We called them the ‘Cobridge Alps’ . . .

Not any more. Just take a look at Google Maps Streetview either side of the A53 Leek New Road from around Norton Lane west into Hanley in The Potteries of North Staffordshire. I wrote about that transformation in a blog post in September 2013.

A typical North Staffordshire coalfield landscape, at Longton in The Potteries.

Where once there were towering slag heaps from the adjacent collieries, now there is an undulating landscape that has been converted to parks and nature reserves, like the Whitfield Valley Nature Reserve and, of course, reclaimed for housing. Once where there was a huge slag heap that had spontaneously combusted surrounded by black—very black—desolation, now there is greenery and wildlife. Incidentally, that particular slag heap was on fire when I traveled daily in the 1960s past it on my way to school in The Potteries from my home in Leek 14 miles to the northeast. It took decades to bring that fire under control.

The railway lines that fed the collieries have been ripped up and to some extent part of our industrial heritage has been lost as well. Nevertheless, it is good to see the reclamation of these disused landscapes that are now providing innumerable benefits for local communities.


I left the grime of The Potteries behind almost 55 years ago when I moved away to university. And having retired in 2010, it took another decade to finally make the decision to move from our home in northeast Worcestershire to the northeast of England, another area that has a fine industrial past, also based on coal.

We moved to Newcastle upon Tyne, and have settled near the village of Backworth to the northeast of the city center, and just a handful of miles from the North Sea coast, and mile upon mile of the most fantastic beaches you could ever want to walk along. No swimming for me, though. The North Sea is far too cold. And, in any case, I have been spoiled by too many years in the Tropics, and almost two decades of scuba diving in the warm waters surrounding the Philippines in the Far East.

There’s a housing boom in Newcastle, that has been going on for forty years or more. Once the last of the coal mines was closed in the 1980s (and before), parts of mining villages were bulldozed to make way for better housing. And land reclaimed from the collieries has been developed for new housing. Everywhere you look there are new housing developments, and where Steph and I chose to settle is no different.

The Backworth collieries were part of the Northumberland coalfield, and among the deepest. The Maude Pit, sunk in 1872 had coal seams reached by shafts almost 1400 feet (more than 400 m) deep. In looking into the history of the area, I’ve not yet been able to find a map of the present day landscape with all the abandoned pits marked thereon. And another confusing aspect is that the names of the pits changed over the years.

What I can say is that within a mile or so of where I’m now living there must have been almost a couple dozen pits. By the 1980s all had been closed (some much earlier) and the process to erase them from the landscape begun.

The Maude Pit at Backworth Colliery (looking south), with the colliery workshops along the road, and about half a mile (as the crow flies) from where I now live.

The colliery site today, looking northwest towards the old colliery workshops, and the capped mine shafts.

But not entirely, however. It’s quite a feat to landscape the thousands and thousands (millions probably) of tons of waste that accompanied coal mining.

The remains of the Seghill slag heap, north of Backworth.

And, in contrast to the situation in The Potteries, the coal mining legacy of North Tyneside can be seen in the miles of waggonways that criss-cross the area: the routes of the railways that carried coal from the mines down to special wharfs (known as staithes) on the River Tyne from where it was exported worldwide. The photos below (courtesy of Debbie Twiddy on Facebook) show coal trains crossing the area close to home, a landscape that has long been lost.

This landscape has changed in other ways, apart from the various housing developments in the area. New roads have been pushed through like the A186 bypass to the village of Shiremoor, so that it’s not easy to entirely reconcile old photos with the reality on the ground today. Also, and unlike The Potteries, many of the industrial sites have been allowed to re-wild. After 40 to 50 years of growth there is now an impressive cover of mature trees, brush and scrub that has become a haven for wildlife, big and small. Just the other day we saw a fine pair of roe deer just a short distance from home. The waggonways are important wildlife corridors that connect different sites across North Tyneside.

This is what it looks like today.

I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of Backworth’s coal mining heritage, and there must be lots more to uncover. This is a useful website that I have yet to mine in detail.

Without appreciating it before we moved north 14 months back, we have now settled in a remarkable and fascinating landscape that we will take great pleasure in exploring and uncovering more interesting facts about its heritage.


 

 

 

A cielo abierto . . .

Have you read—or even heard of—a novella called The Little Prince? No? Me neither. The Little Prince was first published in English and French in 1943. Remarkably it is one of the best selling and most translated books ever. In fact I knew nothing about it or its author (French impoverished aristocrat, pioneer aviator, and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) until just the other day when I began a book, The Prince of the Skies, a historical novel by Spanish author Antonio Iturbe, and published in English earlier this year, in a translation by Melbourne-based Dr Lilit Žekulin Thwaites.

The Prince of the Skies first appeared in 2017 as A Cielo Abierto (not to be confused with the 2000 Spanish movie of that name), and tells the story of three French pioneer aviators from 1922 to their deaths in the 1930s and 1940s, but from the perspective of Saint-Exupéry.

Besides Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944), the other two aviators were Jean Mermoz (1901-1936), and Henri Guillaumet (1902-1940).

L-R: Saint-Exupéry, Mermoz, and Guillaumet

The book opens in 1922 with Saint-Exupéry, a sublieutenant in the French air force, taking to the sky over Paris in primitive biplane. He dreamed of being as free as a bird, and indeed much of the book reflects the freedom that he and the other aviators felt once they were airborne.

All three took positions with a company that carried the mail between southern France and Spain, and on to North Africa, following the desert and coast south to Senegal. Flying was hazardous, particularly over the Pyrenees, arduous, and not without considerable danger. The death toll among pilots was not inconsiderable. The companies they worked for were the forerunners of Air France and Aerolineas Argentinas, among others.

But Saint-Exupéry, Mermoz, and Guillaumet led, for a while, charmed lives but not without aviation upsets.

All three were posted to Argentina to open up air mail routes between Brazil and Buenos Aires, and south through Patagonia. Saint-Exupéry was charged with opening a route between Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile, flying high over the Andes at the limits of aviation in those early years. In 1930 Guillaumet crashed at over 3000 m on his 92nd flight on this route, and extraordinarily took a week to climb and walk out of the mountains.

Mermoz set about establishing a non-stop service between Dakar in Senegal and Natal in northeast Brazil, the shortest crossing of the South Atlantic, but not without its challenges as the route crosses the Intertropical Convergence Zone, well known (and respected) for its turbulent weather. The crossing from Dakar would take 15 hours or more, with just one pilot. Initially flown by seaplanes, aviation technology soon developed to permit land-based aircraft to make the trip. But it was on what would be his last flight in December 1936 that Mermoz’s plane disappeared fours hours after departing from Dakar. He and his mechanic were never found.

Henri Guillaumet joined the Free French Air Force at the outbreak of war in 1939, and was shot down and killed over the eastern Mediterranean in 1940.

Saint-Exupéry was a dreamer and a reluctant writer who agonized, it seems, over every word and paragraph. Nevertheless his work was spotted by influential writers and publishers, and his books won prestigious prizes.

His personal life was complicated. Originally engaged to society beauty and writer Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin, he never got over the breakdown in their relationship having been cast aside, not deemed worthy enough by her family. He married Salvadoran writer and artist Consuelo Suncín de Sandoval in Buenos Aires in 1930 and their somewhat turbulent marriage did survive until his death.

Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin (L) and Consuelo Suncín de Sandoval (R)

After spending a couple of years in the USA from 1940, Saint-Exupéry joined the Free French Air Force in North Africa. He crashed in mysterious circumstances off the coast of the South of France in 1944. His body was never recovered.

The Little Prince was eventually published posthumously in France after the liberation in August 1944. Saint-Exupéry’s books had been banned in Vichy France.

I enjoyed this book, which I selected on spec from our local public library. Iturbe has really brought the chief protagonists to life, and has certainly shown how much we—who take aviation for granted as we criss-cross the globe (pandemic permitting nowadays)—owe to the early aviators who trail-blazed air routes across the continents in the flimsiest and often unreliable (as well as uncomfortable) aircraft. All three aviators are celebrated today in various memorials in France, in literature, and cinema.

Obviously I haven’t read the book in its original Spanish, but translator Žekulin Thwaites has a neat turn of phrase throughout which makes for an easy and enjoyable read.

The Prince of the Skies is published by Macmillan (ISBN 978-1-5290-6333-2).


 

 

 

We’ve waited four decades . . .

It’s hard to believe that 40 years have flown by since ABBA released their last studio album, The Visitors, at the end of November 1981.

And here we are, in late 2021, eagerly waiting for the release (on 5 November) of a new—and 10th—album, Voyage. It sounds as though they never went away. Actually, to my ears, it sounds as though they just got better, matured, as of course they have done, being slightly older and younger than me (I’m coming up to 73 in mid-November).

How can I say this? Well, in a smart marketing move, ABBA released a double A-side single with accompanying videos on YouTube. I Still Have Faith In You and Don’t Shut Me Down (Tracks 1 and 4 on Voyage) may not have climbed as high in the charts worldwide as might have been expected (although they did rather well in some countries), fans have been quite emotional about the release. From comments I’ve read on Facebook and Twitter, and left on YouTube, the reception by ABBA fans has been ecstatic.

So, how do I (as a dedicated ABBA fan – I wrote about them in January this year) feel about these two tracks? Equally ecstatic I have to admit. Indeed, I reckon that if these are but a sample of the new album overall, then we really are in for an ABBA feast.

But don’t take my word for it. Have a look and listen to these new tracks.

Fronted by Anni-Frid, I Still Have Faith In You commences as a quiet ballad, but builds in a crescendo to a wonderful chorus, filled with ABBA pizzazz. Her voice has become a little deeper, and perhaps warmer. But it still reaches the heights when joined by Agnetha in the lovely harmonies typical of ABBA. Changes of pace, of key and beautiful musical arrangement throughout, I Still Have Faith In You is a fitting composition with which to launch ABBA’s return, albeit for this once-in-a-lifetime album only.

With this track, and the next, Don’t Shut Me Down, Benny and Björn clearly demonstrate what a formidable song-writing duo they are. These two songs, as with all their compositions, are written for the voices of Anni-Frid and Agnetha, not adapted to their voices. And this is what makes them so powerful.

Don’t Shut Me Down begins with Agnetha setting the scene, in ballad format, before the pace explodes in a riot of funky bass. I could find myself easily dancing to this one. The musical arrangement is breathtaking, layers of music, composition at its finest. Just have a close listen to the track, and the other, to see the musical magic that Benny has woven among the lyrics.

And talking of the lyrics, both these tracks have a story to tell. It never ceases to amaze me how clever their lyric composition is and has always been, especially given that Benny and Björn are composing in their second language. It’s sophisticated stuff.

Critical reception of these tracks has been good, and I think everyone is waiting for the 5th when we can get to enjoy the other eight tracks on Voyage.

ABBA have already indicated there won’t be another album. After 40 years, ABBA has brought some joy into the lives of countless fans around the world, especially at a time when everything was looking rather grey.

I now have two ear worms, one for each ear, and I find myself singing along in my head, familiar with the lyrics already AND the fancy musical arrangements. I couldn’t hum them aloud if I tried, but within the recesses of my mind they are perfect replicas. And they make me happy.


 

One year already in the northeast . . .

There were days, a little over a year ago, when I thought that the sale of our house in Worcestershire would never be completed. It was a really stressful time, not made any easier by the solicitors ‘managing’ the house sale chain.

Even today I find it slightly surreal that we finally managed to sell our house and move 226 miles to Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England (map), in the middle of a pandemic. But, at just after 12:30 on 30 September last year, that’s what we did, closing the front door of our home of 39 years for the final time.

Since we hadn’t found anywhere to buy in the Newcastle area—the pandemic restricting any travel plans we initially had to view properties for sale—we took a six month rental on a three bedroom house in the West Allotment-Shiremoor area of the city, about six miles northeast of the city center towards the North Sea coast, moving in on 1 October.

After taking a little over a week to settle in and familiarize ourselves with the local area and shopping, we began the search for a new home to buy, armed with a list of properties that I’d already lined up through online searches of estate agent (realtor) websites.

The search didn’t take long at all. On 14 October our offer on a two-year old house in the Backworth area (just under a mile from where we were renting) was accepted. However, the actual sale didn’t complete until the first week of February this year, and we finally moved in on 6 March.

Moving out of Cloverfield on 6 March

Moving into our new home


Having spent so little time searching for somewhere to live, we could then sit back and relax, so to speak, and explore the local North Tyneside area and Northumberland more widely.

We already knew something about the county. In 1998 during one of our home leaves, Steph and I spent a week traveling around Northumberland. Then, our younger daughter Philippa commenced her degree course at Durham University in October 2000, and afterwards she moved permanently to Newcastle. So for 20 years or more we’ve had good reason to come back to this neck of the woods.

Northumberland is one of the most beautiful counties in the country, located just south of the border with Scotland, with Cumbria (and the Lake District) to the west, and North Yorkshire (and the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, or AONB) to the south. There are so many interesting and beautiful locations to visit, and keep up our interest in properties owned and managed by the National Trust and English Heritage. And it’s a county with a long and illustrious history.

The Backworth area was, until 40 years ago, home to several collieries. After they were closed, the buildings demolished, rail tracks lifted, and spoil heaps leveled, the whole area has re-wilded, and the routes of the former rail links (the waggonways) to the coal depots or staithes on the River Tyne to the south have opened as footpaths and bridleways. There are miles and miles of waggonways. The plant and animal and bird life is incredible. I try to get out most days for a 2-3 mile walk along the waggonways.

Along the Cramlington Waggonway, West Allotment

Just a few miles to the east of Backworth is the North Sea coast. Northumberland boasts of some of the finest beaches in the country. Our closest is at Seaton Sluice, and many times since we moved north we have headed there for a bracing walk along the beach, weather permitting.

This interactive map (with links to other blog posts or photo albums) shows all the places we have visited over the past 12 months. And although it looks as though we have been quite busy, there’s just so much more to explore for the first time or renew our acquaintance from previous visits to Northumberland.


Being a new build house, there were only a few things that needed my attention inside and they were quickly dealt with over a few weeks. Outside was a different prospect, and a project that has kept us busy—well, kept Steph busy— ever since: the creation of a new garden. Both the front and rear of the house only had lawns. So Steph came up with a design and we called in a small company at the end of April to remove the surplus turf. Then we set about planting all the materials we’d brought from Bromsgrove and carefully nurtured over the winter.

Quite a difference for just five months. But Steph has lots more plans.

As we have for exploring Northumberland and the wider region in the coming months and years.


 

Life in a northern town . . .

Septimius Severus

There is only circumstantial evidence that the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (AD 145-211, ruling from AD 193) ever visited Coria (that we know today as Corbridge Roman town) in Northumberland. However he arrived in Britannia in AD 208 to suppress uprisings in Caledonia (Scotland).

The route to the north lay along the Roman road Dere Street. And Dere Street passed through Coria. After campaigning for three years he took ill, withdrew to Eboracum (York), and died there in 211.

Coria claims to be the most northerly town in the Roman Empire, founded almost 2000 years ago. I can’t vouch for that, but it was certainly the most northerly Roman town in Britannia, just a few miles south of Chesters Roman Fort and Hadrian’s Wall, the northern boundary between Roman civilization and barbarism to the north.

The remains of Corbridge Roman town lie just under 20 miles due west from Newcastle upon Tyne city center. Steph and I took our two grandsons, Elvis and Felix, there a few weeks past.

Any visitor to Corbridge can’t help but be impressed when entering the ruins, especially taking into account what is actually on display, and what is not. English Heritage has domain over only a small section of the entire Corbridge site. It stretches much further out in all directions. Just south of the site is the River Tyne where there was once a crossing. Much of the site has been excavated, but large areas were covered over once the excavations were complete, over a century ago.


Entrance to the site passes through a fine museum chronicling the history and timeline of the town, with many impressive artefacts on display from the mighty to the mundane. Among the most notable of these is the Corbridge Lion that was discovered more than a century ago inside a water tank.

Just outside the museum are the remains of two large granaries with their vaulted floors that allowed heated air to flow and keep grains dry.

These granaries stand next to the impressively wide high street that bisected the town.

Around the site are the remains of walls that have become bowed through subsidence yet impressively retained their integrity.

Another feature of the site which interested me were the sophisticated drainage channels, some covered, along the streets and connecting different buildings, presumably some carrying clean water into dwellings.

In the southwest corner of the site is a deep, wall-lined pit that apparently was the strongroom.

There’s so much to explore at Corbridge Roman town that I don’t think I did the site justice during this first visit. Another visit is surely on the cards come the Spring.


 


 

Engraved on my mind . . .

One of Northumberland’s most famous sons was artist and naturalist Thomas Bewick who became England’s finest wood-engraver.

Born in 1753 at Cherryburn in the village of Mickley beside the River Tyne, 12 miles west of Newcastle upon Tyne, Thomas was apprenticed in October 1767, aged 14, to Newcastle silver and copper engraver Ralph Beilby (1743-1817), who quickly (though reluctantly, so it is said) recognized Thomas’s skill as an engraver, particularly of wood. After his seven year apprenticeship, Thomas went into partnership with Beilby, and eventually took over the business.

Thomas was the eldest of nine children of John Bewick and his wife Ann Toppin. A younger brother John also became a renowned engraver and was apprenticed to Thomas. Click on the genealogy chart below to enlarge.

Thomas married Isabella Elliot in April 1786, and they had four children: Jane, Robert, Isabella, and Elizabeth. None of his children married and so Thomas has no direct descendants. Robert (also an artist) was apprenticed to his father; he became an accomplished player of the Northumbrian pipes.


Last week, Steph and I traveled the 20 miles from our home to Cherryburn that is now owned and managed by the National Trust.

A couple of rooms in the old farmhouse can be viewed, and are sparsely furnished with period pieces, much as it would have appeared, I imagine, in the late 18th century. The fireplace is particularly impressive.

Across the cobbled farmyard is a more recent house, from the 1820s that became the family home of Thomas’s brother.

This houses a small museum displaying many Bewick artefacts such as original boxwood blocks and prints from two of Thomas’s most accomplished works: A General History of Quadrupeds (published in 1790), and The History of British Birds (published in two volumes in 1797 and 1804).

There is a gallery of engravings from his major publications on the website of The Bewick Society, and is well worth a look. They are simply beautiful.

Perhaps one of the best known of Bewick’s engravings is that of The Chillingham Bull (1789) as a single sheet print (7¼ x 9¾ inches). It was commissioned by Marmaduke Tunstall, of Wycliffe in North Yorkshire. Just look at the remarkable detail.

At the rear of the house, one room has now been converted into a printing shop, with a single sheet printing press (made in Edinburgh) that would have been similar to the type that Thomas Bewick was familiar with, although this particular press was not contemporaneous with Bewick. One of the National Trust volunteers was on hand to demonstrate just how these single sheet prints were made, with a copy wood block depicting the heron that appears in his book of British birds. The resulting print was a souvenir of our visit to Cherryburn.

 


Before his death in 1828, Bewick had campaigned for a bridge across the River Tyne, something that was not completed until 55 years later in 1883. It is a single carriageway bridge and footbridge connecting Prudhoe on the south bank with Ovingham on the north.

And it’s in the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin in Ovingham (a 13th century building with a Saxon tower) where Bewick and his wife are buried on the west side of the tower. A stone memorial that was originally on the outside wall of the church now sits inside the porch, and there is a more recent one on the south wall near the altar. Memorials to Bewick’s three daughters and his wife, and his artist brother John can also be seen outside the porch.

As you can see from the photos in this post, the weather was beautiful on the day of our visit to Cherryburn, affording superb views north over the Tyne into the Northumberland countryside. It’s no wonder that Thomas Bewick was inspired by the nature all around him. Who wouldn’t be? They are images forever engraved on my mind.


 

The beguiling girl from Malaga . . .

Steph and I enjoy a pot of freshly-brewed coffee (two parts No. 3 Lazy Sunday and one part No. 5 After Dark, from Taylors of Harrogate) just a couple of times a week, when we have a more leisurely—and usually cooked—breakfast. And yesterday, Sunday, was one of those days.

Normally I make the coffee while Steph practices her yoga, and take a cup upstairs to my ‘office’ (a spare bedroom), check my email and social media accounts, and browse the news websites.

Not yesterday, however. I got behind myself, and only started to boil the water once Steph had finished her yoga. But there was still time to pour myself a first cup, and spend a few minutes in an armchair waiting for the sun to break through the ever-present bank of cloud that had dogged this part of the country for the past week, putting temperatures well below what they should be for this time of year.

As usual I tuned into my favorite Internet station, Radio Paradise, and sat there thinking about nothing in particular. Until . . .

A track by the TexMex group Chingon was the second song played. It was so familiar, yet unfamiliar at the same time. It was a song that I’d come across for the first time only a few months back, and yet Chingon‘s interpretation was so different.

And the song? Malagueña Salerosa.

I’d come across it in a YouTube video, from an October 2016 broadcast of Live from Here with Chris Thile (now cancelled), an early Saturday evening show broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio but available nationwide, and successor to Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion.

Performed by Guatemalan singer-songwriter Gaby Moreno I was immediately captivated by the song and the singer. What a voice! What a vocal range! What emotion!

It seems that Malagueña Salerosa has almost become her signature song. Her performances are essentially the same, but as with all talented artists, her interpretation varies just slightly from one to another.

So, how different is the version by Chingon? Well, here’s a link to the recorded version that I heard on Radio Paradise, as well as a live performance. See for yourself. It’s a combination of rock, mariachi and the like. Very upbeat compared to the Gaby Moreno interpretation.

Chingon contributed a performance of Malagueña Salerosa to Quentin Tarantino’s 2004 film Kill Bill Volume 2.

In the song, the vocalist must hold a high note, as long as possible. That’s one of the differences between the versions by Gaby Moreno and Chingon: they perform that vocal feat on different lyrics. Impressive.

Anyhow, having now heard two versions of this particular song, I was intrigued to know a little more about it, who wrote it and when.

Malagueña Salerosa was apparently written by Elpidio Ramírez and Pedro Galindo, although this has been disputed. What we do know is that it was published in 1947, and perhaps the first well-known recording was by Mexican singer and film star Miguel Aceves Mejía, ‘King of the Falsetto’, who died in 2006 aged 90. Malagueña Salerosa was one of his greatest hits.

Another version I’ve come across features former Spanish child singer Joselito and Mexican star Antonio Aguilar in the 1952 film El Caballo Blanco (The White Horse).

There is one more recording that I’ve encountered, by operatic tenor Placido Domingo, released in 1999, but not one that I warmed to. He does, however, hold the high notes pretty well.

So, there you have it. One later-than-usual cup of coffee has led to all these background searches on the Interweb. It’s been an interesting endeavor.


Incidentally, writing about cover versions, I also heard recently on Radio Paradise a cover version of Sting’s 1993 Fields of Gold, by American singer and guitarist Eva Cassidy. She passed away in 1996 from cancer at the early age of 33 less than a year after this recording was released. I’d never heard of her before this lovely version of Fields of Gold was broadcast on Radio Paradise.

Better than the original? I think so.


 

“Where did you get that hat?”

That’s the title and first line of a comic song, composed and first performed by New York vaudeville comedian Joseph J Sullivan in 1888.

It came to mind yesterday when I opened an article in The Guardian online newspaper that asked readers to answer this simple question: When and why did men stop wearing hats?

Cary Grant, taken by my father on board a trans-Atlantic liner in the 1930s

There were some interesting answers: changing fashion (more leisure styles); availability of  warmer clothing so no need to wear a hat; the influence of President Kennedy (who’d been interviewed not wearing a hat) and celebrities; and cars, among the many responses.

Just take a look at the image below, tweeted by San Francisco resident @edannunziatta in July 2018, commenting that “Everybody used to wear hats. Then suddenly everybody stopped wearing hats! Weird, right?

This image was probably taken in the 1930s or 40s

Check out photos of mill or shipyard workers for example from a century ago or earlier, and all the men are wearing flat caps (and the majority are also sporting impressive moustaches). Fashions change.

Did you ever see an outdoors photo of Winston Churchill without a hat? Hats were almost as much a signature as his ubiquitous cigar.

But it did get me wondering, and when I searched online for more information, there was a wealth of articles and videos explaining why there had been this change of fashion over the decades. Here’s one video (about 20 minutes long) that provides a lot of explanations, and four main reasons why hats are, in general, no longer en vogue.

I don’t remember my father ever wearing a hat, except for an exceptionally cold winter’s day when he would dig out an old fur hat that he kept squirreled away somewhere.

I never really knew my mother’s parents, and I never saw my paternal grandfather ever wear a hat (he was almost 76 when I was born in 1948). However, in these photos of my mother, in 1936, after she returned to the UK from the USA, and met with her parents (Martin and Ellen Healy, on the left) and her future in-laws (Tom and Alice Jackson, on the right), both my grandfathers wore hats, my Healy grandfather sporting perhaps a more upmarket bowler or similar.

As for me, I love hats, and I rarely take my daily walk without some sort of titfer on my head. That wasn’t always the case, however. From the ages of five to sixteen I was obliged wear a cap to school, but always removed it at the earliest opportunity. Indeed it was a punishable ‘offence’ at my high school to be caught without a cap, not something that would be widely countenanced today (unless you attend the likes of Eton or Harrow, perhaps).

I have a photo of me (aged seven or eight) somewhere—although I can’t lay my hands on it right now—wearing this huge sombrero that was part of the costume of a large doll (Matilda was her name, if my memory serves me well¹) owned by my sister Margaret.

And talking of sombreros . . .

Just after I arrived in Peru in January 1973, and having spent several hours for the first time under the tropical sun at the beach I realized that I did need some sort of hat for protection. On my first trip into the Andes east of Lima, we stopped by a hat stand selling straw hats. I wore it on all my germplasm excursions across the Andes, and even after we moved to Costa Rica three years later.

Near Cuzco in southern Peru, 1974

I took it back to the UK in 1981, and then it accompanied me to the Philippines in 1991 when we moved there.

In the field at IRRI in the Philippines around 2008

And, on occasion, I still wear it from time to time today. And this is why it has survived all these years. First, it is has a fine weave. Second, it can be rolled up, then ‘revived’ within seconds by holding under warm water.

But today, I generally wear a more fashionable straw hat (courtesy of the National Trust) in the summer months because my optician advised me to protect my eyes (incipient cataracts). It’s not a Panama, and I now regret not picking one up in either Cali airport in Colombia or Panama later the same day when traveling there in July 2016.

On other work trips I’ve often used a floppy cotton hat from IRRI, or one given to me by good friend Dyno Keatinge when he was Director General of the World vegetable Center (AVRDC) in Taiwan. I sometimes wore a baseball-style hat although those are by no means my favorite.

Come winter, then other measures are called for. When Steph and I lived in the Philippines we spent Christmas 2007 in Minnesota. As you can imagine the difference in temperature was extreme, from around 30°C on departure to -20°C on arrival in the USA. Severe measures were called for, and I quickly acquired a woolly hat that I still use today.

2007 on the left, 2020 on the right

And to keep the rain off, and because I like the look and feel of both, I have a tweed flat cap (that I bought in Minnesota on one of my work trips) and a dark blue felt fedora that has been my pride and joy for about five years.

One thing is certain, when I’m out and about au chapeau, I see very few other men similarly attired, apart from the odd baseball cap or woolly hat.

Despite the general lack of hat popularity these days, I fortunately don’t attract comments like “Where did you get that hat?” Thank goodness!


¹ My eldest brother Martin has confirmed that the doll was actually named Lola!

Looking back . . . and looking forward

As I approach my 73rd birthday, I find myself inevitably reminiscing about the places I’ve been, the wonders (both natural and man-made) I’ve seen, and the people I’ve met in the more than 60 countries (map) I visited throughout my career in international agricultural research for development.

I guess I inherited a ‘travel gene’ from my parents, Fred and Lilian Jackson, who both traveled at an early age. My mother first went to Canada when she was 17, as a children’s nanny, then moved to the USA to train as an orthopedic nurse. My father was a photographer for most of his life, and spent his early life crossing the North Atlantic and further afield as a ship’s photographer in the 1920s and ’30s when travel by ocean liner was the way to travel.


My global travel adventures had somewhat humble beginnings however. I took my first flight in the summer of 1966 (aged 17), when I traveled to the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland for a spot of bird watching. In September 1969, as an undergraduate at the University of Southampton, I traveled overland to Czechoslovakia to take part in a folk festival. Then, in April 1972, I flew to Izmir on the Aegean coast of Turkey to attend a genetic resources conference, and had the opportunity of seeing the ancient ruins at Ephesus for the first time.

The Library of Celsus at Ephesus


Those trips were just the beginning. By the end of 1972, I was ready for my next big adventure: moving to Lima, Peru to join the newly-founded International Potato Center (CIP) as an Associate Taxonomist studying the center’s large and impressive germplasm collection of South American potato varieties.

The beauty of diverse potato varieties from the Andes of South America

With my PhD supervisor, Professor Jack Hawkes, among potato varieties in the CIP germplasm collection at Huancayo (3300 masl) in Central Peru

As I’ve written in other blog posts, I had an ambition (probably a much stronger feeling than that) to visit Peru, even when I was still a young boy. And then in January 1973, there I was in Peru, and being paid to be there to boot.

Without hesitation I can say that the three years I spent in Peru had the strongest influence on the rest of my career, in research and teaching in the field of plant genetic resources, and international agricultural development.

Peru had everything: landscapes, culture, history, archaeology, people, cuisine. It’s the most marvellous country.

Huascaran, the highest mountain in Peru

Looking east back over Cajamarca (in the north of Peru), with the mists rising up from the Inca baths.

Just check out my photo album to see what I mean.


While Peru has all manner of landscapes—coastal deserts, mountains, jungle—Steph and I have also been fortunate to experience the wonders of so many more elsewhere, but particularly across the USA, which we have visited regularly since retirement in 2010 as our elder daughter Hannah and her family reside in Minnesota. And during those visits, we have made long road trips, exploring almost the whole of the country, except the Deep South.

Where do I start? The one place I would return to tomorrow is Canyon de Chelly in northeast Arizona. It’s not only the landscape that inspires, but Canyon de Chelly is all about the Navajo Nation and its persecution in the 19th century.

Then of course there’s the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and other desert landscapes in the US southwest.

In the west we could hardly fail to be appreciate the majesty of Crater Lake in Oregon and the redwoods of northern California.

There’s so much history at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers on the borders of Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri. These rivers were integral to the exploration of the continent, and during the American Civil War of the 1860s whole armies were transported to the different theaters of war along their reaches.

At Fort Defiance, Cairo, IL with the Ohio on the left, and the Mississippi on the right

In Asia, during a visit to Laos (where I had a project) Steph and I enjoyed a day trip up the mighty Mekong River to the Pak Ou Caves, north of Luang Prabang.

L: temple with hundreds of Buddhist carvings at the Pak Ou caves along the Mekong at its confluence with the Nam Ou river, 25 km north of Luang Prabang

I’ve seen two of the most impressive waterfalls in the world: Niagara Falls and Iguazu Falls from the Brazil side.

Niagara Falls (top) from the Canadian side; aerial view of the Iguazu Falls (bottom)

We climbed (by car I have to mention) to the top of the highest mountain in the northeast USA, Mt Washington (at 6288 ft or 1916 m), on a glorious June day in 2018 that offered views across the region for mile upon mile.

In Switzerland, I fulfilled another long-standing ambition in 2004 to view the Matterhorn at Zermatt.

I’ve visited several African countries.  You can’t but be impressed by the sheer size of the African continent. I never thought I’d ever see landscapes that went on forever like the Great Rift Valley in Kenya and Ethiopia. Sadly, I don’t appear to have saved any photos from my 1993 trip to Ethiopia when I first went into the Rift Valley. It was a day trip from Addis Ababa to a research station at Debre Zeit. Apart from the expansive landscape, what caught my attention most perhaps was the abundant bird life. There were African fish eagles in the trees, almost as common as sparrows. And around the research station itself, it was almost impossible not to tread on ground foraging birds of one sort or another, so numerous and unafraid of humans.

On another trip to Kenya, I saw wildlife in the 177 sq km Nairobi National Park, right on the outskirts of the city. Although I’ve traveled through a number of sub-Saharan countries I’ve yet to enjoy the full ‘safari experience’ and see large aggregations of wildlife. That’s definitely a bucket list item.

Giraffe and water buffalo in the Nairobi National Park

During the 19 years I spent in the Philippines I had the good fortune to explore an entirely different underwater landscape after I learned to scuba dive in March 1993.

Featherstars at Kirby’s Rock, Anilao, Philippines, January 2005

I made more than 360 dives but only at Anilao, some 90 km or so south of Los Baños where I worked at the International Rice Research Institute. The reefs at Anilao are some of the most biodiverse in the Philippines, indeed almost anywhere.


Three man-made landscapes: one in the Philippines, one in Peru, and another in Germany particularly come to mind. These are witness to the incredible engineering that built the rice terraces of the Ifugao region of northern Luzon in the Philippines, the potato terraces of Cuyo Cuyo in the south of Peru that I visited in February 1974, and the vineyards on the steep slopes of the Ahr Valley, just south of Bonn. The wines are not bad, either.

Rice terraces near Banaue, Philippines

Potato terraces at Cuyo Cuyo, Peru

Vineyards in the Ahr Valley, Germany


Several archaeological wonders are seared into my mind. Steph and I have together visited four of them. Two others—the Great Wall of China and Ancient Rome—on my own during work trips.

In December 1973 we spent a night at Machu Picchu in southern Peru. This was my second visit, as I’d made a day visit there in January that year, just 10 days after I’d first landed in Peru. In 1975, while visiting friends in Mexico on the way back to the UK, we saw the magnificent pyramids at Teotihuacan near Mexico City. During the five years we lived in Central America between 1976 and 1980, Steph joined me on one of my trips to Guatemala, and we took a weekend off to fly into the ancient Mayan city of Tikal. Magical! And once we were in Asia, Steph, Philippa (our younger daughter) and I took a Christmas-New Year break at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.


Among the man-made features that cannot fail to inspire are the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House, the Statue of Christ the Redeemer, overlooking Rio de Janeiro, and New York’s Empire State Building that Steph, Hannah (then almost three) went up in March 1981.


I guess I could go on and on, but where to draw the line?

However, I cannot finish without mentioning two more places that are near and dear to me. The first is the International Potato Center in Lima. That was where my career started. So CIP will always have a special place in my heart.

The other is the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) at Los Baños, 70 km south of Manila.

Aerial view of the IRRI campus

As I mentioned, Steph and I lived there for almost 19 years. Our two daughters were raised and went to school in the Philippines. My roles at IRRI, as head of genetic resources then as a director were professionally fulfilling and, to a large degree, successful. When I retired in 2010 I left IRRI with a clear sense of achievement. I do miss all the wonderful folks that I worked alongside, too numerous to mention but my staff in the Genetic Resources Center and DPPC are particularly special to me.

With genebank manager, Pola de Guzman, in the cold storage of the International Rice Genebank at IRRI

Standing in IRRI’s demonstration plots in front of the FF Hill admin building where I, as Director for Program Planning & Communications, had my office. That’s Mt Makiling, a dormant volcano in the background.

The IRRI campus is special. It’s where, in the 1960s the Green Revolution for rice in Asia was planned and delivered. It really should be awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status.


Over the decades I’ve worked for and with some remarkable scientists, all dedicated to making food and agricultural systems productive and sustainable. I’ve written about some here: Joe Smartt, Jack Hawkes, Trevor Williams, Richard Sawyer, Jim Bryan, Bob Zeigler.

Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd and I were graduate students together, colleagues at the University of Birmingham during the 1980s, and collaborating research scientists during the years at IRRI. Since we both lived in Bromsgrove, we would travel together into the university each day. We’ve published three books on genetic resources together. Following my retirement in 2010, Brian and I would meet up every few weeks to enjoy a pint of beer or three at our local pub, the Red Lion, in Bromsgrove where we both lived. Until that is I moved away from Bromsgrove to the northeast of England almost a year ago.

I’ve also met with royalty, presidents, politicians, diplomats, Nobel Prize winners, and many others during their visits to IRRI, and who inevitably made a bee-line for the genebank.


So what’s still on my bucket list. The Covid pandemic has put the kibosh on international travel over the past two summers. We’ve not visited our family in the USA since 2019. I’m not sure I would want to undertake long road trips in the future (more than 2000 miles) as we have in past visits, even though there are some regions, like the Deep South that we’d still like to visit.

Number 1 on my list would be New Zealand. I’ve always hankered to go there, and maybe we’ll still get that opportunity. Also Cape Province in South Africa: for the landscapes, Table Mountain, and the plant life. Not to mention the superb South African wines from that region. The lakes region of Argentina around Bariloche, and southern Chile are also on my list. And although Steph and I have traveled quite extensively in Australia, down the east coast from Sydney to Melbourne, it’s such a large country that there’s so many other places to see like Uluru and the Great Barrier Reef.

I’ve been to a fair number of countries in Europe but mostly when I have been on work trips. I’d like to take Steph to some of the places I’ve already enjoyed. However, Brexit has certainly made travel into many European countries rather more challenging.

But until the Covid pandemic is under control and there are few or no restrictions on international travel I guess we won’t be going anywhere soon. For the time being they remain on my wish list for future adventures.


 

The Commonwealth Potato Collection – it really is a treasure trove

A few days ago, a friend and former colleague, Dr Glenn Bryan posted a link on his Facebook page to a story—Treasure trove could hold secrets to potato problems—that appeared in the online edition of Dundee’s The Courier on 20 August.

It was all about the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC) that is held at The James Hutton Institute at Invergowrie, just west of Dundee.

Glenn leads the Potato Genetics and Breeding Group there, and also has overall responsibility for the CPC, ably assisted by collection curator Gaynor McKenzie.

Glenn Bryan and Gaynor McKenzie at the James Hutton Institute in Invergowrie, where wild potato species in the Commonwealth Potato Collection are conserved.

Glenn and I go back almost 30 years when, as a young scientist at the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Norwich, he was a member of a rice research project, funded by the British government, that brought together staff at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines where I was Head of the Genetic Resources Center, the University of Birmingham (where I had been a faculty member for a decade from 1981), and the JIC to use molecular markers to study IRRI’s large and globally-important germplasm collection conserved in its International Rice Genebank.

L-R: me, Glenn, and John Newbury (who later became professor at the University of Worcester) during a spot of sight-seeing near IRRI in 1993

The Commonwealth Potato Collection has a long and distinguished history, going back more than 80 years, much longer than the rice collection at IRRI. It is one of a handful of potato germplasm collections around the world in which breeders have identified disease and pest resistance genes to enhance the productivity of cultivated varieties. The CPC is particularly important from a plant quarantine perspective because the collection has been routinely tested and cleaned for various pathogens, particularly seed-borne pathogens.

Jack Hawkes

It is a collection with which Steph and I have both a personal and professional connection, from the 1970s and 80s. It’s also the legacy of one man, Professor Jack Hawkes (1915-2007) with whom I had the privilege of studying for both my MSc and PhD degrees.

Let me tell that story.


In December 1938, a young botanist—just 23 years old the previous June—set off from Liverpool, headed to Lima, Peru to join the British Empire Potato Collecting Expedition to South America, the adventure of a lifetime.

Jack in Bolivia in 1939

John ‘Jack’ Gregory Hawkes, a Christ’s College, Cambridge graduate, was destined to become one of the world’s leading potato experts and a champion of the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.

He was the taxonomic botanist on the 1939 expedition, which was led by experienced plant collector Edwards Kent Balls (1892-1984). Medical doctor and amateur botanist William ‘Bill’ Balfour Gourlay (1879-1966) was the third member of the expedition. Balls and Gourlay had been collecting plants in Mexico (including some potatoes) in 1938 before moving on to Peru for the ‘Empire’ expedition.

The expedition had originally been scheduled to start in 1937, but had to be delayed because of ill health of the original expedition leader, Dr PS Hudson, Director of the Empire Bureau of Plant Breeding and Genetics in Cambridge. Jack had been hired as his assistant. Whilst waiting for the expedition to get underway, Jack took the opportunity—in August 1938—to visit Leningrad to pick the brains of Russian botanists, Drs SM Bukasov, VS Juzepczuk, and VS Lechnovicz who had already collected potatoes in South America. Jack openly acknowledged that ‘as a raw recently graduated student, [he] knew very little about potatoes’.

Nikolai Vavilov

Not only did Jack receive useful advice from these knowledgeable botanists, but he also met with the great geneticist and ‘Father of Plant Genetic Resources’ Nikolai Vavilov on several occasions during his visit to Leningrad and Moscow, ‘an experience that changed [his] life in many ways’. Vavilov had a profound effect on Jack’s subsequent career as an academic botanist and genetic resources pioneer. Alas there do not appear to be any surviving photos of Jack with Vavilov.

‘Solanum vavilovii’ growing at an experiment station near Leningrad in 1938

In Leningrad, Jack took this photo (right) of a wild potato species that had been described as Solanum vavilovii by Juzepczuk and Bukasov in 1937. Sadly that name is no longer taxonomically valid, and vavilovii is now considered simply as a variant of the species Solanum wittmackii that had been described by the German botanist Friedrich August Georg Bitter in 1913.


The Empire expedition lasted eight months from January 1939, covering northern Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and ending in Colombia (a country where Jack was to reside for three years from 1948 when he was seconded to establish a national potato research station near Bogota).

Route taken by the Empire Potato Collecting Expedition

More than 1150 samples of cultivated and wild potatoes were collected in these five countries as well as a further 46 samples collected by Balls and Gourlay in Mexico in 1938.

Here is a small selection of photographs taken during the expedition, reproduced here by courtesy of the Hawkes family.


By the time the expedition ended in early September 1939, war with Germany had already been declared, and Jack’s return to the UK by ship convoy from Halifax, Newfoundland was not as comfortable as the outbound voyage nine months earlier, docking in Liverpool early in November.

Jack published an official expedition report in March 1941. Then, in 2003, he published an interesting and lengthy memoir of the expedition, Hunting the Wild Potato in the South American Andes.

Redcliffe N Salaman

Potato tubers (and presumably seeds) were shipped back to the UK, and after a quarantine inspection, were planted out in a glasshouse at the Potato Virus Research Station, Cambridge whose director was the renowned botanist (and originally a medical doctor) Redcliffe Nathan Salaman, author of the seminal work on potatoes, The History and Social Influence of the Potato, first published in 1949 and reprinted with a new introduction by Hawkes in 1985. I jealously guard the signed copy that Jack gave me.

On his return to the UK in 1939 Jack began to study the collected germplasm, describing several new species, and completing his PhD thesis (supervised by Salaman) at the University of Cambridge in 1941.

South American potato species in the Cambridge glasshouse in the summer of 1940

Among the species identified in the course of Jack’s dissertation research was Solanum ballsii from northern Argentina, which he dedicated to EK Balls in a formal description in 1944. However, in his 1963 revised taxonomy of the tuber-bearing Solanums (potatoes), Jack (with his Danish colleague Jens Peter Hjerting, 1917-2012) recognized Solanum ballsii simply as a subspecies of Solanum vernei, a species which has since provided many important sources of resistance to the potato cyst nematode.


Jack Hawkes in the glasshouse of the Empire Potato Collection at Cambridge in July 1947.

The 1939 germplasm was the foundation of the Empire Potato Collection. When the collection curator Dr Kenneth S Dodds was appointed Director of the John Innes Institute in Bayfordbury in 1954, the collection moved with him, and was renamed the Commonwealth Potato Collection.

By the end of the decade (or early 1960s) the CPC was on the move again. This time to the Scottish Plant Breeding Station (SPBS) at Pentlandfield just south of Edinburgh when Dr Norman W Simmonds moved there in 1959. He rose through the ranks to become the station’s Director.

But that was not the end of the CPC’s peripatetic existence. It remained at the SPBS until the early 1980s, when the SPBS amalgamated with the Scottish Horticultural Research Institute (which became the Scottish Crop Research Institute or SCRI, and now known as the James Hutton Institute), and the collection moved to its present site near Dundee.


I am not sure how much the CPC grew in the intervening years, but there was a significant boost to the size and importance of the collection around 1987. Let me explain.

As I already mentioned, Jack spent three years in Colombia from 1948, returning to the UK in 1951 when he was appointed Lecturer in Taxonomy in the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham. He was given a personal chair as Professor of Taxonomic Botany in April 1961, and became Head of Department and Mason Professor of Botany in July 1967. He remained at Birmingham until retirement in September 1982.

It was during his Birmingham years that Jack’s work on the tuber-bearing Solanums expanded significantly with several important monographs and taxonomic revisions published, based on his own field work over the years and experimental studies back at Birmingham on the potato samples he brought back to the UK and which formed an important collection in its own right. Because of the quarantine threat from these seeds (particularly of sexually-transmitted pathogens or new variants of potato viruses already present in the UK), Jack had a special licence from the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF, now DEFRA) to maintain his collection at Birmingham. I’ve written about that special quarantine situation here.

In 1958, with Peter Hjerting and young research assistant Richard Lester (who later joined the Department of Botany as a Lecturer), Jack made a six month expedition to the USA , Mexico, and Central America. Here is an account of that trip. Besides potatoes, many other species were made for other institutions and botanic gardens.

Collecting a sample of Solanum agrimonifolium (No. 1854) in Guatemala. L: Jack Hawkes, Peter Hjerting, and Morse (driver?); R: Richard Lester

Just three months after I arrived at Birmingham in September 1970 to enrol on the MSc course on plant genetic resources, Jack was off on his travels once again, this time to Bolivia (report) accompanied by Peter Hjerting once again, his research assistant Phil Cribb and, in South America by Zósimo Huamán from the International Potato Center (CIP) and Moisés Zavaleta and others from Bolivia. Jack and Peter made another trip to Bolivia in 1974 (with research assistant Dave Astley), and another in 1980. They published their monograph of The Potatoes of Bolivia in 1989.

Here are some images from the 1971 expedition, courtesy of Phil Cribb.


In September 1971, Zósimo Huamán and Moisés Zavaleta came to Birmingham to study on the genetic resources MSc course. In that same cohort was a young botanist, Stephanie Tribble, recently graduated from the University of Wales – Swansea (now Swansea University). During the summer of 1972, Steph and I became ‘an item’, so-to-speak. However, by then I was already making plans to leave the UK and join CIP in Lima by January 1973, and on graduation, Steph was keen to find a position to use the experiences and skills she had gained on the course.

Just at that time, a Scientific Officer position opened at the SPBS, as assistant to Dalton Glendinning who was the curator of the CPC. Steph duly applied and was appointed from about October that year. Jack must have supported her application. Coincidentally, the MSc course external examiner was no other that Norman Simmonds who met Steph during his course assessment.

I moved to Peru in January 1973, and within a few days discovered that Jack had mentioned Steph to CIP’s Director General, Richard Sawyer. Well, to cut a long story short, Steph was offered a position as Assistant Geneticist at CIP, to support management of CIP’s large potato collection, similar to the role she’d had at Pentlandfield. She resigned from the SPBS and joined me in Lima in July that year. We married there in October. We remained with CIP in Peru and Central America for another eight years

Steph working in one of CIP’s screen-houses at La Molina on the eastern outskirts of Lima in 1974.

In April 1981 I was appointed Lecturer in Plant Biology at Birmingham, 18 months before Jack’s retirement, the aim being that I would assume Jack’s teaching commitments on the MSc course. When I also took over the Hawkes potato collection in 1982, I had high hopes of identifying funding for biosystematics and pre-breeding research. That was not the case, and as the collection needed a dedicated glasshouse and technician I could not justify (nor financially support) holding on to such valuable research space. And, in any case, continuing with the Hawkes collection was actually blocking the opportunities for other potato research because of the MAFF-imposed restrictions.

Dave Downing was the glasshouse technician who carefully managed the Hawkes collection at Birmingham for many years.

So, with some regret but also acknowledging that Jack’s collection would be better placed elsewhere, I contacted my colleagues at the CPC to see if they would be interested to receive it—lock, stock, and barrel. And that indeed was what happened. I’m sure many new potato lines were added to the CPC. The germplasm was placed in quarantine in the first instance, and has passed through various stages of testing before being added officially to the CPC. Throughout the 80s and 90s Jack would visit the CPC from time-to-time, and look through the materials, helping with the correct identification of species and the like.

His interest in and contributions to potato science remained with him almost up to his death in 2007. By then he had become increasingly frail, and had moved into a care home, his wife of more than 50 years, Barbara, having passed away some years previously. By then, Jack’s reputation and legacy was sealed. Not only has his scientific output contributed to the conservation and use of potato genetic resources worldwide, embodied in the CPC that he helped establish all those decades earlier, but through the MSc course that he founded in 1969, hundreds of professionals worldwide have continued to carry the genetic conservation torch. A fine legacy, indeed!


I’m not the one with green fingers . . .

Much as I enjoy visiting gardens, I do not particularly enjoy gardening nor have any talent for it. My job is just to mow the grass, when needed.

Steph, on the other hand, became a keen gardener when we returned to the UK in March 1981 after more than eight years in South and Central America; we were married in Peru in October 1973.  We bought a house in the northeast Worcestershire town of Bromsgrove, about 13 miles south of Birmingham city center, convenient for my daily commute into the city where I had landed a lectureship at the University of Birmingham.


Built around 1975, our newly-acquired house didn’t have much of a laid-out garden. With lawns on the front of the house and at the rear, there were some meager flower beds around the edges, a lean-to greenhouse (cobbled together by the original owners from redundant wooden patio doors), and a five year old weeping willow tree that we decided to get rid of before it became too large or its roots ran riot, causing damage to neighboring properties, and even ours in the long term.

In autumn 1982, we replaced the willow with a Himalayan birch, Betula utilis var. jacquemontii.

We’d done our research and felt that this jacquemontii birch was the ideal tree for our garden. It wasn’t expected to grow too tall. I went to our local Webb’s garden center to collect it, and it was small enough to fit in the passenger foot-well of my 1981 Ford Escort.

By January 2017, however, we’d decided it was no longer fit for purpose in our garden. Despite several attempts to keep it in check over the years with professional pruning, it simply had grown too tall, was shading a considerable part of the garden, and besides that, sucking up lots of moisture and stressing all the plants roundabouts. This was how it looked in October 2010.

So we called in the tree surgeon and had it felled. Always a sad thing to do, but it was the right decision for this garden.

In 1983 we’d finally demolished the lean-to greenhouse, and erected a small 8 x 6 foot Hall’s aluminium frame replacement which Steph used to raise seedlings and some vegetables like tomatoes. We also had the patio remodeled and a rockery and small fishpond added.

The lean-to greenhouse is on the right hand side, at the back of the garden, against an west-facing wall that caught the afternoon sunshine.

Throughout the 1980s, the garden came along nicely. But then, in July 1991, we headed to the Philippines for the next 19 years, and the garden had to more or less look after itself, until we returned in April 2010 when I retired. During the intervening years we’d had someone come by during the summer months to mow the grass, front and back. But apart from that, there was virtually no maintenance for 10-11 months of the year, apart from the few weeks we spent on home leave each summer. Then Steph would be busy getting things back into shape.

Since 2010, the garden flourished, with beds of colorful perennials such as columbines and foxgloves among my favorites. This is how the garden looked in 2016.

And in these videos, you can appreciate how much pleasure the garden gave us over the years.


However, in 2020 it was time to move on. We’d already made a decision in November 2019 to move to Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England, to be closer to our younger daughter Philippa and her family. We put our house on the market in January 2020 and waited for the offers to roll in.

Then the pandemic hit, and we braced ourselves for a long delay. Luck was on our side, however, and there was one family keen to purchase No. 4. The sale finally went through on 30 September last year, and the evening before we took a sentimental walk around the garden, wine glasses in hand. Click on the image below to open a photo album.


We rented a house for the first six months, but just a week after we arrived in Newcastle, we found the house we went on to buy, on the northeast side of the city, and just 10 minutes by car from the North Sea coast!

To say that the front and back gardens were unimaginative would be an understatement. Both were just patches of lawn, about 11 x 10 m at the rear of the house, and maybe 4 x 3 on the front.

15 February 2021

20 April 2021

Before leaving Bromsgrove, Steph had collected seeds from most of her favorite plants, or taken cuttings. So we brought them in half a dozen crates full of small pots, and carefully nurtured them through our first northeast winter.

Then it was time to repack them into the crates to our new home, where they remained on the patio and alongside the fence until we had decided how we wanted to transform our garden space.

Steph took time to finalize her plan for the rear garden. I drew up this version that we sent to potential garden landscapers. All we wanted them to do was remove the excess turf, and bring in some top soil as we’d discovered that beneath the lawn was a pretty heavy clay soil.

We accepted one of the tenders by mid-April, and Steph began to layout the design using one of the garden hoses, then sticks.

20 April 2021

26 April 2021

The landscapers spent almost three days at the end of April to remove the turf, dig out the path across the lawn, and add the gravel bed around the shed.

27 April 2021

28 April 2021

29 April 2021

29 April 2021

Then it was time for Steph to begin planting, which was not so easy given the heavy soil.

16 June 2021

14 July 2021

And so, where are we today? Making progress. I guess this first year it’s an opportunity to discover which plants thrive or survive the winter. We have lots of different plants, and no doubt we’ll increase those that do well. Nasturtiums (grown from seed) are already showing great promise, although some have been heavily predated by black-fly. Verbena bonariensis, dahlias, cone flowers (Echinacia varieties), and a host of others are showing promise such as first year biennials like foxgloves, while lilies, succulents and other delicates are thriving in pots. We have also to decide what to do with one part of the garden, close to the house that does flood after heavy rain.

So, mid-August, we do feel that we have the makings of a nice garden, which will hopefully go from strength to strength. We still have to decide on a tree to plant, although we’re currently tending towards a crab apple variety.

It’s hard not to reflect on what we left behind in Bromsgrove. But I have to keep telling myself that what we had enjoyed there was the fruition of almost 40 years tender loving care. It will take a year or so before our new borders show something of equivalent brilliance. It will nevertheless be worth the wait.


Castles across Northumberland

Once the weather improved in May and June, and we could get out and about more regularly, Steph and I visited several abbeys and priories managed by English Heritage that dot the landscape of this northeast corner of England, including Tynemouth Priory, Brinkburn Priory, Whitby Abbey, and Mount Grace Priory.

More recently, however, we’ve turned our attention to military historical sites, from the Romans (with visits to Chester’s Fort and Housesteads along the iconic Hadrian’s Wall) to the post-Norman conquest period of the late 11th century, with visits to Prudhoe Castle, Aydon Castle (more a fortified manor house), and most recently, Dunstanburgh Castle that proudly looks out over the North Sea on a windswept headland (home to the largest breeding colony of kittiwakes in Northumberland).

Northumberland has many castles, over 70 in fact. While most are ruins, shells of their former glory, some are still lived in today (such as Alnwick, Bamburgh, and Chillingham). All have played a significant role in British history, situated as they were at a great distance from the seat of power in London, along the border with Scotland (an independent country then), and prone to inter-familial conflict. Many castles and towers were also built for protection against the Border reivers, raiders from both England and Scotland who terrorized communities in the region.


Prudhoe Castle overlooks the River Tyne from a hill on the south bank, a little over 11 miles west of Gateshead (map).

The barony of Prudhoe had been granted to the d’Umfraville family, and construction of the castle began around 1100. It was this same family who built Harbottle Castle in the Upper Coquet valley that we visited a fortnight ago. It remained in the d’Umfraville family until 1381, when it passed by marriage to the Percy family, who became Earls and Dukes of Northumberland.

Prudhoe has an impressive gatehouse, with the room above converted to a chapel in the 13th century. The curtain wall encloses a large bailey or courtyard, and the remains of a substantial keep still stand on the west side. An 18th century manor house stands in front of the keep and now houses the offices of English Heritage and a museum.

I have posted more photos of the castle here, together with images (with descriptions) taken in the museum.


About 7 miles northwest from Prudhoe, as the crow flies, the fortified manor house of Aydon Castle occupies a site overlooking a small stream known as the Cor Burn (map). Its construction began in the late 13th century.

It’s remarkably intact, because since the 17th century it was used as a farmhouse, and apparently still occupied until the mid-1960s.

There is an outer courtyard, with enclosed battlements on the curtain wall surrounding the site, if the model of the house has been interpreted correctly (rather like those we saw at Stokesay Castle in Shropshire in 2015 (below).

Model of Aydon Castle, with enclosed battlements on two walls.

Stokesay Castle, Shropshire

English Heritage has carefully removed the wall paneling and room partitions that were in place when the house was most recently occupied. So you get a real sense of what Aydon Castle must have been like in its fortified heyday.

And there are more images and building plans here.


We have visited 14th century Dunstanburgh Castle several times, but this visit less than a month ago in mid-July was the first time we had ventured this far north since moving to the northeast last October (map).

There’s not too much of the castle left standing, apart from the main gatehouse, and a couple of towers on the east and north sides of the bailey. But the location is spectacular, and the cliffs teem with seabirds.

Even though the ruins themselves are not extensive, it’s perhaps the enjoyment of the walk from the village of Craster, some 1½ miles to the south, that attracts so many visitors. And, the Craster kippers of course.

The view south towards Craster from the ramparts of Dunstanburgh Castle.

If interested, a plan of the castle ruins can be downloaded from the English Heritage website.

I have posted more images of our July visit here.


 

Walking in Hadrian’s footsteps . . .

For the past couple of months I’ve delved into Roman military fiction by British authors Simon Scarrow and Harry Sidebottom. Several of their books are set on the fringes of the Roman empire, including references to the conquest and settlement of the British Isles two millennia ago.

I’ve been to Rome more times than I can remember, always in a work capacity. Having said that, I often tried to time my arrival in Rome to give me a free weekend to explore the city, mostly on foot. Rome is a great city for walking around. History and archaeology are everywhere. And it has never ceased to amaze me just how Rome was, for hundreds of years, the hub of one of the world’s largest and most powerful empires.

Here are just a few views of ancient Rome, from the Circus Maximus, the Palatine Hill, the Arch of Constantine, the Via Sacra, the Colosseum, and the Pantheon.


Throughout England, less so in Wales and Scotland, the reminders of Roman occupation can be seen everywhere, from the towns they founded such as Londinium (London), Camulodunum (Colchester), Corinium (Cirencester); the roads they built (still evidenced today in several important highways such as Ermine Street and Watling Street, to name just two), the villas they left behind (such as Fishbourne Palace in West Sussex or Chedworth in Gloucestershire), the various garrison towns like Viriconium (Wroxeter) in Shropshire and Vindolanda in Northumberland, and last but not least, perhaps the most famous landmark of all: Hadrian’s Wall stretching more than 70 miles from coast to coast across northern England.

The Romans did venture further north into Scotland, and built the Antonine Wall from the Clyde in the west to the Forth in the east. Construction began around AD142, but it was abandoned after only eight years. And so Hadrian’s Wall became the de facto northern boundary of the Roman occupation of Britain: Roman territory to the south, land of the barbarians to the north.

Steph is standing astride the north gate entrance at Chesters Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall: barbarians to the north (left foot), Romans to the south (right foot).

Our outing at the end of June took in two sites along Hadrian’s Wall: Chesters Roman Fort near Chollerford (map) and a little further west, Housesteads Roman Fort, one of the best examples of an auxiliary fort anywhere in Europe. And, between the two, and beside the invisible remains of Carrawburgh Fort (also know as Brocolita), stand the ruins of the small Temple of Mithras. All sites are maintained by English Heritage. We’ve been to Housesteads and the Temple at least twice before, but this was our first visit to Chesters. We weren’t disappointed.

Much of our understanding of the history and archaeology of Hadrian’s Wall is down to one man in the nineteenth century: John Clayton (1792-1890), the town clerk of Newcastle upon Tyne. He came from a wealthy family, acquired much of the land on which the Wall and other sites stand, and over a fifty year period beginning in 1840, he excavated much of what we see today (with the exception of Vindolanda where there is an active excavation and many remarkable finds still being unearthed). Many of the best pieces are now displayed in a museum named after Clayton that was opened by his family in 1896 after his death.


Chesters Roman Fort
As with many Roman sites, only the outline of buildings can be seen, just a few feet high. Nevertheless, it’s possible to take in just what the site might have looked like in its heyday. And English Heritage kindly provides reconstructions of what the buildings and overall site might have looked like on display boards around the site—as they do at Housesteads and elsewhere.

We entered through the North Gate, and immediately made our way to baths on the east side of the fort, where the land slopes down to the North Tyne river. The Romans certainly knew how to choose the right spots to build their forts. But at this point the river was easily fordable, and a bridge (no longer standing) was built across the river to connect with Hadrian’s Wall on both banks.

Valley of the North Tyne at Chesters Roman Fort

Remains of Hadrian’s Wall on the east bank of the North Tyne, and immediately opposite the East Gate at Chesters Roman Fort

Chesters was primarily a cavalry fort, and there are the remains of stable barracks on the northeast corner of the fort. Elsewhere the commanding officer’s house gives some indications still of how much better he must have lived with his family than the ordinary troops. There are remains of underfloor heating and the like that must have made living in the harsh climate of Northumberland that little bit more bearable. Just beyond the commanding officer’s house, closer to the river are the ruins of the substantial bathhouse.


Housesteads 
It’s a half mile walk uphill from the car park beside the B6318 to the main entrance to the fort. The English Heritage shop and cafe are next to the car park.

What is particularly impressive about Housesteads is its remote location. There are spectacular views from the fort over the surrounding Northumberland landscape, in all directions. And the fort and Hadrian’s Wall are intimately connected. It must have been an important site along the wall, in defence of the empire.

Among the more intact buildings is the granary, that was used to dry or keep dry any cereals and presumably other perishables.

At the bottom of the slope, in the southeast corner stand the remains of the communal latrine, which must be one of the best preserved examples.

We didn’t visit the museum close by the fort during this visit. I had seen evidence displayed there—or was it at Vindolanda just over two miles away to the southwest?—of letters received or never sent by a soldier who hailed from Syria or somewhere in that region. Roman auxiliaries came from all over the empire, and could acquire citizenship after more than 20 years service. So, as I’ve commented elsewhere, the Romans must have left more behind than just impressive ruins. Their legacy lives on in the genetics of this part of the country.

On a bright and sunny day when we visited in June, Housesteads is a great destination for all the family. From what we experienced that day, children were having a great time exploring the fort—especially the latrine! Given its exposed location, a less clement day would make for a challenging visit.


In case you would like to see more of the photos I took during this visit (and more details of each site), please click on the links below to open photo albums:


 

For those in peril on the sea . . .

Over the centuries, the coast of northeast England has been notoriously dangerous for shipping. Many will know of the tale of Grace Darling, daughter of the lighthouse keeper on the Farne Islands who, with her father, rescued nine members of the crew of the SS Forfarshire that went aground in September 1838.

Grace Darling rescuing sailors from the SS Forfarshire, painted by Thomas Musgrave Joy in 1840

There are several hundred shipwrecks lying on the seabed off County Durham and Northumberland, many from the nineteenth century when this stretch of coastline was one of the busiest in the world. Millions of tons of coal were carried from the northeast coalfields on dangerously overloaded colliers and foundering in the rough seas that often batter this coast.

To protect mariners sailing these waters a chain of lighthouses was constructed over the centuries, with a number being erected in the 1800s. Several have already been decommissioned.

Looking for a destination for a day trip earlier this week, I suggested to Steph that we should head south of the River Tyne and take a look at Souter Lighthouse that has been standing on the cliffs overlooking the North Sea at Whitburn (map) for a century and a half, and protecting shipping against the dangerous reefs of Whitburn Steel in the immediate vicinity.

Yes, there’s been a lighthouse here since 1871. And it has a particular claim to fame. It was the first lighthouse powered by electricity in the country. Until earlier this year Souter was believed to be the world’s first lighthouse powered by electricity, but further research has apparently revealed that’s not the case (although I haven’t yet discovered which one now claims that accolade). However, it may be the world’s first purpose-built lighthouse powered by alternating electric current. The lighthouse was not automated, but in the late 1970s an electric motor replaced the clockwork mechanism that turned the lamp. The lighthouse needed four keepers and an engineer to keep the lamp lit.

The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1988, although it continued as a radio navigation beacon until 1999. It’s now owned and maintained by the National Trust, as is the surrounding land which has its own remarkable story to tell.

As a destination, Souter Lighthouse couldn’t have been more convenient, being just 11 miles and less than half an hour from home, down the A19 and crossing the River Tyne through the Tyne Tunnel. The mouth of the River Tyne is less than three miles to the north of the lighthouse.


Souter Lighthouse, a brick tower, stands at 77 feet or 23 meters. There are 76 steps up to the lantern platform. Its characteristic external marking is a single broad red band.

From the lantern platform the horizon on the clear day we visited was about 14 nautical miles.

The red lamp, which flashes for one second, every five seconds, has a range of about 26 nautical miles. It weighs 4½ tons, and ‘floats’ on a bed of 1½ tons of mercury. The mechanism is so friction free, that it can be rotated with just the slightest assistance, as Steph demonstrated.

The National Trust provides a detailed description of the lamp on its website.

The original 800,000 candle lamp was generated using a carbon arc lamp, later replaced by more conventional bulbs.

On a landing just below the lamp, there is another innovation. Landward or ‘wasted’ light was used to direct ships away from dangerous rocks near Sunderland Harbour.

The central green column in the tower housed the weights that descended due to gravity, causing a clockwork mechanism to turn the lamp above, in much the same way that a grandfather clock works. And this mechanism was wound every hour. The weights were never allowed to descend the whole height of the tower.

A steam engine generated the electricity; mains electricity didn’t arrive until 1952. The engine house is now the National Trust cafe. Next door, original tanks stored pressurized air (at 60 psi) to power the huge foghorns closer to the cliff, which sounded every two minutes when needed.

There are six cottages in a single block at Souter (two now converted to holiday cottages). Souter was regarded as a desirable posting because, being land-based, it meant that keepers could live with their families. But the two up – two down cottages must have been very cramped for families with up to nine children. And with no mains electricity, gas, or water, on stormy days when the children could not play outside, living conditions for beleaguered housewives must have been stressful indeed. Notwithstanding that lighthouse keepers at Souter earned an annual wage of around £400 (=£45,000 or so today), about ten times that of a laborer.


Souter Lighthouse stood alone in the landscape for just a handful of years. In 1874, a coal mine was opened just to the south of the lighthouse, and Marsden mining village, with 135 terraced houses in nine streets for more than 700 inhabitants was developed to the north of the lighthouse. Across the road there is a huge magnesian limestone quarry and the ruins of lime kilns that were fired using coal from the adjacent colliery. Over 2000 tons of coal were brought to the surface each day. The coal galleries stretched for several miles out under the North Sea. In 1968 the mine was closed and eventually the village abandoned, before being demolished.

Looking at this photo below, taken from the top of the lighthouse, it’s hard to imagine that there was once a thriving community in that open space.

Looking north from the top of Souter Lighthouse, over the site of the ‘lost village’.

The Marsden lime kilns


What Steph and I hadn’t appreciated before we headed to Souter Lighthouse is the beauty of this stretch of coast, with limestone cliffs, populated by numerous seabirds, standing maybe 50 feet or so above the crashing waves.

Cormorants and kittiwakes

Even though the sea was calm, we were surprised at the size of some waves that hit the rocks.

Anyway, we took a walk about 2 miles south of the lighthouse, and enjoyed the many views of coves, rock stacks, and south as far as the North York Moors near Whitby, maybe 30 miles away. This map shows only half the distance we walked, eventually reaching the southern end of Whitburn beach.

This visit to Souter Lighthouse was one of the most enjoyable National Trust visits that we’ve had in a long time. Well, the Covid pandemic hasn’t helped with our visits. But it wasn’t just the beautiful sunny weather, the awesome cliff landscapes, and the interesting history of the lighthouse itself (I learned a lot about the network of lighthouses around our coasts that I hadn’t appreciated before). The National Trust volunteers who showed us around the lighthouse were friendly, knowledgeable and more than willing to share insights about the property.

I’m sure we’ll be making another visit before too long. In case you’d like to see more photos of our visit, you can open an album of photos and videos here.


 

 

Traveling back in time in Coquetdale – Nothumberland at its stunning best!

A couple of days ago, as Steph and I were driving—almost 23 years to the day since we first made this particular journey—up the narrow and twisting road to the headwaters of the River Coquet in the Cheviot Hills (that straddle the border between England and Scotland in the heart of the Northumberland National Park) I wondered aloud just how we managed to find this place so many years ago when Steph and I had a week’s holiday touring Northumberland.

We were headed to Chew Green, the site of a first century Roman encampment, alongside Dere Street, a Roman road that stretched from Eboracum (modern-day York) north into Scotland, at least as far as the abandoned Antonine Wall.

Chew Green is certainly off the beaten track. In fact it’s essentially at the end of the road, because just beyond the small parking area (///disco.bandaged.passenger) the road is closed from time to time, crossing the Otterburn Ranges military training area. And that was much in evidence as the guns boomed their presence across the hills, disturbing what otherwise would have been a completely tranquil visit.

Notwithstanding the noisy interruptions, the views along Coquetdale were breathtaking.

The River Coquet is just under 56 miles long, meandering its way east from the Cheviots to meet the North Sea at Amble.

A couple of years ago we visited Warkworth Castle that stands on a hill overlooking the tidal section of the river just short of Amble. At Rothbury, we have visited National Trust’s Cragside a couple of times, most recently last October. And just a few weeks ago, Brinkburn Priory (that stands in a loop of the Coquet, east of Rothbury) was our destination.

Besides the Chew Green encampment, our recent Coquetdale excursion took in a medieval castle with royal connections at Harbottle, the Lady’s Well at Holystone, and Lordenshaw Iron Age hill-fort with its ancient petroglyphs just south of Rothbury under the Simonside Hills. Quite a trip, some 112 miles by the time we arrived home in the late afternoon.


Chew Green
At ground level, the outlines of the Roman encampment appear as rather indistinct ramparts and ditches. Had we realized, we would have walked a short way up the other side of the valley where it’s possible to appreciate an almost aerial view of the site. The satellite image from Google Maps also helps.

There was just one other car parked, and no sign of the occupants. We did see several walkers crossing the landscape, presumably following the Pennine Way.

Below the car park, the Coquet crosses under the road, just a tiny brook in the bottom of the hollow. And, no more than 50 m from the edge of the encampment is the border with Scotland.

We climbed up to the encampment, and had a good wander about. We didn’t come across any signs of the 13th century village that is supposed to have existed here. But standing on the ramparts, it’s not hard to be impressed by a couple of things. First, the stunning beauty of these rolling hills. And second, how remote it all is. In this short video, I made a 360° panorama from the top of the encampment. If you listen carefully, you can hear the guns booming occasionally.

Which leads me to another question. Why on earth did the Romans build an encampment in such a remote location.? Admittedly it sits alongside an important line of communications, Dere Street, but since Hadrian’s Wall effectively became the northern limit of the Roman Empire in Britannia by AD165, for how long was the encampment and small forts occupied?

It’s an intriguing site, and one to which we must return before too long, with a plan to walk around the area.


Harbottle Castle
It’s remarkable how quickly the valley of the Coquet widens in such a short distance from the headwaters near Chew Green. The river itself takes on an entirely different aspect.

Instead of sheep farming, the broad valley is home to fields of cereals ripening in the intense July sunshine. And some 13 miles back down the valley stands Harbottle, with the remains of a late 12th century castle built by one of the Umfraville family (who also built Prudhoe Castle).

The castle sits atop a steep-sided mound that apparently had been used as a fortified site since ancient times. Today, there’s very little of the castle standing, but it is still possible to envisage just how impressive it would have been on its mound and surrounded by a deep ditch. The views of the surrounding countryside from the top of the mound were spectacular, especially towards to Drake Stone, that you can see on the horizon just after the beginning of this video, and in the photo immediately below.

Harbottle Castle has one particular royal claim to fame. Margaret, the mother of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, second husband of Mary Queen of Scots (his cousin), and father to James VI and I of Scotland and England, was born at Harbottle in 1515. She was the daughter of Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII and daughter of Henry VII.

The Northumberland National Park service has built an excellent small car park and picnic area (///whips.baths.luckier) on the west side of the village.


Lady’s Well, Holystone
A further 3 miles down the valley, and off a side road, lies the village of Holystone. We visited there once before in 1998 to see the Lady’s Well. On that occasion it was pouring with rain, and we got thoroughly soaked. Not so last Tuesday. It’s a short walk from the center of the village to the Well (///lung.spearhead.entire)

Lady’s Well has its origins in the Dark Ages, a place where early Christians were baptized; it is rumored to be associated with St Ninian. The village became the site of a priory of Augustinian abbesses, but no longer standing since the Reformation in the 1530s. A Roman road also passes close to the well.


Lordenshaw Iron Age hill-fort
Just a couple of miles south of Rothbury, there a car park (///daring.hazelnuts.finds) on a side road off the B6342, for access to the magnificent Simonside Hills (that are clearly seen from Cragside) and Lordenshaw Iron Age hill-fort (///woodstove.objective.flats). The site is probably around 2500 years old .

The fort is a short distance north from the car park up a gentle slope, maybe 400 m at most. At the hill-fort itself, there’s not a great deal to see, apart from a series of concentric but not very distinct ditches (rather like the situation at Chew Green).

At the main stone, the cup and ring carvings are thought to date from the Bronze Age and therefore older than the hill-fort. They can be seen quite clearly on one face of the stone (///hires.shadows.edgy).

But from that vantage point, and the hill-fort itself, the views are just stunning over the Northumberland countryside.

This really was Northumberland at its best. A full album of photos and videos can be viewed here.


 

Not so good in the field . . .

I have a rather embarrassing confession to make. Although I have degrees in botany, I’m not very good at all at identifying plants in the field. It’s just not something that has ever come easily. But I do know how to identify different species. More of that later.

Birds are a different kettle of fish altogether (says he, mixing his metaphors). I have little difficulty in identifying most of the species I come across. Maybe that’s because I’ve had an interest in bird watching since I was a small boy.

I came late to botany, however. It wasn’t until I was studying for my university entrance exams (known here in the UK as the General Certificate of Education (GCE) Advanced Level exams) that I realized that botany was the degree course for me, something I achieved at the University of Southampton (in a combined honors degree with geography) for three years from 1967.

Les Watson

During that first year, and on a field trip to the west of Ireland, we systematically studied the different families of flowering plants, under the careful guidance of fellow Leekensian¹ Les Watson who was a lecturer in plant taxonomy at Southampton.

But after graduation, my interest in all things botanical turned to the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, and that became my research interest for the next 40 years, focusing on potatoes in South and Central America during the 1970s, on potatoes and grain legumes when I taught at the University of Birmingham in the 1980s, and then rice after I joined the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines in 1991 up to my retirement in 2010.

With my Birmingham PhD supervisor, Professor Jack Hawkes, identifying potato varieties in the field genebank of the International Potato Center in Peru in 1974, and collecting wild species in the Andes northeast of Lima in March 1975.


So I’ve never been much focused on field botany, and unlike many amateur botanists and naturalists, didn’t have much enthusiasm for naming all the plants I came across. It’s a bit ironic really because in 1981 when I joined the University of Birmingham as a lecturer in plant biology, I was ‘asked’ to contribute to a second year module on flowering plant taxonomy. My contributions had less to do with identifying and studying the various plant families per se than understanding how and why variation in plant species comes about, and how variation patterns are treated in formal taxonomy.

In recent months, however, my interest has turned to plant identification. Since Steph and I moved to the northeast of England last October, I have tried to get out for a walk every day, a minimum of two miles, weather permitting. We have discovered the fantastic waggonways that crisscross Tyneside, the remnants of a busy coal mining industry that opened up in the nineteenth century and eventually met its demise in the second half of the last century. The waggonways are the routes of the railway lines that carried coal from the mines to quays (or staiths as they were known locally) on the River Tyne from where it was shipped all over the world.

Nowadays the waggonways are a haven for wildlife, and a lush abundance of plant species almost too numerous to count. They have become important (vital even) biodiversity corridors connecting different habitats across Newcastle and into the surrounding Northumberland landscape.

And, as I walking along the Cramlington Waggonway recently close to home on my way to the Silverlink Biodiversity Park (developed on a former coal waste tip), I was struck about how many of the plants I could not identify, although many were familiar. But I did want to know their names.