Are you plant blind?

In our 1986 book Plant Genetic Resources: An Introduction to their Conservation and Use, my former colleague and friend of almost 50 years, Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd and I wrote (on page 1):

To most people the word ‘conservation’ conjures up visions of lovable cuddly animals like giant pandas on the verge of extinction. Or it refers to the prevention of the mass slaughter of endangered whale species, under threat because of human’s greed and short-sightedness. Comparatively few  however, are moved to action or financial contribution by the idea of economically important plant genes disappearing from the face of the earth. . . . But plant genetic resources make little impression on the heart even though their disappearance could herald famine on a greater scale than ever seen before, leading to ultimate world-wide disaster.

Hyperbole? Perhaps. Through our 1986 lens that did not seem far-fetched. And while it’s fair to say that the situation today is better in some respects than Brian and I predicted, there are new threats and challenges, such as global warming.

The world needs genetic diversity to breed varieties of crops that will keep agricultural systems sustainable, allow production of crops in drought-prone regions, where temperatures are increasing, and where new races of diseases threaten even the very existence of agriculture for some crops.

That genetic diversity comes from the hundreds of thousands of crop varieties that farmers have nurtured for generations since the birth of agriculture millennia ago, or in closely related wild species. After all, all crops were once wild species before domestication.

These are the genetic resources that must be safely guarded for future generations.

The work of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR), then the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), was pivotal in coordinating and supporting genetic resources programs worldwide, in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

Then a new and very important player came along. Over the past decade and half the Crop Trust, has provided long-term support to some of the world’s most important genebanks.

International mechanisms have been put in place to support collection, conservation, study, and use of plant genetic resources. Yet, much remains to be done. And ‘Joe Public’ is probably still as unaware of the importance of the crop varieties and their wild relatives (and perhaps plants in general) as we feared more than three decades ago.


Wildlife programs on TV are mostly about animals, apart from the weekly gardening programs, and some such as David Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants (broadcast in 1995). Animal programs attract attention for precisely the reasons that Brian and I highlighted in 1986. A couple of nights ago for instance I watched a fascinating, hour-long program on the BBC about hippos in the Okavango Delta of Botswana. Wonderful footage revealing never-before-seen hippo behaviour and ecology.

When it comes to genetic resources, animals don’t do so badly either, at least here in the UK. We get an almost weekly item about the importance of rare breeds of livestock and their imperiled status during the BBC’s flagship Countryfile program on Sunday evenings presented by farmer Adam Henson, whose father Joe helped set up the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) in 1973. The RBST has been pivotal in rescuing many breeds from the brink of extinction. Just last night (28 July) Adam proudly showed an Albion calf born the day before on his farm in the Cotswolds. The Albion breed is one of the rarest in the UK.

Photo credit: the RBST

But that says very little about all the endangered livestock breeds around the world that are fortunately the focus of the work of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

Ankole cattle from southwestern Uganda (photo credit: ILRI/Stevie Mann).

However . . .

When was the last time—if ever—you watched a TV documentary about the rare (so-called ‘heritage’) varieties of the food plants on which we depend, or their closest wild species relatives, such as the barleys of Ethiopia or the potatoes of the South American Andes, for instance. And would you really care if you hadn’t?

Are you even aware that the barleys that we use for brewing originally came from Ethiopia and the Middle East? Or that the Spanish brought the potato back to Europe in the 16th century from Peru? What about your daily cups of tea or coffee?

These are just some of the myriad of fascinating histories of our food crops. Today many of these staples are often more important in agriculture in parts of the world far distant from the regions where they originated and were first domesticated.

In the UK, enthusiasts will be aware of heritage vegetable varieties, and the many varieties of fruits like apples that have disappeared from commercial orchards, but are still grown at places like Berrington Hall in Herefordshire.

Take a look at this article by freelance communicator Jeremy Cherfas about the origins of the food we eat. Jeremy has written a lot about genetic resources (and many other aspects of sustainable agriculture). As he says, you may discover a few surprises.

In centers of domestication, the diversity of the crops grown by farmers is impressive indeed. It’s wonderful. It’s BEAUTIFUL! The domestication of crops and their use by farmers worldwide is the story of civilization.

Here are just a few examples from beans, maize, cocoa, cucurbits, wheat, and lentil.

And take a look at the video below.

Who could fail to be impressed by such a range of shapes and colors of these varieties? And these varieties (and wild species) contain all the genes we need to keep crops productive.

Plant genetic resources: food for the stomach, food for the soul.


My own work since 1971 concerned the conservation and use of potatoes and rice (and some legume species as side projects).

In Peru, I came to learn just how important potatoes are for communities that live at altitude in the Andes. Could the Inca empire have grown and dominated the region had there been no potatoes (and maize)?

Machu Picchu

And there are so many wild species of potatoes that can be found from the southern USA to the south of Chile and east into the plains of Brazil. The International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima (where I worked for over eight years) has the world’s largest genebank of potato varieties. Important wild species collections are maintained there, as well as in Scotland at the Commonwealth Potato Collection (maintained by the James Hutton Institute), and the USA, at the NRSP-6 Potato Genebank in Sturgeon Bay, WI.

Rice is the food of Asia. There are thousands upon thousands of varieties that grow in standing water, or on sloping uplands, or in areas that flood and so have evolved to elongate rapidly to keep pace with rising flood waters.

Here is a selection of images of rice diversity in Laos, one of the countries that we explored during the 1990s.

Would it have been possible to build the temple complex at Angkor Wat in Cambodia in the 12th century without rice? It has been estimated that upwards of one million workers were employed in its construction. That workforce needed a constant supply of staple rice, the only crop that could be grown productively in this monsoon environment.

These potato and rice examples are the tip of the genetic resources and civilization history iceberg. Think about the origins of agriculture in Turkey and the Mideast, 10,000 years ago. Remains of wheat, barley and pulses like lentil and chickpea have been found at the earliest cities in that region. And these histories are repeated all around the world.


In 1983 and 1984, BBC2 aired two series of a program called Geoffrey Smith’s World of Flowers, in which Smith (a professional gardener and broadcaster) waxed lyrical on the history of many of his favorite garden plants, and their development in cultivation: tulips from Turkey, dahlias from Mexico, lilies from North America, and many, many more.

In these programs, he talked about where and how the plants grow in the wild, when they had been collected, and by whom, and how through decades (centuries in some cases) of hybridization and selection, there are so many varieties in our gardens today. The programs attracted an audience of over 5 million apparently. And two books were also published.

I had an idea. If programs like these could be so popular, how about a series on the food plants that we eat, where they originated, how they were domesticated, and how modern varieties have been bred using these old varieties and wild species. I envisaged these programs encompassing archaeology and crop science, the rise of civilizations, completing the stories of why and which crops we depend on.

I wrote a synopsis for the programs and sent it to the producer at the BBC of the Geoffrey Smith programs, Brian Davies. I didn’t hear back for several weeks, but out of the blue, he wrote back and asking to come up to Birmingham for a further discussion. I pitched the idea to him. I had lots of photos of crop diversity and wild species, stories about the pioneers of plant genetic resources, like Vavilov, Jack Harlan, Erna Bennett, and Jack Hawkes, to name just a few. I explained how these plant stories were also stories about the development and growth of civilizations, and how this had depended on plant domestication. Stories could be told from some of the most important archaeological sites around the world.

Well, despite my enthusiasm, and the producer warming to the idea, he eventually wrote back that the BBC could not embark on such a series due to financial limitations. And that’s all I heard. Nevertheless, I still think that a series along these lines would make fascinating television. Now who would present the series (apart from myself, that is!)?

Maybe its time has come around again. From time-to-time, interesting stories appear in the media about crops and their origins, as this recent one about cocoa and vanilla in the Smithsonian Magazine illustrates.

But we need to do more to spread the plant genetic resources ‘gospel’. The stories are not only interesting, but essential for our agricultural survival.


 

Parlez vous?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Over many years I have traveled to more than 60 countries around the world (marked in grey on the map below).

And difficulty in communication was rarely a problem as so many people spoke English; in many cases exceptionally fluently, in others sufficient to get by. The ability of so many having English as a second (or third) language puts us native English speakers to shame. As linguists, we Brits do not excel.

Not so long ago, I watched with embarrassment as Master Chef presenter Greg Wallace tried to communicate with the manager of the world’s largest pasta factory in Italy in a TV program. This person did not speak much English, but had sufficient to explain—slowly—the various processes and stages in making pasta. That was really fascinating, but spoiled by Wallace demonstrating what a condescending ‘personality’ he is: speaking to his interviewee in a strange, broken accent, and ratcheting up the volume of his speech as though that would make understanding his questions and comments any easier. I don’t recall if he waved his arms about. It was almost Monty Pythonesque.


When I began high school in September 1960 I was immediately faced with learning two new languages: French and Latin. And we had formal lessons, examinations even, in English Language. On reflection, I wish I had given more effort to learning French. There were no other language opportunities at my school.

It was only when I moved to Peru in January 1973, and then on to Costa Rica in 1976 (I lived in Latin America for a little over eight years) that my deficiencies as a linguist were immediately apparent. I hadn’t had much aptitude nor interest until I was faced with the necessity of learning a new language—Spanish—just to survive.

And what a difference that made. Within a few months I’d become relatively fluent in Spanish, although I never did really master writing in that language. Being a good Anglo-Saxon, I always found it hard to express myself in Spanish in just a few words when many more was the accepted style.

Since I left Latin America in March 1981, I’ve not had much opportunity to speak Spanish. It’s rather rusty, although from time to time, I find myself thinking (ven talking to myself) in Spanish; my reading ability has not deserted me.

Learning a new language was indeed one of the principal legacies I took from the years I spent in the Americas. However, when I moved to the Philippines in 1991 (remaining there for the next 19 years) I never did pick up any Tagalog, apart from a few words here and there, although I could, on occasion, ‘follow’ a conversation among my Filipino colleagues.


As I said, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and I think, as a nation, we’d be in a better position were we to have much better language skills. In the context of our (deteriorating) relations with the other members of the European Union, we might be in a better place if some of our politicians were better versed in the languages (and cultures) of our co-members.

How times are changing. Teaching of foreign languages is in serious decline in our schools. Last April, an article appeared in The Guardian describing schemes, funded by foreign governments, to teach languages in primary schools in the UK. Without that support, many schools would be unable to provide any language teaching whatsoever. That’s another sign of how support for education throughout the country has changed in recent years, not only in the amounts allocated, but also in the emphasis that the government has been promoting away from languages, humanities, and the like in favor of the so-called STEM subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths.

The government seems hell bent on promoting a ‘core curriculum’ of ‘hard’ subjects in science and maths, almost it seems to the exclusion of all those other subjects that give someone a well-rounded education. Even subjects like history and geography are becoming optional. But the arts and humanities make us more rounded individuals. This, from Kurt Vonnegut, is apt:

What’s wrong with ‘a bowl of alphabet soup’?

A rice farmer in northern Laos with her family

CGIAR? CG? CeeGee? Or should that be CIGAR?

The CGIAR is, it seems, a mystery to almost the entire world population, even those billions whose survival depends on the outputs of CGIAR-funded agricultural research. Recently, philanthropist Bill Gates wrote in his blog that . . . you’ve probably never heard of CGIAR, but they are essential to feeding our future. Fair comment.

Originally known as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research but more commonly just CGIAR today, it is the world’s largest global agricultural innovation network.

Founded in 1971, under the auspices of the World Bank, to coordinate international agricultural research efforts aimed at reducing poverty and achieving food security in developing countries, the network today supports 15 independent agricultural research institutes or centers. CGIAR brings evidence to policy makers, innovation to partners, and new tools to harness the economic, environmental and nutritional power of agriculture.

The centers carry out research on the world’s most import food crops (such as wheat, maize, and rice among many others), water and biodiversity management, livestock and fish, tree and forest systems, the dynamics of the world’s most challenging agricultural ecosystems, and food and agricultural policy.

Their research agendas contribute significantly towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. And, of course, much of the research today is directed towards combating the threat (and challenges) of a changing climate that will affect agricultural productivity in most parts of the world in decades to come. In his blog piece, Gates rightly highlights the important climate-related research ongoing at two centers in Mexico and Nigeria, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), respectively. There’s more going on in the other centers coordinated through a cross-center research program.

Many billions of dollars have been invested in international agricultural research over the past 50 years or so. But the economic return through increased productivity has been many billions of dollars more.

But we shouldn’t just look at the economic benefits, important as they are. Millions upon millions of people have been taken out of poverty, and despite a worrying reversal of the favorable downward trend of food insecurity (due to economic slowdowns and downturns around the globe, as outlined in a recent report from several international agencies), more people benefit today from access to better crop varieties or improved practices. Many farmers can now afford to provide education opportunities for their children which they were unable to do without access to new technologies.

The centers supported through CGIAR are the key international players for conservation of genetic diversity found in farmer varieties and wild species of crop relatives. This genetic material or germplasm is safely stored in the genebanks at eleven of the centers. More importantly, this germplasm is being studied and used to breed better-adapted varieties.


When CGIAR was founded in 1971 there were already four centers, which were ‘adopted’ for funding support. The International Rice Research Institute, IRRI, based in the Philippines, is the oldest, founded in 1959 [1] and about to celebrate its Diamond Jubilee later this year.

Then came the Mexico-based CIMMYT in 1966 (although its antecedents stretch back to 1943 and a Rockefeller Foundation-funded program in Mexico), followed in 1967 by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, CIAT, in Colombia and IITA, in Nigeria. Others followed over the next decade or so, but the number has fluctuated as centers merged, or even closed down.

I worked at two of these centers over a period of 27 years, as a junior/senior scientist in Peru and Central America at the International Potato Center or CIP that was founded in 1971 [2]; and as a Head of Department, then Director, at IRRI.


IRRI, CIMMYT, CIAT, IITA. Just four of the research institute acronyms that seemingly roll off the tongue. Yet, these very acronyms seemingly conspire to confuse. Even Bill Gates seems overwhelmed by center branding, stating that with so many acronyms being bandied about that the  . . . uninitiated feel[ing] as if they’ve fallen into a bowl of alphabet soup.

In the early years, CGIAR was an informal association of donor agencies that agreed to coordinate their funding to support the small numbers of centers that at one stage in the 1990s was allowed to grow to about 18 centers. At least one center closure and some mergers have come about since. And the funding model has changed.

Towards the end of the 1990s there was a growing concern among the donors of the centers—the members of CGIAR (centers are not members per se)—that there was too much duplication among centers in terms of their research programs, that their relationships with research programs in developing countries was burdensome for some of those programs, and that donor interests were not being met. Twenty years on, and despite changes to the funding model whereby donors have much more control over research projects in the centers, and the development of cross-center programs (with all the transactions paraphernalia that comes with these, such as meetings across continents, performance targets, and the added costs of just doing business), the profile of CGIAR remains weak (if we accept Bill Gates’ line of argument).

Why can that be, despite the intensive efforts to remedy this situation. In 1998 the centers supported by the CGIAR created Future Harvest as a charitable and educational organization designed to advance the debate on how to feed the world’s growing population without destroying the environment and to catalyze action for a world with less poverty, a healthier human family, well-nourished children, and a better environment.

It was a doomed rebranding initiative from the outset, yet survived several years. Centers were branded as members of the Alliance of Future Harvest Centers, a branding that has all but disappeared. It’s almost impossible to find any reference to Future Harvest on the web, and I only came across one logo on the inside of one publication. One of the reasons why Future Harvest failed is that while the concept was probably fine for the English-speaking world, it found no counterpart in Chinese, Hindi, Bahasa Indonesia, Swahili, or whatever. Future Harvest? What does that mean?

But it started, in my opinion, from a lack of understanding (misunderstanding, perhaps) of the power of branding of the individual centers. CGIAR (Future Harvest) is the sum of its parts, the independent centers that actually do the research. IRRI is a more powerful, and known, brand in Asia in particular [3]. The same goes for CIMMYT in Mexico, India, and Pakistan, and for the other centers where they operate.

Yes, the initiatives to permit centers to align their agendas and work more closely are worthwhile. But at the outset, the funding model was such that centers found themselves having to bid to become members of the new system programs, just to survive. Not a good reason for inter-center collaboration.

I have no problem with Gates’ bowl of alphabet soup. Fifteen acronyms (that you can actually pronounce) is a small price for strong branding, as long as full names are explained as well. This situation is no different from what you can find in any country. Just take the UK: NIAB (National Institute of Agricultural Botany in Cambridge); JIC (John Innes Centre in Norwich); or JHI (James Hutton Institute, in Dundee and Aberdeen). No-one seems perturbed recognizing these prestigious institutions either by their acronym or name. Why should there be any difficulty for the centers supported by CGIAR?

In response to Gates’ blog post, one tweeter (who had worked at one of the centers, CIMMYT I believe) stated that this ‘confusion’ was a sound justification for merging centers into one institute. I couldn’t disagree more. The strength of CGIAR lies in its diversity. Centers are strategically located around the world. Institutional (and national staff) cultures and set ups are very different. Doing business over time zones is problematical.

Merging organizations is never easy. One ‘partner’ inevitably loses out to another (take the Delta-NWA merger; who now remembers NWA?) One successful merger among CGIAR centers led to the creation of the International Livestock Research Institute or ILRI (bringing together the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases in Nairobi, and the International Livestock Centre for Africa in Addis Ababa). Not all mergers or alliances prosper however. Closer links between IRRI and CIMMYT in the in the early 2000s came to nothing despite best efforts, and having two Board of Trustees members common to both. It remains to be seen how closer links between Bioversity International in Rome and CIAT, or the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi and the Center for International Forestry Research, or CIFOR in Bogor, Indonesia, pan out.

As you can see I’m a believer in the power, and identity, of the centers. After all, that’s where the research is planned strategically, where the scientists reside, and where they do their work. Branding is important and can make all the difference for delivering the right message.

Let’s celebrate how CGIAR has supported international agricultural research for almost five decades and continues to provide the framework for that to continue. Yes, the world needs to know and understand the importance of CGIAR and what it stands for. Equally, I would argue, let’s celebrate the work of IRRI, CIMMYT, IITA, CIAT, CIP, IFPRI, Bioversity International, ICARDA, IWMI, ILRI, World Agroforestry, Worldfish, CIFOR, ICRISAT, and Africa Rice.


[1] A Memorandum of Understanding was signed in December 1959 between the Government of the Philippines and the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations to establish IRRI. The Board of Trustees met in April 1960 to approve the institute’s constitution and by-laws. Thus, IRRI has two ‘birthdays’. The 50th anniversary was celebrated on 9 December 2009 and 14th April 2010.

[2] I was originally due to join CIP in September 1971, when I completed my MSc, and the CIP Director General, Richard Sawyer, had approached the forerunner of the UK’s Department for International Development for funding to support my assignment in Peru. But the UK was at that very moment deciding whether to fund CIP bilaterally or join CGIAR and fund the center’s work that way. My departure for Peru was delayed for 15 months.

[3] In about 2004, I was invited to a meeting on biotechnology and intellectual property rights in Malaysia, near Kuala Lumpur. My flight from Manila arrived in KL around 11 pm, and I had to take a taxi to the resort where the meeting was being held, about 35 km or so. I don’t remember if a taxi had been sent for me, or I just took the next one in the rank outside the terminal building exit. On the journey, the driver started asking me a few questions, and when I told him I worked in agriculture in the Philippines, he replied: ‘I guess you must work at IRRI’ or words to that effect. He knew all about IRRI. Notwithstanding he had once been a driver for Malaysia’s Minister of Agriculture, he was indeed very knowledgeable about rice and IRRI’s role. I was more than surprised.

 

Exploring the southern Lincolnshire Wolds and Cambridgeshire Fens*

Last week, Steph and I spent three days exploring five National Trust and English Heritage properties in Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire. This is not an area with which we are familiar at all. We spent the first night on the coast at Skegness, and the second in the Georgian town of Wisbech.

It was a round trip of just under 360 miles from our home in Bromsgrove, taking in nine counties: Worcestershire, West Midlands, Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk (for about three minutes), and Rutland.

Our first stop was Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire. There has been a fortified residence on this site since the mid thirteenth century, but it wasn’t until two centuries later that the remarkable brick tower was built. This is quite unusual for any castle, and Lord Cromwell is believed to have seen such buildings during his sojourns in France.

The tower and part of a stable block are all that remain today, although the position of other towers and a curtain wall can be seen. The whole is surrounded by a double moat.

Like so many other castles (see my blogs about Goodrich Castle in Gloucestershire, Corfe Castle in Dorset, and Kenilworth in Warwickshire) Tattershall was partially demolished (or slighted) during the Civil Wars between 1642 and 1651.

And over the subsequent centuries it slipped into decay. Until the 1920s when a remarkable man, Viscount Curzon of Kedleston (near Derby) bought Tattershall Castle with the aim of restoring it to some of its former glory, the magnificent tower that we see today.

The castle was then gifted to the National Trust in whose capable hands it has since been managed.

There is access to the roof (and the various chambers on the second and third floors) via a beautiful spiral stone staircase, quite wide by the normal standard of such staircases. But what makes this one so special is the carved handrail from single blocks of stone. And on some, among all the other centuries-old graffitti, are the signatures of some of the stonemasons.

Do take a look at this album of photos of Tattershall Castle.

Just a mile or so southeast of the castle is RAF Coningsby, very much in evidence because it’s a base for the RAF’s Typhoon aircraft, and a training station for Typhoon pilots. So the noise from these aircraft is more or less constant. However, RAF Coningsby is also the base for the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, and just as we reached the car park on leaving Tattershall, we were treated to the sight of a Lancaster bomber (the iconic stalwart of the Second World War Bomber Command) passing overhead, having just taken off from the airfield, just like in the video below. At first, it was hidden behind some trees, but from the roar of its engines I knew it was something special. Then it came into view while banking away to the east.

Just 20 miles further east lies Gunby Hall, a William and Mary townhouse masquerading as a country house, and built in 1700. The architect is not known.

It was built by Sir William Massingberd (the Massingberds were an old Lincolnshire family) and was home to generations of Massingberds until the 1960s. You can read an interesting potted history of the family here.

Gunby Hall, and almost all its contents accumulated by the Massingberds over 250 years were gifted to the National Trust in 1944. Lady Diana Montgomery-Massingberd (daughter of campaigner Emily Langton Massingberd) was the last family member to reside at Gunby, and after her death in 1963, tenants moved in until 2012 when the National Trust took over full management of the house, gardens and estate.

Gunby is remarkable for two things. During the Second World War, the house was in great danger of being demolished by the Air Ministry because the runway at nearby (but now closed) RAF Spilsby had to be extended to accommodate the heavy bombers that would operate from there. But Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd (husband of Lady Diana) was not a man without influence. He had risen to the rank of Field Marshal, and had served as Chief of the Imperial General Staff between 1933 and 1936. After he wrote to the king, George V, the location of the runway was changed, and Gunby saved.

It was then decided to gift the property and contents to the National Trust. So what we see in the house today is all original (nothing has been brought in from other properties or museums).

Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd started life a simply Archibald Montgomery, but changed his name by deed poll to Montgomery-Massingberd on his marriage to Diana. It was a condition of the inheritance of the estate that the name Massingberd was perpetuated. Both he and Diana are buried in the nearby St Peter’s Church on the edge of the gardens.

Although not extensive, Steph and I thought that the gardens at Gunby were among the finest we have seen at any National Trust property. Yes, we visited in mid-summer when the gardens were at their finest perhaps, but the layout and attention to detail from the gardeners was outstanding. Overall the National Trust volunteers were knowledgeable and very friendly. All in all, it was a delightful visit.

You can see more photos here.

On the second day, we headed west from our overnight stay in Skegness on the coast (not somewhere I really want to visit again), passing by the entrance to Gunby Hall, en route to Bolingbroke Castle, a ruined castle owned by English Heritage, and birthplace of King Henry IV in 1367, founder of the Lancaster Plantagenets.

There’s not really too much to see of the castle except the foundations of the various towers and curtain wall. Nevertheless, a visit to Bolingbroke Castle is fascinating because English Heritage has placed so many interesting information boards around the site explaining the various constructions, and providing artist impressions of what the castle must have looked like.

So the castle footprint is really quite extensive, surrounded by a moat (now just a swampy ditch) that you can walk around, inside and out, taking in just how the castle was built.

A local sandstone, rather soft and crumbly, was used and couldn’t have withstood a prolonged siege. Interspersed in the walls, now revealed by deep holes but still in situ elsewhere, are blocks of hard limestone that were perhaps used for ornamentation as well as giving the walls additional strength. The castle was slighted in the Civil Wars of the 1640s.

The complete set of Bolingbroke photos can be viewed here.

Heading south to Wisbech, our aim was Peckover House and Garden, occupied from the 1770s until the late 1940s by the Peckover family of Quakers and bankers.

Peckover House is a detached Georgian mansion, among a terrace of elegant houses on North Brink, the north bank of the tidal River Nene, and facing a counterpart terrace on South Brink, where social reformer Octavia Hill, one of the founders of the National Trust, was born in 1838.

Standing in front of Peckover House, it’s hard to believe that there is a two acre garden behind. Among the features there is a cats’ graveyard of many of the feline friends that have called Peckover home.

Inside the house, I was reminded (though on a much smaller scale) of Florence Court in Northern Ireland that we visited in 2017. The hall and stairs are a delicate duck-egg blue, and there and in many of the rooms there is exquisite plasterwork. Above the doorways downstairs are fine broken pediments.

The most celebrated of the family was Alexander (born in 1830) who traveled extensively and built an impressive collection of books and paintings. He was Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire, and was elevated to a peerage in 1907.

He bought one of his books, a 12th century psalter, in about 1920 for £200 or so. Now on loan from Burnley library and displayed in Alexander’s library, the book has been insured for £1,200,000!

Check out more photos of Peckover House and garden.

Our final stop, on the way home on the third day, was Woolsthorpe Manor, birthplace of Sir Isaac Newton, President of the Royal Society, who was born on Christmas Day in 1642 three months after his father, also named Isaac, had passed away.

This is the second home of a famous scientist we have visited in the past couple of months, the first being Down House in Kent, home of Charles Darwin. Woolsthorpe has become a pilgrimage destination for many renowned scientists, including Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking who are shown in some of the exhibits.

Woolsthorpe is not a large property, comprising a limestone house and outbuildings. It has the most wonderful tiled roof.

It came into the Newton family as part of the dowry of Isaac Sr.’s marriage to Hannah Ayscough. Keeping sheep for wool production was the principal occupation of the family.

Isaac Newton won a place at Trinity College, Cambridge but had to escape back to Woolsthorpe during an outbreak of the plague in 1665 and 1666. He thrived and the 18 months he spent at Woolsthorpe were among his most productive.

Open to the public on the upper floor, Newton’s study-bedroom displays his work on light that he conducted there.


And from the window is a view over the orchard and the famous Flower of Kent apple tree that inspired his views on gravitation.

On the ground floor, in the parlour are two portraits of Newton, one of him in later life without his characteristic wig, and, high above the fireplace, his death mask.

Also there are early copies (in Latin and English) of his principal scientific work, the Principia Mathematica, first published in 1687.

There’s a full album of photos here.

And, with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and the first landing on the Moon on 20 July 1969, there was a display of NASA exhibits and how Newton’s work all those centuries ago provided the mathematical basis for planning a journey into space. The National Trust has also opened an excellent interactive science display based on Newton’s work that would keep any child occupied for hours. I’m publishing this post on the anniversary of Apollo 11’s blast off from Cape Kennedy, now Cape Canaveral once again.

All in all, we enjoyed three excellent days visiting five properties. Despite the weather forecast before we set out, we only had a few minutes rain (when we arrived at Bolingbroke Castle). At each of the four National Trust properties the volunteer staff were so friendly and helpful, full of details that they were so willing to share. If you ever get a chance, do take a couple of days to visit these eastern England jewels.

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* The Lincolnshire Wolds are a range of hills, comprised of chalk, limestone, and sandstone. The Fens are drained marshlands and a very important agricultural region.