Reaching for the stars . . .

I’m not a fan of talent shows like Britain’s Got Talent (BGT, or its US equivalent) or The X Factor, and never tune in to watch. But a few clips have caught my attention on YouTube (and once you’ve clicked on one such video, YouTube offers up others incessantly), and I will admit that some quite exceptional talents have been discovered in this way. Whether the really young ones go on to fulfilling careers in entertainment is another thing.

And, of course, many apply to appear on the show(s) just for the fun of it.

One particular BGT clip caught my attention the other day because, from the brief description, it appeared to be a 2019 audition by primary school children who got the Golden Buzzer. I was intrigued so decided to watch.

The children were from Flakefleet Primary School in Fleetwood, Lancashire, accompanied by their headmaster, Mr Dave McPartlin (no relation to one of the show’s hosts, Ant McPartlin).

Mr McPartlin told the judges that several of his pupils had an ambition to appear on the show. The children just liked to sing, and their abilities ranged from ‘good’ to the ‘enthusiastic’. Before long it seemed as though the whole school was on stage, and the headmaster was just as much part of the performance as his pupils.

It’s clear that his pupils adore Mr McPartlin, and he comes across as just the sort of head teacher any parent would wish for their children and any child to relate to. But enough from me, for now. Just take a few minutes to watch Flakefleet Primary’s performance, and listen carefully to how the headmaster encourages the children. Impressive.

They actually moved into the 2019 final, but didn’t win. Never mind, they’d already achieved more than they ever expected when they auditioned. After all, the school’s motto is Dare To Dream. What’s also impressive is the effort it must have taken from everyone: teachers, parents, children to prepare for each show. The rehearsals, the costumes, the encouragement for the shy ones.

The school was recently rated Good with some Outstanding features in its Ofsted report. And as the school highlighted on its homepage, ‘We are particularly thrilled that they recognized the outstanding job that we do at looking after, caring for and supporting our lovely children‘.

And this is what we can hope for – and indeed expect – from all schools and teachers. Sadly it’s not always the case. Some school fail. Whether this is lack of leadership, poor teacher recruitment, lack of local and government investment (especially in socially deprived areas, inner city areas), or lack of communication between schools and families I’m not expert to comment on.


When we moved to Bromsgrove in north Worcestershire in July 1981 after a period abroad, we were fortunate to find a house within the catchment areas of two excellent schools. Worcestershire has a three level First, Middle  and High School system.

Back in the day, Finstall First School (FFS) was less than a mile from home. It’s since moved to a new site just around the corner from our former home. Both our daughters Hannah and Philippa attended FFS whose head teacher was Mr Tecwyn Richards.

Mr Richards was a charismatic individual. He seemed to know the names of each and every child. Amazing. He came across as a gentle man, setting excellent standards among his staff and the pupils in his care.

Aston Fields Middle School (AFMS) was even closer to home, and Hannah moved there when she was nine. The headmaster was Mr Barrie Dinsdale who, like his colleague at FFS, interacted so well with all the children.

We count ourselves very fortunate that Hannah and Philippa were able to experience their first years in education under such rewarding circumstances. I should add that Hannah moved on to Bromsgrove South High School in the autumn of 1991, and Philippa on to AFMS at the same time. But they remained there for just one term until Christmas when they left the UK and joined me in the Philippines, continuing their education at the International School Manila. A totally different set-up and more of a grades factory!


I think I started school in September 1953. I don’t think it would have been earlier, since I turned five in November that year.

What do I remember of my schooling and particularly the headteachers? For the most part they didn’t even aspire to Mr McPartlin’s standards.

Although we lived in Congleton in Cheshire, I attended a small Church of England village school at Mossley, a mile or so southeast of the town.

The headmaster was Mr Morris, seen here with some of his staff.

Two of my teachers, Mrs Bickerton and Mrs Johnson are seated on the extreme right and left of Mr Morris. I don’t know who the other three ladies were.

I have happy memories of my time at Mossley. I didn’t complete my primary schooling there since my family moved to Leek in Staffordshire in April 1956. And from then until I completed high school in June 1967, my education was ‘ruled’ by the Catholic Church.

In Leek, my elder brother Edgar and I were enrolled at St Mary’s Catholic Primary School (now St Mary’s Catholic Academy), on the corner of the A53 and Cruso Street, a short walk from our home on St Edward Street. It was run by nuns of the Sisters of Loreto.

For my first term, the headmistress was Mother Michael, and her deputy was Mother Elizabeth (who became head when Mother Michael left later that year). As a small boy of seven, I found it quite frightening at first being faced with these ladies in long black robes and head veils (penguins almost).

My lasting impression was a strict regime, and the occasional rap over the knuckles with the edge of a steel ruler. Very painful! There was only one male teacher, Mr Smith. There’s still only one male teacher today.

I think my experience at St Mary’s was the start of my conversion to atheism, which I’ve written about earlier.

In September 1960, having passed my 11+ exam and won a scholarship to grammar school (that’s selective education for you), I attended St Joseph’s College, a Catholic grammar school for boys, in Trent Vale, Stoke on Trent, a 14 mile journey each way, every day. Motto: Fideliter et Fortiter (Faithful and Strong)!

The school was founded in 1932 and run by the Christian Brothers. Take ‘Christian’ with a pinch of salt. However there were more lay teachers than Brothers.

My first headmaster, for one year only was Brother Henry Wilkinson, who insisted on using the tannoy system that was installed in each classroom. Radio Wilko! You never knew just when a lesson might be interrupted by one of his messages.

He was followed by Brother JB O’Keefe (what a smoker!) who remained at the helm during the rest of my time at St Joseph’s. We didn’t see much of him on a daily basis, but at least he removed the tannoy. He seemed a kindly sort of man, but he oversaw a harsh regime. One that used frequently administered corporal punishment, as I have also described in that earlier post.

On reflection, not a happy education. Not one that I would write home about.

So when I see the joy of those children from Flakefleet Primary, I wonder what I missed out on. We have come a long way over the past 50-60 years, although some schools have a ways to travel yet. I’m sure that St Mary’s and St Joseph’s are not the same schools that I left half a century or more ago. For one thing, the two religious orders are no longer involved in the management of both.

School and religion should be separated, just like government and religion.


 

Strikes and spares . . .

No, this isn’t a commentary on the current state of industrial relations in the United Kingdom, nor a review of Prince Harry’s book that was released a few days ago.

I’m referring to ten pin bowling, of course. I have this trophy proudly displayed in my office. It always brings back so many pleasant memories of my time in Peru.

Not long after I joined the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru in January 1973, the Director General, Richard Sawyer (right) invited me to join the bowling team that the CIP was fielding in the league run by the US mission to Peru.

Unlike the USA, ten pin bowling only took off in the UK from about 1960. Before 1973 I had been bowling on just a handful of occasions. It wasn’t a sport I was particularly interested in. But it was fun.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I readily joined the CIP team whose membership varied from week to week depending on who was in town or traveling. Since much of my own research took me to Huancayo in the central Andes (at 3100 m or just over 10,000 feet above sea level), where CIP was building its highland field station, my active membership of the bowling team was sporadic to say the least.

I’d found an apartment in the Lima suburb of Miraflores, just a stone’s throw from the bowling alley. Very convenient. So on bowling nights, I’d wander down to the alley, and maybe play one or more games, depending on who else had turned up.

It was a mixed league. Richard was the captain (obviously) of the CIP team, and other members included his wife Norma, CIP comptroller Oscar Gil, visiting entomologist from Cornell University, Maurie Semel, British plant pathologist John Vessey (and his wife Marian if my memory serves me well), myself, and perhaps one of two others whose names I do not recall.

It was all very relaxed and enjoyable, and was the first time that I had mixed socially with a group of Americans. They made me feel very welcome. But they were competitive!

At the end of the season we held a dinner and trophies were handed out. Now, my bowling was not particularly accurate or consistent, but somehow I ended up with the trophy for 2nd high game. Remarkable! And it’s the only trophy I have ever won.


When I joined the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in 1991, as head of the Genetic Resources Center (GRC), my staff invited me to join them on Saturday afternoons at the local bowling alley where they had grouped themselves into several teams. Yes, it was ten pin bowling but not as I knew it. Wooden bowls and wooden pins that you had to set up manually. But it was great fun, helped along with several San Miguel beers. Here I am in action – on both fronts.

It was also a great opportunity for me to get to know many of my staff away from the office.

Now this reminds of another story. The first weekend after I arrived in the Philippines, and at a loose end, I decided to drive down to the IRRI research center, and check a few things in my office. To my surprise I found almost all the staff working, and essentially waiting for me to show up. Why were they were working at the weekend, I asked. Apparently my predecessor, Dr TT Chang, expected them in every weekend, and they assumed I would want the same. No way! I told them to go home. Weekends were for family, for relaxation, charging batteries, and if, on any occasion, I needed them to come into the office at the weekend, I’d could ask and hope they would reciprocate. (Which they always did, I hasten to add).

Well, a few weeks later (after we’d started the bowling competition) I received a phone call from one of my colleagues, Dr Kwanchai Gomez (a rather difficult character to say the least), former head of IRRI’s statistics unit, and currently assistant to the Director General. She told me that some visitors from Manila would be at IRRI the following Saturday afternoon, and she expected the genebank to be open to show them around. I politely told her the genebank would be closed, and no staff would be available. She was dumbfounded. This was unheard of at IRRI. No-one took Saturdays off. But I wasn’t going to tell her we would be at the bowling alley enjoying ourselves.

The weekend working spell in GRC had been broken, once and for all.


I’ve never been a sporty type – even though I like winning. I’ve never relished competitive team games like football, rugby, and the like. Sports at school were a nightmare. At university I played squash for a couple of years, and a little badminton. But just for the exercise. I even took up badminton once again at IRRI from about 2005 until my retirement in 2010. And tennis in the early days, but didn’t keep that up.

On the badminton court with (L-R) Corinta, Vhel, and Yeyet from the DPPC office at IRRI.

I don’t know why I didn’t take more advantage of the swimming pool at IRRI Staff Housing pool (below), like Steph did almost every weekday throughout the 19 years we lived there. I guess I must have used the pool regularly for only the last five or six years.

I continued to swim regularly after we returned to the UK until the Covid pandemic struck in 2020 and the local pool in Bromsgrove was closed. Then we moved to the northeast, and there’s no pool conveniently local.

But the sport (if you can call it a sport) I did take to with relish was scuba diving. And the Philippines was just the place to do so. Starting in 1993 until retirement, I made 356 dives, all at Anilao, some 95 km south from IRRI.

Diving at Anilao.

Now that we are living just east of Newcastle upon Tyne, we are only 5 miles at most, and not more than about 10 minutes from the North Sea coast. At various locations along the coast there are reportedly some impressive diving sites. But having been spoiled by diving in warm tropical seas, the cold North Sea holds no allure for me. In any case I would also have to re-certify as a dry suit diver.

So now my regular exercise is a daily walk, weather permitting, and at a pace that’s appropriate for my age and level of fitness. I’m not out to break any records. It’s never a race.


 

8 billion . . . and counting

This is the latest estimate of the world’s population announced by the United Nations on 15 November 2022. Can you imagine? I was born 74 years ago when the population was just over a quarter of what it is today.

So many more mouths to feed, so many challenges to overcome. And population growth fastest in many of the world’s poorest countries.

The UN’s latest prediction is that another billion will be added by 2037, and that . . . half of the world’s population growth will be concentrated in just nine countries: India, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Ethiopia, the United Republic of Tanzania, the United States of America, Uganda and Indonesia (ordered by their expected contribution to total growth).


In 2021, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN or FAO reported that 193 million people in 53 countries or territories were facing acute food insecurity. And while conflict and the effects of the Covid pandemic are contributors to this state of affairs, there is no doubt that weather extremes are also a major contributing factor, affecting many more people worldwide. More frequent storms. Too much water—or too little. Rising temperatures reducing the agricultural productivity in many regions.

Sustainable food and agricultural production were appropriately important themes at the latest climate change conference—COP27—in Egypt. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN or FAO, and the Rockefeller Foundation together were prominent at COP27 with the aim of putting agrifood systems transformation at the heart of the conference.

So, whether you are a believer in climate change or a denier (I’ve never been a climate change denier—quite the opposite, in fact), surely you have to accept that something strange is happening to our climate.

More than 30 years ago, two University of Birmingham colleagues—Brian Ford-Lloyd and Martin Parry—and I organized a workshop to discuss the impact of climate change on agriculture and the conservation of plant genetic resources (and how they could, and should, be used to mitigate the effects of a warming climate). The proceedings were published in 1990. Twenty-five years later, in 2014, we followed up with a second volume reflecting how the science of climate change itself had progressed, and how better we were equipped to use genetic resources to enhance crop productivity.


So while agriculture has been—and continues to be—one of the contributors to climate change (livestock, methane from rice paddies, use of fertilizers and the like) it can and has to be part of the solution.

Since more than half of the world’s population are now urban dwellers, they do not produce their own food. Or at least not enough (even if they grow their own vegetables and such on small holdings or allotments) to support many others.

Subsistence farming is not a solution either, even though these farmers can increase productivity by adopting new agricultural practices and higher-yielding crop varieties, if appropriate and affordable. And those campaigners who advocate the abolition of livestock farming (and I have seen one young person state that all farming should be stopped!) have little notion of how that would affect the lives of farmers globally, or where the rest of us would source our food.

There has been much talk recently about diversification of farming systems and adoption of so-called ‘orphan crops’ as part of the solution. Of course these approaches can make a difference, but should not diminish the role and importance of staple crops like wheat, maize, rice, potatoes, sorghum, and many others.

So what are the options? Investment in plant breeding, among others, has to be central to achieving food security. We will need a pipeline of crop varieties that are better adapted to changing environmental conditions, that are one step ahead of novel pest and disease variants. Crop productivity will have to increase significantly over the next few decades.


My first encounter with plant breeding—or plant breeders for that matter—was during a visit, in July 1969, to the Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) in Cambridge during a field course at the end of my second year undergraduate degree course at the University of Southampton. We heard all about wheat breeding and cytogenetics from Dr Ralph Riley FRS (right) no less (later knighted and Director of the PBI from 1972 to 1978). Our paths crossed again several times during the 1990s when he was associated with the CGIAR.

During my third and final year at Southampton, 1969-1970, I enjoyed a plant breeding module taught by genetics lecturer Dr Joe Smartt whose original research background was in peanut cytogenetics. He had spent some years in Africa as a peanut breeder in Zambia (then known as Northern Rhodesia).

It was in that course that I was introduced to one of the classic texts on the topic, Principles of Plant Breeding by University of California-Davis geneticist, RW Allard (first published in 1960). Sadly I no longer have my copy that I purchased in 1969. It was devoured by termites before I left the Philippines in 2010.

I’ve never been actively involved in plant breeding per se. However, the focus of my research was the conservation of genetic resources (of potatoes and rice, and some other species) and pre-breeding studies to facilitate the use of wild species in plant breeding.


It’s been my privilege to know and work with some outstanding plant breeders. Not only did they need a knowledge of genetics, reproductive behavior, physiology and agronomy of a plant species, but this was coupled with creativity, intuition and the famous ‘breeder’s eye’ to develop new varieties.

Perhaps the most famous plant breeder I met in the early 1990s was 1970 Nobel Peace Laureate (and ‘Father of the Green Revolution’) Norman Borlaug, who spent a lifetime breeding wheat varieties, first with the Rockefeller Foundation and then with the International Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT) in Mexico. I wrote about that encounter here.

Explaining how rice seeds are stored in the International Rice Genebank at IRRI to Nobel Peace Laureate Norman Borlaug

In the potato world I met Stan Peloquin from the University of Wisconsin, George Mackay in Scotland, and John Hermsen from Wageningen University. I worked alongside Peruvian potato breeder and taxonomist Carlos Ochoa (below) for several years.

When I joined IRRI in the Philippines in 1991 as head of the Genetic Resources Center, one of my close colleagues was 1996 World Food Prize Laureate Gurdev Khush (below left) who led the institute’s breeding program. He and his team bred more than 300 varieties of rice, some of which—like IR36 and IR72—have been grown over millions of hectares and saved countless millions from starvation.

And another rice breeder (and 2004 World Food Prize Laureate) famous for NERICA rice was Monty Jones (above right) at the Africa Rice Center in West Africa. Monty was a graduate at Birmingham and I was the internal examiner for his PhD thesis in 1983.


Plant breeding has come a long way since I first became interested 50 years ago. Breeders now have access to a whole new toolbox to accelerate the development of new varieties, some of which were not available just a few years ago.

A decade ago I asked my friend and former colleague at IRRI, Ken McNally to contribute a review of genomics and other ‘omics’ technologies to discover and analyse useful traits in germplasm collections to the 2014 genetic resources book that I referred to earlier [1]. I’m sure there have been many useful developments in the intervening years.

One of these is gene editing, and Nicholas Karavolias (a graduate student at Berkeley University) has written an interesting review (from which the diagram above was sourced) of how the CRISPR gene editing tool is being used to improve crops and animals.

Among the climate change challenges that I mentioned earlier is the likelihood of increased flooding in many parts of the world. Just last year there were devastating floods along the Indus River in Pakistan where rice is an important crop, as it is in many Asian countries. Although grown in standing water in paddy fields, rice varieties will die if totally submerged for more than a few days when floods hit.

Rice paddies near Vientiane, Laos.

Over several decades, submergence tolerant rice varieties were developed in a collaborative project between US-based scientists and those at IRRI using marker-assisted selection (not genetic engineering) to identify a gene, named Sub1 (derived from an Indian rice variety) and incorporate it into breeding lines. My former IRRI colleagues, plant physiologist Abdelbagi Ismail and breeder David Mackill have written about response to flooding. In the video below you can see the impact of the Sub1 gene [2]. And the impact of that gene is readily seen in the video below which shows two forms of the rice variety IR64 with and without the Sub1 gene.

To date, the impact of genetic engineering in crop improvement has not been as significant as the technology promised, primarily because of opposition (environmental, social, and political) to the deployment of genetically-modified varieties. I wrote about that issue some years back, and focused on the situation of beta-carotene rich rice known as ‘Golden Rice’. After many years of development, it’s gratifying to see that Golden Rice (as the variety Malusog) has now been grown commercially in the Philippines for the first time, and can now deliver real health and nutritional benefits to Vitamin A impoverished communities in the Philippines and hopefully elsewhere before too long.

In recent weeks there have been interesting news releases about the development of perennial rice and its potential to mitigate some climate change effects, and reduce labor usage. Researchers at the John Innes Centre in the UK have identified a gene that they hope will make wheat varieties more heat-resistant. The need for trait identification has never been greater or the importance of the hundreds of thousands of crop varieties and wild species that are safely conserved in genebanks around the world. Fortunately, as mentioned earlier, there are now better and more efficient tools available to screen germplasm for disease and pest resistance, or for genes like the wheat gene just discussed.

In terms of adaptation to a changing climate through plant breeding, I guess much of the focus has been on developing varieties that are better adapted to changing environment, be that the physical or biotic environment.

But here’s another challenge that was first raised some years back by one of my former colleagues at IRRI, Melissa Fitzgerald (right) who was head of the Grain Quality, Nutrition, and Postharvest Center, and is now Professor and Interim Head of the School of Agriculture and Food Sciences at the University of Queensland, Australia.

And it’s to do with the potential global savings of carbon. Melissa and her colleagues were looking at the cooking time of different rice varieties. This is what she (and her co-authors wrote in an interesting 2009 paper):

The cooking time of rice is determined by the temperature at which the crystalline structures of the starch begin to melt. This is called gelatinization temperature (GT). Lowering the GT of the rice grain could decrease average cooking times by up to 4 min. Although this might initially seem entirely insignificant, by computing the number of times rice is cooked in any one day by millions of households around the world, a decrease of just 4 min for each cooking event could save >10,000 years of cooking time each day. This represents massive potential for global savings of carbon and is of particular relevance to poor, rural households that depend on scarce local supplies of fuel.

Now there’s a huge breeding challenge.

Anyway, in this post I’ve really only scratched the surface of the topic, but hopefully for those readers not familiar with plant breeding, what it entails, and what it can promise, I hope that I’ve explored a few interesting aspects.


[1] McNally, KL. 2014. Exploring ‘omics’ of genetic resources to mitigate the effects of climate change. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd & M Parry (eds), Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI, Wallingford, UK. pp. 166-189

[2] Ismail, AM & Mackill, DJ. 2014. Response to flooding: submergence tolerance in rice. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd & M Parry (eds), Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI, Wallingford, UK. pp. 251-269.

Launching a career in agricultural research

Over a career spanning almost four decades, I spent more than 27 years in international agricultural research in South and Central America, and Asia. And a decade teaching at the University of Birmingham.

It all started on this day, 50 years ago, when I joined the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru as an Associate Taxonomist.

But first, let me take you back a couple of years, to September 1970.


I’d enrolled at the University of Birmingham for the MSc degree in Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources, taught in the Department of Botany. It was the following February that I first heard about the possibility of joining CIP.

The head of department, potato expert Professor Jack Hawkes had just returned from a six week expedition to Bolivia (to collect wild species of potato) that was supported, in part, by the USAID-North Carolina State University-sponsored potato program in Peru.

The American joint leader of that program, Dr Richard Sawyer (left), mentioned to Jack that he wanted to send a young Peruvian scientist, Zosimo Huamán, to Birmingham for the MSc course in September 1971, and could he suggest anyone to fill a one-year vacancy.

On the night of his return to Birmingham, Jack phoned me about this exciting opportunity. And would I be interested. Interested? I’d long had an ambition to travel to South America, and Peru in particular.

However, my appointment at CIP was delayed until January 1973. Why? Let me explain.


In 1971, Sawyer was in the final stages of setting up the International Potato Center. However, a guaranteed funding stream for this proposed research center had not been fully identified.

At that time, there were four international agricultural research centers:

  • the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, the Philippines (founded in 1960);
  • the International Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT) near Mexico City (1966);
  • the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan, Nigeria (1967); and
  • the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia (also 1967).

All received bilateral funding from several donors, like the non-profit Rockefeller and Ford Foundations for example, or government agencies like USAID in the USA or the UK’s Overseas Development Administration.

In May 1971 there was a significant development in terms of long-term funding for agricultural research with the setting up of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR (an umbrella organization of donors, run from the World Bank in Washington, DC) to coordinate and support the four centers I already mentioned, and potentially others (like CIP) that were being established.

Since its inception, CGIAR-supported research was dedicated to reducing rural poverty, increasing food security, improving human health and nutrition, and ensuring more sustainable management of natural resources.

For more than 50 years, CGIAR and partners have delivered critical science and innovation to feed the world and end inequality. Its original mission—to solve hunger—is now expanding to address wider 21st century challenges, with the aim of transforming the world’s food, land, and water systems in a climate crisis. More on that below.


Back in 1971 the question was which funding agencies would become CGIAR members, and whether CIP would join the CGIAR (which it did in 1973).

Throughout 1971, Sawyer negotiated with the UK’s ODA to support CIP. But with the pending establishment of the CGIAR, ODA officials were uncertain whether to join that multilateral funding initiative or continue with the current bilateral funding model.

Decisions were, in the main, delayed. But one important decision did affect me directly. The ODA gave me a personal grant in September 1971 to remain in Birmingham until funding to CIP could be resolved. I therefore registered for a PhD on potatoes under Jack Hawkes’ supervision, and spent the next 15 months working on ideas I hoped to pursue further once I could get my hands on potatoes in the Andes, so to speak.

With Jack Hawkes in the potato field genebank at Huancayo, central Peru (3100 m above sea level) in early 1974.

In the event, the ODA provided £130,000 directly to CIP between 1973 and 1975 (= £1.858 million today), which funded, among other things, development of the center’s potato genebank, germplasm collecting missions around Peru, and associated research, as well as my position at the center.


Arriving in Peru was an ambition fulfilled, and working at a young center like CIP was a dream come true, even though, at just 24, I was somewhat wet behind the ears.

However, there were some great colleagues who taught me the ropes, and were important mentors then and throughout my career. I learnt a lot about working in a team, and about people management, very useful in later years as I moved up the management ladder.

For the first three years, my work was supervised and generously supported by an American geneticist, Dr Roger Rowe (right, with his wife Norma) who joined CIP on 1 May 1973 as head of the Breeding and Genetics Department. I owe a great deal to Roger who has remained a good friend all these years.

Always leading from the front, and never shy of making the tough decisions, Roger went on to fill senior management positions at several CGIAR centers. As a former colleague once commented to me, “Roger was the best Director General the CGIAR never had.” I couldn’t agree more.

When I joined CIP’s Regional Research group in 1976 and moved to Costa Rica, my new boss was Ken Brown (left). Ken had been working as a cotton physiologist in Pakistan for the Cotton Research Corporation, although he had previously worked in several African countries.

Ken never micromanaged his staff, was always there to help set priorities and give guidance. In those aspects of people management, I learned a lot from Ken, and he certainly earned my gratitude.

Aside from my work on potato genetic resources (and completing my PhD in 1975), I enjoyed the work on bacterial wilt and setting up a regional program, PRECODEPA as part of my Regional Research activities.

Jim Bryan (right, with Costarrican assistant Jorge Aguilar) was my closest friend at CIP. A native of Idaho, Jim was CIP’s seed production specialist. Down to earth and pragmatic, Jim taught me the importance of clean potato seed and seed production systems. He came to work with me in Costa Rica during 1979/80 and together we worked on a successful project (with the Costarrican Ministry of Agriculture) for the rapid multiplication of seed potatoes.

But by the end of 1980, I was looking for a new challenge when one came to my attention back home in the UK.


In April 1981, I joined the University of Birmingham as a Lecturer in the Department of Plant Biology (as the Department of Botany had been renamed since I graduated).

I have mixed feelings about that decade. Enthusiastic for the first few years, I became increasingly disenchanted with academic life. I enjoyed teaching genetic resources conservation to MSc students from many different countries, and particularly supervision of graduate students. I also kept a research link on true potato seed (TPS) with CIP, and around 1988 participated in a three-week review of a Swiss-funded seed production project at four locations in Peru.

With members of the project review team, with team leader Carlos Valverde on the right. Cesar Vittorelli, our CIP liaison is in the middle. I don’t remember the names of the two other team members, a Peruvian agronomist, on my right, and a Swiss economist between Vittorelli and Valverde.

But universities were under pressure from the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher. It was becoming a numbers, performance-driven game. And even though the prospects of promotion to Senior Lecturer were promising (I was already on the SL pay scale), by 1991 I was ready for a change.


And so I successfully applied for the position of Head of the Genetic Resources Center at IRRI, and once again working under the CGIAR umbrella. I moved to the Philippines in July, and stayed there for the next 19 years until retiring at the end of April 2010.

I was much happier at IRRI than Birmingham, although there were a number of challenges to face: both professional and personal such as raising two daughters in the Philippines (they were 13 and 9 when we moved to IRRI) and schooling at the International School Manila.

Whereas I’d joined CIP at the beginning of its institutional journey in 1973, IRRI already had a 30 year history in 1991. It was beginning to show its age, and much of the infrastructure built in the early 1960s had not fared well in the tropical climate of Los Baños and was in dire need of refurbishment.

A new Director General, Dr Klaus Lampe (right) from Germany was appointed in 1988 with a mandate to rejuvenate the institute before it slipped into terminal decline. That meant ‘asking’ many long-term staff to move on and make way for a cohort of new and younger staff. I was part of that recruitment drive. But turning around an institute with entrenched perspectives was no mean feat.


With responsibility for the world’s largest and most important rice genebank, and interacting with genebank colleagues at all the other centers, I took on the chair of the Inter-Center Working Group when we met in Ethiopia in January 1993, and in subsequent years took a major role in setting up the System-wide Genetic Resources Program (SGRP). This was a forerunner—and a successful one at that—of the programmatic approach adopted by the CGIAR centers.

The Swiss-funded project to collect and conserve rice varieties from >20 countries, and the innovative and pioneer research about on-farm conservation were highlights of the 1990s. As was the research, in collaboration with my old colleagues at Birmingham, on the use of molecular markers to study and conserve germplasm. A first for the CGIAR centers. Indeed a first for any crop.

Helping my genebank staff grow in their positions, and seeing them promoted gave me great satisfaction. I’d inherited a staff that essentially did what they were told to do. With encouragement from me they took on greater responsibility—and accountability—for various genebank operations, and their enthusiastic involvement allowed me to make the necessary changes to how the genebank was managed, and putting it at the forefront of CGIAR genebanks, a position it retains today.

My closest friend and colleague at IRRI was fellow Brit and crop modeller, Dr John Sheehy (right). John joined the institute in 1995, and I was chair of his appointment committee. Within a short time of meeting John for the first time, I recognized someone with a keen intellect, who was not constrained by a long-term rice perspective, and who would, I believed, bring some exceptional scientific skills and thinking to the institute.

Among his achievements were a concept for C4 rice, and persuading the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to back a worldwide consortium (now administered from the University of Oxford) of some of the best scientists working on photosynthesis to make this concept a reality.

By May 2001, however, change was in the air. I was asked to leave the Genetic Resources Center (and research) and join IRRI’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning and Communications, to reconnect the institute with its funding donors, and develop a strategy to increase financial support. I also took IT Services, the Library and Documentation Services, Communication and Publication Services, and the Development Office under my wing.

IRRI’s reputation with its donors was at rock bottom. Even the Director General, Ron Cantrell, wasn’t sure what IRRI’s financial and reporting commitments were.

We turned this around within six months, and quickly re-established IRRI as a reliable partner under the CGIAR. By the time I left IRRI in 2010, my office had helped the institute increase its budget to US$60 million p.a.


This increased emphasis on funding was important as, by the end of the 1990s, several donors were raising concerns about the focus of the centers and how they should be supported. Furthermore, a number of external factors like the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD, agreed by 150 countries in 1992), the growing consensus on the threat of climate change, the adoption of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, and subsequent Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs) meant that the 15 CGIAR centers as they had become could not continue with ‘business as usual’.

Until the end of the 1990s, each center had followed its own research agenda. But it became increasingly clear that they would have to cooperate better with each other and with the national programs. And funding was being directed at specific donor-led interests.

There is no doubt that investment in the CGIAR over 50 years has brought about great benefits, economically and in humanitarian ways. Investment in crop genetic improvement has been the mainstay of the CGIAR, and although research on natural resources management (NRM, such as soils and water) has been beneficial at local levels, it has not had the widespread impact that genetic improvement has.

The impact of the CGIAR is well-documented. Take this 2010 paper for example. Click on the image for more information.

My good friend from the University of Minnesota, Professor Phil Pardey and two colleagues have calculated the economic benefits of CGIAR to be worth about 10 times the cost. Impressive. Click on the image below for more information.

I have watched a couple of decades of CGIAR navel gazing as the system has tried to ‘discover’ the best modus operandi to support national programs and the billions of farmers and consumers who depend on its research outputs.

There’s no doubt these changes have increased bureaucracy across the CGIAR. One early development was the introduction of 3-year rolling Medium Term Plans with performance targets (always difficult in agricultural and biological research), which led to perverse incentives as many centers set unambitious targets that would attract high scores and therefore guarantee continued donor support.

I did not favor that approach (supported by my DG), encouraging my colleagues to be more ambitious and realistic in their planning. But it did result in conflict with an accountant in the World Bank – a ‘bean counter’ – who had been assigned to review how the centers met their targets each year. I don’t remember his name. We had endless arguments because, it seemed to me, he simply didn’t understand the nature of research and was only interested if a particular target had been met 100%. Much as I tried to explain that reaching 75% or perhaps lower could also mean significant impact at the user level, with positive outcomes, he would not accept this point of view. 100% or nothing! What a narrow perspective.

A former colleague in the CGIAR Independent Evaluation Arrangement office in Rome and a colleague have written an excellent evaluation of this performance management exercise, warts and all. Click on the image below to access a PDF copy.

Now we have OneCGIAR that is attempting to make the system function as a whole. Very laudable, and focusing on these five highly relevant research initiatives. Click on the image below for more information.

What I’m not sure about are the levels of management that the new structure entails: global directors, regional directors, program or initiative leaders, center directors (some taking on more than one role). Who reports to whom? It seems overly complicated to my simple mind. And there is certainly less emphasis on the centers themselves – despite these being the beating heart of the system. It’s not bureaucrats (for all their fancy slogans and the like) who bring about impacts. It’s the hard-working scientists and support staff in the centers.


Nevertheless, looking back on 50 years, I feel privileged to have worked in the CGIAR. I didn’t breed a variety of rice, wheat, or potatoes that were grown over millions of hectares. I didn’t help solve a water crisis in agriculture. But I did make sure that the genetic resources of potato and rice that underpin future developments in those crops were safe, and ready to be used by breeders whenever. I also helped IRRI get back on its feet, so to speak, and to survive.

And along the way, I did make some interesting contributions to science, some of which are still being cited more than four decades later.

I’m more than grateful for the many opportunities I’ve been afforded.


 

A Jackson sesquicentennial . . .

Tom Jackson in his 20s

17 December 1872. My grandfather, Thomas Jackson (after whom I get my middle name), was born on this day 150 years ago, at 11 Duke Street, Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire, the second son and child of William Jackson, a brewer’s laborer (1839-1888) and his wife Harriet née Bailey (1842-1884).

He had an older brother George (1870-1950) and a younger sister Annie (1877-1913).

11 Duke St, Burton upon Trent today.

He was the 4th great-grandson of John Jackson (my 6th great-grandfather), who was born around 1711 towards the end of the reign of Queen Anne¹.


When I was born in November 1948, Grandad was already an old man, approaching his 76th birthday, older by two years than I am today.

With extended Jackson family in 1949. I’m the babe-in-arms on my mother Lilian’s knee! My eldest brother Martin is sitting on the ground in front of Mum and me, elder brother Edgar is next to Grandad, and my sister Margaret is sitting next to Grandma. My father Fred is standing at the rear, on the right, next to his brother-in-law, Cyril Moore.

My grandparents lived in Hollington (a small village between Ashbourne and Derby) at Ebenezer Cottage, the venue for many family get-togethers.

Ebenezer Cottage, probably in the summer of 1939, maybe 1940.

The photos below, of a picnic in Hollington with Grandma and our Paxton cousins (who lived across the road from my grandparents) was taken in the early 1950s. Visits to Hollington weren’t frequent. My dad didn’t have his own car, just occasional recreational access to the Morris pickup he used as staff photographer for The Congleton Chronicle newspaper. In any case, I was very young so don’t remember too well.

After we moved to Leek (12 miles closer to Hollington) in 1956, Dad set up his own photography business, and bought a secondhand car (often quite unreliable). But it did mean that we could visit our grandparents more often and meet other members of our wider Jackson family. And, from time-to-time, we stayed overnight with my grandparents. I loved sleeping in the bedroom under the eaves.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.


On 4 September 1897, Tom (then aged 24) married his first wife Maria Bishop (aged 23) in Burton upon Trent. They had two children: Alice, born on 28 September 1899, and a son, William, born on 15 November 1902. Sadly, Maria died in childbirth, leaving Tom a widower, aged 29, with a three-year old daughter and a baby to look after. His mother-in-law, Emma, was living with the family at that time.

Two years later, on 23 August 1904 he married for a second time, to Alice Maud Bull (my grandmother) at Longford, just south of Hollington where Alice was born in April 1880.

Tom and Alice had four children: Winifred Annie (always known as ‘Wynne’, 1905-2004), Frederick Harry (known as ‘Fred’, my father, 1908-1980), Edgar Albert (1914-1997), and Rebecca Isabel (known as ‘Becky’, 1916-2013).

L to R: Grandad, Alice, Frederick, Winifred, William, Edgar, and Grandma – in about 1915.

Before 1908, the family had moved to 31 South Oak Street in Burton, and remained there until March 1939 when they purchased Ebenezer Cottage in Hollington.

31 South Oak Street today.


In August 1954, Grandad and Grandma celebrated their Golden Wedding anniversary with family and friends in the village hall.

Tom and Alice Jackson with all their children and grandchildren, with the exception of the youngest (Angela) who wasn’t born then. Grandad is holding cousin Timothy, and Grandma holds his sister Caroline, youngest children of Edgar. I’m sitting on the ground at left.

In 1963, they sold Ebenezer Cottage and moved to live with their elder daughter Wynne and husband Cyril in Woodville, Derbyshire. It was there in August 1964 that they celebrated their Diamond Wedding anniversary.

Tom and Alice with some of their children and grandchildren on their Diamond Wedding.

Grandad died on 26 February 1967, aged 94. Grandma, a widow at 86, survived Tom for another 20 months, passing away on 7 November 1968 after suffering a cerebral thrombosis.


I don’t know too much about my grandad’s early life. He was profoundly deaf for many years, but I don’t when that first affected him. I always believed he went deaf as a young man, but we have a photograph of him as a member of the Christ Church Band (a parish in Burton which encompassed Duke Street) in 1898 so presumably was not deaf then.

Tom Jackson is second from the left, front row, holding a flute.

He began his working life as a brewer’s laborer (certainly by 1891) at one of the breweries in Burton, Worthington & Co., and stayed with them throughout his working life.

A stationary steam engine

When he married Maria Bishop in 1897, he was a ‘fireman’, presumably the person who stoked the boiler to power a stationary steam engine (similar, it’s safe to assume, to the one illustrated here) the source of power for the brewery. In the 1901 census, Tom was listed as a ‘stationary engine driver’ and he continued in that occupation until he retired in 1931, aged 59.

I can only surmise that his deafness came about as a workplace-acquired disability, having been exposed daily to the noise of the steam engine and other machinery. No Health & Safety back in the day, and no obligation presumably or workplace support to wear ear protectors.

He didn’t serve in the First World War. At the beginning of the war he was already 41, and probably deaf by then, exempting him from active service.


During the Second World War, Mum spent two periods with Grandad and Grandma in Hollington while Dad was away serving in the Royal Navy. With her were my eldest brother Martin (born just three days before the declaration of war in September 1939) and sister Margaret (born in January 1941).


I still have a vivid image of Grandad sitting in his armchair in one corner of the parlor, often with a cigarette dangling from his lips while he dozed. My cousin Jean Gould née Paxton (daughter of his eldest daughter Alice) captured him like that in this painting.

Also, hanging from the key on his desk, are the headphones he used to listen to the radio. And to his left side the grate that my grandmother cooked on. There was no electricity nor running water in Ebenezer Cottage. Water was drawn from a well in the front garden of the house next door – Rose Cottage where Grandma was born.

Rose Cottage, Hollington with the more recent extension to Ebenezer Cottage in the left background.

There was a cinder toilet down a short path outside the back door. And while both water and electricity were eventually installed before they moved to Woodville, the sanitary arrangements remained the same.


When Grandad was dozing in his armchair, we were always warned not to disturb him, not even knock his chair. If we did, he’d wake up, not in the best of moods.

There’s an anecdote, from November 1944, when Grandad was woken from his slumbers. I’m not sure if Martin told me this, or it was Mum. Anyway, on that particular day—the 27th—Grandad was apparently jolted awake and immediately thought the children were playing around his chair. Not so!

Just after 11 am, and 8 miles south from Ebenezer Cottage as the crow flies, an underground ammunition storage depot at RAF Fauld exploded, with between 3900 and 4400 tons of high explosives going up. This was one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history and the largest in the UK. Grandad had been woken by the blast and shock wave from that explosion.


Grandad was a keen gardener, proud of his roses, vegetables, and fruits (particularly gooseberries, raspberries, and blackcurrants).

On the front of the cottage there was a climbing Peace rose to the left of the front door, and a Victoria plum on the right (facing the building). It was always a contest, around August, as to who would get to the delicious plums first: us or the voracious wasps? At one end of the cottage, there was a beautifully-scented lilac tree. In January/February the garden either side of the front steps was covered in snowdrops.

At the bottom of the garden were a couple of damson trees. In the photos below, it looks like Grandad and my Dad are pruning these trees, with a little ‘help’ from Edgar and me. In his memoir Gathering No Moss (completed just before he died in 1980) my Dad tells of being docked a week’s leave while in the Royal Navy for overstaying his leave in Hollington by two days to help with the ‘damson harvest’. This was during the period in 1945 after the end of the war while he waiting to be demobbed.

In the summer I often enjoyed sitting on the steps outside the front door in the late afternoon, anticipating the herd of cows being driven to Hammersley’s farmyard next door for milking.

With my elder brother Edgar and cousin Diana (daughter of Wynne and Cyril) with Grandma and Grandad, late 1950s. Mum and Dad are in the lower photo.

Grandparents, Hollington, and Ebenezer Cottage feature heavily in my childhood memories. Remarkable to think that today we celebrate Grandad’s birthday, 150 years on.


¹ I am grateful to my elder brother Martin for much of the information I have used in this blog post. After the death of our father in 1980, Martin began to research our family’s ancestry, and on some lines has been able to find direct links to the late 15th century. He has compiled the enormous amount of data in this fascinating website: http://www.clanjackson.co.uk/genealogy/

Deck the halls . . .

Steph and I joined the National Trust in February 2011, and have now visited more than 130 of its properties in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, as well as four in Scotland (where Trust members receive reciprocal benefits from the National Trust for Scotland).

I should add we’re also members of English Heritage, but have visited far fewer of its properties.

We’ve certainly had full value from our National Trust joint senior membership over the past decade. We appreciate how visitor policies have developed and adapted to changing expectations over that period, making its properties—and the stories they have to tell—so much more accessible. Its policy on photography (subject to any copyright restrictions) has been relaxed, so that enthusiasts like me can record our visits (no flash!) and then blog about them afterwards.


Here in the northeast of England (where we moved in October 2020), there are fewer Trust properties than in the Midlands (in north Worcestershire) where we lived for many years, and which was a great base for heading out in all directions to explore the National Trust landscape.

Unsurprisingly, the property we have visited most is Hanbury Hall, on our doorstep, near Bromsgrove.

On our last visit to Hanbury Hall in early September 2020, less than a month before we moved to the northeast.

Hanbury Hall was also the first Trust property we visited in February 2011 just after becoming members. We enjoyed all our visits there, most often to take a walk in the extensive park, see how its magnificent parterre changed through the seasons, and occasionally take a glimpse inside the house. 

I could write a whole blog just about Hanbury Hall’s parterre.


At this time of the year, however, Hanbury Hall like many National Trust properties have introduced their winter opening schedules, or indeed closing over the next couple of months or so, just opening for special occasions. For many of the properties, Christmas is one those.

And from what we have experienced over the past decade of Christmas visits, the staff and volunteers at the houses really make a great effort to embody the spirit of Christmas.

So as we creep inexorably towards Christmas 2022, here are a few reminiscences of the Christmas visits we have enjoyed since 2013. Sometimes there is a theme for the Christmas display, in others, houses are ‘dressed’ as they might have been when under family ownership. And it’s not hard to imagine just how full of the joys of Christmas many of these properties must have been, children running excitedly about (they had the space!), while parents entertained their guests, all the while looked after by a bevy of household staff. How the other half lived!

Whatever the perspective, grand or modest, these Christmas visits (or just after) are indeed something to nurture the spirit of the season.

Hanbury Hall (9 December 2013), Worcestershire


Baddesley Clinton (19 December 2014), Warwickshire


Charlecote Park (16 December 2015), Warwickshire


Greyfriars (14 December 2016), Worcester


Croome (28 December 2017), Worcestershire


Coughton Court (30 November 2018), Warwickshire


Hanbury Hall (9 December 2019), Worcestershire


In 2020, many houses were still closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic although we had been to Cragside in October and toured the house.

On 14 December visited Wallington in Northumberland. The house was closed, but we enjoyed a coffee outside in the courtyard, and an invigorating walk around the garden and park (although parts were closed due to the tree damage caused by Storm Arwen that hit the northeast at the end of November).

Wallington (10 December 2021), Northumberland


Ormesby Hall (28 November 2022), North Yorkshire


 

We saw the Fairies Caves but no lonesome pines

Just over a month ago, Steph and I took the Metro to Cullercoats, a small community between Whitley Bay and Tynemouth on the North Sea coast, just a few miles from home. Our intention was to walk along the beach and coastal path from Cullercoats to Tynemouth, no more than a couple of miles. While we followed much of the coastal path, it’s not possible to show the actual detailed route we took across the beaches on the map below.

Just after we’d climbed out of Cullercoats Bay, and were looking south over Long Sands Beach, I had to pinch myself once again being so lucky to live in such a beautiful part of the country. And with the coast just a few minutes from home.

Looking south towards Tynemouth at Long Sands Beach.

Anyway, back to the beginning of the walk. The Metro ride to Cullercoats took around 10 minutes (just five stops) from our ‘home’ station, Northumberland Park.

To fortify ourselves for the walk ahead, we stopped for a welcome cup of coffee at the Cullercoats Coffee Co., on the corner of Station Road and John St., and only a couple of hundred meters from the Metro station.

It must have been around 10 am, and we were surprised to find the coffee shop heaving with customers, with just one table for two empty on the kerbside. Luckily it was a bright and sunny day, and still quite warm for mid-October.


Cullercoats is a sandy bay enclosed by two piers. It once had a thriving fishing industry, and hosted an artists’ colony in the 19th century, with local fisher-folk often featuring in the paintings.

At low tide (when we visited) there are long stretches of exposed rocks and pools on either side of the bay entrance.

Newcastle University’s Dove Marine Laboratory and the Cullercoats Lifeboat Station (established in 1848, with the red doors) are based here.

At the base of the yellow sandstone cliffs behind the beach are several caves, known locally as the Fairies Caves. We didn’t venture inside but having now read a little more about them, that’s something we will do next time we visit.

And as we climbed over the headland at the south side of the bay we got our first view of Long Sands Beach, and St. George’s Anglican church on Grand Parade.


At the south end of the beach is Tynemouth Outdoor Pool, just below Sharpness Point. It has been abandoned since the 1990s. But in its heyday, it was a popular attraction for families enjoying their summer holidays on this beautiful northeast coast.

In Tynemouth, the Grand Hotel stands on Grand Parade above the Pool, overlooking Long Sands Beach.

Built in 1872, there have been numerous famous visitors, among them comedy duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Stan Laurel lived in North Shields between 1897 and 1902 and attended the King’s School in Tynemouth.

In 1854, the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi is believed to have stayed in a house that is now part of the King’s School. At least there’s a blue plaque to that effect. The school opened its doors in 1860.

The next bay south, below Tynemouth Priory and Castle (owned by English Heritage) is King Edward’s Bay, just a short walk from the town’s main street, Front Street.

King Edward’s Bay – with the breakwaters at the entrance to the River Tyne visible just beyond the headland.

We headed along Front Street towards Tynemouth Metro station. Since we moved up here two years ago, I’ve seen ‘Front Street’ in many towns and villages. I guess this must be the northeast equivalent of ‘High Street’ further south.

Front Street in Tynemouth is a wonderfully broad street, and although it’s now overburdened (in my opinion) with eating and drinking establishments, it’s not hard to imagine it during its Georgian or Victorian heydays.

There’s even a Back Front Street!

Tynemouth’s Metro station is an iron and glass architectural masterpiece, which opened on 7 July 1882 as part of the North East Railway. It’s now a Grade II listed building.

On weekdays, Metro trains run every 12 minutes, so we were home before too long.

And that’s what so nice about living where we do. So many attractions and walks within short distances, and which we can (being retired) drop everything and take time out to enjoy.


You may be wondering about the title reference to ‘lonesome pines’. It’s all to do with Laurel and Hardy.


 

Not necessarily in the right order . . .

I enjoy writing. And on this blog, I’ve now published 668 stories since 2012, and probably around 700,000 words.

Some stories come easily, others take a little more working once I’ve had an idea. Rarely do I complete a story in one session. I often begin a draft and then let the ideas swirl around my mind for a few days before returning to it and begin some serious editing.

I hope my writing style is accessible. I try to make it so. Having been trained as a scientist, back in the day we were taught always to report our work in the passive voice, almost as if we hadn’t been involved at all. Times are changing, and even when I was still actively publishing (more than a decade ago) I tried to lighten the style by referring to my/our efforts.

So with this in mind, I was amused a few days ago when one of my Facebook friends posted this cartoon. I can relate to that.

It made me chuckle and reminded me of one of the best comedy sketches I’ve ever seen on TV.

Morecambe and Wise were among the UK’s best-loved comic duos from the 1940s onwards. They appeared regularly on TV in the 1970s and 80s, right up to Eric Morecamble’s death 1984.

Ernie Wise and Eric Morecambe

Their Christmas Specials were always eagerly anticipated, and they were never short of guest celebrities appearing on the show, often to take part in one of Ernie’s ‘plays’.

Anyway, the particular sketch I’m thinking about was first broadcast in 1971, featuring world-famous pianist and conductor André Previn.

Enjoy the next 13 minutes of exquisite humor and, in particular, the interaction between Eric Morecambe and Previn around 10’56”. Classic comedy, and relevant to the initial theme of this blog post.

And while this sketch is considered one of the all-time classics, it had its origins in 1963. The film of this performance only came to light 50 years later.

Morecambe and Wise recycled the sketch to greater effect with André Previn, to the delight of both orchestra and audience.


 

Glass is performance art (Thomas Phifer, architect)

I couldn’t agree more. Take a piece of distinct Bristol blue glass, or an 18th century air twist glass, for example. Glass is such a beautiful medium—organic even—that when cold and solid seems to retain a fluidity only achieved at high temperature.

I enjoy a wee dram of whisky from time to time. There’s nothing quite like drinking whisky from a finely-cut crystal glass. Taste and touch combining to enhance the overall sensory experience.

If I ever tune into Antiques Roadshow on BBC1, it’s with the hope that glassware expert Andy McConnell (right) might be on the show, and has found an interesting piece of glassware. His enthusiasm for all glass is infectious.

I lived in the West Midlands until two years ago, and knew that Stourbridge was one of the country’s most important glass making centers for centuries. It wasn’t until we moved to the northeast that I discovered just how important the glass industry was in this region since Anglo-Saxon times.

Last Friday, we decided to find out a lot more about glass making and visited the National Glass Centre (NGC), that was opened in October 1998 on the University of Sunderland’s Sir Tom Cowie campus at St Peter’s, on the banks of the River Wear opposite the Port of Sunderland.

So why did Sunderland become such an important center for glass making?

Well, you have to go back to AD 674 when Bishop Benedict Biscop sought help from craftsmen in Gaul to make windows for his newly-founded monastery, the remains of which are still seen in St Peter’s Church (with its original Anglo-Saxon tower) near the NGC. This was where one of Britain’s most famous scholars, the Venerable Bede, grew up.

Between AD 800 or so and 1615, glass making had all but ceased in the northeast. Then King James I banned the use of wood as a fuel for glass production. Given the plentiful supply of coal in the northeast, and that sailing ships coming from the Continent carried ballast in the form of quality sand, glass making was revived here, companies founded, and they prospered well into the 20th century. Sunderland became famous for Pyrex.

Most of the bottle and glassworks have disappeared, closed down, demolished.

But the remants of the industry continue to be washed up along the shore. At the end of August, Steph and I traveled to Seaham, south of Sunderland, to find sea glass on one of the beaches south of the town’s harbor.

Today, the National Glass Centre celebrates the history of glass making in Sunderland and along the Durham coast. When some of the glass makers closed down a couple of decades ago, craftsmen from those companies were hired at the NGC and today offer daily demonstrations of glass-blowing and the like in its workshops, one of which we enjoyed watching after lunch.

Exhibitions are mounted in the main gallery on the upper entrance level. And at the time of our visit, there was a display of many of the pieces that have emanated from the studios of Neil Wilkin and Rachael Woodman. Such remarkable artistry, use of color. I was blown away, if you’ll pardon the pun. Pieces are also offered for sale, with the smallest and cheapest being merely expensive (£1800) to other larger pieces beyond my pay grade, several times over. They are remarkably beautiful. Here is just a small selection of the pieces on display.


We opted to take the Tyne and Wear Metro to Sunderland, changing lines (from yellow to green) at Monument on the outward journey, and Heworth on the return.

Our closest station, Northumberland Park is just a few minutes’ walk from home. St Peter’s at the other end is just over half a mile (and 10 minutes) from the NGC.

Nothing could have been more convenient, and much less hassle than driving there.

It was about 45 minutes or so each way, and on the return journey I managed to snap the Tyne bridges in the afternoon sunlight.


 

 

To the ends of the earth . . .

Recently, I was asked what was the farthest I’d ever traveled. Now, if you have followed my posts here on A Balanced Diet, you will know that I have written a good deal about road trips that Steph and I made in Peru during the early 1970s, in Australia in 2003, in the USA since 2011, and around Scotland in 2015.

I’ve also written about my love-hate relationship with aviation, and some of the flights I’ve made.

So, in the context of the question I was asked, I think it has to be a trip (or several) that I’ve made over the past 50 years. And how aviation has changed during that period.

The Boeing 747 made its maiden flight on 9 February 1969 and changed aviation forever, so it’s rather sad realizing that for most airlines, the Queen of the Skies is no longer operational as a passenger aircraft. The Covid pandemic essentially killed commercial passenger travel for two years. With the introduction simultaneously of more efficient jet liners like the Boeing 777 or 787, and the Airbus A350, the 747 became, except for a handful of airlines, an aviation white elephant. Notwithstanding that Emirates Airlines has reaffirmed its commitment—for the foreseeable future—to the Super Jumbo A380.


Before 1973, when I made my first intercontinental flight, I had flown only three times: from Glasgow (GLA) to Benbecula (BEB) in the Outer Hebrides in 1966; from London Heathrow (LHR) to Glasgow in January or February 1969 to attend a folk festival at Strathclyde University; and in April 1972 to attend a conference in Izmir, Turkey flying from Birmingham International (known as Elmdon Airport back in the day) to London, and on to Izmir (IGL, now a military airbase) with Turkish Airlines via Istanbul-Yesilköy (IST, now closed to passenger flights, I believe).

Then, on 4 January 1973, I flew from London Heathrow (LHR) to Lima, Peru (LIM) with intermediate stops at Antigua (ANU) in the Caribbean, Caracas (CCS) in Venezuela, and Bogotá (BOG) in Colombia, before touching down, late at night, at a rather sultry Jorge Chávez International Airport in Lima.

This flight, just over 6500 miles, was operated by BOAC, the forerunner of British Airways, using a Boeing 707 like this one.

The Boeing 707 had a range of just over 4000 miles, and the stop in Antigua was necessary for refueling. Today, flights from Europe can easily reach Lima non-stop, and in July 2016 I flew from Amsterdam (AMS) on a Boeing 777 operated by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, taking about 13 hours if my memory serves me right.

I first flew to Asia in the 1980s, to attend a conference in Jakarta (HLP), Indonesia from Birmingham via Amsterdam. The AMS-HLP flight, operated by KLM was a Boeing 747 (probably 300) and there must have been an intermediate layover, but I don’t remember where. There were no non-stop flights into Asia then, a distance of over 7000 miles. And since I moved to the Philippines in July 1991, and remained there until April 2012, I have flown from there all over the world. Such as the trip I made around 1994 to South Africa on Singapore Airlines: 6855 miles and almost 11 hours flying time from Singapore (SIN) to Johannesburg (JNB) across the Indian Ocean.

We stayed in the Philippines for almost 19 years, returning to the UK each year on home leave. For the first decade we traveled with KLM through Amsterdam and with intermediate stops in either Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia or Bangkok in Thailand. Then, in 2001, when Emirates began operating out of both Manila and Birmingham, we could fly home on a wide-bodied 777 with a short layover in Dubai of a couple of hours or so. The BHX-DXB flights were a little under 7 hours, and between DXB and Manila, a little over 8, with a total distance of more than 7700 miles.


It was a flight around 2005 that was my longest both in terms of miles and hours in the air. I had flown into Minneapolis-St Paul (MSP) from Manila (MNL) to spend a weekend with my elder daughter Hannah who was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. Direct flights to the USA (via a Tokyo hub) were operated by Northwest Airlines (NWA, now Delta Airlines). And I’d expected to continue all my internal flights on NWA. However there was a major strike and I had to scrabble around to find alternative flights on other airlines that would accept my NWA ticket. Eventually all was sorted, and the trip went ahead without any other hitches.

After my last stop in New York, I flew from New York-La Guardia (LGA) to Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to connect with a United flight to Hong Kong-Kai Tak (HKG), with yet another connection on Canadian Pacific to Manila.

My intercontinental flights on NWA had been booked in Business Class (First on US domestic flights). United honored these tickets, and I was upgraded to First on the ORD-HKG flight, much to my relief. I knew it would be a long haul, but hadn’t appreciated just how long. Just under 7800 miles, and 17½ hours.

It was a 747-400, and every seat was taken. We were heavy! In fact, as we taxied out for take-off, our captain advised us there was a better than even chance that we would have to make a stop in Beijing to refuel given the anticipated headwinds. I can remember willing that aircraft into the air; what a long roll before rotation. As it transpired we didn’t have to land in Beijing, but the final couple of hours we must have been flying on vapor, or gliding into Hong Kong. The total trip was just under 9300 miles.


However, the longest trip of all was from BHX to Melbourne (MEL), Australia via Dubai (DXB) on Emirates Airlines (EK) in November 2016 when I had to attend a 3-day meeting of a genebank program I was reviewing.

I was joined by my good friend and former colleague Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd. We met up in the Emirates lounge at BHX before setting off to DXB on a Boeing 777-300 ER, and connecting, after a layover of an hour or so, with an A380 flight to MEL.

Brian and me enjoying a wee dram on one of our A380 flights.

The flight to DXB took about 7 hours, a distance of 3500 miles. The connecting flight was 7200 miles and about 14½ hours. The return flights were slightly longer due to headwinds.

In total then this trip to Australia was the farthest I’ve traveled: more than 21 hours flying time, and around 10,700 miles.


 

 

I have a confession . . .

Indeed. I voted Conservative (the Tories for my overseas readers). Just the once mind you, and it was more than five decades ago. 18 June 1970. A General Election.

I’d turned 21 the previous November and was, for the first time, eligible to vote, even though this was the first election in which people could vote from the age of 18. My studies were over and done with, and I was about to graduate from the University of Southampton.

The Labour Party, under Prime Minister Harold Wilson had been polling favorably and was expected to win the election. But a late swing of just under 5% to the Conservatives gave them an overall majority in parliament of 30 seats. Edward Heath became Prime Minister. I cast my vote in the Southampton Test contest for the Conservative candidate James Hill.  Maybe it was a reaction to Wilson. I just don’t remember.

However, I’ve never voted Conservative since! And I never will again!

In fact I have voted in very few elections, even though I have always exercised my democratic right whenever possible, in both national and local elections. That’s because I spent January 1973 to March 1981 in South and Central America, and from July 1991 to April 2010 in the Philippines. I’ve voted for Labour, the Lib Dems, even the Green Party rather than supporting any Conservative candidate.

Bromsgrove (in north Worcestershire where we lived until two years ago) is a true blue constituency, and the sitting MP is former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, and Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Sajid Javid. Given the UK’s ‘first past the post’ voting system, my anti-Tory vote has essentially counted for nothing in every election, given the weight of Tory support throughout the constituency. Javid was re-elected in the 2019 election with an increased majority of more than 23,000.

Sajid Javid and Mary Glindon

Now that we have moved north, to North Tyneside (east of Newcastle upon Tyne), I can happily support the Labour MP, Mary Glindon and my vote will count.


They say that the older you get, the more right-wing you become. Is that so? Not in my case, and I’ll be 74 in just over three weeks.

In fact I’ve always been a ‘left of centrist’. And if you evaluate, in detail, what New Labour achieved under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, I’d be proud to cast my vote again for their sort of politics. Notwithstanding, of course, Blair’s loss of reputation during the Iraq War and his close relationship with US President George W Bush.

Don’t let the Tories claim otherwise.

Which brings me on to the current standing of British politics that have certainly been turbulent recently. Three Prime Ministers in as many months.

The Three Brexiteers: Johnson, Truss, and Sunak.

Not to mention three Home Secretaries, and four Chancellors of the Exchequer, and five Secretaries of State for Education.


I, like many, was delighted when Boris Johnson was finally forced from office in July.

Only to be replaced by perhaps the most incompetent Prime Minister ever to hold that position, Liz Truss, a perspective held by members of the British public.

And her tenure lasted a mere 46 days. Her only achievement was to crash the economy. So when, at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) last Wednesday, Truss declared that she was ‘a fighter, not a quitter‘ (in response to taunts from the Labour benches encouraging her to go), I guessed the writing was on the wall. She resigned the following day.

That brings me back to Boris Johnson. With the prospect of another election for leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore Prime Minister, Johnson quit his holiday in the Dominican Republic and headed back to the UK, expecting to be welcomed with open arms and save the Conservatives. They are currently about 30 percentage points behind Labour in nationwide polling, and were a General Election to be held today, could see themselves virtually wiped out.

A disheveled Boris Johnson seeking support after arriving back from the Caribbean last Sunday.

Writing in ConservativeHome on 23 October, editor and former MP Paul Goodman wrote: Johnson Derangement Syndrome consumes his enemies, who can see no good in him, and his friends, who can see no bad, or none that isn’t outweighed by his jokes, animal spirits and zest for life.

Barely three months since he was forced to resign, at least 60 MPs (including some Cabinet members who had sought his resignation) nailed their colors to the Johnson mast, but were soon found with egg on their faces.

By Sunday night, after having marched his troops to the top of the hill and then down again (just like the Grand Old Duke of York, according to one Conservative MP), Johnson withdrew from the race, leaving the election to just two candidates: Penny Mordaunt, Leader of the House of Commons (the first to declare her candidacy) and Rishi Sunak, former Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Moments before the 2 pm deadline for nominations last Monday (24 October) Mordaunt withdrew, leaving the way open for a Sunak coronation. How bizarre! This made Sunak the fifth Conservative Prime Minister in six years.

Tories in disarray and riven by factions ranging from the European Research Group (ERG) on the right (and vehement Brexit supporters) to centrist (and perhaps more traditional) One Nation Tories.

And appropriate that Johnson was no longer involved. This was a Prime Minster who resigned in disgrace. The first Prime Minister to be convicted of a criminal offence (for breaking a Covid lockdown law that he introduced), and one who is still under investigation by the House of Commons privileges committee for having ‘misled’ the House, a convenient euphemism for having lied.

This is what the British public think of Boris Johnson.

Yesterday, Sunak assumed the reins of government, after having been appointed by King Charles III at Buckingham Palace.

King Charles III welcomes Rishi Sunak during an audience at Buckingham Palace, London, where he invited the newly elected leader of the Conservative Party to become Prime Minister and form a new government. Source: Creator: Aaron Chown Credit: PA; Copyright: PA Wire/PA Images

Speaking to the nation outside No 10 Downing Street afterwards, Sunak committed himself to lead a government that would earn the trust of the British people. He went on to say: This government will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.

That didn’t last long. By mid-afternoon he had reappointed Suella Braverman as Home Secretary, just six days after she had been sacked by Liz Truss ostensibly for breaking the Ministerial Code by using her personal email to send an official document. I’m sure there was more to it than that.

Braverman is an evil woman, gloating on camera that she had a dream—an obsession even—of seeing refugees/migrants to this country being flown to Rwanda under the asylum plan initiated by her equally-appalling predecessor at the Home Office, Priti Patel.

And bringing back losers like Dominic Raab, Gavin Williamson even, and transferring former Health and Care Secretary Thérèse Coffey (who admitted to breaking the law about the illegal use of antibiotics) to the environment department, DEFRA.

So although Sunak’s words pointed his government in one direction, his actions suggest something rather different.

Yes, it’s remarkable that a colored son of immigrants, a Hindu, has become Prime Minister, and I think we can all applaud that. He’s one of the richest persons in the nation (with a portfolio worth around £750 million, and married to the daughter of one of India’s wealthiest individuals). I don’t begrudge him that wealth, if it was acquired legally and he pays his fair taxes. Whether, as many commentators have suggested, he just cannot relate to the man in the street, time will tell.

Some of his comments on the election trail earlier in the summer when he was up against Liz Truss for the post of Prime Minister, don’t bode well.

Given that a General Election won’t be held soon, I guess Sunak was the best option for the nation, to try and stabilize the economic crisis caused by Truss and Kwarteng. Sunak has kept Jeremy Hunt on as Chancellor. Commentators will have to be careful referring to a Sunak-Hunt partnership – although that may well be an apt description for both.


I’ve just watched today’s PMQs and Rishi Sunak’s first outing at the Despatch Box, grilled by Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, hopefully Prime Minister-in-waiting. It was interesting that some of the specific points I made earlier in this post were also raised by Starmer, and it’s clear that many are outraged at the re-appointment of Braverman as Home Secretary.

Come the General Election, will it be Starmer who emerges victorious? I hope so, although I think the general public has yet to warm to him, while recognizing qualities that I believe will make him a good Prime Minister. What a contrast to Johnson, Truss, and Sunak.

As with Joe Biden in the USA, ‘boring’ could be a welcome relief for a while. What we need is a General Election – now!


 

The carnival is over . . .

The music of The Seekers, an Australian group formed in 1962 in Melbourne, was a backdrop to my early teenage years.

L-R: Judith Durham, Bruce Woodley, Keith Potger, and Athol Guy

Comprising guitarists Bruce Woodley and Keith Potger, Athol Guy on bass, and female singer Judith Durham, The Seekers became one of Australia’s premier acts, and they enjoyed celebrity status abroad with hits like The Carnival is Over (released in 1965) and Georgy Girl (in 1966, the title song to the movie of the same name starring Lynn Redgrave, and nominated for an Oscar).

I hadn’t thought about The Seekers for many decades. They went out of fashion (outside of Australia, at least) and, in any case, my musical tastes had evolved. Then, a few months back I saw an item in the news that Judith Durham had died on 5 August at the age of 79. But beyond reading her obituary in The Guardian, I didn’t think any more about her or the group.

Until earlier this week. Just by chance I came across this video on YouTube of The Seekers in a farewell concert in 2014 (all members would have been in their early- to mid-70s by then), performing I Am Australian. Co-composed by Bruce Woodley in 1987 it has become, so I’ve come to understand, something of an anthem in Australia. Some have even been suggested it as an alternative national anthem.

Since I heard I Am Australian just a few days ago, it has become an ear worm. It’s a pleasant enough composition, somewhat saccharine—sentimental even—to my taste. But something has made it stick in my mind.

Just listen to Judith Durham’s vocals. In this performance her voice was as strong and pure as back in the 1960s. What a voice! And even more remarkable since she had an illness-induced lung/respiratory condition (bronchiectasis) from about the age of 5 that affected her breathing, and which contributed to her death this year.

Beautiful and powerful voices like Judith Durham’s don’t come along very often. And now that I have reconnected with The Seekers, so-to-speak, I can appreciate just how special she was as a singer.


 

On Kielder side . . .

Nestling beneath the England-Scotland border in the far west of Northumberland in the northeast of England, Kielder Water (owned by Northumbrian Water) is the largest man-made reservoir in England by capacity (Rutland Water has a greater surface area), holding 200 billion liters, and with a maximum depth of 52 meters.

It took six years (1975-1981) to construct the reservoir, which was first flooded in 1982. The River North Tyne is the primary inflow.

The Kielder Water dam.

The view east down the valley of the River North Tyne from the Kielder Water dam.

View from the dam across Kielder Water towards the England-Scotland border on the hills in the distance.

Kielder Water is surrounded by Kielder Forest, the largest woodland of its kind in northern Europe, managed by Forestry England (an executive agency sponsored by the Forestry Commission).

We have been waiting for a break in the weather to make a return visit. We first visited this area in 1998 during a touring holiday in Northumberland. And then again in December 2017 when we spent a couple of nights in one of the cabins (with our daughter Philippa, husband Andi, and grandsons Elvis and Felix) at the Leaplish Waterside Park along the western shore of the reservoir.

There are paths for walking and cycling right around Kielder Water.

Kielder Water on a cold and calm December morning, looking east towards the dam.


From our home in North Tyneside, it’s just under 60 miles by road to Kielder Water, taking in much of the awe-inspiring Northumberland landscape along the way. Talk about big skies!

We stopped at the Kielder dam to enjoy a welcome cup of coffee; our journey had taken a little over an hour. Then we crossed the dam to a viewpoint on the far side before heading back and continuing our trip north on the western shore.

Less than a mile from the dam we made a slight detour to view the reservoir from Elf Kirk Viewpoint (it’s marked on the map above). What a delight to see the Autumn colors beginning to shine through, particularly all the golden bracken.

The view northeast from Elf Kirk Viewpoint, looking over the small marina at Merlin Brae.

This was the view southeast from the northern end of Kielder Water, with the dam in the distance.


However, the main focus of our trip was the Kielder Forest Drive, a 12 mile toll road (£3) from Kielder village northeast to the A68 road (Newcastle-Jedburgh) just south of Byrness village.

About a mile in, we stopped to take a stroll up the hillside, which ended up being a three mile walk, and climbing maybe a couple of hundred feet. But the weather was glorious, and it was most enjoyable.

Here is a short video taken along the Forest Drive. It’s really remote, and on the day we visited virtually no other travelers apart from some Forestry England employees.

The rough gravel roads reminded me of traveling around Peru all those decades ago, fifty years come January. The Forest Drive certainly passes through some wild landscapes, made even more ethereal in those parts of the forest that have been felled but not yet replanted. A torn landscape. No cellphone signal.

And there was one object we saw on the hills marking the border between England and Scotland. A container with fire retardant fluid to combat any forest fires, perhaps? Or maybe a defence installation, and early warning system the Scots have installed to repel English encroachments once they gain independence. What do you think?

Fire prevention or defence?

Having reached the A68, it was a smooth and direct drive back down to the coast. Here are a couple of videos (below) traveling through glorious landscapes near Otterburn and Elsdon. Why not listen to Kathryn Tickell, an acclaimed exponent of the Northumbrian pipes (and fiddle); the first tune is Kielder Jock.

Northumberland never fails to inspire!


 

Plants deserve more than five minutes of fame . . .

I’m currently enjoying Frozen Planet II, broadcast on Sunday evenings on BBC1, presented and narrated by that icon of nature broadcasting, Sir David Attenborough.

It’s visually stunning, with so many awe-inspiring wildlife stories that film crews have taken months, years even, to capture sometimes for the very first time on camera. The cinematography itself is incredible — photographic technology has certainly come a long way since the first Frozen Planet series was broadcast in 2011.

Of course, Frozen Plant II is only the latest of a series of wildlife blockbusters produced by the BBC, but as with most of the others it is zoocentric. Where are the plants? The series title is, after all, Frozen Planet not Frozen Animals. Like so many nature programs, Frozen Planet II is basically plant blind.

Of course I am biased. After all, I trained (ever so many years ago) as a botanist.

Proud to be a botanist

The BBC has produced series about plants (although I’m not counting the various gardening ones), the most recent being The Green Planet, broadcast over five episodes at the beginning of 2022 (which I found somewhat disappointing). And the 1995 The Private Life of Plants, of course. Both narrated and presented by Attenborough.

On the whole, however, most nature programs focus on animals. Why? Well, as my friend and former colleague Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd and I wrote in Chapter 1 of our 1986 book on the conservation and use of plant genetic resources:

To most people the word ‘conservation’ conjures up visions of lovable cuddly animals like giant pandas on the verge of extinction. Or it refers to the prevention of the mass slaughter of endangered whale species, under threat because of human’s greed or short-sightedness. Comparatively few people however, are moved to action or financial contribution by the idea of economically important plant species disappearing from the face of the earth. Precious orchids with undoubted aesthetic appeal, or the vegetation of the Amazonian rain forest, where sheer vastness cannot fail to impress, may attract deserved attention. But plant genetic resources [or plant biodiversity as a whole, I would hasten to add] make little impression on the heart even though their disappearance could herald famine on a greater scale than ever seen before, leading to ultimate world-wide disaster.

And there was a similar—and understandable— reaction (from a professor of molecular plant pathology at Imperial College) to a tweet I posted after seeing the latest Frozen Planet II episode last Sunday evening

Yes, gory indeed. Lots of predator-prey footage involving penguins, seals, and killer whales in various combinations. But nevertheless very interesting, showing learned and coordinated behavior by the whales to capture their prey.

It took skill (and courage) to film a puma stalking guanacos in Patagonia in the dark using high resolution night vision cameras. But there was no mention that pumas only survive in that hostile environment because of the guanacos. And the guanaco population is healthy only because there is sufficient vegetation to support their herds. What mechanisms to the plants employ to thrive in these harsh environments? I’m hopeful—but not holding my breath—that in next Sunday’s program, featuring the Northern Hemisphere boreal forests there will be more than lip-service paid to the botanical elements of this enormous ecosystem.

For many years, the British Antarctic Survey had a botanical section (that was actually based in the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham where I studied) before it moved to BAS headquarters in Cambridge. Botanical research per se no longer features prominently on the BAS website. At least after a cursory search, I have to admit, nothing stood out. In the past BAS botanists combined lab work in Birmingham on the taxonomy, ecology, and physiology of grasses and mosses in particular with fieldwork in the south, especially on the sub-Antarctic islands like South Georgia.

And thinking of that work reminds me of one segment of last Sunday’s program featuring the Antipodean Wandering Albatross that nests on Antipodes island (49°40′12″S 178°46′48″E). I’m sure that outcrop in the southern ocean would be less inviting were it not for the various tussocky grasses that provide shelter.

Having proposed to a BBC producer, many decades ago, the idea of a series based around the topic of plants and man, I still believe it could/would make rather interesting TV. So many topics to choose from, but here’s a few off the top of my head:

  • Swedish naturalist, Carl von Linné (Linnaeus)

    Making sense of plant diversity – taxonomy, famous taxonomists, plant collectors, Linnaeus, Sir Joseph Banks, Captain Cook, Darwin.

  • The origins of agriculture – cradles of agriculture, archaeology, crop wild relatives, domestication, Vavilov.
  • The legacy of empire, colonization – slavery, cotton, tobacco, oil palm, bananas, sugarcane, and many more.
  • Farming on the edge – the Andes of South America (potatoes), hills of Southeast Asia (rice), among many.
  • Food security – genetic resources, genebanks, climate change, modern plant breeding, molecular biology, genetic modification, turbocharging photosynthesis, plants and pathogens.

It’s no wonder that applications to study plant sciences have declined. Plants (and the exciting times of plant science) just don’t receive the same airtime (apart from the multiplicity of gardening programs which I am discounting). I’m not suggesting for one moment that they should, but a little less plant blindness would be welcome.

I don’t believe there’s a single department of botany left in the UK universities (although some do still offer botany/plant sciences degree courses); they have all merged with other disciplines to form departments of schools of biological sciences. It’s also good to know that my alma mater, Birmingham, has increased the staff teaching and researching plants. In the USA many universities still retain healthy departments of botany or plant sciences.

Am I being overly pessimistic? Perhaps. I enjoyed a varied and successful career over almost 40 years after studying botany as an undergraduate, and gaining graduate degrees in genetic conservation and crop evolution. A career in agricultural research that took me to so many countries and interesting environments, natural and agricultural.

Let’s encourage a younger generation to take up the plant sciences because there are so many exciting developments to explore, and many central to our survival. Without interesting botanical air time, fewer perhaps are likely to be attracted in the first place.

Let’s remove the botanical blinkers. How about it, BBC?


 

A gong by any other name . . .

There was an awful lot of insignia and medals (informally known as gongs) on display yesterday during the state funeral of HM Queen Elizabeth II. Not least among the royals, and the many military personnel of course.

And, unfortunately, rather too many ill-informed and bad-tempered Tweets about who and why was wearing what medals, and the like.

Medals and the insignia of the many orders of chivalry in this country have been conferred by the sovereign on the great and the good for centuries. There are ten current orders of chivalry, some made at the sole discretion of the sovereign, others on the advice of the government. Most have several classes, such as member, officer, commander and the like.

Among the Armed Forces there are various campaign and service medals that serving personnel receive as well as personal decorations for specific acts of bravery and the like, such as the Victoria Cross or the Distinguished Service Cross, to name just two.

The most senior order of chivalry is the Order of the Garter, established in 1384 by King Edward III, and only outranked in precedence by the Victoria Cross and the George Cross. Two former Prime Ministers, Sir John Major and Sir Tony Blair are members of the order, among nineteen others.

The British Empire?
Many of those attending the state funeral at Westminster Abbey yesterday, or in the crowds lining the funeral route, proudly wore the insignia of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. It’s the Order most familiar to everyone, and the most awarded.

The Order has Members (MBE), Officers (OBE – insignia on the right), Commanders (CBE), Knights Commander or Dames Commander (KBE or DBE), and Knights Grand Cross or Dames Grand Cross (GBE). Recipients are named (at least during Her Late Majesty’s reign) twice a year, in the New Years Honours or the Sovereign’s Birthday Honours. It is awarded for prominent national/international or regional achievements.

Until his death in 2021, HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh was Grand Master of the Order. That position is currently vacant, and presumably King Charles III automatically became Sovereign of the Order on his accession on the death of the Queen on 8 September 2022.

The Order was founded by King George V in 1917 to fill in gaps in the British honours system as, until then, most honors went to diplomats, civil servants, and officers in the Armed Forces. He wished to create an order to honour the many thousands of those who had served in a variety of non-combat roles during the First World War. Since 1918 it has two divisions: civil and military.

On 29 February 2012, I was made as an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) during an investiture at Buckingham Palace in London, presided by the then Prince of Wales, now King Charles III. It was awarded for services to international food science.

Receiving my OBE from the Prince of Wales, and afterwards in the courtyard of Buckingham Palace with my younger daughter Philippa and wife Steph.

In recent decades, membership of the Order has become controversial, and there are several widely-publicized rejections of the honor. When, in November 2011, I received a letter (below) that my name was being put forward for approval by Her Majesty, I was given the option to accept or decline.

A new start
Some have called it a ‘preposterous charade‘, others have declined the honor because of its connection with the idea of the now-extinct British Empire. Indeed, during Tony Blair’s premiership in 2004, a House of Commons Select Committee recommended changing the name to the Order of British Excellence! Now that seems preposterous to me, and the change never happened.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t carefully assess what is right and proper today. For far too many the legacy of the British Empire is painful. Dreadful acts were perpetrated on subservient populations in the British colonies. Should a prestigious honor still have that link? Perhaps it is now time to re-evaluate the honors system and how it is applied. And to whom.

I am proud to be a recipient of an OBE, and I would not wish to change its name. However, with the deaths of Her Majesty as Sovereign of the Order, as well as Prince Philip as Grand Master, I believe there is an excellent opportunity to ‘freeze’ the Order as such (it would become dormant) but replace it by a completely new order of chivalry with exactly the same purpose but without the disagreeable connections with empire.

A new way forward
Furthermore, while it might be unpopular to say so, the monarchy has, in my opinion, become a 21st century anachronism. I agree with this recently-posted tweet from Professor David Price of University College London:

It’s hard to see a place for monarchy when, in what is ostensibly one of the world’s richest nations, food banks are a lifeline for millions, and the cost-of-living crisis is the worst for decades. And the UK has lost its focus and place.

However, I do not favor an elected presidential system. Rather I would see us continuing as a parliamentary democracy (with MPs elected by proportional representation to ensure that every vote counts) with a non-executive president as head of state. Fulfilling many of the same duties that the King and members of the royal family undertake, but without all the kowtowing, pomp and ceremony – and expense. Just like in the Irish Republic or Germany, for instance.

In any case, I’ve written about the state of the nation and what needs to change in an earlier post. Her Majesty’s death should give us the space for reflection on how we want this nation to develop.


 

A day out in York . . .

York is an historic town, founded by the Romans in AD 71 and known as Eboracum. It was one of the most important settlements in Roman Britannia, sitting at the confluence of the rivers Ouse and Foss, and navigable inland from the North Sea.

Just over 80 miles south of our home in North Tyneside, we enjoyed an excursion to York last week.

From the magnificent York Minster (completed after several centuries in 1472) to the city walls dating mainly to the 13th century (but built on earlier earth banks), and the bustling and narrow streets of the medieval town around Shambles, York has a lot to offer any tourist. And even in the middle of September after children had begun the school year, the city center was extremely busy with visitors from the four corners of the world (if the languages I heard spoken were anything to go by).

While we appreciated the Minster from outside, walked through Shambles, and enjoyed a section of the city walls circuit west of the River Ouse (from Baile Hill, past Micklegate Bar, and back to the Ouse) we had traveled to York to visit the Treasurer’s House (a National Trust property behind the Minster), and Clifford’s Tower (an English Heritage property near the confluence of the two rivers, with a magnificent 360º view over the city). More images of York can be viewed here.

The journey south, on just the A19 the whole way, took around 90 minutes. Just outside York we parked at Rawcliffe Bar Park and Ride on the northwest of the city before 10:30, and took the bus into Museum Street close-by the Minster, and a 15 minute journey costing just £1.20 return (with our concessionary travel cards).


The Treasurer’s House sits just behind York Minster (off Minster Yard) and was the residence of its Treasurer (a position established in 1091) until 1547 when it was abolished during the Reformation.

The Grade 1 listed house we see today, from the early 17th century, was previously much larger comprising several additional wings that are now part of Grays Court hotel. Roman remains have been found beneath the house.

In the fading years of the 19th century, Treasurer’s House was bought by eccentric industrialist Frank Green (born 1861, right), who filled it with exquisite paintings, ceramics, and furniture. So none of the interior is contemporary to the house per se, rather a reflection of Green’s eclectic collecting passion.

The family wealth was founded by Green’s grandfather Edward, who established the an engineering firm in Wakefield in 1821. Edward Green patented (in 1845) a design—Green’s Economizer—to increase the steam-raising efficiency of boilers. The company is still in operation today.

Frank’s father, Sir Edward Green was Conservative MP for Wakefield from 1895 to 1892. He married Mary Lycett, introducing that surname into the family although it was not used by Frank but by his elder brother Edward who became the second baronet. Edward Lycett Green, 2nd Baronet took no interest in the engineering company.

L-R: Edward Green (grandfather), Sir Edward Green, and Mary Lycett (parents)

Frank Green never married. He was an irascible individual, obsessed by cleanliness and hygiene. Even down to the placement of furniture in the house, marking precisely where each piece should be replaced if it was ever moved for cleaning. And woe-betide any of staff who didn’t follow his instructions – to the letter! He even sent his laundry each week to London for cleaning. Nevertheless, he was, by all accounts, a genial host of York society, celebrities, even royalty.

He extensively remodeled the house, and opened the central part to create a great hall – because he thought all ‘good’ houses needed a hall (and a gallery). The magnificent staircase to the first floor was a purchase from another house, and none of the paintings displayed there have any connection with the house whatsoever.

A full album of images from our visit can be found here.

By 1930, and his health declining (perhaps because of the damp conditions in York), Frank Green moved away from the Treasurer’s House and set up home in Somerset. He gave the Treasurer’s House and all its contents to the National Trust which has faithfully looked after the property ever since. Even making sure that the furniture is always replaced on the marks on the floor! He is also reputed to have left one of his Rolls Royce limousines to his chauffeur who set up a taxi business. In Somerset, Green was instrumental in saving the Exmoor pony breed during World War II.


Clifford’s Tower stands atop a very steep mound – the motte, and until recently visitors could only enter and gaze up at the blank walls. That is until English Heritage constructed a framework inside that takes visitors on to the roof and affording those panoramic views over the city.

There are more photos here.

This Norman tower was built on the orders of William I (the Conqueror) in 1068, and rebuilt a year later after it was destroyed by Vikings.

York or Jórvík had been the Scandinavian capital in northern England. In 1190 the Jews of York died in a pogrom inside the tower.

By the 18th century the tower was being used as a gaol and continued as such until the 1890s. Across the River Ouse the remains of York’s second castle can be seen at Baille Hill alongside the city walls.


By the time we had walked that section of the wall, it must have been 15:30 and catching the bus in Museum Street back to Rawcliffe Bar we were on the road home by 16:00, arriving around 17:20. York is a fascinating city and has lots to offer, and we’ll have to make plans to return again.

 

 

“The august but elderly testicles of Edward, Duke of Kent . . .”

King Charles III signs the document to uphold the Protestant faith in Scotland, at yesterday’s Accession Council.

Yesterday, at a Accession Council in St James Palace—broadcast live on television for the first time—Charles III was proclaimed King.

He made a personal declaration about the death of the Queen and an oath to preserve the Church of Scotland—because in Scotland there is a division of powers between church and state.

For anyone interested in ancestry, genealogy, and genetics a simple question remains: Is Charles the true king? And if not, who should be?


Back in 2004, a Channel 4 documentary presented an alternative theory of succession of the British crown from George, 1st Duke of Clarence (1449-1478), younger brother of King Edward IV (1442-1483), and elder brother to Richard III (1452-1485). The claim was based on the supposed illegitimacy of Kind Edward.

The ‘rightful heir’ should have been Michael Edward Abney-Hastings, 14th Earl of Loudon, a British-Australian farmer, now succeeded by his son the 15th earl. The documentary was a bit of fun, and certainly not taken seriously by Abney-Hastings. However, besides this Plantagenet ‘claim’, there are other alternative successions to the crown.


Charles III has an impressive family tree that can be traced back to the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, and even earlier it seems. Of course the line of descent through each monarch was not always direct, father to son or daughter. Some sovereigns never had children.

Mary, Queen of Scots

The key person in that family tree that links the monarch today with the Plantagenets and earlier is Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587). She was the daughter of King James V of Scotland and his French wife Mary of Guise. Her paternal grandmother was Margaret Tudor, elder sister of Henry VIII, and daughter of Henry VII. Henry VII had married Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV, thereby linking the Lancastrian and Yorkist dynasties.

Mary’s son became James VI and I (1566-1625). As we enter a second Carolean Age it’s interesting to note that Charles III is not a direct descendant of Charles I or Charles II, the son and grandson of James.

Charles II (1630-1685) had several bastard sons (who were ennobled) but no legitimate children. However, if and when William, Prince of Wales (and now heir to the British crown) becomes King, there will be a ancestral link back to Charles II through his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales.

After Charles II’s younger brother James II (1633-1701) was deposed in 1688, and to exclude his Catholic heirs from throne, the crown was offered to James’ Protestant elder daughter Mary II and her Dutch husband, William III. They had no children, and in 1702, the crown passed to Mary’s younger sister Anne, who reigned until 1714. It was during Anne’s reign that the Kingdoms of England and Scotland were united into a single nation, Great Britain, under the Acts of Union in 1707.

Anne had 17 pregnancies, but only five live births. None of her children survived to adulthood. So, on her death in 1714, Parliament had a dilemma. It would not support the stronger claim of the hated Catholic Stuarts to the throne, instead turning to George, Elector of Hanover, and great grandson of James VI and I through his second child and eldest daughter, Elizabeth Stuart. George became George I of Great Britain, thus founding the Hanoverian dynasty that lasted until the death of Queen Victoria in 1901.


George I was succeeded in 1727 by his son George II, and in 1760 by his great-grandson George III, who reigned until 1820. George III had fifteen children, some of whom never married, or never had legitimate children. The notorious eldest son became George IV in 1820, and the third son William IV in 1830.

Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn

George IV had one daughter who died in childbirth. William IV had a bevy of illegitimate children, none of whom could succeed to the crown.

Once again, the country was faced with a dilemma. The next in line, so to speak, was Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn (1767-1820) fifth child and fourth son of George III. He married Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (1786-1861) and they had one child—a daughter—born in 1819 who succeeded to the crown in 1837 (on the death of her uncle William IV) as Queen Victoria (1819-1901). Edward, Duke of Kent died less than a year after Victoria’s birth.

But was he Victoria’s father? And this is where the story becomes really interesting, and genetics comes into play.

Victoria and her husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha had nine children, several of whom married into the royal houses of Europe.

Albert, Victoria and their nine children in 1857.

And they took with them a deadly genetic disorder: haemophilia, the ‘bleeding disease’. Queen Victoria was a carrier of the haemophilia gene, but before her there was (apparently) no record of the disorder among the Hanoverians or the families they united with through marriage.

Victoria and Albert’s eighth child and third son, Leopold, Duke of Albany was a haemophiliac. He married Princess Helen of Waldeck and Pyrmont; they had a non-haemophiliac boy and a carrier girl. The tragedy of the gene in the Russian Imperial Family is well known.

So where did the haemophilia mutation arise? How had Victoria become a carrier? The gene is carried on the X chromosome. Here’s a simple diagram to explain the genetics.

Well, there are two answers. Either, as distinguished geneticist Professor Steve Jones FRS has so eloquently put it (writing in The Telegraph in May 2011), a mutation of the blood-clotting disease haemophilia . . . originated in the elderly and august testicles of Edward, Duke of Kent; or Edward was not Victoria’s father. If so, then Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, had a haemophiliac lover, and Victoria was their illegitimate offspring.

Supposition, of course, but still a genetic mystery. DNA tests could solve the mystery, but that would require a comparison of Queen Victoria’s DNA with that of a confirmed relative of George III (or close relative). Just as was achieved when the late Prince Philip’s DNA was used to confirm the remains of the last Tsar of Russia and his family. And testing the DNA of a descendant of the sister of King Richard III to confirm the identity of the skeleton found under a car park in Leicester.

If a match was not found, what should have been the succession? Presumably the younger brother of the Duke of Kent, Ernest Augustus, King of Hanover and his descendants. However, these German descendants were deprived of their peerages and honors for having sided with Germany in the First World War.

Charles III was confirmed as King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, fourteen other countries, and a host of territories. Should he be? It remains one of the intriguing ‘what ifs’ of British royal history.

Long Live the King!


You may be interested in this further reading:

 


 

The Queen is dead, long live the King!

Thus, the traditional proclamation as one monarch passes and another assumes the mantle of Head of State.

Official portrait of HM The Queen (on her 80th birthday) which was released on the announcement of her death on 8 September 2022.

It’s hard to imagine this country without Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at the helm, so to speak. She reigned for more than 70 years, and could trace her ancestry back to William the Conqueror in 1066 and beyond. I was only three when she became Queen on 6 February 1952 on the death of her beloved father, King George VI, and too young to remember. Her coronation 16 months later was a different matter, however, when there were nationwide celebrations. Even in Congleton (where I lived at the time) the local children got in on the act.

Children from Moody Street and Howey Lane in Congleton celebrate the Coronation on 2 June 1953.

Head of State of the United Kingdom, Her Majesty was also Head of State of 14 other countries¹, as well as Head of the Commonwealth of Nations (the ‘Commonwealth’) comprising 56 member states.

Fifteen Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom served during her reign, from Sir Winston Churchill (on her accession) to Liz Truss, appointed just three days ago at the kissing hands ceremony at Balmoral Castle where Her Majesty passed away yesterday at the age of 96.

In fact it was this and other photographs of Her Majesty welcoming Liz Truss, published later that day or the following day, that caught my attention in particular.

Her Majesty had been looking increasingly frail since the death of her husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh in April 2021. At breakfast on Wednesday (the 8th) I remarked to Steph just how the Queen appeared to have gone down hill over recent weeks, perhaps her final chapter. Little did I realize.

Then, yesterday morning as I was scrolling through the news feed on my phone, I came across this news story about the Cambridges and their children, and I asked, on Twitter, why this was news at all.

Earlier this year, in the face of increasing political controversy, I wrote a blog post calling for major reform across government and society in this country. And although I’m neither republican or anti-monarchist, I expressed an opinion that the monarchy as such was past its sell-by date. Thus the last point in my tweet, little knowing that Her Majesty would pass away later that same day.

I did see Her Majesty in person on one occasion. In 1975, the University of Birmingham (originally the Mason Science College) celebrated its centenary. I and a group of fellow graduate students from Biological Sciences were among the crowds to welcome her to the Edgbaston campus. I was just a few feet away from her. I will always remember her warm smile.

When I was awarded my OBE in 2012 it was conferred by Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, now King Charles III. My good friend John Sheehy was also made an OBE but attended his investiture at Buckingham Palace two weeks earlier. We both thought it would have been nicer to have met Her Majesty. But, as John reminded me, Prince Charles would be King sooner or later.

Receiving my OBE from HRH The Prince of Wales on 14 February 2012

So what sort of King will Charles become? Known for his strong and often outspoken (and sometimes misguided from a scientific point of view) opinions, he has vowed—so I have heard just now in a BBC commentary—not to carry these across to his new role as King. But I cannot help thinking that he won’t be able always to hold back. And if he chooses the right issues, that might not be a bad thing after all. Our politicians need holding to account. He has already indicated that he wants to see a smaller royal family (those who are working royals and therefore supported by the state), and that can’t be a bad thing.

It’s the end of an era, the start of a new one. Rest in peace Your Majesty. I wish King Charles well, and although my sentiments are to abolish the monarchy, that’s not going to happen in my lifetime or the King’s. Charles is just four days older than me.


¹ Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu.

Around Northumberland in 96 miles . . . and several thousand years

Steph and I have been Friends of the Alnwick Garden since April 2021, and being only 34 miles north of where we live in Newcastle, we try to visit the Garden every couple of months or so. It’s always nice to see how the Garden awakens in the Spring, flourishes during Summer, and closes down in the Autumn and Winter. And we always enjoy a welcome cup of Americano in the Pavilion Cafe.

However a stroll round the Garden usually takes no more than 90 minutes, so we often try to combine a visit there with somewhere else: on one of Northumberland’s glorious beaches, or deep in the county’s fabulous landscape.

And that’s just what we did last week, heading south from Alnwick to Lordenshaws Iron Age hill fort, south of Rothbury and beyond.

This is the route we took, and I have marked the various interesting sites along the way that encompass various aspects of Northumberland’s history over the millennia. We only stopped at three of these (having visited the others many times before): Lordenshaws, Mote Hills motte and bailey castle at Elsdon, and Winter’s Gibbet high on the moorland beyond Elsdon.

So without further ado, let’s explore what can be seen along this route.

(1) The Alnwick Garden Planning for the Alnwick Garden began in 1997, with the first phase opening in 2001. It was the inspiration of Jane, Duchess of Northumberland. The land was donated by her husband, Ralph Percy, 12th Duke of Northumberland, and covers 42 acres. The garden is managed by a charitable trust. The garden also includes a display of some of the world’s most poisonous plants, and there is a narrative of how they have been used for various nefarious purposes.

(2) Alnwick Castle Home of the Percy family for over 700 years, and residence of the 12th Duke of Northumberland and his family, the first parts of Alnwick Castle were erected in 1096.

Today, it’s open to the public, although we have never visited. The castle has been the filming location for several movies and television programs such as two of the Harry Potter films, and Downton Abbey.


Leaving the Alnwick Garden, we headed south towards Rothbury on the B6341, with views back towards the coast from the high, heather-covered moors, then descending towards Edlingham and magnificent views over the Upper Coquet valley all the way to the Cheviot Hills and the Scottish border.

(3) Edlingham railway viaduct The viaduct (seen in the image below, beyond Edlingham Castle) on the Alnwick to Coldstream (Cornhill) Railway, was opened in 1897.

The line was closed to passenger traffic in 1930. Freight services continued until 1965.

(4) Edlingham Castle and chapel The castle dates from the 14th century, although there was an earlier manor house on the site dating from about 1300. It was the home of Sir William Felton. The castle was abandoned as a residence in the mid-17th century.

Close by the castle is the 11th century chapel of St John the Baptist. Services are still held in the chapel.

Here is a link to a photo album.

(5) Cragside This must be one of the jewels in the National Trust crown, being the first house in the world powered by hydro-electricity. It was built by Lord William and Lady Margaret Armstrong. What is particularly striking about Cragside, in addition to the magnificent house and its location, is the fact that the Armstrongs transformed an area of high Northumberland heath into a remarkable garden with trees a hundred feet tall or more, something that they would never have seen. We’ve visited there several times, even before we moved to the Northeast in 2020.

(6) Rothbury Proudly proclaimed as the ‘Capital of Coquetdale‘, Rothbury is a small, traditional market town, and a convenient staging post for tourists wishing to explore the surrounding Northumbrian landscape. It was the birthplace, in 1970, of radio and TV celebrity Alexander Armstrong (a distant cousin of the Cragside Armstrongs). In 2010, Rothbury was also the focus of a massive police manhunt.


From Rothbury, the route climbs towards the Simonside Hills. Lordenshaws hill fort is close by. On this section of the route—as from Alnwick to Rothbury—the damage to trees caused by Storm Arwen in November 2021 was very much in evidence.

(7) Lordenshaws Iron Age hill fort and rock carvings This was our second visit to Lordenshaws. The Iron Age fort was built around 2000 years ago. There is also a Bronze Age burial mound. Close-by are the cup and ring marks etched in large boulders, and dating from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, 6000 to 3500 years ago. Also, the views from there over Coquetdale are impressive.

Heading west from Lordenshaws, we traveled below the Simonside ridge before reaching the meandering River Coquet. Then climbing once more before descending into the village of Elsdon, a small hamlet we had visited in 1998 and which, for us, held an interesting story.

(8) Tosson Tower The tower appears in the video above around 5 minutes mark.

It is a Pele tower built in the 14th or 15th century to protect against raiders in this border region with Scotland. It had walls 2 m thick. We didn’t stop as the tower is on private land.

I’d been trying to locate some of the villages we had visited in Northumberland in 1998. And as we entered Elsdon I realized this was one of them. On that holiday we never had a set route, just ending up each day finding bed and breakfast accommodation when and where we could. In Elsdon, we had an evening meal in the local Bird in Bush pub, before retiring for an early night. You can imagine our surprise the following morning when we came down to breakfast to discover that the landlady’s husband, who we’d met the evening before, had suffered a heart attack during the night. A doctor and ambulance had been called and he was in hospital, probably in Morpeth. We slept through the whole commotion!

(9) Mote Hills motte and bailey castle, Elsdon Parking close by the village hall (where the toilets are open to the public!), we walked the short distance up a lane to Mote Hills, the earthwork remains of a late 11th/early 12th century motte and bailey castle, and one of the finest in the country. It’s very impressive, from a distance and close up.

Click on the image below