A majestic link with the agriculture of medieval England

In the village of Bredon, nestling at the foot of Cotswolds outlier Bredon Hill, and alongside the River Avon (of Shakespeare fame) in southern Worcestershire, is an agricultural treasure from medieval times. From 1350 or thereabouts.

This is the Bredon tithe barn, constructed from golden Cotswolds limestone, with beams from local oak trees, and a stone roof. Oriented north-south, and measuring more than 130 feet long, by about 44 feet wide (and at least 50 feet or more to the apex of the roof) this tithe barn is one of the best remaining examples of its kind – there are others dotted around England’s landscape.

It’s not so easy to find. Although a National Trust (NT) property, there are no detailed directions in the NT Handbook, and in the village of Bredon itself there are no signs to indicate its precise location. We drove through the village and I thought I saw it in the distance, but actually finding a way to it was almost impossible. Eventually, we had to ask the church warden who was working in the churchyard.

Open 7 days a week, it’s possible just to wander around the barn and take in its magnificent woodwork and construction. Occupied by quite a large population of doves, it’s best not to wander round with one’s mouth open when looking up at the roof.

Here’s what is written on one of the National Trust display boards just inside the barn’s open door:
The name Bredon comes from bre, the old British word for a hill. In prehistoric times a fort stood on the hilltop, and the valley below was already being farmed.
   Bredon was an important place by the 8th century, when a minster, or monastery here was granted a great deal of land by the kings of Mercia. Its properties extended as far as Cutsdean in the Cotswolds and Rednal (now on the outskirts of Birmingham) to the north. Gradually this great estate declined and the monastery was reduced until it became no more than a rich parish church. The Bishops of Worcester took over the land and remained lords of Bredon from about 900 until 1559.
   The Bredon barn was built for the Bishops about 1350, at a tragic time in medieval history  The Black Death, the terrible plague that swept across Europe from the East, killed more than a third of the people of England. Half the population of Bredon died, and Bishop Wulstan de Bransford, who probably commissioned the barn here, himself fell victim on 6th August 1349.
   Although the barn at Bredon has traditionally been known as a tithe barn, recent research indicates that it was almost certainly a manorial barn, used for storage of crops from the large and important manor of Bredon.
   Tithe barns were attached to churches, and were used to store tithes (tenths of the produce of the land) paid to parish priests as part of their income. The fact that the Bishops of Worcester were lords of the manor here for more than 600 years probably accounts for the misapprehension. The Bredon barn was well-built and large – 132 feet (40.2 metres) by 44 feet (13.4 metres) – because it was vital to the economy of a large and important estate.

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The barn was badly damaged by fire in the 1980s, but the National Trust was able to raise the money for its restoration, using locally-sourced oak for the beams, and quarried limestone. It really is a gem, and worth 45 minutes or more of anyone’s time in this lovely riverside village.

Veni, vidi . . . and took lots of photos

Despite dominating ‘England’ for only 400 years or so, the legacy of the Roman invasion and conquest of Britannia – first by Julius Caesar in 55 and 54BC, and then by the Emperor Claudius in AD43 – is quite remarkable. A Roman imprint can be seen in many of our towns and cities, at various fortresses (in the north along Hadrian’s Wall at Vercovicium, or Housesteads Roman Fort and Vindolanda, for example), and in the modern roads, some of which still follow the ancient Roman routes. And there are, of course, other ruins of settlements (such as Wroxeter – Viroconium – in Shropshire) and residences dotted around the countryside. Yesterday, we visited one of the most impressive and significant of the ruins of a private residence, at Chedworth Roman villa in the heart of the Gloucestershire Cotswolds.

Lying just north of Cirencester – Corinium, which was an important Roman town, and linked into three major roads, the Fosse Way (now the A429 to the east), Ermin Street (the A417) to the west and Akeman Street, Chedworth villa was undoubtedly the important and sumptuous residence of a wealthy family – but who? We just don’t know.

Lying hidden for centuries since its apparent abandonment in the late AD300s, the ruins were discovered in 1864, on land belonging to the 3rd Earl of Eldon, a 19th century landowner. The first evidence was some colored stone cubes – tesserae – from buried mosaics. Once uncovered, several beautiful mosaic floors were revealed in all their glory. The archaeology continues today, and while other mosaics continue to be revealed, most of the walls of the remaining ruins have been uncovered.

These are topped by ‘roofs’ to protect them against the elements. But an idea of what the villa must have looked like has been interpreted in a model at the entrance to the villa.

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Today all that can be seen are the outline structures of the west and north wings, and a small part of the south wing. But what treasures lie inside the west wing. Some of the best mosaics are there, today protected by a National Lottery-funded building in which visitors are able to walk above the mosaic floors on a raised platform. The mosaic on the south side of the west wing covers what is regarded as the dining room. But to the north, there are bathrooms, plunge pools and the like for relaxation.

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The central heating genius of the Romans is exposed in several locations, but particularly on the north wing, where pillars that supported the floors can still be seen.

Lying in the valley of the River Coln, a source of clean water would have been one of the main reasons for siting the villa here. And in the northwest corner of the villa, in what has been interpreted as a shrine or temple, yesterday’s trickle of water from the spring didn’t seem sufficient to sustain a large community that must have lived at Chedworth all those centuries ago.

The site is also a haven for wildlife, but we didn’t see any of the large edible snails (Helix pomatia) that are found at Chedworth and which were introduced by the Romans. I’ve never heard of these elsewhere but there surely must be other populations around the country. At Chedworth they’ve survived – even as a local population – for two millennia.

No doubt the continuing archaeology will eventually tell us more about the life and times of Chedworth, one of fifty or more villas in the Cotswolds. Another – but important – link in our rich history.

Would I eat genetically-modified foods? Damn right I would! (Updated 2020-02-18 & 2021-01-08)

MC900436915Eat genetically-modified foods? I’ve been eating them all my life and I haven’t noticed any negative effects yet.

There’s hardly a food plant that we grow today that hasn’t undergone some sort of genetic modification. Let’s take the potato as a good example. I can’t think of any modern potato variety that does not have one or more wild species in its pedigree somewhere. These have been used for their disease resistance, among other reasons, such as Solanum demissum from Mexico to control the late blight pathogen Phytophthora infestans (the culprit in the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s). That’s just one species – plenty more have also been crossed with modern potato varieties. There are also good examples from rice for submergence tolerance or salt tolerance using distantly-related wild species.

That’s genetic modification. Plain and simple. I guess most people don’t even realize. It’s what plant breeding is all about: taking different varieties or species (and their genes), crossing them (where possible) to make a hybrid, and selecting the best from the ‘DNA soup’. To increase the precision of conventional plant breeding, molecular markers are often now used to follow the transfer of useful characteristics or traits in conventional plant breeding populations.

GMO – genetically modified organism. An emotive term for some. For others, like me, genetic engineering is one of the tools in the arsenal for feeding a world population of 7+ billion – that’s growing rapidly – especially under a changing climate. Genetic engineering is even more precise than conventional plant breeding for moving genes (DNA) between species. However, there has been a lot of scare-mongering – and more – when it comes to GMOs. 

Now you might ask why I’ve focused on this topic all of a sudden. Well, on 8 August 2013, a field trial of Golden Rice (that contains beta carotene, a source of Vitamin A) in the south of Luzon, Philippines was vandalized by anti-GM activists (and maybe a few farmers), and destroyed.* This field trial was part of the important humanitarian research undertaken by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and its partners in the Philippines, the Department of Agriculture and PhilRice (the Philippines Rice Research Institute) to develop biofortified rice varieties that can deliver Vitamin A and other micronutrients sustainably without having resort to supplementation or commercial fortification, which are expensive and only effective as long as such initiatives are funded.

In the video below, IRRI Deputy Director General, Dr Bruce Tolentino explains what happened on 8 August and why Golden Rice is so important for people who suffer from Vitamin A deficiency.

While GM crops are widely grown in the USA and some other countries, there has been significant public resistance in Europe, and particularly in the UK. I can understand, however, why the general public in the UK was – and is – wary. In the 1980s there were a couple of important food scares: a major foot and mouth outbreak in farm livestock; and BSE or ‘mad cow disease’. Furthermore, one or two commercial companies were attempting to commercialize some GM crops – without taking the time to explain why, how, and what for. The public lost faith in the ‘trust us’ line put out by the government of the day.

Environmental groups conducted major campaigns against even the testing of genetically-modified crops, let alone their commercialization. Very soon the activists had seized the initiative; the label of ‘Frankenstein foods’ stuck. An opportunity was lost, since scientists didn’t adequately step up to the plate and explain, in language that the average man in the street could understand, what GM technology was all about, and its importance. In the early days of GM research there were some inherent risks (such as the use of antibiotic markers to identify plants carrying the gene of interest); and some issues such as the ‘escape’ of genes from GMOs into wild plant populations. GM techniques have moved on, new approaches for identification of transgenic plants developed. But field research – based on the soundest of scientific principles, methods and ethics, generating good empirical data – is still needed to answer many of the environmental questions.

The vandalized Golden Rice field trial in Bicol, southern Luzon, Philippines

I do question the motives of some activists. Are they really concerned about real or perceived negative health and environmental impacts of GMOs? Or is the real issue that GM technology (as they see it) is in the hands of big agrochemical companies like Monsanto, Du Pont, Syngenta and others – an anti-capitalist campaign. In many countries much of the GM research is actually carried out by universities and publicly-funded research organizations such as the John Innes Centre in the UK.

I’ve had my own run-ins with these activists. In the early 1990s, then IRRI Director General Klaus Lampe opened a dialogue with a number of groups in the Philippines. He invited many anti-GM activists to IRRI for a two-day dialogue. I remember ‘challenging’ one prominent activist and future presidential candidate Nicanor Perlas about his anti-biotechnology campaign. As we analysed his perspectives, it became clear that his major concern was ‘genetic engineering’ – not biotechnology as a whole. I suggested to him that we could agree to disagree about genetic engineering (I appreciated there were risks, but as a scientist I wanted to study and evaluate those risks), but we should and could agree about the value of many of other biotechnology tools such as tissue culture, somaclones, or embryo rescue, among others. He concurred. Yet a few days after the meeting, he published a two page diatribe against ‘biotechnology’ (not just genetic engineering) in one of the Manila broadsheets. I find such actions (and positions) disingenuous, and typical of the lack of understanding that many of these people really have about GM. Just listen to the points of view presented by the activists in this Penn and Teller video (Eat This! Season 1. Episode 11. April 4, 2003). I already posted this before in my story about the late Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug – but it’s worth repeating here. Just be careful – there is some strong language.

Here are a couple of classic quotes from Borlaug from that video:
Producing food for 6.2 billion people, adding a population of 80 million more a year, is not simple. We better develop an ever improved science and technology, including the new biotechnology, to produce the food that’s needed for the world today. And in response to the fraction of the world population that could be fed if current farmland was converted to organic-only crops: We are 6.6 billion people now. We can only feed 4 billion. I don’t see 2 billion volunteers to disappear.

Nevertheless, it is good to see the condemnation by the scientific community and media worldwide of the destruction of the Golden Rice field trial two weeks ago. In particular, it’s gratifying to hear that Mark Lynas, a well-respected British writer, journalist and environmental activist has turned his back on the anti-GMO lobby. He recently traveled to the Philippines to find out more for himself about Golden Rice research and the damage to the field trial.

Here are some of the media reports from around the world: in the New York Times; Slate; the Philippine Star; AGProfessional; Science 2.0; the BBC; and change.org. Even Fox News got in on the act in its characteristic over-the-top way! Here is an interesting piece about GM in general, published a couple of days ago in Forbes.

* Read this report by Mark Lynas after his visit to the Philippines recently.

Golden Rice has now been approved in the Philippines. Read this news story from the IRRI website, dated 18 December 2019:

After rigorous biosafety assessment, Golden Rice “has been found to be as safe as conventional rice” by the Philippine Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Plant Industry. The biosafety permit, addressed to the Department of Agriculture – Philippine Rice Research Institute (DA-PhilRice) and International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), details the approval of GR2E Golden Rice for direct use as food and feed, or for processing (FFP).

PhilRice Executive Director Dr. John de Leon welcomed the positive regulatory decision. “With this FFP approval, we bring forward a very accessible solution to our country’s problem on Vitamin A deficiency that’s affecting many of our pre-school children and pregnant women.”

Despite the success of public health interventions like oral supplementation, complementary feeding, and nutrition education, Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) among children aged 6 months to 5 years increased from 15.2 percent in 2008 to 20.4 percent in 2013 in the Philippines. The beta-carotene content of Golden Rice aims to provide 30 to 50 percent of the estimated average requirement (EAR) of vitamin A for pregnant women and young children.

“IRRI is pleased to partner with PhilRice to develop this nutrition-sensitive agricultural solution to address hidden hunger. This is the core of IRRI’s purpose: to tailor global solutions to local needs,” notes IRRI Director General Matthew Morrell. “The Philippines has long recognized the potential to harness biotechnology to help address food and nutrition security, environmental safety, as well as improve the livelihoods of farmers.”

The FFP approval is the latest regulatory milestone in the journey to develop and deploy Golden Rice in the Philippines. With this approval, DA-PhilRice and IRRI will now proceed with sensory evaluations and finally answer the question that many Filipinos have been asking: What does Golden Rice taste like?

To complete the Philippine biosafety regulatory process, Golden Rice will require approval for commercial propagation before it can be made available to the public. This follows from the field trials harvested in Muñoz, Nueva Ecija and San Mateo, Isabela in September and October 2019.

The Philippines now joins a select group of countries that have affirmed the safety of Golden Rice. In 2018, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, Health Canada, and the United States Food and Drug Administration published positive food safety assessments for Golden Rice. A biosafety application was lodged in November 2017 and is currently undergoing review by the Biosafety Core Committee in Bangladesh.


About the Healthier Rice Program
Together with its national partners, the Healthier Rice Program at IRRI is working to improve the nutritional status in countries across Asia and Africa, where rice is widely grown and eaten. Delivering essential micronutrients through staple foods like rice offers a sustainable and complementary approach to public health interventions for micronutrient deficiency, which affects 2 billion people worldwide. In addition to Golden Rice, research is being conducted on high iron and zinc rice (HIZR) to help address iron-deficiency anemia and stunting.

8 January 2021: gene editing
There was an important news item in The Guardian yesterday, reporting that the UK’s head of DEFRA (Department for  Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) George Eustice MP had indicated that gene editing of crops and livestock might be permitted in the UK before long, and that he was launching a consultation into this, and was quickly welcomed by many in the UK scientific community like Professor Sophien Kamoun, a plant pathologist at the John Innes Centre in Norwich who tweeted his support.

Under strict EU rules, gene editing had been classified as genetic modification and therefore banned. Now that the UK has left the EU, it can decide for itself how to harness the power of these biotechnology tools.

Don’t get me wrong. I was—and remain—a strong supporter of EU membership, but on the issue of GMOs and other biotechnology tools, I believe the European Commission and the courts got it very wrong. We need these powerful tools so we can harness the genetic resources to improve crops and livestock in a fraction of the time that would be needed using more conventional methods. Doubt remains, however, whether foods produced using any of these techniques could, for the foreseeable future, be exported to any EU countries.

Immediately after announcing the consultation, the usual opponents of any biotechnology, such as GeneWatch UK condemned this development. I’m sure it won’t be long before the likes of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace add their voices in opposition.

The technique of gene editing (more correctly the CRISPR/Cas9 technique) was discovered and developed by Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna who were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020 last October. That’s how important the scientific community believes this technology is.

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna

In a press release that announced the award of this prize, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences stated that Charpentier and Doudna had . . . discovered one of gene technology’s sharpest tools: the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors. Using these, researchers can change the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with extremely high precision. This technology has had a revolutionary impact on the life sciences, is contributing to new cancer therapies and may make the dream of curing inherited diseases come true.

My hope is that the proposed DEFRA consultation can be conducted in a calm and collected way. Although I fear that emotions will once again take the debate off in unwelcome directions. Even on Channel 4’s new program last night, presented Jon Snow referred to genetically-modified foods as ‘Frankenfoods’ Use of this terminology does not help one iota.

Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change – publication by the end of the year*

A perspective from 25 years ago
In April 1989, Brian Ford-Lloyd, Martin Parry and I organized a workshop on plant genetic resources and climate change at the University of Birmingham. A year later, Climatic Change and Plant Genetic Resources was published (by Belhaven Press), with eleven chapters summarizing perspectives on climatic change and how it might affect plant populations, and its expected impact on agriculture around the world.

We asked whether genetic resources could cope with climate change, and would plant breeders be able to access and utilize genetic resources as building blocks of new and better-adapted crops? We listed ten consensus conclusions from the workshop:

  1. The importance of developing collection, conservation and utilization strategies for genetic resources in the light of climatic uncertainty should be recognised.
  2. There should be marked improvement in the accuracy of climate change predictions.
  3. There must be concern about sea level rises and their impact on coastal ecosystems and agriculture.
  4. Ecosystems should be preserved thereby allowing plant species – especially crop species and their wild relatives – the flexibility to respond to climate change.
  5. Research should be prioritized on tropical dry areas as these might be expected to be more severely affected by climate change.
  6. There should be a continuing need to characterize and evaluate germplasm that will provide adaptation to changed climates.
  7. There should be an increase in screening germplasm for drought, raised temperatures, and salinity.
  8. Research on the physiology underlying C3 and C4 photosynthesis should merit further investigation with the aim of increasing the adaptation of C3 crops.
  9. Better simulation models should drive a better understanding of plant responses to climate change.
  10. Plant breeders should become more aware of the environmental impacts of climate change, so that breeding programs could be modified to accommodate these predicted changes.

Climate change perspectives today
There is much less scepticism today about greenhouse gas-induced climate change and what its consequences might be, even though the full impacts of climate change cannot yet be predicted with certainty. On the other hand, the nature of weather variability – particularly in the northern hemisphere in recent years – has left some again questioning whether our climate really is warming. But the evidence is there for all to see, even as the sceptics refuse to accept the empirical data of increases in atmospheric CO2, for example, or the unprecedented summer melting of sea ice in the Arctic and the retreat of glaciers in the Alps.

Over the past decade the world has experienced a number of severe climate events – wake-up calls to what might be the normal pattern in the future under a changed climate – such as extreme drought in one region, or unprecedented flooding in another. Even the ‘normal’ weather patterns of Western Europe appear to have become disrupted in recent years leading to increased stresses on agriculture.

Some of the same questions we asked in 1989 are still relevant. However, there are some very important differences today from the situation then. Our understanding of what is happening to the climate has been refined significantly over the past two decades, as the efforts of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have brought climate scientists worldwide together to provide better predictions of how climate will change. Furthermore, governments are now taking the threat of climate change seriously, and international agreements like the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change, which came into force in 2005 and, even with their limitations, have provided the basis for society and governments to take action to mitigate the effects of climate change.

A new book from CABI
It is in this context, therefore, that our new book Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change was commissioned to bring together, in a single volume, some of the latest perspectives about how genetic resources can contribute to achieving food security under the challenge of a changing climate. We also wanted to highlight some key issues for plant genetic resources management, to demonstrate how perspectives have changed over two decades, and discuss some of the actual responses and developments.

Food security and genetic resources
So what has happened during the past two decades or so? In 1990, world population was under 6 billion, but today there are more than 1 billion additional mouths to feed. The World Food Program estimates that there are 870 million people in the world who do not get enough food to lead a normal and active life. Food insecurity remains a major concern. In an opening chapter, Robert Zeigler (IRRI) provides an overview on food security today, how problems of food production will be exacerbated by climate change, and how – in the case of one crop, rice – access to and use of genetic resources have already begun to address many of the challenges that climate change will bring.

Expanding on the plant genetic resources theme, Brian Ford-Lloyd (University of Birmingham) and his co-authors provide (in Chapter 2) a broad overview of important issues concerning their conservation and use, including conservation approaches, strategies, and responses that become more relevant under the threat of climate change.

Climate projections
In three chapters, Richard Betts (UK Met Office) and Ed Hawkins (University of Reading), Martin Parry (Imperial College – London), and Pam Berry (Oxford University) and her co-authors describe scenarios for future projected climates (Chapter 3), the effects of climate change on food production and the risk of hunger (Chapter 4), and regional impacts of climate change on agriculture (Chapter 5), respectively. Over the past two decades, development of the global circulation models now permits climate change prediction with greater certainty. And combining these with physiological modelling and geographical information systems (GIS) we now have a better opportunity to assess what the impacts of climate change might be on agriculture, and where.

Sharing genetic resources
In the 1990s, we became more aware of the importance of biodiversity in general, and several international legal instruments such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture were agreed among nations to govern access to and use of genetic resources for the benefit of society. A detailed discussion of these developments is provided by Gerald Moore (formerly FAO) and Geoffrey Hawtin (formerly IPGRI) in Chapter 6.

Crop wild relatives, in situ and on-farm conservation
In Chapters 7 and 8, we explore the
in situ conservation of crop genetic resources and their wild relatives. Nigel Maxted and his co-authors (University of Birmingham) provide an analysis of the importance of crop wild relatives in plant breeding and the need for their comprehensive conservation. Mauricio Bellon and Jacob van Etten (Bioversity International) discuss the challenges for on-farm conservation in centres of crop diversity under climate change.

Informatics and the impact of molecular biology
Discussing the data management aspects of germplasm collections, Helen Ougham and Ian Thomas (Aberystwyth University) describe in Chapter 9 several developments in genetic resources databases, and regional projects aimed at facilitating conservation and use. Two decades ago we had little idea of what would be the impact of molecular biology and its associated data today on the identification of useful crop diversity and its use in plant breeding. In Chapter 10, Kenneth McNally (IRRI) provides a comprehensive review of the present and future of how genomics and other molecular technologies – and associated informatics – are revolutionizing how we study and understand diversity in plant species. He also provides many examples of how responses to environmental stresses that can be expected as a result of climate change can be detected at the molecular level, opening up unforeseen opportunities for precise germplasm evaluation, identification, and use. Susan Armstrong (University of Birmingham, Chapter 11) describes how a deeper understanding of sexual reproduction in plants, specifically the processes of meiosis, should lead to better use of germplasm in crop breeding as a response to climate change.

Coping with climate change
In a final series of five chapters, responses to a range of abiotic and biotic stresses are documented: heat (by Maduraimuthu Djanaguiraman and Vara Prasad, Kansas State University, Chapter 12); drought (Salvatore Ceccarelli, formerly ICARDA, Chapter 13); salinity (including new domestications) by William Erskine, University of Western Australia, and his co-authors in Chapter 14; submergence tolerance in rice as a response to flooding (Abdelbagi Ismail, IRRI and David Mackill, University of California – Davis, Chapter 15); and finally plant-insect interactions and prospects for resistance breeding using genetic resources (by Jeremy Pritchard, University of Birmingham, and co-authors, Chapter 16).

Why this book is timely and important
The climate change that has been predicted is an enormous challenge for society worldwide. Nevertheless, progress in the development of scenarios of climate change – especially the development of more reliable projections of changes in precipitation – now provide a much more sound basis for using genetic resources in plant breeding for future climates. While important uncertainty remains about changes to variability of climate, especially to the frequency of extreme weather events, enough is now known about the range of possible changes (for example by using current analogues of future climate) to provide a basis for choosing genetic resources in breeding better-adapted crops. Even the challenge of turbo-charging the photosynthesis of a C
3 crop like rice has already been taken up by a consortium of scientists worldwide under the leadership of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.

Unlike the situation in 1989, estimates of average sea level rise, and consequent risks to low lying land areas, are now characterised by less uncertainty and indicate the location and scale of the challenges posed by inundation, by soil waterlogging and by land salinization. Responses to all of these challenges and the progress achieved are spelt out in detail in several chapters in this volume.

We remain confident that research will continue to demonstrate just what is needed to mitigate the worst effects of climate change; that germplasm access and use frameworks – despite their flaws – facilitate breeders to choose and use genetic resources; and that ultimately, genetic resources will be used successfully in crop breeding for climate change thereby enhancing food security.

Would you like to buy a copy?
The authors will receive their page proofs any day now, and we should have the final edits made by the middle of September. CABI expects to publish Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change in December 2013. Already this book can be found online through a Google search even though it’s not yet published. But do go to the CABI Bookshop – the book has been priced at £85 (or USD160 and €110). If you order online I’m told there is a discount on the list price.

* This post is based on the Preface from the forthcoming CABI book.

The prescience of political cartoonists

Tuesday 7 November 1972. The 47th quadrennial presidential election in the USA.

Richard Milhous Nixon defeated George McGovern in one of the biggest landslide victories in US presidential election history, taking 60.7% of the popular vote, and 520 of the 538 Electoral College votes. Nixon seemed set for a successful second term in office. After all, he’d already made some progress in foreign affairs, having begun the normalization of relations with China, for example.

That was before the scandal we’ve come to know as Watergate surfaced. Such was the impact of this scandal that almost any shady dealings in the public arena today are reported as ‘this-gate’ or ‘that-gate’. It was a significant development in the politics and political history of the late 20th century. And the outcome? Nixon resigned as 37th President of the United States on 9 August 1974.

But even as the Watergate scandal was unfolding, there was one group of media people who really smelt a rat – and I’m not talking about The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. No. I’m referring to a cohort of political cartoonists, especially Herblock and Oliphant, who had latched on to some of Nixon’s shady dealings very early on in the game, over 18 months before Nixon was forced out of office.

At the beginning of January 1973 I moved to Lima in Peru, and took a subscription to both Time Magazine and Newsweek. Once I’d read them I just put them to one side. However, when we moved apartments in August of that year, I took all the magazines with me (never could be sure why), and the pile continued to grow. In early 1974 I realized I had more than a year’s worth of magazines, most of which carried each week one or more political cartoons targeting the latest Watergate revelations – and beyond. What a cartoon treasure trove I’d assembled. It was then I decided to make a scrap book containing all the cartoons and related information I could get my hands on. Many of them hit the nail right on the head, and the cartoonists were well ahead of the other political pundits in exposing Nixon’s crimes.

Just click on Nixon’s image above to view my Watergate scrapbook. I think you’ll find it revealing and entertaining. It’s a large PDF file so it might take a little while to open.

Dudmaston – in the same family for more than 800 years

The same family – more or less. Dudmaston Hall has come down to the present residents (I don’t think ‘owners’ is the right term as the National Trust is involved in looking after property) through various familial inheritance twists and turns, not by direct ancestry. Landed gentry but not aristocrats.

Lying in the Severn Valley, a few miles south of Bridgnorth in Shropshire (but close to Worcestershire and Staffordshire county boundaries), Dudmaston Hall (well, the present building at least) dates from the late 17th century.

In many ways the house itself is quite modest. The ground floor entrance hall, library and oak study are open to the public. Access to the first floor is up a beautiful cantilevered staircase. Several bedrooms can be viewed – some of them still used as guest bedrooms! As the house is still lived in, photography is not permitted inside the house.

From 1966 until their deaths in the late 1990s, Dudmaston Hall was home to Sir George and Lady  Rachel Labouchere (she had inherited the hall from her uncle Capt. Geoffrey Wolchyre-Whitmore, the family that had lived at Dudmaston for several generations). Sir George served in the diplomatic service during and after the Second World War, and was HM Ambassador in Spain from 1960-1966. He was also an avid collector of modern art (including many by Spanish artists), assembling – it’s reported – one the most important private collections in the country. Many of the best pieces are still displayed at Dudmaston today. I’m afraid I’m not really enthusiastic about modern art, but there was one bronze sculpture that really did take my fancy. Out of my budget range, though.

Lady Rachel Labouchere

Lady Rachel Labouchere

Lady Rachel was a collector of botanical paintings, and many of those she collected are also on display, and of particular interest to Steph and me because of our botany backgrounds.

The gardens at Dudmaston are nothing to write home about, but the estate and park are extensive with opportunities for long walks – which we took full advantage of. Starting from the car park we headed towards the Big Pool that you can see on the map below (click on it for a larger image), over the Rustic Bridge, round the Dingle, across the dam, and following the path to the River Severn. Coming out of the woods on to a west-facing slope above the river, we could see the track of the Severn Valley Railway (a heritage line) on the other side. It would have been a great spot to watch the steam trains. But none came by, but once we’d headed back along the lake, we did hear a couple of locomotives whistling in the distance.

The lake has a high dam at the southern end, and is a haven for a large flock of Canada and greylag geese, that were swimming about in ‘family’ groups and happily honking to each other.

While not the seat of a distinguished aristocratic family, Dudmaston Hall does have some important links with Britain’s industrial heritage. Lady Rachel was descended from the Darby family of Coalbrookdale (said to be the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, less than 15 miles north of Dudmaston), where Abraham Darby developed iron smelting in the first decade of the 18th century and where, at Ironbridge, the world’s first bridge constructed from iron was built across the River Severn in 1779 (by Darby’s grandson, Abraham Darby III), using the same design principles as if it had been made from wood.

From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:IronbridgeCharles Babbage, father of the computer who designed a mechanical Difference Machine in the early 19th century, was the brother-in-law of the Wolchyre-Whitmore owner of Dudmaston at that time. Babbage spent considerable periods at the hall. He also invented and installed the hall’s central heating system, and several of the metal vents are on display. 

So while the visit to Dudmaston was, in some respects, a little disappointing, it was nice to get out and about, and enjoy a late summer day in the fresh air. Fortunately the journey to Dudmaston took little more than 30 minutes, being only 18 miles or so to the northwest of Bromsgrove.

On 24 June 2020, we made a farewell visit to Dudmaston. As more National Trust properties begin to open, we are taking the opportunity to grab tickets as and when we can. Last week we had a lovely walk around the park at Hanbury Hall.

It was the hottest day of the year to date yesterday, but that didn’t deter us from heading to Dudmaston, and attempting a walk around the pool. In fact, when we arrived there, right on time at 13:30, we discovered that the NT had implemented a one-way system around the park, so once we’d started there was no turning back. We followed the route (shown by a red dotted line on the map below) through The Dingle, across the dam, and round the Big Pool back to the garden in front of the house.

Here is a link to a photo album of yesterday’s visit.


400 years of prosperity . . . then along came Henry VIII

Founded in the early 12th century, Fountains Abbey – lying alongside the River Skell just to the southwest of Ripon in North Yorkshire – became one of the most prosperous of the many Cistercian abbeys in Europe.

However, in 1539, Henry VIII and his henchman destroyed Fountains Abbey at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. With its wealth plundered, and the lead roofing removed and sold, Fountains Abbey soon slipped into complete disrepair and became a ruin – a ghost of its former glory. Today the ruins, cared for in a partnership between the National Trust and English Heritage, receive hundreds of thousands of visitors. I wonder if, like me, many of them wonder what it must have looked like in its heyday, and perhaps, in the silence, imagine for a fleeting moment the plainsong of monks at prayer.

But the community at Fountains comprised both monks and lay people who tended the fields and looked after flocks of sheep (the Cistercians built their wealth on wool) leaving monks time for daily mediation. The abbey also took in visitors and the sick, and several of the ruined buildings were used for this purpose. Today there is a small museum in what was once the Porter’s Lodge, with a timeline of the abbey’s development and ultimate downfall. At it’s dissolution it was valued at around £1160, the equivalent today of tens of millions of pounds.

Most of the buildings have lost their roof, but one – the Cellarium (storeroom or undercroft) – has an impressive and beautiful vaulted ceiling. Whether there originally was glass in the windows, I’m not sure although I would expect so.

Close-by are the Guest House Bridge and monks’ latrine building – the Reredorter, strategically positioned over the River Skell in which effluent flowed away, without contaminating any sources of drinking water.

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The Refectory opens on to the Cloister, across from the Church and its impressive Tower.

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And then there’s the Church and Tower, dominating the whole site. No wonder that Fountains Abbey has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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In the 18th century, the pools and gardens of Studley Royal were created to the east of the abbey ruins, where visitors could stroll and take in the views. At another Cistercian Abbey – Rievaulx – not that far away from Fountains Abbey, a viewing terrace was also built in the 18th century to facilitate access to the abbey ruins.

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When we first arrived at Fountains there were several parties of school children, a number of whom were making the most of being in the open air, running around and making rather a cacophony. After about 20 minutes, however, peace descended and we could then appreciate the magnificence of this ruined abbey in the relative silence it demanded. Very spiritual.

‘The bowler is Holding, the batsman’s Willey’

I spent much of yesterday listening to Test Match Special (TMS) on BBC Radio 5 Live – I don’t subscribe to Sky Sports so couldn’t watch it on TV (except for the highlights in the evening).

The Ashes urn is only six inches tall.

The Ashes urn is only six inches tall.

Test Match Special? Well, for my many followers on this blog I’m referring to cricket. And yesterday, England won a remarkable victory over the Australians in the 4th Test Match (= match between international teams) of the summer 2013 Ashes Series (the rivalry between England and Australia goes back more than a century, and is fierce). I say remarkable, because midway through the afternoon session it seemed as though Australia were cruising to victory, having lost only two wickets for 168 runs. Then England fast bowler Stuart Broad found his mojo, and Australia were scuttled out 74 runs short of the required 299. So England win the five match series 3-0 so far, with one match (at Old Trafford last week) drawn, and one to play, at The Oval in London next week.

My father was a great cricket fan, often spending a Saturday summer evening watching a local match at Leek Cricket Club, or occasionally traveling to Chesterfield to watch county side Derbyshire play. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, there were few overseas players in the county sides, because they had to gain their residency in English cricket before they could play in the First Class (i.e. county) game. Many did this by playing for local clubs. So in the North Staffordshire League (I think that was its name) we could watch some of the world’s greatest players, such as West Indian batsmen Sir Frank Worrell and Sir Gary Sobers, and fast bowlers Wes Hall and Charlie Griffiths. Quite a treat to watch these players before they hit the big time, and for any team to come up against these players in the opposing side.

I can’t remember anyone ever explaining the rules of cricket to me. Maybe it’s a ‘genetic’ thing – growing up with the game, I just became aware of how it was played. And at high school we did play cricket during the summer semester, although I was never good enough to play for one of the school teams. Cricket for me was much more a recreational sport. As a graduate student at Birmingham, a group of us would play a few overs (six ball deliveries) during the lunch break, and when I was based at CATIE in Turrialba, Costa Rica in the late 70s, we managed to scrape a team together, prepare a pitch, and challenge the San José Cavaliers to a limited overs match (which we easily lost). Even at IRRI in the early 90s we managed a game or two, and given the high number of staff and students from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, that’s not surprising.

Already, however, I’ve lapsed into jargon: ‘overs’, ‘sides’, ‘wickets’, etc. So for many, especially in the USA, cricket remains a ‘remote’ sport. In some ways that’s hardly surprising when you have fielding positions such as ‘silly mid on’, ‘silly mid off’, ‘slips’, gully’, and ‘deep fine leg’ to mention but a few. And the fact that Test Matches are played over five days, with lunch, drinks and tea breaks further adds to cricket’s unfathomability for some. Needless to say I have the same issues with American football and baseball.

There has been a significant change in the way that cricket is played, with the expansion of the one day, limited overs, matches, and the more recent phenomenon: T20 (20-twenty), in which both sides have just 20 overs to score as many runs as possible. It’s a big thing in India, and fortunes are spent on promotion, commercialization, and key players. Not really my cup of tea.

Yesterday’s match at the Emirates Durham in Chester-le-Street was a great exhibition of the very best of Test Match cricket. The balance of the game swung from one team to the other, until England finally made the breakthrough late on in the afternoon. Roll on The Oval!

Brian Johnston

Listening to a cricket match on the radio is also special – but you have to know something about the game, and the field placings, etc. to fully understand the commentary. I grew up listening to the likes of John Arlott and Brian Johnston and later former Australian captain Richie Benaud. Other commentators have come and gone, but the current crew are, in the main, very good (Jonathan Agnew, former England captain Michael Vaughan, former England opener Geoffrey Boycott, Henry Blofeld, and others). Then and now, you can detect the camaraderie among the commentators, and the fun they are having – as well as their love of cricket. But commentating live has its pitfalls.

The title of this blog refers to something that Brian Johnston is reported to have said during a Test Match in 1976 between England and the West Indies at The Oval Cricket Ground in south London. England were batting, and Peter Willey was facing a ball from West Indian (very) fast bowler Michael Holding. It’s up to the commentator to describe, as succinctly as possible, what’s happening on the field of play. So, for the listening audience, Jonners (as he was known) quickly described the state of play: ‘The bowler is Holding, the batsman’s Willey’. Listen  to cricket commentator Henry Blofeld talk about this. 

Well, if true, it’s a classic, as good if not better than Jonathan Agnew’s (Aggers) description of Ian Botham missing a shot and trying to get out of the way by leaping over his wicket – but failing. ‘Botham can’t get his leg over’ was the comment! On cue, commentators in the booth falling about, laughing so hard, unable to broadcast.

And this is how it was. Here’s Aggers setting up former England captain Michael Vaughan. Lots of great commentating, lots of humour – and lots of cakes sent in by listeners, which became a TMS tradition which endures to this day.

And it’s not just during cricket matches that commentators wish they could rewind the tape, so-to-speak. Out of the mouths of babes and commentators, come some of the best unintended double entendres, which I discovered earlier today on the Internet. Enjoy!

1. Ted Walsh – Horse Racing Commentator: ‘This is really a lovely horse. I once rode her mother.’

2. Pat Glenn, weightlifting commentator: ‘And this is Gregoriava from Bulgaria. I saw her snatch this morning and it was amazing!’

3. Harry Carpenter at the Oxford-Cambridge boat race 1977: ‘Ah, isn’t that nice. The wife of the Cambridge President is kissing the Cox of the Oxford crew.’

4. US PGA Commentator: ‘One of the reasons Arnie (Arnold Palmer) is playing so well is that, before each tee shot, his wife takes out his balls and kisses them …. Oh my god !! What have I just said??’

5. Carenza Lewis about finding food in the Middle Ages on ‘Time Team Live’ said: ‘You’d eat beaver if you could get it.’

6. A female news anchor who, the day after it was supposed to have snowed and didn’t, turned to the weatherman and asked: ‘So Bob, where’s that eight inches you promised me last night?’ Not only did HE have to leave the set, but half the crew did too, because they were laughing so hard!

7. Steve Ryder covering the US Masters: ‘Ballesteros felt much better today after a 69 yesterday.’

8. Clair Frisby talking about a jumbo hot dog on Look North said: ‘There’s nothing like a big hot sausage inside you on a cold night like this. ‘

9. Michael Buerk on watching Philippa Forrester cuddle up to a male astronomer for warmth during BBC1’s UK eclipse coverage remarked: ‘They seem cold out there, they’re rubbing each other and he’s only come in his shorts.’

10. Ken Brown commentating on golfer Nick Faldo and his caddie Fanny Sunneson lining-up shots at the Scottish Open: ‘Some weeks Nick likes to use Fanny, other weeks he prefers to do it by himself.’

Three days, three houses . . .

During our trip to the northeast a couple of weeks ago, we visited three National Trust properties over three days. They all had one feature in common: until quite recently they were still occupied by their owners.

In Northumberland, the two houses were: Seaton Delaval Hall, just north of Whitley Bay, about a mile inland from the North Sea Coast (map); and Wallington House and Gardens (map), home to generations of the Blackett and Trevelyan families for generations, about 25 miles northwest of Newcastle. In North Yorkshire, just south of Helmsley in the North York Moors lies Nunnington Hall (map), which we visited on the journey home.

Seaton Delaval Hall
This impressive property was designed in 1718 by Sir John Vanbrugh (who also designed Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard) for the Delaval family who had occupied estates in the area since the time of the Norman Conquest in the 11th century. It comprises a Central Hall and West and East Wings (which houses the large stables). The Central Hall was destroyed in a fire in 1822, although a number of features did survive. The West Wing (and the extensive cellars) originally housed the servants, but in the 20th century became the residence of the owner. Some restoration has taken place, and the Parterre Garden was designed in the 1950s. Although Seaton Delaval will never again reach its former glory, its outward appearance speaks volumes for what it must have been like.

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Wallington House and Gardens
The hall dates from the 17th century, but had extensive modifications in the Palladian style in the 18th. Two aspects particularly impressed me: it definitely had the feel of a family home; and the walled garden, about 15 minutes walk away from the house, in among the woods, is perhaps one of the nicest gardens I have visited. The entrance hall has bright murals showing many different aspects of the history of Northumbria, and the house is full of beautiful treasures. Wallington is definitely worth a visit for so many reasons.

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Nunnington Hall
Alongside the River Rye, parts of the house date from the Tudor period, but over the centuries it was remodeled. There are signs of its occupation by Parliamentary forces during the English Civil Wars of the 1640s. The gardens are not extensive, but quite attractive.

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An apo in the Northeast

A couple of weeks ago our daughter Philippa asked us if we could babysit grandson (= ‘apo’, Tagalog for grandchild) Elvis Dexter for a couple of nights while she and Andi attended a wedding. They live in Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England, 225 miles north of where we live.

I can’t deny that Steph and I were a little apprehensive. It’s one thing babysitting while parents are out for the evening. It’s quite another being left completely responsible for a small child. After all, we haven’t had that sort of practice for more than 30 years.

We needn’t have concerned ourselves. Young Elvis was a delight to look after. Having been introduced to his nursery ‘teachers’ on the Monday afternoon, we went along with Philippa when Elvis attended nursery early on the following morning. It was then up to us to collect him in the afternoon, give him his evening meal, bath-time, play, stories and bed.

Once down for the night (around 19:30) we didn’t hear a peep out of him. In fact, on the second morning, I had to wake him up to get ready to head off to nursery!

As you can see from the slideshow, he also enjoyed himself.

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It will be interesting to see how he reacts when his baby brother/sister comes along in about five to six weeks time.

Leek – Queen of the Moorlands (updated 2018-11-05)

April 1956. Did my world fall apart? I probably thought so at the time.

We moved from Congleton in Cheshire (where I was born seven years earlier) to the small market town of Leek in north Staffordshire. Less than 12 miles away, but it could have been another planet for all I was concerned.

New town, new home, new school, and new friends.

When I say ‘small market town’ I always was under the impression that Leek had a population of about 20,000 when we moved there in 1956. So I was quite surprised to note in the 2001 census that the population was a smidgen under 19,000. It seems the population has changed very little over the past century.

I’m not sure that I could say that Leek is a picturesque town, but it’s certainly a very interesting one, with some remarkable features and history (the link gives a pretty comprehensive account). And it’s surrounded by some of the most glorious landscapes in the country, the Staffordshire moorlands on the southern edge of the Peak District (the UK’s first national park). Although I was not born there, and actually only lived there for a little over a decade before moving away to university (and moving on) I still think of Leek as my home-town – and proudly so!

In the 1960s panorama below, taken from the top of Ladderedge (on the southwest of the town, besides the main road linking Leek with Stoke-on-Trent – the Potteries) looking towards the northeast, you can see many of the distinctive features of the Leek skyline.

1-13 Leek

Just to left of center is the square tower of the 13th century Anglican Church of St Edward the Confessor (although there is some evidence for a pre-Norman church in the vicinity), and to the right of center, the tall spire of the Roman Catholic church, St Mary’s (which we attended), built in 1887, although there had been earlier churches.

Church of St Edward the Confessor

To the right of St Mary’s spire is the white clock tower of Leek’s impressive war memorial, the Nicholson War Memorial, commonly known as The Monument (at the eastern end of the main shopping Derby Street), and to the right of that another Anglican church, St Luke’s, with a square tower and a small spire to one side.

The Nicholson War Memorial (the Monument), photographed in April 2012. The roundabout has now disappeared – a great local controversy – as part of road ‘improvements’ to ease the flow of traffic. The video below shows its dedication in 1925.

And in the middle of the panorama rises the impressive green copper dome (no longer green) of the Nicholson Institute, housing the public library and art gallery (including a facsimile of the Bayeux Tapestry) and (in the past at least when I was growing up) a celebration of much of Leek’s wealth that was built on the silk weaving industry. Indeed, textile manufacturing and dyeing were among the main industrial endeavours in Leek, and quite a few of the mills and their chimneys can be seen on the Leek skyline. In the mid-60s a couple of these were destroyed by fire within the space of just one week – very dramatic happenings in a small town. William Morris, a prominent member of the Arts and Crafts Movement, may have resided in Leek for several years.

The central area of Leek is bounded by five streets: St Edward Street on the west, Stockwell Street on the north, Brook Street/Hayward Street on the south, and Ball Haye Street on the east. And these are through routes connecting Leek with Buxton to the northeast, Macclesfield to the north-west, the Potteries to the southwest, and Ashbourne to the east.

We lived in a couple of properties in St Edward Street where my father established his photographic retail business between our arrival in Leek in 1956 until 1962.

Then my father was able to purchase a prime site in the Market Place, which he kept until his retirement in 1976. I’ve recently discovered that 19 Market Place is now a shop selling home-made jewellery – Little Gem. That’s quite interesting since my wife’s main hobby is making bead jewellery. We must visit next time we are in Leek. But I digress . . .

Leek was granted a charter to hold a market on Wednesdays during the reign of King John at the beginning of the 13th century. And that market thrives today. In the valley of the River Churnet, and on the north-west of the town lie the rather depleted ruins of a Cistercian abbey, Dieulacres; many of the stones were used in local building after Henry VIII’s men had done their business, and particularly in the Abbey Inn that is found close by.

Leek was connected to the growing canal system in 1801, with a branch of the Caldon Canal. It closed in the mid-1940s, and was eventually filled in (now part of an industrial estate on the southeast side of the town). Famous 18th century canal engineer James Brindley lived in Leek for many years. Until the 1960s Leek was served with rail connections, but after these ended, the station was demolished in 1973. The last steam trains from Leek in 1965 are shown in the video below.

I read recently of plans to try and reopen the mothballed railway link between Leek and Stoke. The web site has some stunning photos of steam locomotives near Cauldon Lowe.

Close by the Monument is the bus station, opened in the 60s on the site of the former cattle market (that moved afterwards close to the site of the old railway station. Thanks to my old friend Geoff Sharratt for sharing these two photos with me.

We never talked politics at home. I suspect my parents voted Conservative, but I do not know for sure. When we lived in Congleton my father was elected to the local council – Congleton was a borough with a mayor. Not long after we moved to Leek my father sought election to the Leek Urban District Council – as an Independent since he strongly believed that national political affiliations had little or no place in local government. In 1968 he became Chairman of the Leek Urban District Council.

In the 1950s and 60s as I was growing up in Leek the annual Club Day, a 200 year-old tradition, held in mid-July was (and still is, apparently) a very important event in the town’s calendar. Held on a Saturday afternoon, it brought together churches and Sunday schools of all denominations in an ecumenical celebration, held in the Market Place. It was a riot of colour and best outfits, banners and bands, with the children and their parents and friends processing from the individual churches to the Market Place, and afterwards around the town.

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Today it seems that Club Day in Leek is rather a different celebration altogether. My elder brother Ed and I took part for a number of years with the St Mary’s 5th Leek Cub (cub scout) Pack. Here we are in our Cub uniforms.

Me with my brother Ed (r) in our Cub uniforms in the late 1950s.

Me with my brother Ed (r) in our Cub uniforms in the late 1950s.

After my parents retired in 1976 they took up residence in a first floor apartment in Greystones, a 17th century town house on Stockwell Street, just in front of the Nicholson Institute. After my mother (and the lady on the ground floor) moved out in the mid-80s, the property became a tea room.

Greystones, with the Nicholson Institute behind.

Greystones, with the Nicholson Institute behind.

But in many ways it’s the location of Leek that is one of its best assets, nestling as it does in the shadow of the Staffordshire Moorlands, with close access to the Peak District National Park, and particularly the Roaches, Dovedale, and the Manifold Valley to mention just a few special places, and the famous ‘double sunset‘ that figures in the old coat of arms (two suns).

Here’s a video I found recently on YouTube (2014-04-25) about the Staffordshire Peak District – all within a 10 mile or so radius of Leek:

I visit Leek rather rarely now, but when I do walk around the town, and look at how it has changed over the decades, my mind fills with good memories of a happy childhood. It was good growing up in Leek. And it seems that many around the world also hold fond memories of Leek, as comments on the Visitors’ Book at Leekonline show.

And finally, here are some recent photos of Leek that I have put together in a short video.

Ireland’s turbulent history

I guess I first became aware of Ireland’s turbulent past when I was studying Advanced Level (pre-university) English Literature between 1965 and 1967. Our English teacher, Frank Byrne, had family from Co. Roscommon in Ireland, and on the curriculum the years I studied was the poetry of Irish poet William Butler Yeats (Nobel laureate in Literature for 1923). Through his famous poem Easter, 1916, in which three of the four verses have as a final line ‘A terrible beauty is born‘, Yeats emphasizes his belief that the genie was out of the bottle, so-to-speak – Ireland would be changed forever.

Martin HealyElsewhere in this blog I have written about my own Irish ancestry, and often wondered how my Irish family reacted to – or even took part in – the events that shook Ireland in the early and mid twentieth century following the April 1916 rebellion. My maternal grandfather, Martin Healy, had served in the British army in South Africa and on the Northwest Frontier in India, and afterwards served as a policeman in London’s Metropolitan Police. As a Catholic, did he ever suffer from any sort of discrimination while in the Army or the police? Of course from his birth in 1876 he was a British citizen of Ireland. The Irish Free State was founded in 1922. I assume he retained his British citizenship throughout. But his roots were Irish. He and my grandmother came from large families. Were any of their brothers or sisters involved in the various struggles in Ireland from 1916 onwards: the Easter Rising, the civil war, and the various bombing campaigns carried out by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) both in Ireland and in England? A family anecdote has a great uncle of mine serving in the IRA and being executed by the Black and Tans, but I have no further evidence for this.

I’ve often wondered what and who the IRA was, are. And during a visit to St Paul, MN a couple of years ago I picked up a secondhand copy of Tim Pat Coogan’s tome The IRA – A History. I recently had a second stab at reading this. When I bought it I managed just a few pages – it’s not the easiest of reads. But having just finsihed T. Ryle Dwyer’s Big Fellow, Long Fellow – A Joint Biography of Collins & de Valera, I decided to give Coogan’s book another go. This time I managed about one fifth (it’s a long book, >500 pages, small font) before giving up. There is little attempt I felt at synthesis. Instead one is bombarded with fact after fact after fact. Indeed, I quite lost track of the overall narrative. Nevertheless I did begin to understand the origins of the IRA, how it became a proscribed organization in the Irish Free State and Republic, and its role in destabilizing society and politics in Northern Ireland more recently in ‘The Troubles’. While Coogan’s text is undoubtedly of considerable value to the serious scholar of Irish events – because he interviewed many of the leading characters in the IRA story – getting to grips with the big picture is not something that this book achieves.

9780717127870On the other hand Dwyer’s joint biography of Irish patriot Michael Collins and elder statesman Éamon de Valera is a much more accessible read, and one I enjoyed from cover to cover.

One thing that came though quite clearly to me is that both Collins and de Valera at various times of their careers were rather unsavory and ruthless characters, not averse to ordering the assassination of opponents when necessary. However, Collins seems to have been the more pragmatic of the two whose life and contribution to an Ireland on the road to becoming a republic was cut short when he was killed in an ambush in 1922. As a member of the negotiating team that agreed a treaty in 1921, leading to the partition of Ireland into the 26 counties of the south and the six counties of Northern Ireland, Collins was vilified by Republican purists, among whom was then numbered Éamon de Valera. But as Collins emphasized in debates about the Treaty to establish the Irish Free State, ‘In my opinion it gives us freedom, not the ultimate freedom that all nations desire … but the freedom to achieve it.’

de Valera had commanded a unit during the 1916 rebellion but was saved from execution by the fact he was actually born an American. From Dwyer’s book I had the distinct impression that de Valera was never consistent in his opinions or deeds, and certainly changed tack as and when it suited him politically. He did help found the political party Fianna Fáil, led nine governments, and became President of the Irish Republic in 1959, serving until 1973 when he was 90. He died in 1975. He did become father of the nation.

I’m still looking for that one book that will give me the overview and honest interpretation of recent (well, the last century) Irish history.