Many thanx for hours of comfort and interesting stories whilst I am at my desk. Never forget this great team of ‘real’ people. My feeling is that the powers will shut it down for a couple of years and hire a new team just like they wanted to in 2012…they have their own ways of skinning cats

    Reply

  28. Jane Jinks
    July 5, 2014 @ 9:37 pm

    I was lucky enough to meet Mick at Waterstones in Birmingham when he was signing copies of his book “Mick’s Archaeology”. He was such a genuine person and interested in whatever one had to say. I told him how I have been very lucky to have been a volunteer with Herefordshire Archaeology on a number of their digs following the TT dig, “In search of Offa’s Palace”. He was really interested in what I had been able to do with them. Herefordshire Archaeology have always been very encouraging to volunteers, always ready to explain how to do things. On my first dig at Sutton St. Nicholas I started as a complete novice barrowing soil and ended the week helping to draw the plan of the trench that I had been excavating. Unfortunately Herefordshire Council have decimated the archaeology department his year (2014) because of having to save money so such opportunities will be limited now.

    Reply

  29. Adrienne
    November 7, 2014 @ 9:32 am

    Hi, it’s November 2014 and I only knew that Mick died a few days ago. I am watching re-runs of Time Team and remembering why I loved them the first time around. Mick was a great guy whose personality shone on television. It’s terribly sad that he died just when he should have been taking some time off.

    I’ll never forget his jumpers and his hair! Unique.

    Adrienne.

    Reply

  30. Graham Hay
    September 19, 2015 @ 7:08 pm

    Time Team was part of all of our lives with an interest in archaeology. My kids were born and grew up while the show was on and it gave immense pleasure to myself and others due to the fantastic characters in the team and the multitude of varied sites from different historical periods.
    Mick, Phil, Stuart, John, Carenza, Robin Bush, Matt, Helen, Victor, Bridgette, Francis and many others were such a warm and knowledgable group of people to welcome into your living room I feel terrifically nostalgic about the show as I type this.
    Thanks to the team for the greatest educational series in the history of television which I doubt will ever be surpassed.
    Mick’s legacy is immense and as with the amazing Robin Bush (and Phil, still with us) they are personal heroes of mine and will not be forgotten by anyone with a love of human warmth and learning.

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  31. John Handley
    June 2, 2017 @ 8:29 am

    I was fortunate enough to have been involved in a time team dig and rub shoulders with Mick. As a great fan of the series it was a dream come true. I often wished I had plucked up the courage to talk to him. I know he would have been generous. It was just so good to see that the series was genuine and not one bit contrived. The series has given me an enduring hobby which has opened up the countryside around my home and as I approach retirement something that will continue to give great pleasure.

    I know Mick loved the thought of Monastic life. He had a kind of solitude about him. He continues to be missed as we watch re runs of that great series.

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