Elgar’s county – a land of hope and glory?

WORCESTERSHIRE

The county’s flag and coat of arms

Where Worcestershire Sauce was first concocted. But Worcestershire is also the birthplace (just outside Worcester) in 1857 of Sir Edward Elgar, one of the nation’s most renowned composers.

While reading this post, why not listen to celebrated contralto Clara Butt sing, in this 1911 recording, one of Elgar’s most famous compositions, Land of Hope and Glory (written in 1902, with words by AC Benson). 

Bounded on the north by the West Midlands and Staffordshire, to the northwest by Shropshire, Herefordshire to the west, Gloucestershire to the south, and Shakespeare’s county, Warwickshire to the east, Worcestershire is a mainly rural county in the English Midlands. It has an area of 672 square miles, and is 38th out of 48 counties in size. Click on the map below to explore further. The estimated population (in 2016) was a little under 600,000. Ethnically it’s mostly white British (>91%).

Setting up home
Worcestershire is my home, but I’m not a native. I was born and raised in Cheshire and Staffordshire, some 70 miles to the north. My wife hails from Essex, east of London. We chose Worcestershire—Bromsgrove in the northeast of the county to be specific (shown by the blue star on the map above)—more by chance than design. Let me explain.

In March 1981, Steph, Hannah (almost three), and I returned to the UK after living more than eight years in Peru and Costa Rica. I’d just been appointed to a lectureship at The University of Birmingham, in the Department of Plant Biology, School of Biological Sciences. Until we found somewhere to live permanently, Steph and Hannah stayed with her parents in Southend-on-Sea, while I settled into lecturing life at Birmingham. And launch ourselves into the housing market.

Before we left Peru, we had asked Steph’s parents to contact on our behalf as many estate agents (realtors) as they could identify from locations in a wide arc from the west of Birmingham, south into Worcestershire, and southeast towards the Solihull area. We already had decided that we didn’t want to live in Birmingham itself.

Arriving back in the UK we encountered a very large pile of house specs waiting for us at Steph’s parents, and began to work our way through these, rejecting immediately any that did not meet our expected needs. We quickly whittled around 500 down to a handful of fewer than fifty or so.

It must have been the Wednesday of my first week at the university in April, a slack period with no lectures or practical classes scheduled. So I decided to take the afternoon off and go house viewing. But in which direction to strike out?

Bromsgrove is just 13 miles south of the university, connected by the A38, a route that crosses the city right by the university in Edgbaston. We had selected a couple of properties in Bromsgrove that seemed promising, and the drive there was likely to be the easiest of any of the other locations on our list. So I made appointments that same afternoon to view these two properties. And the first house I saw was the one we actually ended up buying. It just ticked all the boxes. Later that evening I phoned Steph to tell her what I’d been up to, and that she should schedule to come up to Birmingham on the train as soon as possible to take a look for herself. Within a week we’d made an offer for the house, and started to sort out a mortgage—at 16¾% interest in the first year or so!

Our younger daughter, Philippa, was born in Bromsgrove in 1982. New house, new baby!

In July 1991, I accepted a position at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, and we stayed there until April 2010, almost 19 years. All the while we kept our home in Bromsgrove, fully furnished, but unoccupied, and available for us to return to whenever we came home on annual leave, and to take up residence once again on retirement.

Worcestershire is a lovely county, dotted with picturesque villages, rolling hills in the north and west, magnificent river valleys slicing through the landscape, and fertile agricultural land to the southeast. We’ve never regretted making the choice to move here. Being located in the middle of England, it’s not too far from anywhere. Our younger daughter lives in Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast, a smidgen under 250 miles away. And during their lifetime, visiting Steph’s parents in Essex, just 160 miles away, was an (mostly) easy trip. Over the past seven years of retirement, we are enjoying getting out and about to explore not only our ‘home’ county, but also places within a 80-100 mile radius for day trips.

Administration, political life, and towns
Worcestershire has few urban areas. The City of Worcester lies in the center of the county, just 16 miles south of Bromsgrove. It’s the seat of the county council, and also of the Diocese of Worcester and its magnificent cathedral.

There are six local government authorities: 1. Worcester; 2. Malvern Hills; 3. Wyre Forest; 4. Bromsgrove; 5. Redditch; and 6. Wychavon.

There are seven parliamentary constituencies, all held by Conservative politicians. That says a lot about the county. The Member of Parliament for the Bromsgrove constituency is Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, a member of the Cabinet, and once considered as a high flyer and Tory Party leadership contender. His star has waned somewhat.

Bromsgrove is famous for its 17th century nail-making industry, and the iron gates of Buckingham Palace¹ made by the Bromsgove Guild of Applied Arts. Carpet-making Kidderminster is nine miles to the west of Bromsgrove.

Redditch, nine miles to the east, was home from the 18th century to a needle-making industry, and Droitwich Spa, founded on extensive salt and brine deposits, lies about six miles south. In the far south of the county, market town Evesham serves the agricultural community in the fertile Vale of Evesham.

Landscape
Geographically, Worcestershire has some important features. England’s longest river, the Severn, enters the county northwest of Kidderminster (south of Bridgnorth), and flows for some 45 miles south before reaching the Severn Estuary in Gloucestershire and beyond. The River Avon (Shakespeare’s Avon) meanders east to west across the southern part of the county, round Evesham and to the north of Bredon Hill, before joining the Severn at Tewksbury in Gloucestershire.

In the north of the county, to the north and west of Bromsgrove, the Lickey Hills (between Bromsgrove and Birmingham) and Clent Hills rise to 978 and 1037 feet, respectively. On a clear day, the view from the top of Clent can be spectacular, as far as the Black Mountains of South Wales.

The view south towards the Malvern Hills (on the right), the Severn Estuary, and the Cotswolds (on the left).

Looking further west towards Abberley Hill, beyond Great Witley.

Straddling the county border between Worcestershire and Herefordshire, the Malvern Hills are an easily recognisable north-south spine, rising to over 1300 feet, and offering an unsurpassed panorama over the Severn Valley to the east, and the Cotswolds further southeast.

The Malverns (R) looking south to Bredon Hill (center) and the Cotswolds, and the Vale of Evesham, from just south of Great Witley.

This is a view, to the west, of the northern section of the Malverns and the Severn Valley from the Panorama Tower (designed by James Wyatt in 1801) at Croome.

In the south of the county, Bredon Hill (at 981 feet) is a Jurassic limestone outlier of the Cotswolds, affording views north and east over the Vale of Evesham, and south to the steep north-facing escarpment of the Cotswolds proper.

This is the view from Broadway Hill, looking north over the Vale of Evesham, with Bredon Hill on the left.

Horticulturally, the Vale of Evesham is one of the most important areas in the country, famous for its extensive orchards of apples, pears, and plums, vegetables (especially asparagus), and hop gardens, among others. Worcestershire is also ‘home’ to The Archers, an every day story of country folk, based on villages close to Bromsgrove.

In the northwest of the county, and spreading into Shropshire, the Wyre Forest is an important semi-natural woodland, and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It covers an area of about 10 square miles.

Transport
Summer visitors to Worcestershire must be very high indeed, but perhaps for just an hour at most as they cross the county. That’s because the M5 motorway is a 32 mile corridor ferrying holidaymakers south to the West Country or north to Lancashire, the Lake District, and Scotland.

Worcestershire has two other motorways. A section of the M42 (the southern orbital around Birmingham) passes north of Bromsgrove, and joins the M5 there. The M50, in the southwest of the county, branches off the M5 and takes traffic west into Herefordshire and south to South Wales.

Worcestershire has two particular transport claims to fame. Running north-south, just over a mile east of Bromsgrove town center, the main-line railway (connecting Birmingham with Bristol and the southwest) traverses the Lickey Incline (currently being electrified as far as Bromsgrove), the steepest sustained main-line incline in Great Britain, for a little over two miles, at 2.65%.

The Incline was first surveyed, but then abandoned, by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1832 as a route for the Birmingham & Gloucester Railway.

Just a little further east, the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, completed in 1815, connects the River Severn at Worcester with Canal Basin in the heart of Birmingham, a distance of 29 miles. The 30 lock Tardebigge Flight, close to Bromsgrove, is the longest flight of locks in the UK. I have written about both the Lickey Incline and the canal here.

Tardebigge Top Lock

Part of the Tardebigge Flight

The view from Tardebigge church (above Tardebigge Top Lock) over Bromsgrove to the Malverns (in the southwest on the left) and to Clee Hill (due west, in Shropshire) in the distance.

Another canal, the 46 mile long Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal (completed in 1771) branches from the River Severn at Stourport on Severn, crosses the northwest part of the county through Kidderminster, eventually joining the Trent and Mersey Canal at Great Haywood in Staffordshire. This was a vital link for 18th century industry.

Famous sons and daughters of Worcestershire
Earlier I mentioned Sir Edward Elgar. He is perhaps the most famous son of Worcestershire. He was appointed the first professor of Music at The University of Birmingham in 1905. The Elgar Concert Hall at the university, opened in 2012, is named after him. It is one of the venues in The Bramall that sits alongside the university’s Great Hall, an extension of the Aston Webb building, completing the red-brick semi-circle vision of Sir Joseph Chamberlain, which has been at the heart of the University since 1909.

In addition to his Pomp and Circumstance Marches, Elgar is also renowned for his Enigma Variations, composed in 1898/99 (0f which the evocative Nimrod must be the most loved). But I think his tour de force must be his Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 played in this video by Jacqueline du Pré, one of the 20th century’s most talented musicians.

AE Housman

Classical scholar and poet Alfred Edward Housman was born in Fockbury, just outside Bromsgrove in 1859. His most famous cycle of poems is A Shropshire Lad, first published in 1896. His statue stands proudly over the High Street in Bromsgrove.

Conservative politician and Prime Minister at the time of the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936, Stanley Baldwin was born in Bewdley in 1857. Roland Hill, credited with the concept of a modern postal service, and the postage stamp, was born in Kidderminster in 1795. William Morris, later Lord Nuffield, and motor magnate and philanthropist, was born in Worcester in 1877.

Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant was born in Kidderminster in 1948, actor Charles Dance  (born 1946) hails from Redditch, and Sting’s wife Trudie Styler was born in Bromsgrove in 1956.

Heritage
Historically, Worcestershire has much to offer. Two major—and pivotal—battles were fought in the county. In August 1265, the forces of Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester were defeated at the Battle of Evesham by the army of King Henry III led by his son Edward, later Edward I. Almost 400 years later, in the final battle of the English Civil Wars, the forces of King Charles II (who wasn’t restored to the crown until 1660) were defeated at Worcester in 1651 by Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian New Model Army.

Today, the Monarch’s Way is a long distance footpath (>600 miles) that traces the route of Charles II’s escape after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester. Earlier this year we visited Boscobel House in Shropshire (the furthest north Charles fled) where he hid in an oak tree.

The Monarch’s Way crosses the Worcester & Birmingham Canal in places, and passes through Pepper Wood, just west of Bromsgrove.

Standing proudly above the River Severn in the center of Worcester, the cathedral is the final resting place of King John (of Magna Carta fame).

The tomb of King John in Worcester Cathedral.

The cathedral was built between 1084 and 1504, combining different architectural styles from Norman to Perpendicular Gothic. There are many other abbeys and religious buildings throughout the county, most destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII in the sixteenth century.

There are two outstanding medieval threshing barns standing in the south of the county, near Bredon, and at Littleton near Evesham, as well as good examples of dovecotes at Hawford and Wichenford (both owned by the National Trust).

The medieval barn at Bredon.

The roof of Littleton barn.

Hawford dovecote on the left, and Wichenford on the right.

One of the oldest public schools (i.e. private school) in the country, Bromsgrove School, was founded as a chantry school in 1476, and re-founded in 1553. It takes pupils from all over the world, but despite occupying a large chunk of real estate in the town, seems to have very little connection with the community (even though it’s quite often featured in the local weekly newspapers).

The National Trust also owns two large estates in Worcestershire at Hanbury Hall (just seven miles southwest of Bromsgrove), and Croome Court, southeast of Worcester. Both are impressive 18th century houses. Greyfriars is a medieval merchant’s house and walled garden in the center of Worcester.

Hanbury Hall, built in 1701.

Croome Court, home of the 6th Earl of Coventry, and the first park designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.

Looking south along Friar Street in Worcester. Greyfriars is the double gabled building on the left.

At Great Whitley, some 16 miles west of Bromsgrove, stand the ruins of Witley Court, owned by English Heritage, destroyed by a catastrophic fire in 1937. It has become a favorite place for us to visit, since the early 1980s when we moved to the county.

We have yet to visit the only other English Heritage property in Worcestershire, Leigh Court Barn.

The heritage, standard gauge Severn Valley Railway, formed in 1965, runs 16 miles from Kidderminster to Bridgnorth, beside the River Severn, with intermediate stops at several picturesque stations. It’s a delightful way to spend the day, with the opportunity for a good walk around Bridgnorth before returning to Kidderminster.

Worcestershire has such a lot to offer, and to some extent we have just scratched the surface. We look forward to many more years of getting to know this corner of England we call home.

Land of hope and glory? Much of Worcestershire is glorious. Hope? Well, while this Conservative government remains in power, and facing Brexit, there’s little optimism for hope, especially with all Worcestershire MPs being members of the Conservative Party.

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¹ In February 2012, I attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace and received an OBE from HRH The Prince of Wales. In this post-investiture photo in front of the gates at Buckingham Palace, I’m wearing the OBE medal, which is made by Worcestershire Medal Service based in Bromsgrove.

With Steph on 29 February 2012 outside Buckingham Palace after the OBE investiture.

Guayabo National Monument in Costa Rica

Compared to the countries to the north (Mexico and Guatemala, for instance) and those in South America such as Peru, there are few archaeological remains of indigenous people in the Central American country of Costa Rica, where I lived from April 1976 until November 1980.

One exception is Guayabo, a Pre-Columbian site that was apparently occupied from about 1000 BC until 1400 AD, and then abandoned. Little is known about the people who lived at Guayabo, but it is believed to have been home to a population of more than 2000.

Guayabo National Monument lies about 18 km (and about 35 minutes) northeast of Turrialba in the Province of Cartago, and east of the capital city of San José, on the southeast slopes of Volcán Turrialba (that has been explosively active for the past few years).

Looking north to the summit of  Volcán Turrialba from CATIE where I lived in Turrialba from 1976-1980.

In January 1980 when Steph and I (and a very young Hannah) visited Guayabo, it took about two hours each way from Turrialba, in a 4×4 vehicle. Obviously, in the intervening years, the roads have improved (map).

It is Costa Rica’s largest archaeological monument, covering more than 200 hectares.  More has been uncovered since we visited in 1980. The various structures include mounds, staircases, roads, open and closed aqueducts, water tanks, tombs, petroglyphs, monoliths and sculptures. Some of its features show Mesoamerican influences, and others from South America, not surprising given Costa Rica’s location on the land bridge between North and South America

Carlos Humberto Aguilar

Artefacts from Guayabo had been studied in the late 19th century, but somewhat dismissed as insignificant. It took until 1968, when University of Costa Rica archaeology professor Carlos Aguilar Piedra (d. 2008) realised Guayabo’s true significance and excavations began.

More recent photo and artists impressions of the settlement can be seen in this post from the Two Weeks in Costa Rica blog.

 

No laughing matter

Have you ever been surprised walking through an 18th century landscape? Ha-ha!

Well, you’ve probably come across numerous ha-has without stopping to think what or why?

A ha-ha is a recessed landscape design element that creates a vertical barrier while preserving an uninterrupted view of the landscape beyond. They became very popular in the 18th century, as landscape architects like Capability Brown developed their visions of an open landscape connecting house and surrounding land.

In some ways, they are like a dry moat, built for protection—not against human marauders, but animals. Grazing animals were excluded from the lawns and gardens immediately adjacent to a house. But, with a ha-ha separating this area from the ‘wild’ grazing outside, there was a continuity, a oneness with the surrounding landscape in which a house sat. (Think of an infinity pool as a modern equivalent having the same visual effect).

I first saw a ha-ha when I was a young boy growing up in Leek in North Staffordshire. There’s a good example on one side of the pitch at Leek Cricket Club where my Mum and Dad often took me on a Saturday evening in the summer.

Ha-has are more common than you might think. During our visits to National Trust properties over the past six years, we’ve seen some very good examples. Standing at the entrance of a stately home, gazing out over the landscape, your mind is easily transported back 250 years or so. Magnificent today, what must have been the wonder at these new landscapes in their heyday, and the unlimited vistas that the addition of a ha-ha opened up?

At Hanbury Hall, the National Trust property closest to our home in northeast Worcestershire, from the ha-ha just west of the formal garden and parterre, there is an open view to the northwest, across what must have once been a deer park.

In Herefordshire, a ha-ha separates the lawn in front of the main entrance from the meadows beyond at Berrington Hall.

The ha-ha at Berrington Hall encircles the main entrance to the house, and encloses a lawn and gravel drive.

Croome Court is southeast of Worcester, about 20 miles from home. The park at Croome was the first landscape designed by Capability Brown. However, the ha-ha does not separate the land immediately surrounding the house itself, but an area to the west of the house, around the Croome River, about half a mile from the house, where an orangery, a temple and a grotto were built. From the ha-ha there is an uninterrupted view back to the house.

The view from the edge of the ha-ha in front of the Orangery at Croome, looking towards the house

We just returned from Northern Ireland, where we visited eleven National Trust properties in eight days! In Co. Fermanagh, Florence Court sits comfortably in its landscape. It’s the National Trust’s furthest west property. The ha-ha is particularly impressive.

In these two photos, looking across the lawn in front of the house, the edge of the ha-ha can be easily discerned as a slight change in colour of the grass.

Belton House, near Grantham in Lincolnshire, and 100 miles east from home, is a magnificent property. We visited last August. On the east-southeast side of the house, there is a tree-lined avenue and vista to Belmont Tower, about 1 mile away.

Belmont Tower from inside the house. The ha-ha is just beyond the people in between the trees.

Looking back to Belton House from the ha-ha that is about half way to the Belmont Tower.

Just under half way from the house, a curved ha-ha separates the gardens from the park beyond.

Aerial view of the ha-ha at Belton House (from Google Maps)

Steph standing on the edge of the ha-ha.

I expect there will be many more to find and photograph in the coming years.

Beets, ‘beans’, and Canaries

Lying off the Atlantic coast of northwest Africa by less than 600 miles, the Canary Islands archipelago comprises seven large islands, and a small group of islets off the north coast of Lanzarote, the island that lies furthest east and north. Volcanic in origin, and arid for the most part, their flora comprises many interesting endemic species found only on the Atlantic islands of MacaronesiaI’ve visited the Canaries twice, both in the 1980s, to collect plant germplasm (and also take a family holiday). Both expeditions were funded by the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR, now Bioversity International, based in Rome, Italy). So, as someone who studied potatoes and rice (and some legumes) most of my career, how did I become involved with collecting germplasm in the Canaries?

Brian Ford-Lloyd

Searching for beets
After leaving the International Potato Center in March 1981, I arrived at The University of Birmingham to begin my decade-long teaching career as Lecturer in Plant Biology from 1 April. Almost immediately, my colleague and fellow lecturer, Brian Ford-Lloyd (who retired a few years back as Emeritus Professor of Plant Conservation Genetics) invited me to join him on a collecting trip to the Canaries to look for wild relatives of beets (Beta spp.) that would contribute to an IPBGR global initiative on beet germplasm.

Now while I had my own experiences of germplasm collecting of cultivated (and some wild) potatoes in the Andes of South America between 1973 and 1976, I had no experience of beets whatsoever. Brian was keen to have me along on the trip because I did have one very important skill: I spoke (quite) fluent Spanish, and he expected that our Canarian counterparts would speak little English (which turned out to be more or less correct). So, not only would I be an experienced pair of germplasm hands, I could also be interpreter-in-chief.

Fortunately the dates for the trip coincided with my personal timetable then. Having arrived back in the UK at the end of March, my wife Steph (and daughter Hannah) stayed with her parents in Essex while I settled into my new job at the university, and while we house hunted. By the time Brian and I headed off to the Canaries in June, we’d bought our house, but moving in was not scheduled until the first or second weeks of July. So this was a great opportunity for me to join Brian.

Trevor Williams

Brian completed his PhD in 1973 under the supervision of Trevor Williams, submitting a thesis on the biosystematics of the genus Beta. As part of that research he made a collecting trip throughout Turkey in the early 1970s; and subsequently he maintained his research interest and activity in beets. Collecting in the Canaries was part of an IBPGR global initiative on beets.

Our particular interest there was a group of three beet species of Beta Sect. Patellares (I’m not sure if, or how, the taxonomy of Beta has changed in the intervening years) native to the archipelago, little represented at that time in different germplasm collections. Beets were reported from a range of localities throughout the islands, most often around the coasts or in ruderal habitats, but rarely inland (except in Fuerteventura) where the terrain is too high. In any case, this beet germplasm was considered under threat of genetic erosion, and had to be collected before habitats were lost through expansion of tourist resorts and holiday homes. Brian tells me he has been back to some of the sites where we collected and they have indeed been lost in this way.

Arnoldo Santos-Guerra

Travelling to the Canaries from Elmdon Airport (now Birmingham Airport) via London and Madrid, our first stop was Gran Canaria, staying for a couple of nights at the Jardín Botánico Canario Viera y Clavijo, where British botanist Dr David Bramwell was the director (and his wife Zoë, an acclaimed botanical artist). Those first days were essentially to find our feet, take some advice from David on where best to collect, before heading off to the island of Fuerteventura, the next island east from Gran Canaria, where we would meet our local expert and collaborator, Dr Arnoldo Santos-Guerra of the Centro Regional de Investigación y Tecnología Agrarias, Tenerife. For the collections in Tenerife, La Palma, and La Gomera we were joined by Arnoldo’s colleague, Lic. Manuel Fernández-Galván.

L-R: Brian, Arnoldo, Manuel, and me

In all, we collected 93 samples of beets from 52 locations on five islands: Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura, Tenerife, La Palma, and La Gomera.  Afterwards we published a trip report¹ in the FAO/IBPGR Plant Genetic Resources Newsletter.

On Tenerife, La Palma, and particularly La Gomera, there are precipitous inclines from the main roads down to the ocean’s edge. Deeply dissected landscapes ensure that wild beet populations are isolated from one another, even over relatively short distances as the cliff coastlines project into the ocean, with coves and beaches in between, where beets were often found. Therefore our ability to collect beet samples was quite often dependent entirely upon accessibility to the beach. The photos below were taken in Fuerteventura, Tenerife, and La Gomera. In some of them you can see the level of urbanization, almost 40 years ago, in many localities that were suitable environments for wild beets. The housing and tourist developments must be many times greater today.

But the actual process of collecting was not difficult at all, and seeds were often sampled from most if not all plants in some populations. Wild beets have a prostrate habit, and the ‘seeds’ were often found, in abundance, underneath the living plants. It was then just a question of scooping up handfuls of the seeds into a collecting bag, and annotating the collecting information appropriately.

Beta webbiana (left) and B. procumbens (right) from the Canary Islands

I say ‘seeds’, but the morphology of beets is a little more complex than that. Actually what we collected were small fruits with a hard pericarp, with several joined together to form multigerm seedballs. Modern sugar beet varieties are monogerm, a trait discovered in a wild beet species, in the former Soviet Union (Ukraine, in fact) during the 1930s . Because of their impermeability to moisture, and also due to the arid environments in which these beets species grew, we were confident that we were collecting viable seeds. In fact, as Brian explained to me, beet seeds are quite difficult to germinate.

Morphology of a beet inflorescence, seedballs, and a sugar beet (from: Wikipedia)

On our return to Birmingham, the seeds were added to the Birmingham Beta Collection that Brian curated, and other collections that are part of the World Beta Network. One recipient was Lothar Frese in Germany, now at the Julius Kühn-Institut in Quedlinburg. This germplasm has been used in a variety of studies looking at disease resistance such as Cercospora leaf spot resistance in B. procumbens in particular, and there has been much work since in terms of genetic mapping for resistance. After Brian retired, his beet collection was passed to the Genetic Resources Unit at the Warwick Crop Centre for safe storage.

A beet -‘bean’ linkage
In addition to beets, we collected 11 samples of other crops, among which was just one sample of a shrub or tree fodder legume, tagasaste, from La Palma, classified botanically as Chamaecytisus palmensis, and cultivated by many farmers. In our trip report, referred to above, we commented that the species did seem to be quite variable and, given its wider potential as a fodder legume, we suggested that it would warrant further study.

Javier Francisco-Ortega

And that was the last I thought about tagasaste until six years later when a young Spanish student from Tenerife, Javier Francisco-Ortega, enrolled on the genetic resources MSc course at Birmingham. Thirty years ago this month! I supervised Javier’s MSc dissertation on chromosome variation in Lathyrus pratensis, one of around 150 species in a genus that also contains the commonly-grown garden sweetpea, L. odoratus, and the edible grasspea L. sativus that was one of my research interests during the 1980s.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, Javier was an outstanding student, and began a PhD project with me in October 1988 on the ecogeography of the tagasaste complex, now classified taxonomically as C. proliferus. Only the forms from La Palma are popularly known as tagasaste (the ‘C. palmensis‘ we’d seen in La Palma in 1981), whereas those from the rest of the archipelago are commonly called escobón.

Morphological variants of tagasaste and escobón, Chamaecytisus proliferus

Tagasaste is the only form which is broadly cultivated in the Canary Islands and, since the late 19th century, also in New Zealand and Australia (particularly as fodder for sheep and goats). It has also become naturalized in Australia (South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania), Java, the Hawaiian Islands, California, Portugal, North Africa, Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa.

When I resigned from the university in June 1991 to join the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, supervision of Javier’s PhD passed to Brian.

In Spring and Summer 1989, and with funding from IBPGR, Javier began a systematic survey of 184 tagasaste and escobón populations throughout the archipelago (all islands except Fuerteventura and Lanzarote which are too dry), taking herbarium samples from each for morphological study, and revisited later to collect seeds. I joined Javier in July to assist with the collection of seeds from the Tenerife populations. Our trip report² was published in Plant Genetic Resources Newsletter in 1990. Arnoldo Santos-Guerra and Manuel Fernández-Galván were also contributors to this work.

Escobón populations are found commonly growing in gullies among pine forests, and appear to thrive here where there is the ever-present expectation (and danger) of forest fires. Indeed periodic burning appears to support the maintenance of escobón populations. These photos show the habitats of escobón populations in Tenerife, and Javier and myself making collections.

While more common in La Palma, farmers in Tenerife grow a few bushes of tagasaste in their terraces (seen on the right edge of the field in the picture below) on the north-facing slopes of the Teide volcano sloping down to the Atlantic.

We deposited duplicate seed samples in the Spanish national genebank in Madrid, and also in Tenerife. Javier took seeds back to Birmingham for further study, especially for analysis of molecular variation. Besides his PhD thesis, submitted successfully in 1992, his research led to several other scientific papers on morphological variation, phytogeography, ecogeographical characterization, genetic diversity, and the history of origin and distribution.

After he completed his PhD at Birmingham, Javier took postdoctoral fellowships at Ohio State University and the University of Texas at Austin before returning to Tenerife for a couple of years. In 1999 he was appointed Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Florida International University in Miami. He became Full Professor in 2012. He also has a joint appointment at the Fairchild Tropical Garden just south of Miami, as head of the Fairchild Plant Molecular Systematics Laboratory, with a special interest in cycads and palms, as well as an abiding interest in island floras. He has maintained his links with Arnoldo Santos-Guerra and David Bramwell.

In this video, Javier talks about his interests and the impact of his botanical research.

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¹ Ford-Lloyd, B.V., M.T. Jackson & A. Santos Guerra, 1982. Beet germplasm in the Canary Islands. Plant Genetic Resources Newsletter 50, 24-27.

² Francisco-Ortega, F.J., M.T. Jackson, A. Santos-Guerra & M. Fernández-Galván, 1990. Genetic resources of the fodder legumes tagasaste and escobón (Chamaecytisus proliferus (L. fil.) Link sensu lato) in the Canary Islands. Plant Genetic Resources Newsletter 81/82, 27-32.

End of an era . . .

One of the most satisfying periods of my working life was setting up and managing the Office for Program Planning and Coordination (DPPC, later to become Program Planning and Communications) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) from May 2001 until my retirement in April 2010. And working with a fine team of people over the years.

30 April 2010 – my last day at IRRI, with the DPPC team (L-R) Eric Clutario, Corinta Guerta, Zeny Federico, Vel Hernandez-Ilao, and Yeyet Enriquez-Agnes (aka ‘The Jackson Five’)

Not only did we achieve a great deal—especially rescuing the institute’s reputation with its donors from the dark place it had sunk to—but we helped to rehabilitate a research culture that had become seriously dysfunctional. The term ‘herding cats’ comes to mind.

The achievements of DPPC are down to the fantastic team of professionals that I was able to bring together, who quickly bought into an ethos for DPPC that I was keen to establish. Thereafter they worked very effectively together to make things happen, often going the extra mile to meet deadlines (mostly externally imposed) even when research colleagues hadn’t always met their side of the ‘project development and management bargain’.

So how did this all come about, who was involved, and why am I waxing lyrical about DPPC at the end of October 2017, over seven years since I retired from IRRI?

Well, the short answer is that at the end of October, the last member of my original DPPC team, Zeny Federico, will retire. Others have retired already, moved on to bigger and better things, or moved to other positions in the institute. It’s the end of an era! DPPC no longer exists. Shortly after I retired it changed its name to DRPC—Donor Relations and Project Coordination, and is to become the IRRI Portfolio Management Office (IPMO).

DPPC is born
In January 2001, I was approached by IRRI Director General Ron Cantrell to take over the office responsible for the institute’s donor relations and project management, and help rebuild its reputation and credibility with its donors¹, as I have described in one of my very first blog posts back in February 2012. In itself this would appear rather strange as I was then head of the institute’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC), with day-to-day responsibility managing the world’s largest genebank for rice.

During the visit of a team of management consultants at the back end of 2000, Ron received some bleak feedback about the parlous state of the institute’s donor relations and project management. There was apparently little accurate information about the number and scope, or even commitments, of time-bound projects or grants (often referred to as ‘special projects’, each with its specific objectives and research timeline) within the institute’s overall research framework that IRRI had on its books. I’m not sure exactly how, but my name was suggested as someone to lead an initiative to put things in order.

Let’s talk about funding for international agricultural research for a moment. In January 1973, when I first joined the International Potato Center (CIP), one of 15 international agricultural research centers supported through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), most donor support came in the form of lump-sum grants, commonly known as ‘unrestricted funding’. Even in the 1990s, however, the writing was on the wall, the future of ‘unrestricted’ funding was looking uncertain, and ‘special project’ funding started to increase significantly. It’s the norm today.

With ‘special project’ funding, donors have rightly insisted on greater accountability, mostly through regular (often bespoke) reporting on what the research has achieved, what benefits it has brought to farmers and particularly the rural and urban poor, and how the funds have been spent. After all, donor agencies are accountable to tax-payers in their own countries. The challenge for DPPC was not only to meet donor expectations and comply with their funding requirements, but help build a robust research management culture in which individual researchers fully committed to institute goals and objectives rather than focusing on their own, sometimes selfish, research agendas as had increasingly (and regrettably for IRRI) become the situation across the institute. Herding cats!

And while we certainly did help rebuild the institute’s reputation in terms of research project management and accountability, I believe the most important legacy was a solid culture for project development, execution, and management that has served the institute well.

Building the DPPC team
When I moved from GRC to become head of DPPC and an institute director, I asked Zeny to join me. I knew that I needed someone working alongside me who I could rely on completely. Zeny had been my secretary since 1997 when my secretary at that time, Sylvia Arellano was poached by George Rothschild to become the executive secretary in his office. The day after Sylvia moved, George ‘resigned’ as Director General.

Zeny with Sylvia and Tessie Santos. Sylvia and Tessie were secretaries in GRC when I joined IRRI in 1991; both are now retired.

Zeny joined IRRI in 1980, aged 27, as one of the administrative support staff for the International Rice Testing Program (IRTP), which became the International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER) at the end of the 80s or thereabouts. Prior to IRRI she had been a clerical research aide with the Corn Program in the Department of Agronomy of the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB), which transferred after 1975 to the university’s Institute of Plant Breeding.

In 1991, when GRC was founded, and merging INGER and the International Rice Germplasm Center (IRGC, the rice genebank) into a single administrative unit that retained their separate programmatic functions. Without going into detail, many INGER staff (including Zeny) were not, to put it mildly, enthusiastic that INGER was no longer completely independent unit.

By 1997, I think much of that reluctance had disappeared, and Zeny immediately accepted my invitation to become the GRC executive secretary. I couldn’t have hoped for more loyal and committed support over the years. It was a ‘no-brainer’ for her to accompany me to DPPC. She was the anchor among the DPPC team. Since I left IRRI, Zeny’s role has evolved, and she will retire in two weeks as Senior Officer – Administrative Coordination.

I was faced with a decision concerning the three existing staff I inherited, and very quickly came to the conclusion that two of them appeared to be ‘square pegs in round holes’ given the vision I had for DPPC. In any case, I was keen to bring in someone new as my deputy.

And that person was Corinta Guerta, a soil chemist and Senior Associate Scientist working on the adaptation of rice varieties to problem soils. A soil chemist, you might ask? When discussing my new role with Ron Cantrell in early 2001, I’d already mentioned Corinta’s name as someone I would like to try and recruit. What in her experience would qualify Corints (as we know her) to take up a role in donor relations and project management?

Corinta joined IRRI in July 1975 as a Research Assistant 1, when she was 23 years old. Having earlier graduated with a BS degree in chemistry from College of the Holy Spirit in Manila, she then placed sixth in the national Chemist Licensure Examination of the Philippines Professional Regulation Commission. In 1982 she received her MS from UPLB.

But rather than explain here what transpired, why not watch this short video:

When, in April 2009, I accepted a one-year extension to my contract, Corints took over the day-to-day running of DPPC. This gave me time and space to plan the 3rd International Rice Congress to be held in Hanoi in 2010 (IRC 2010), as well as overseeing the IRRI Golden Jubilee celebrations from December 2009 to April 2010. In fact, Corints became de facto head of DPPC from January 2010, with me simply in a mentoring support role. After I retired, she was appointed Director for External Relations and, as far as I’m aware, is the only IRRI national staff member to have joined the institute as a junior researcher and retiring earlier this year at the highest levels of management.

Corints with her DRPC team on her retirement in May 2017

I was delighted in February 2012 that Corints would be visiting several donors in Europe, and that she could join my wife Steph and younger daughter Philippa at an investiture in Buckingham Palace in London when I received my OBE from HRH The Prince of Wales.

Sadly, Corints was widowed around 2003 or so. I watched her son Christian and daughter Diane grow up over the years. Corints is the proud grandmother of a little girl.

Over the years there were several personnel changes in DPPC/DRPC. That was a healthy situation, because they came about for all the right reasons. Staff grew in their positions, and then moved on to broaden their experience further (mainly) outside IRRI. The turnover of staff also brought some positives. New people do things in different ways, bring in new ideas and approaches.

From the outset, I knew we needed an online database to handle all the information and correspondence around each project and grant, ‘glued’ together by a unique ID number for each project/grant. Not exactly ‘rocket science’, but I couldn’t believe the resistance I faced in some quarters (particularly the Finance Office) to adopting this ID. Remember, I came from a genebank background, managing thousands of seed samples, known as ‘accessions’ (= projects/grants), and handled lots of different activities and information through a database management system. We ditched the idea of using a system-in-development from IRRI’s sister center in Colombia, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). I was convinced we could do better. But we needed some in-house expertise to translate ideas into tangible assets. That’s where computer science graduate Eric Clutario enters the DPPC story.

When Corints and I interviewed Eric, he quickly understood the essential elements of what we wanted to do, and had potential solutions to hand. Potential became reality! I don’t remember exactly when Eric joined us in DPPC. It must have been around September or October 2001, but within six months we had a functional online grants management system that already moved significantly ahead of where the CIAT system has languished for some time. Our system went from strength to strength and was much admired, envied even, among professionals at the other centers who had similar remits to DPPC.

I could outline an idea to Eric and within the same day he’d have a prototype to show me. Once we could make the database accessible on the intranet, then all researchers were able to monitor research progress and expenditures, and non-confidential correspondence, related to the projects they were working in.

After about four years, I discussed with the head of IRRI’s IT Services about how IRRI more widely could benefit from Eric’s expertise. With everyone’s agreement, Eric transferred to IT Services, but with a guaranteed 50% commitment to DPPC. In this way his expertise could be deployed to solve other pressing database issues outside DPPC without compromising his support to us. And, as far as I know, that arrangement has remained in place to some extent.

In 2007, Eric was seconded to Bioversity International in Rome for several months to contribute to an inter-center initiative. I don’t remember the details. I also attended a workshop in FAO to launch this particular project, and Eric I traveled there together. It was his first time to fly, and we flew Business Class on Emirates. I don’t think Eric could imagine his good fortune. This was what flying must be like all the time.

(L) On theFAO terrace, overlooking the Circo Massimo, and (R) enjoying a macchiato together in one of Rome’s many sidewalk cafes

Eric in his ‘mafioso’ pose at the Colosseum

Another member of team was needed to handle the ‘donor intelligence’ in the first instance, then take over other aspects of project management. During my time we had three staff as Assistant Manager / Manager in this position.

L-R: Monina La’O, Sol Ogatis, and Marileth ‘Yeyet’ Enriquez

Monina La’O joined DPPC in September 2001, and started to compile information about the donor community and funding opportunities. She left in December 2002, when she married and moved with her husband away from the Manila area.

Monina’s despedida from DPPC in November/December 2002, with friends from other units.

That’s when Sol Ogatis came to our attention, in February 2003. A BS Economics graduate from UPLB, Sol was working as a supervisor at the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Manila. Sol did a great job, building a solid donor base for the information system, and the essential links between DPPC and research staff around the institute.

By July 2008, new opportunities had come along, and Sol decided to take a new position in the US Embassy in Manila as Coordinator for the US Export Control and Related Border Security Program. And she’s still there, but her legacy at IRRI endures.

Sol’s farewell from DPPC on 22 August 2008. L-R: me, Sol, Corints, Zeny, and Vel

Sol was replaced by Marileth Enriquez, known as ‘Yeyet’, in December 2008. A molecular genetics graduate from UPLB, and holding a Masters degree in Technology Management from the University of the Philippines – Diliman, Yeyet came to us from the Colombo Plan Staff College for Technician Education for Human Resource Development in the Asia Pacific Region. Building on the work of her predecessors, Yeyet took this role to another level, and soon had taken over some of the more detailed project development aspects that Corints had managed, once Corints had broader responsibilities as a Director and oversight of other units.

L-R: Yeyet, Vel, and Zeny

In March 2009 we decided to make an office trip to the rice terraces north of Manila. Yeyet quickly took on the role of ‘expedition organizer’, and we had a great visit to Banaue, Sagada and Baguio. Steph joined us on that trip.

Come October 2015, Yeyet decided to seek pastures new, and joined Save the Children Philippines as Director of Awards. In early 2014, she married Christian, an accountant who had worked in IRRI’s Finance Office. I was privileged to be invited to become a sponsor (known as ‘ninong’ in Tagalog) when they married. And although I was unable to attend their wedding, I did send a surprise video greeting.

Marisol ‘Sol’ Camasin was the only one of the three original staff who stayed on as an office clerk, until September 2002. She was replaced by Analyn Jopia until early 2004, when Vel Hernandez-Ilao joined the office on a half-time basis (shared with the DDG-Research office). Vel became full time member of the DPPC team in April 2007.

L-R: Zeny, Sol, me, Corints, Eric, and Monina in late 2001

L-R: Analyn, Eric, Corints, Monina, me, and Zeny, in October 2002

L-R: me, Sol, Eric, Corints, Vel, and Zeny at Antonio’s in Tagaytay for our Christmas lunch in December 2004

L-R: Yeyet, Corints, Zeny, Vel, me, and Eric near Batad rice terraces in March

Nominally the ‘junior’ in DPPC, Vel very quickly became an indispensable member of the team, taking on more responsibilities related to data management. She has a degree in computer science. However, just a month or so back, an opportunity presented itself elsewhere in the institute, and Vel moved to the Seed Health Unit (SHU) as the Material Transfer Agreements Controller. As the SHU is responsible for all imports and exports of rice seeds under the terms of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture using Material Transfer Agreements, Vel’s role is important to ensure that the institute is compliant under its agreement with FAO for the exchange of rice germplasm. Vel married Jason a few years back, and they have two delightful daughters.

With her departure, and Zeny’s pending retirement, that’s the original team I put together gone forever.

We took on some short-term staff from time-to-time, to cover for Vel when she was expecting her first child, or when the work load required an additional pair of hands, between Sol’s departure and Yeyet coming on board, for example. Colleen Fernandez comes to mind, as does Froilan ‘Popo’ Fule.

But there is someone else I must mention who was a member of the DPPC Team although not an IRRI employee as such. In 2005, the donors to the CGIAR decided that they would only continue funding programs if each center rolled out a risk assessment and business continuity initiative. I drew the short straw, and had to decide how we would do that. With advice from the head of the CGIAR’s Internal Audit Unit (IAU), John Fitzsimon (who became Inspector General at FAO in Rome for six years from February 2010), and whose office was just down the corridor from mine, we decided to develop a bottom-up approach, but needed a safe pair of hands to manage this full-time. So we hired Alma Redillas Dolot as a consultant, and she stayed with DPPC for a couple of years before joining the IAU.

Working intensively with all programs, divisions and units, Alma built up a comprehensive picture of all the risks facing the institute including financial, legal, reputational, scientific, and logistical risks, and plans to mitigate or respond to these. Among all the CGIAR centers it was by far the most comprehensive risk assessment and management plan developed.

Following her stint in the IAU, Alma moved to Nairobi, Kenya to join the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) as Head of Internal Auditing Unit, remaining there for about seven years. She received some pretty serious mentoring from some very influential persons. Do you recognise next to whom she is standing?

With former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others.

Taking a sabbatical from AGRA in 2012, Alma also completed her Master in Public Administration degree from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in May 2013. Returning to Nairobi, she stayed with AGRA for a couple more years, before making another move, in 2016, to Vienna and the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as an Internal Auditor in the Office of Internal Oversight Services.

All work and no play . . .
Over the years, we had lots of fun together socially, playing badminton twice a week, dining out at Christmas or enjoying a BBQ at my house, sometimes with staff of the Development Office (one of the units I supervised, and closely linked to DPPC).

Just before I left the Philippines, in March 2010, the DPPC Team enjoyed a long weekend at the beach at Arthur’s Place (where Steph and I used to snorkel and scuba dive) together with colleagues from the Development Office.

Looking back, I have been immensely privileged to work with such a dedicated team, and very smart people. Much smarter than me!

As one of them told me recently: ‘You were like the conductor of a [great] orchestra. We were the virtuosos‘. I like that analogy. They also seemed to have appreciated my management style, allowing them to get on with their tasks, after we’d agreed on what needed tackling, without constant interference from me. Micromanagement is something I detest.

The last time I saw my team was in August 2014 when I visited IRRI in connection with the 4th International Rice Congress. As usual we spent a lovely evening together, at Sulyap in San Pablo.

After seven years of retirement, I miss the daily camaraderie as a member of the DPPC Team. As Joe Gargery would say, in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations: ‘What larks!’

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¹Not all these donors support IRRI. Here is a list of current donors to the institute.

Studying at Southampton, 1967-1970

In October 1967 (when I started my undergraduate studies in [Environmental] Botany and Geography¹), The University of Southampton was a very different institution from what it is today. So many changes over the past 50 years! One of the biggest changes is its size. In 1967 there were around 4500-5000 undergraduates (maybe 5000 undergraduates and postgraduates combined) if my memory serves me well, just on a single campus at Highfield.

Today, Southampton is a thriving university with a total enrollment (in 2015/16) of almost 25,000 (70% undergraduates) spread over seven campuses. Southampton has a healthy research profile, a respectable international standing, and is a founding member of the Russell Group of leading universities in the UK.

In 1967, the university was led by Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Kenneth Mather² FRS (1965-1971), an eminent biometrical geneticist, who came to Southampton from the Department of Genetics at The University of Birmingham, where he had been head of department. Since Mather’s tenure, there have been seven, and the current Vice-Chancellor is Sir Christopher Snowden FRS, an engineer, who took up the reins in 2015.

The Chancellor (1964-1974) was Baron Murray of Newhaven. Five Chancellors have served since he retired from the position in 1974. Businesswoman Dame Helen Alexander, who became Chancellor in 2011, passed away in August this year.

(L) Professor Sir Kenneth Mather and (R) Lord Keith Murray (from Wikipedia)

The campus
Looking at a map of the Highfield campus today, many new buildings have risen since 1967, departments have moved between buildings, and some have relocated to new campuses.

In the 1960s, Southampton had benefited from a period of university expansion and new infrastructure under the then Conservative Government (how times have changed), with Sir Edward Boyle at the helm in the Department for Education or whatever it was named in those days.

Until about 1966 or early 1967, Botany had been housed in a small building immediately north of the Library, which has since disappeared. It was one of the early beneficiaries of the ‘Boyle building expansion’ at Southampton, moving to Building #44, shared with Geology.

After I left Southampton in the summer of 1970, Botany and Zoology merged (maybe also with physiology and biochemistry) to form a new department of Biological Sciences at the Boldrewood Campus along Burgess Road, a short distance west of the Highfield Campus. Biological Sciences relocated to a new Institute for Life Sciences (#85) on the main campus at Highfield a few years back.

Geology now resides within Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton located at the Waterfront campus on Southampton Docks.

The Geography department had been located on the first floor of the Hartley Building (#36, now entirely devoted to the university library). By autumn 1968, Geography moved to a new home in the Arts II Building (#2). For some years now it has occupied the Shackleton Building (#44), the former Botany and Geology home.

Spending more time in Botany
As Combined Honours students, the four of us had feet in two departments, and tutors in each. We took the full Single Honours botany course for the first two years, but in the final year, specialised in plant ecology, with a few optional courses (such as plant speciation, plant breeding, and population genetics in my case) taken from the botany common course that all Single Honours students took. I also sat in our the plant taxonomy lectures given by Reading professor and head of the department of botany there, Vernon Heywood (90 next Christmas Eve), who traveled to Southampton twice a week for five or six weeks. In the early 1990s I crossed paths with him in Rome where we were attending a conference at FAO, and enjoyed an excellent meal together and an evening of reminiscing.

Students complain today that they have few formal contact hours during their degree courses. Not so at Southampton in the late 1960s. But that was also a consequence of taking two subjects with a heavy practical class load, and an ancillary, Geology, for one year, also with a practical class component.

During the first term, Fridays were devoted to practical classes from 9-5 with a break for lunch. In the mornings we spent 10 weeks learning about (or honing existing knowledge) plant anatomy, taught by cytologist Senior Lecturer Dr Roy Lane. Afternoons were devoted to plant morphology, taught by Reader and plant ecologist Dr Joyce Lambert. In the Spring Term in 1968, we started a series of practical classes looking at the flowering plants. Ferns and mosses were studied in the second year.

In the second year, we focused on genetics, plant biochemistry, plant physiology, and mycology, taught by Drs. Joe Smartt, Alan Myers, David Morris, and John Manners. On reflection, the genetics course was pretty basic; most of us had not studied any genetics at school. So practical classes focused on Drosophila fruit fly crossing experiments, and analysing the progeny. Today, students are deeply involved with molecular biology and genomics; they probably learn all about Mendelian genetics at school. During the second year, plant taxonomist Leslie Watson departed for Australia, and this was the reason why Vernon Heywood was asked to cover this discipline later on.

The structure of the Single Honours Botany course changed by my final year. There was a common course covering a wide range of topics, with specialisms taken around the various topics. For us Combined Honours students, we took the plant ecology specialism, and three components from the common course. We also had to complete a dissertation, the work for which was undertaken during the long vacation between the second and third years, and submitted, without fail, on the first day of the Spring Term in January. We could choose a topic in either Botany or Geography. I made a study of moorland vegetation near my home in North Staffordshire, using different sampling methods depending on the height of vegetation.

We made two field courses. The first, in July 1968, focusing on an appreciation of the plant kingdom, took us to the Burren on the west coast of Ireland in Co. Clare. We had a great time.

The last morning, Saturday 27 July 1968, outside the Savoy Hotel in Lisdoonvarna. In the right photo, L-R, back row: Alan Myers, Leslie Watson (staff), Jenny?, Chris ? (on shoulders), Paul Freestone, Gloria Davies, John Grainger, Peter Winfield. Middle row: Janet Beazley and Nick Lawrence (crouching) Alan Mackie, Margaret Barran, Diana Caryl, John Jackson, Stuart Christophers. Sitting: Jill Andison, Patricia Banner, Mary Goddard, Jane Elliman, Chris Kirby (crouching)

Checking out the Cliffs of Moher, and working on individual projects (Paul Freestone, John Grainger, Jane Elliman)

We all had to carry out a short project, in pairs, and I worked with Chris Kirby on the brown algae abundant on the coast near Lisdoonvarna which was our base. At the end of the second year, we spent two weeks in Norfolk, when the Americans first landed on the Moon. Led by Joyce Lambert and John Manners, the course had a strong ecology focus, taking us around the Norfolk Broads, the salt marshes, the Breckland, and fens. We also had small individual projects to carry out. I think mine looked at the distribution of a particular grass species across Wheatfen, home of Norfolk naturalist (and good friend of Joyce Lambert), Ted Ellis.

Professor Stephen H Crowdy was the head of department. He had come to Southampton around 1966 from the ICI Laboratores at Jealott’s Hill. He was an expert on the uptake and translocation of various pesticides and antibiotics in plants. I never heard him lecture, and hardly ever came into contact with him. He was somewhat of a non-entity as far as us students were concerned.

Joyce Lambert in 1964

Joyce Lambert was my tutor in botany, a short and somewhat rotund person, a chain-smoker, known affectionately by everyone as ‘Bloss’ (short for Blossom). Her reputation as a plant ecologist was founded on pioneer research, a stratigraphical analysis of the Norfolk Broads confirming their man-made origin, the result of medieval peat diggings. Later on, with her colleague and head of department until 1965, Professor Bill Williams, Joyce developed multivariate methods to study plant communities. This latter research area was the focus of much of her final year teaching in plant ecology. Joyce passed away in 2005.

Joe Smartt

I became a close friend of Joe Smartt, who retired in 1996 as Reader in Biology, and a highly respected expert on grain legumes. It was Joe who encouraged my interest in the nexus between genetics and ecology, which eventually led to me applying to Birmingham in February 1970 to join the MSc course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources  in September that year, the beginnings of my career in genetic resources conservation. Outside academics, Joe and I founded a Morris dancing team at Southampton, The Red Stags, in October 1968, and its ‘descendant’ is still thriving today. Joe passed away in June 2013.

A young Alan Myers in 1964

I also had little contact outside lectures and practical classes with the other staff, such as physiologists Alan Myers and David Morris, or cytologist Roy Lane. In the late 1980s, when I was a lecturer in plant biology at The University of Birmingham, as internal examiner I joined plant pathologist John Manners (the external examiner) to examine a plant pathology PhD dissertation at Birmingham. I hadn’t seen him since I left Southampton in 1970.

Every October he used to organize a fungus foray into the New Forest for a day. I’ve read a couple of accounts from former botany students, before my time, and how enjoyable these outings were. John was elected President of the British Mycological Society in 1968, and was a recipient of the very special President’s Medal of the Society.

October 1969 – John Manners leading a fungus foray, near Denny Wood in the New Forest

Les Watson in 1964

Leslie Watson (who came from my home town of Leek in Staffordshire) taught flowering plant taxonomy, and had an interest in the application of numerical techniques to classify plants. At some point in my second year, he joined the Australian National University in Canberra, completing several important studies on the grass genera of the world. After I had posted something a few years back on my blog, Leslie left a comment. I’ve subsequently found that he retired to Western Australia. I’ve recently been in touch with him again, and he gave me some interesting insights regarding the setting up of the combined degree course in botany and geography.

In October 1968 (the beginning of my second year), John Rodwell joined Joyce Lambert’s research group to start a PhD study of limestone vegetation. He had graduated with First Class Honours from the University of Leeds that summer. In the summer of 1969, John stayed with me in Leek for a few days while making some preliminary forays (with me acting as chauffeur) to the Derbyshire Dales. After completing his PhD, John was ordained an Anglican priest, and was based at the University of Lancaster and becoming the co-ordinator of research leading to the development of the British National Vegetation Classification. He joined the faculty at Lancaster in 1991, and became Professor of Ecology in 1997, retiring in 2004.

Until 1970 there were no re-sit exams at Southampton – unlike the general situation today nationwide in our universities. You either passed your exams first time or were required to withdraw. We lost about half the botany class in 1968, including one of the five Combined Botany and Geography students. Students could even be asked to withdraw at the end of their second year. However, after much uproar among the student body in 1969, the university did eventually permit re-sit exams.

James H Bird, Professor of Geography and head of department, 1967-1989

Geography in the late sixties
The Head of Geography was Professor James Bird, an expert on transport geography (focusing on ports) who joined the department in 1967, replacing renowned physical geographer, FJ Monkhouse. I can’t recall having seen, let alone met him more than a handful of occasions during my three years at Southampton. But from his obituary that I came across recently, he was remembered with affection apparently. He passed away in 1997.

In the Geography department I had contact with just a few staff who taught aspects of physical geography. Dr R John Small lectured on the geomorphology of the Wessex region, and various tropical erosion processes. He was an excellent lecturer. After I left Southampton he authored a student text on geomorphology, published in 1970, with a second edition in 1978. He became first Reader in Geography, then Professor, and head of department (1983-1989). He retired in 1989. I heard from Professor Jane Hart, who was appointed after his retirement, that he still lives in the Southampton area. He must be in his late 80s.

His younger colleague, Michael Clark (later Professor of Geography) also taught several courses in physical geography, focusing on river erosion and weathering processes. He was only 27 in 1967, and had completed his PhD in the department just a couple of years earlier. His work evolved to focus on environmental management, water resources, coastal zone management and cold regions research and on the interactions between society and risk. His involvement in multi-disciplinary applied research and the application of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to decision-making led to the co-founding of the GeoData Institute in 1984, where he served as Director for 18 years (1988-2010). A Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, he received the Gill Memorial Award in 1983. He passed away in 2014.

The third geomorphology class had eight students: four from Combined honours, and four single Geography honours. Among those was Geoff Hewlett/Hewitt (?), a rather intense, mature student, who was awarded one of just two Firsts in Geography. Just a week before Finals in May/June 1970, John Small took our group of eight students for a short field trip (maybe four days) to Dartmoor in Devon, to look at tropical weathered granite landscapes (the tors) there. It was also an opportunity, they divulged, to get us all away from intense revision, and to relax while learning something at the same time.

My Geography tutor during my first year was Dr Roger Barry, a climatologist who left Southampton in 1968 for a new position at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is still active at the National Snow and Ice Data Center on the Boulder campus, as CIRES Fellow Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Geography, Emeritus.

Dr Brian P Birch became my tutor in my second and third years (he had interviewed me for a place at Southampton in early 1967 with Joyce Lambert from Botany). Brian taught a course on soils and their classification. But I have subsequently discovered that his interest was in settlement patterns (particularly in the US Midwest, where he had completed his Master’s degree in Indiana; he has undergraduate and PhD degrees from Durham University) and their impact on the environment. I never attended any lectures in this field from him. After contacting Prof Jane Hart at Southampton earlier in the year, she gave me Brian’s address so I wrote to him. In a lengthy reply, he told me about the evolution of the Combined Honours degree course into a fully-fledged Environmental Sciences degree, for which he was the Geography lead person. The course grew to include Geology, Oceanography, and even Chemistry. Brian took early retirement in 1990. It was lovely hearing from him after so many decades; he is now in his 80s. He recalled that on one occasion, I had turned up in the Geography department coffee room, and met with staff. He still knew all about my connections with Peru and potatoes. I wonder if that was in 1975 while I was back in the UK to complete my PhD, or later on in the 80s when I did attend a meeting in Botany/ Biological Sciences on a plant genus, Lathyrus, I was working on.

In my final year, there was a new member of staff, Keith Barber who taught Quaternary studies, and who was still completing his PhD at Lancaster University. Keith later became Professor of Environmental Change, and retired in 2009; he passed away in February this year.

At the end of the first week of classes in October 1967, all geography students had a Saturday excursion to the northwest outskirts of Southampton (I don’t remember the exact route we took), and having been dropped off, we all walked back into the city, with various stops for the likes of Small and Clark, and another lecturer named Robinson, to wax lyrical about the landscape and its evolution and history. This was an introduction to a term long common course about the geography of the Southampton region, examined just before Christmas.

There was only one field course in Geography that I attended, just before Easter in March 1968, to Swansea (where we stayed at the university), and traveled around the region. It was fascinating seeing the effects of industrialization and mining, and pollution over centuries, in the Swansea Valley, and attempts at vegetation regeneration, as well as the physical geography of the Gower Peninsula. The weather was, like the curate’s egg, good in parts. On some days it was hot enough to wear swimsuits on the beach; other days it rained. On the morning of our departure home, there were several inches of snow!

Student life
I had a place in South Stoneham House, an all male hall of residence about 25 minutes walk southeast from the Highfield campus. In the sixties, most of the halls of residence were single sex (some of the time – remember these were the ‘Swinging Sixties’). Across the road from Stoneham was Montefiore House, a self-catering hall mainly for mature students, and just down Wessex Lane was Connaught, another all male hall. Highfield (to the west of the campus) and Chamberlain (to the north) were all female halls; Glen Eyre (close to Chamberlain) was, if I remember, both male and female, and self catering.

Rules about occupancy were supposedly strictly enforced. Being caught was cause for expulsion from hall. However, the number of males in female halls and vice versa overnight on Fridays and Saturdays was probably quite significant.

I enjoyed my two years in Stoneham, being elected Vice-President of the Junior Common Room (JRC) in my second year. Law student Geoff Pickerill was the President of the JCR. One of my roles was to organize the annual social events: a fireworks party and dance in November, and the May Ball.

Several of my closest friends came from my Stoneham days, and Neil Freeman (Law) and I have remained in touch all these years. Neil and I moved into ‘digs’ together (with an English and History student, Trevor Boag, from York) in a house at 30 University Road, less than 100 m south of the university administration building that opened in 1969. Our landlord and landlady were Mr and Mrs Drissell who looked after the three of us as though we were family.

Neil had an old Ford Popular

The university had a very active Students’ Union in the late sixties. A new complex of cafeterias, ballrooms, meeting rooms, and sports facilities had just been completed in 1967. My main interest was folk music and dancing. I joined the Folk Club that met every Sunday evening, and even got up to sing on several occasions. I joined the English and Scottish Folk Dance Society, and as I mentioned earlier, co-founded The Red Stags Morris in Autumn 1968. Through these dancing activities, I attended three Inter-Varsity Folk Dance Festivals in Hull (1968), Strathclyde (1969), and Reading (1970), performing a demonstration dance at each: Scottish at Hull and Strathclyde, and Morris (Beaux of London City) at Reading.

I also was involved in the University Rag Week as part of the Stoneham contributions, although we didn’t take part in this actual 1967 stunt. In my second year, students broke into maximum security prison, Parkhurst, on the Isle of Wight, and daubed some Soton Rag propaganda on the perimeter wall. The authorities were not amused.

In my final year, I bumped into a couple of young women in the foyer of the university library. They were from a local teaching college, and were taking part in the city-wide Rag activities. They asked me to buy a raffle ticket – which I did. Then, I suddenly asked one of the girls, who had very long hair, if her name was Jackson. You can imagine her surprise when she confirmed it was. ‘Then’, I said, ‘you are my cousin Caroline’ (the daughter of my father’s younger brother Edgar). I hadn’t seen Caroline for more than a decade, but when I was speaking with her I just knew we were related!

Three years passed so quickly. I graduated in June 1970, and later in September began graduate studies at The University of Birmingham, and a career in international agricultural research for development. But that’s another story.

I spent some of my happiest years at Southampton, enjoyed the academics and the social life. I grew up, and was able to face the world with confidence. Southampton: an excellent choice.

These are some of my memories. Thinking back over 50 years I may have got some details wrong, but I think the narrative is mostly correct. If anyone reading this would like to update any details, or add information, please do get in touch. Just leave a comment.

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¹ In 1967 I applied to study Botany and Geography. During the Autumn Term of my final year, in 1969, the university changed the degree title to ‘Environmental Botany and Geography’ that perhaps better reflected the course structure of (mainly) ecology on the one hand and physical geography (geomorphology, climatology, biogeography) on the other. This was probably one of the first environmental degrees.

² After he retired, Mather returned to his home in Birmingham, and became an Honorary Professor in the Department of Genetics in the School of Biological Sciences. In 1981 I joined the staff of the Department of Plant Biology (where I’d taken my PhD) in the same School. By about 1988, the four departments of the School (Plant Biology, Zoology & Comparative Physiology, Microbiology, and Genetics) had merged to form a unitary School of Biological Sciences, and I became a member of the Plant Genetics Research Group. I also moved my office and laboratory to the south ground floor of the School building, that was previously the home of Genetics. Prof. Mather had an office just down the corridor from mine, and we would meet for afternoon tea, and often chat about Southampton days. At Southampton he taught a population genetics course to a combined group of Botany and Zoology students. It was an optional course for me that I enjoyed. One day, he was lecturing about the Hardy-Weinburg Equilibrium, or some such, and filling the blackboard with algebra. Turning around to emphasise one point, he saw a young woman (from Zoology) seated immediately in front of me. She was about to light a cigarette! Without batting an eyelid, and not missing an algebraic beat, all he said was ‘We don’t smoke in lectures’, and turned back to complete the formula he was deriving. Needless to say the red-faced young lady put her cigarette away.

The late 60s were a period of student turmoil, and Southampton was not immune. Along University Road (which bisects the Highfield Campus), close to the Library, a new Administration building, with the Vice-Chancellor’s office (#37) was completed in late 1969 or early 1970 and, as rumored ahead of the event, was immediately the focus of a student sit-in, and regrettably some significant damage. However, one of Mather’s enduring legacies, however, was the establishment of a Medical School at Southampton.

Please, sir, I want some more

Perhaps the most memorable six words that Charles Dickens (1812-1870) ever wrote. They appear very early on in his second novel, Oliver Twist, published in 1837. Young Oliver, ‘desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery‘ is emboldened to ask for another bowl of weak porridge (gruel). Much to the consternation of the master of the workhouse where Oliver had been sent.

L: Dickens in 1837 (from Charles Dickens in 1837 (from: http://www.photohistory-sussex.co.uk/DickensCharlesPortraits.htm; and R: a photograph taken during the last two years of his life between 1868 and 1870.

Oliver Twist was the first of Dickens’s social novels in which he wrote about the inequalities and hypocrisies of Victorian England, particularly London. I’ve never read Oliver Twist nor most of Dickens’s novels. Just a couple that were on the English curriculum at school. Or I’ve viewed them as film or TV adaptations (at which the BBC generally excels).

Things changed in January, after I’d read a book about ‘the real Oliver Twist‘. I decided to set myself a literary challenge: to read all 15 of Dickens’s novels during 2017. Or should that be 14¾, as one novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood was unfinished at the time of Dickens’s death in 1870? And so I began to work my way through them (on my Kindle), but not in the order that they were published. I recently came across a link on the BBC Magazine website in which journalist Matthew Davis described taking the ‘Dickens Challenge’ in 2012, the bicentenary of Dickens’s birth.

In July (after about eight novels), I took a short ‘Dickens break’ to read a couple of books I’d purchased at Half Price Books in St Paul while visiting Hannah and Michael and family in June. One was the ‘real’ story about Wyatt Earp and the Gunfight at the OK Corral in 1880s Arizona. The other was an biography and analysis of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s role during the Civil War, by Princeton Emeritus Professor James P McPherson.

And now, in October, I’ve just finished the last one: Oliver Twist, which I deliberately left until last, even though it’s one of his early novels, because it was the ‘idea’ of Oliver Twist that set me off on this challenge in the first place. I enjoyed Dickens’s novels far more than I ever expected to from the outset. In fact, I found most to be quite a delight. My only other experience with Dickens was, as I said, at school: David Copperfield and Great Expectations. Unlike my latest experience, we didn’t read them for enjoyment, but to make a thorough analysis: the development of characters; the narrative; the social context, and the like.

These novels are not particularly easy reading – maybe reading them on a Kindle had something to do with that. But Dickens’s style is not the easiest to navigate, and often I had to read different paragraphs in each novel more than once to fully comprehend the narrative. He had a love affair with the semi-colon! And of course, he employed words (or their usage) that have now fallen out of fashion. These examples come to mind: benignant (kindly and benevolent); anent (concerning, about), and apostrophe (‘a digression in the form of an address to someone not present, or to a personified object or idea’).

Dickens wrote his novels between 1836 and 1870, most of them appearing in serial form before being published as books. He also wrote many other short stories and essays, the most popular among them (and indeed one of the most popular of all Dickens’s works) is A Christmas Carol (1843).

This is the order in which I approached them (with year of publication in parenthesis, and the length in words; as you might imagine, there’s a wealth of information about Charles Dickens on the web):

These are the covers from the original publications:

Mr Pickwick address the Club (c. 1894)

So, which novel did I enjoy the most, and which memorable characters made an impression? After almost 3,900,000 Dickensian words it’s actually quite hard to make a choice. However, a choice is what I have to make, and on reflection I have plumped for his first novel, The Pickwick Papers. While there is humour throughout most (if not all) his novels (although some are quite dire in terms of the descriptions of the society in which his characters barely survive) I did find myself laughing out loud when working my way through The Pickwick PapersOliver Twist is my second choice. Interesting that these two are Dickens’s first two novels.

Money—or the want of it—is a theme that runs through all Dickens’s novels. Many are set in London, or the Home Counties surrounding London. Dickens was a true wordsmith; he could capture in a few words the squalour and poverty that was the daily backdrop to the lives of most Londoners. However, Dickens does wander further afield in some novels. In David Copperfield, a good part of the narrative is set in Great Yarmouth, while the hero of Nicholas Nickleby spends time at Dotheboys Hall, a school in Yorkshire. Hard Times is set in the industrial North. In The Old Curiosity Shop, Nell and her grandfather pass through industrial Birmingham, perhaps the Black Country, ending up, I believe, in Shropshire. A Tale of Two Cities is divided between London and the Paris of Revolutionary France.

Just one novel, Bleak House, has a female narrator, Esther Summerson. David Copperfield and Great Expectations are narrated in the first person. Two are set among actual historical events: the French Revolution, in A Tale of Two Cities; and in Barnaby Rudge, the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780 are the backdrop to the narrative, and the chief protagonist of the riots, Lord George Gordon, actually appears as one of the characters in the novel. It’s also interesting to note the changes in society, the industrialization taking place (in The Old Curiosity Shop or Hard Times), or the coming of and increasing reliance on the railways (Our Mutual Friend) to move about the country.

Fagin by ‘Kyd’, c. 1889

Such a cast of characters, hundreds even, appear in Dickens’s novels: the heroes and herioines in each; the gentle ‘giants’ such as Joe Gargery in Great Expectations, or Daniel Peggoty in David Copperfield; the spongers like Harold Skimpole in Bleak House, and William Dorritt (who is also a snob and a hypocrite) in Little Dorritt; or the financially inept (but reproductively prolific) Mr Micawber in David Copperfield; hypocrites Pecksniff in Bleak House or Sir John Chester in Barnaby Rudge; and tyrants Edward Murdstone (David Copperfield’s step-father) or Ralph Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby. There are bullies (who are really cowards, as bullies most often are) such as Mr Bumble in Oliver Twist, and the unforgettable schoolmaster Wackford Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby. And who can forget Fagin, the Jewish fence (receiver of stolen goods) in Oliver Twist, my dear?

Dickens’s characters encompass all levels of society, from the aristocracy, landowners and gentlemen of private means, and industrialists, to honest journeymen, workers and labourers, and finally the lowest level of society, the abject poor brought up in the workhouse, dependent on the parish. That last aspect, told through Oliver Twist, was the reason for me coming to Dickens this year.

So many characters, many with wonderful Dickensian made-up names*. But I must single out two of them. Although I have read Great Expectations twice before (at school), I hadn’t appreciated just what a little prig the main character Pip is, or so it seemed to me. He came across as a self-centered, obnoxious individual, something I’d not picked up on before this reading.

Daniel Quilp by ‘Kyd’ c. 1889

But I think that Dickens’s most glorious invention must be Daniel Quilp, a ‘malicious, grotesquely deformed, hunchbacked dwarf moneylender’, in The Old Curiosity Shop. If they ever decide to adapt it again for screen (large or small)—silent movie versions were made as early as 1914 and 1921—I think Danny DeVito might just fit the bill (provided he can ‘get’ the accent—we don’t want faux Cockney in the style of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins).

In a recent comedy series on BBC2, of just six episodes, Quacks followed the ‘progress of four medical pioneers in the daring and wild days of Victorian medicine’. In one episode, a female character, an aficionada of Dickens’s writing, secures an invitation to dinner with the great man of letters, along with a friend. This is how the hilarious conversation about Dickens’s characters progresses during dinner.

there have been some famous Dickensian adaptations for the screen.  In 1946, Great Expectations starred a young John Mills and Alec Guinness. A ‘controversial’ three-part series of Great Expectations appeared on the BBC in 2011, with Gillian Anderson (who also appeared in an earlier BBC adaptation of Bleak House) as Miss Havisham, the best interpretation I have seen.

There have been some impressive adaptations of A Christmas Carol, probably the most memorable being the 1951 adaptation Scrooge, in black and white, starring Alastair Sim. And don’t forget The Muppets (with Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge). There have also been theatrical and musical versions, among the most well known being Lionel Bart’s Oliver! in 1968.

Dickensian was a wonderful 20 part series broadcast on the BBC between December 2015 and February 2016, which brought into a single story-line, set in one Victorian London neighbourhood, some of Dickens’s most iconic characters that appeared in five of his books. It was a revelation, a real mash-up, and critically well-received.

So now my 2017 Dickens challenge is at an end. In the past, I have worked my way through Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope, some Brontë and George Elliott. Next authors? Suggestions? Decisions, decisions!

In the short-term, I’ll probably return to my other literary interest: biography and history. I already have several more biographies of American Civil War generals to work through.

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* The cast of Quacks held a quiz on Dickensian names, with hilarious results. Truly Dickens or Falsely Dickens?