Beningbrough Hall: an elegant Georgian mansion in North Yorkshire

Beningbrough Hall in North Yorks, is less than 10 miles northwest from the ancient city of York. It was one of the first properties owned by the National Trust that Steph and I visited in August 2011 a few months after becoming members.

The main entrance, on the north side of the Hall.

Beningbrough Hall is over 150 miles northeast from our home in Worcestershire (map), so it was not the sort of place to visit on a day trip. However, our younger daughter and her family live in Newcastle, a further 82 miles north from Beningbrough, and we stopped off at Beningbrough on the journey north to visit them.

This is believed to be a portrait of John Bourchier III.


There has been a house on the Beningbrough estate since the mid-sixteenth century. The original house was sited a few hundred meters away from the present Hall that was finished in 1716.

It was constructed by John Bourchier III (one of whose forebears, also named John, was one of the 59 persons who signed the death warrant of King Charles I in January 1649).

In 1916, Beningbrough Hall was acquired by Lord and Lady Chesterfield, and after her death in 1957, the Hall passed to the National Trust in 1958 (in lieu of death duties), although none of the contents came with that acquisition.

The grand cantilevered Staircase of the three main flights, constructed entirely of oak and internally strengthened with wrought iron is of outstanding workmanship by William Thornton. (Source: ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel).

Besides its elegant architecture and interiors (the work of Bourchier’s chief craftsman William Thornton) and gardens, Beningbrough Hall is now home to a collection of 18th century paintings, displayed as part of a partnership between the National Trust and the National Portrait Gallery.

There’s no doubt that the collection of paintings on display is of the highest quality and significance. Nevertheless, our visit to Beningbrough was equally enjoyable taking in views of the Hall’s elegant exterior, and the formal gardens and orchards, mostly on the rear, south-facing side of the Hall.


 

Standen House: where Arts and Crafts meets West Sussex

Designed between 1891 and 1894 by architect Philip Webb, a friend of William Morris (whose name is synonymous with the Arts and Craft Movement of late Victorian Britain), Standen House was the home of London solicitor James Beale and his large family of seven children.

The Beale family, c. 1900 (source: the National Trust).

It is located just south of East Grinstead (map) and is owned today by the National Trust. Steph and I visited the house and gardens on a glorious day in mid-May 2019.

The exterior design of the house blends effortlessly with the surrounding Kent landscape. From the gardens that surround the house there are impressives views overlooking the Kent countryside to the south.

The view from Standen House garden looking south across Weir Wood Reservoir to the Weald of (East) Sussex. The West/East Sussex County boundary runs along it northern side. The high ground (left of centre) on the furthest horizon is Ashdown Forest.

But Standen House is famous for its Arts and Crafts interiors. And they are impressive indeed. Most of the rooms are a celebration of the best of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and incorporate many of Morris’s iconic designs in the various wallpapers. It’s a pure feast for the eyes – although I’m not sure I could live with Morris’s designs every day [1].

To view the magnificence (and perhaps to our more minimalist eyes today, the exuberance) of Standen’s interiors, please click here to open a comprehensive album of photos that I took during our visit.

After a tour of the house, it was very pleasant to wander through the shade of the gardens, before completing our visit and returning to our holiday cottage near Robertsbridge in East Sussex, some 32 miles to the southeast of Standen.


[1] Another National Trust property full of William Morris designs is Wightwick Manor near Wolverhampton in the West Midlands. Steph and I visited there in the summer of 2014.

Warkworth Castle: a 12th century fortress above the River Coquet in Northumberland

Warkworth Castle, built in the 12th century, stands on a narrow neck of land in a loop of the River Coquet in Northumberland, close to where the river flows into the North Sea at Amble.

View from the Keep along the River Coquet towards Amble and the North Sea.

The view north overlooking part of Warkworth.

Steph and I were visiting family in Newcastle in April 2018, and on a bright sunny day, enjoyed an excursion to Warkworth beach with our younger daughter Philippa and her husband Andi, and grandsons Elvis and Felix (then 6 and 4, respectively).

Phil and Andi went straight home after the walk and a picnic, but we decided to take the boys to Warkworth Castle close-by, which is owned by English Heritage. And we were in luck.

On the day of our visit (21 April) English Heritage was celebrating St George’s Day (actually 23 April) with displays of ‘armed combat between knights in shining armour’, and many other attractions.

Visitors enjoying combat between ‘knights in shining armour’.

Felix and Elvis (with Grandma behind) enjoying the armed combat.

View from the Keep towards the Gatehouse. The Lion Tower is on the right.

Carvings on the face of the Lion Tower.

The castle came into the Percy family (later the Dukes of Northumberland) in the mid-fourteenth century. It saw action in the Wars of the Roses in the late fifteenth century, and parts of the castle were demolished (or ‘slighted’) then. It suffered further damage in the late sixteenth century.

Today, many of the internal structures have disappeared, but the outer curtain wall stands more or less intact. The Keep can be explored. The Lion Tower (on the right in the image immediately above) has some impressive stone carvings above the archway.

It’s an excellent destination for adventurous grandchildren who have some excess energy to burn off. From their reaction at being allowed to explore the different buildings it was clear that Elvis and Felix enjoyed their visit – just as much as Grandma and Grandad.

The image of Warkworth Tower on its mound that’s covered in daffodils has become iconic, and often use in tourism brochures and the like for Northumberland. Here’s my take.


 

Farnborough Hall: home of the Holbech family since 1684

If you are traveling south on the M40 motorway in Warwickshire and, about half way between Junction 12 (B4451 Gaydon Rd for the British Motor Museum) and Junction 11 (A422 for Banbury), you happen to look to your left, you’ll see an obelisk on the skyline. That obelisk is in the grounds of Farnborough Hall, a country house that has been occupied by the Holbech family since 1684. It’s now owned by the National Trust (since 1960) when the family endowed it to the Trust, although a descendant of the Holbech family still lives there and manages the property.

Farnborough Hall is just under 40 miles southeast from our home in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire (map).

It is an elegant, soft coloured stone building (probably Cotswold limestone) with elegant gardens, and a mile-long grassy terrace with the obelisk at the far end.

The main entrance, on the northeast facade of the house.

Steph and I visited there at the end of July 2012, having visited Upton House earlier that same day. Upton House is only 6 miles west from Farnborough Hall.

I don’t have any images of the interior of Farnborough Hall. I seem to recall that photography was not permitted (for copyright reasons, as many of the artefacts were still owned by the family). So I don’t have any firm memories of the rooms that we may have visited. It apparently has exquisite plaster work, which you can see on the National Trust webpage for the Hall.

Here is more information about the history of the Hall.

Another feature are the beautiful landscaped gardens, and views across the estate and the Warmington Valley.

I would certainly like to make a return visit before we move north to Newcastle. But I guess that is going to have to wait at least 3-6 months, as all National Trust properties are closed until further notice and the Covid-19 situation improves.


 

Managing the mail for 150 years

In September 2018, Steph and I enjoyed a week long break in Cornwall, and visited sixteen National Trust and English Heritage properties scattered over the county. And a couple in Devon on the journey south and return.

On our last full day, we made the 58 mile journey from our holiday cottage near the Lizard in the far south to Tintagel on the north coast to visit Tintagel Castle, of King Arthur fame, and a National Trust property in the center of the village: Tintagel Old Post Office.

Tintagel Old Post Office was built over 600 years ago. Originally a farmhouse, it has had many functions over the centuries, and became the village post office in 1870. Besides the five rooms to explore on two floors, Tintagel Old Post Office has a delightful cottage garden.

A complete album of photos of the post office and garden can be viewed here.

Then we headed down some very narrow lanes to the cliffs for a picnic overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Next stop: Newfoundland!

We also took the opportunity to explore the Church of St Materianna, and enjoy the view back to the village itself.

I have included photos of this side trip in the same photo album referred to above.


 

Cragside: a magnificent creation in the heart of Northumberland (updated 23 October 2020)

Cragside, the house built by William, 1st Baron Armstrong between 1869 and 1882, is remarkable. It was the first house in the world to be lit (and powered throughout) by hydroelectricity. Armstrong was a wealthy engineer and industrialist, eminent scientist, inventor and philanthropist.

Surrounded by moorland and farmland, Cragside stands in the heart of Northumberland near the village of Rothbury (map). It has been owned by the National Trust since 1977. It was one of the first National Trust properties that Steph and I visited after becoming members in 2011.

Cragside was a joint creation between William Armstrong, his wife Margaret (née Ramshaw), and architect Richard Norman Shaw.

Armstrong constructed a dam and lake high on the moorland above Cragside to provide the water to generate electricity. The original turbine house still stands in the grounds.

There are many magnificent treasures to view inside the house. However, I don’t have any images of Cragside’s interior. I guess in 2011 the National Trust’s policy on photography was not as liberal as it is today (as my readers will have realised from the many images I have posted about our National Trust visits). Or perhaps, there were copyright issues that did not permit photography inside the house.

What is also remarkable about Cragside is the garden that the Armstrongs carved out of the hillside, planting many trees and exotic plants obtained from all over the world. In particular there are outstanding stands of tall Wellingtonias. Of course they never lived to see their garden in its mature magnificence. Below the house, is a large and impressive rockery, and a bridge takes you across the valley bottom, and a path towards the formal garden, some distance from the house. This garden was designed on an open south-facing slope overlooking Rothbury and the farmland beyond.

Once the Covid-19 crisis has passed, and we have finally made the move north to Newcastle upon Tyne (assuming we can sell our house in Worcestershire), Steph and I look forward to re-visiting Cragside. And then, with any luck, I can add to my collection of photos with some interior images.


23 October 2020
Well, Steph and I moved to the northeast three weeks ago and, having already settled on a house to purchase (we are currently renting a small house towards the coast on the northeast side of Newcastle), we no longer have to spend time viewing prospective houses. More time for getting out and about.

So yesterday, with the weather boding fair (but with gales forecast for the next few days) we headed to Cragside and enjoy the autumn colors before the coming gales rip all the leaves from the trees.

Cragside is magnificent. The staff were doing a great job yesterday, checking everyone on to the site with our timed tickets (at 10:30 in our case), at the café for a welcome Americano, then around the house after we had toured the Rock and Formal Gardens.

We hadn’t expected the house to be open, and although fewer rooms were open yesterday than in 2011 when we first visited, National Trust policy regarding photography inside its properties has changed, and I was able to capture many of the details I was denied nine years back.

Here is a selection of garden photos, followed by some of the house interior. A full set of photos from yesterday and 2001 can be viewed here.

The rooms that were open included the billiard room, the main hall, gallery, the library, study, and the kitchen.

Then we decided to drive the six miles around the estate on the Carriage Drive. Check the settings on the video for video quality and speed (it’s possible to speed up and slow down).

Dunstanburgh Castle: a 14th-century fortification on the coast of Northumberland

Dominating the horizon on the coast of Northumberland, and overlooking the cold North Sea, Dunstanburgh Castle was built during the fourteenth century reign of infamous King Edward II by the king’s cousin, Earl Thomas of Lancaster between 1313 and 1322.

Approaching Dunstanburgh Castle along the coastal path from Craster.

The castle can only be reached on foot, about 1.5 miles north from Craster. The castle is owned by the National Trust, but the site is operated by English Heritage.

View of the great gatehouse over the southern mere.

Overlooking cliffs on one side, the castle had excellent natural defences, and occupied the site of an Iron Age fort.

Thomas of Lancaster was executed in 1322, and it passed eventually passed into the hands of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. It changed hands between Lancastrian and Yorkist forces during the Wars of the Roses, and suffered damage from which it never fully recovered. By the sixteenth century it was in an advanced state of decay.

Today, just a few of the towers are standing, particularly the entrance Great Gate with its twin towers. Also the curtain wall that surrounds the castle connecting with the cliffs.

It’s possible to climb some of the towers from which there are magnificent views over the surrounding Northumberland countryside.

Steph and I have visited the castle on a couple of occasions, the last being in May 2012. Parking in Craster, we enjoyed the coastal walk on a fine, bright but blustery day. The kittiwakes were nesting on the cliffs below the castle, and we spotted a weasel darting along a stone wall just above the tide line.

Then it was back to Craster for a pub lunch, and purchasing some of the renowned Craster kippers (smoked North Sea herrings).

 

 

Clent Hills – in the heart of the Midlands

The Clent Hills are a range of hills rising proudly to over 1000 feet (315 m) over the surrounding landscape less than 7 miles as the crow flies from our home in Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire. They are, as the National Trust states on its website, ‘a stunning countryside haven in the heart of the busy Midlands‘.

In the 39 years that we have lived in Bromsgrove (although we were abroad in the Philippines for 19 of those) we visited Clent Hill on just a handful of occasions, the last being at the end of July 2010, a couple of months after we retired back to the UK.

As you can see from the short video I put together, and the images I have included below, it was a rather overcast day. But the visibility was very good indeed, and we had great views southwest to the Malvern Hills, and even beyond (just) to the Black Mountains of South Wales. Then west into Shropshire, and coming round to the north looking over Stourbridge and on the the Black Country of the West Midlands conurbation.

Inspired by ants?

Emmetts Garden is a six acre garden, high on the 600 foot Ide Hill near Sevenoaks in Kent, overlooking the Weald, which Steph and visited in mid-May 2019 during our week-long vacation in East Sussex and Kent.

Before 1860, the site of Emmetts Garden was open farmland, after which a house was built. But it wasn’t until 1890 when Frederick Lubbock purchased the house and land that he set about designing and creating a garden on the site.

After Lubbock’s death in 1927 the estate was purchased by Charles Boise, who bequeathed Emmetts Garden to the National Trust in 1964. The house is not part of the National Trust property.

Frederick Lubbock and Charles Boise

Under Charles Boise’s care, Emmett’s Garden continued to flourish, as Boise kept on Lubbock’s gardener, Mr Taylor. But he did make several changes, filling in lakes (having worked in the Congo he had a morbid fear of malaria!), and extending the rockery.

When we visited the rockery was probably at its best, but the rose garden (one of the few formal features) had not reached its peak. The wild flower meadow was past its best. We also had a lovely walk through the more informal parts of the gardens leading down to the viewpoint over the Weald that you can see in the photo at the top of this post.

Here are some more photos taken around the garden.

The Rockery

The Rose Garden

The woodland paths

‘Selfie’ has just taken on a new meaning . . .

Self isolation—the new ‘selfie’! Social distancing. New words to add to our vocabularies. How our lives have changed in just two weeks.

These are indeed extraordinary times, unlike most of us have experienced in our lifetimes. And all due to the emergence in central China and subsequent pandemic spread of a previously unknown zoonotic coronavirus, now named SARS-CoV-2, that is causing an acute (and deadly for vulnerable individuals) respiratory infection, Covid-19. And while I am a biologist, this blog post is NOT about the virus and its biology. Rather, I’m focusing on some of the issues around and consequences of this pandemic.

I was born in 1948, three years after the end of World War II. I never personally experienced the horrors of that man-made conflict nor indeed any conflict. I find it offensive that politicians, some journalists, and others on social media make comparisons to a conflict that most were born after. I’m not the only one to feel this way. I just came across this opinion piece in yesterday’s The Guardian by Simon Tisdall.

I remember (just) the exigencies of rationing that continued for many years after the end of the war. Also, the difficulties endured during the petrol rationing of the 1956 Suez Crisis. Since then we have not experienced any serious rationing in the UK that I can recall.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic is on a different scale. It’s not that the total number of patients infected with the virus has yet come anywhere near the 1918 flu pandemic, for example. But this virus is new, it’s very infectious, and lethality apparently high. The worry is that without appropriate control, the pandemic will outrun the capacity of health services to provide care for those who suffer from an acute infection. Whole countries are closing down. And while some ‘draconian’ measures (including curfews) have been introduced in some countries, these have yet to be imposed in the UK. ‘Yet’ being the appropriate word.

Having seen the shortages of some products in the supermarkets such as rice and pasta, hand sanitizers, cleaning products, and, inexplicably, toilet paper, I do wonder when rationing across the board will become the norm. How this pandemic pans out, everyone will have to become accustomed to a changed world. I’ll return to that theme later on.


Cometh the hour, cometh the man . . .

Or woman for that matter.

[Disclaimer: My politics are center left. If I’d had the chance (I didn’t as I was working overseas), I would have voted for Tony Blair’s New Labour. So any criticism of politicians below is not aimed at them because of their right wing political stance (which is anathema to me), but simply because I do not believe they are the right people in this time of crisis.]

As President Franklin D Roosevelt famously said in his first inaugural address on 4 March 1933, ‘. . . the only thing we have to fear is . . . fear itself‘. It’s apt to remember this under the present circumstances. We fear the unknown. In times of crisis, everyone needs reassurance. And, as Simon Tisdall commented in his opinion piece that I referred to above, the war and wartime analogies only stoke fear.

Step up to the plate our political leaders. Or not, as the case may be.

It’s really unfortunate that in these trying times that the governments of both the UK and USA are led by insincere populists, men who are more concerned about their own image.

Sound-bite Boris Johnson (Take Back Control, Get Brexit Done) is resorting to the same sort of rhetoric in his daily Covid-19 briefings (with the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientist often standing either side) as he did during the Brexit campaign. Making claims he cannot substantiate, such as we’d defeat the disease in the next 12 weeks. Evidence? That doesn’t seem to matter to this charlatan, whose attention span and lack of interest are legendary. It doesn’t help that at critical points in any press conference and the like his body language betrays his insecurity. Such as rubbing his hand through his shaggy hair. Not the most reassuring action.

As a question from ITV correspondent Robert Peston unfolded just the other day at a No. 10 briefing, Johnson’s habitual smirk evaporated to be replaced by various degrees of alarm, bewilderment, fear even, and not the look of a Prime Minister at the top of his game. This is not what he expected after his December electoral victory giving him an insurmountable 80 seat majority, and the opportunity, he must have believed, to do just whatever his fancy lighted on.

Here is a damning opinion piece from The Guardian by Marina Hyde on 20 March, who writes ‘We are being asked to put our trust – our lives – in the hands of a man whose entire career, journalistic and political, has been built on a series of lies.’

It seems to me that the UK government has not developed a coherent Covid-19 communications strategy. Have a read of this 21 March piece from BuzzFeed about the behind-the-scenes debates, arguments even, between politicians and experts. At the beginning of the outbreak in the UK, Johnson used his press briefing to suggest, albeit perhaps by accident rather than design, that the old and vulnerable were ‘collateral damage’ during the epidemic. “It is going to spread further“, he said, “and I must level with you, I must level with the British public, many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” Yes, that’s indeed a strong possibility. But emanating from the mouth of a politician who is widely mistrusted, and who comes across as callous and self-centered, whatever issue he addresses, it was a communications disaster.

What a message to send out to an already fearful population. Read about that press conference here.

And this appeared in the Sunday Times today.

Dominic Cummings

If true, this is an appalling perspective from the Prime Minister’s Chief Adviser Dominic Cummings (whose credibility among a large swathe of the population has already taken a dive).

And, I’m afraid, Johnson’s often blustering delivery, and lack of clarity on issues that should be unambiguous (his classical references, his use of language that most never use or at the very least understand) have probably exacerbated a situation that was rapidly spiralling out of control.

Communications strategies should deliver straightforward messages in plain language. No ifs or buts. Johnson has catastrophically failed in this respect.

Take the issue of social distancing and whether pubs, clubs and other venues should remain open (until last Friday night when the government finally enforced closure). Clearly millennials (and men in particular) had heard the message that they would be less impacted by Covid-19. They ignored the social distancing advice. And it hasn’t helped that Tim Martin, CEO of pub chain Wetherspoons (arch-Brexiteer and now self-proclaimed ‘epidemiologist’ apparently) could see no reason for pubs to close and went public with his criticism of the decision.

But if I think that the situation is grave here in the UK, just take a look at what is happening on the other side of the Atlantic, a country without a public healthcare system that takes care of the sick, elderly and vulnerable, come what may. Given the behavior and responses of POTUS #45, Donald J Trump, it’s surely time to seriously consider invoking Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. Why he is still in power is the question asked in this article on the Slate website.

Here is a leader (a term I use very lightly indeed) who has ‘hunches’ or ‘feels good’ about the situation, ignoring facts, scientific advice and stating things that are palpably false, claiming originally that coronavirus was a hoax dreamed up by the Democrats, and then later stating, once the situation had deteriorated, that he knew all along that it was a pandemic. No change in behavior there. Every press briefing becomes a campaign opportunity. And when challenged, even by the simplest and most straightforward of questions, Trump’s reaction is unbelievable. Just watch him throw a tantrum and verbally attack a journalist a couple of days ago when asked how he would reassure the American people, following a comment from Trump recommending the use of chloroquine against the virus. Extraordinary!

And so, here is another piece from Rolling Stone (from 20 March) that Trump’s live briefings are a danger to public health.

And now, Trump is being hailed as a ‘wartime President’, hoping that it will boost his electability in November’s election — assuming that goes ahead as expected. For heaven’s sake! Just read this article from today’s The Guardian.

But if you want to see how any leader should behave, just take a look at this address to the people of Scotland by First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, on 20 March. What a contrast from Johnson and Trump. I’m no particular fan of Nicola Sturgeon, but she got this just right.


It’s interesting—but also concerning—to think what a changed world will look like. Already, a group of 34 ‘big thinkers’ have waxed lyrical on this very topic just a couple of days ago in the Politico Magazine online.

Just click this link to read their predictions.


At the beginning of this post I suggested that ‘selfie’ had taken on a new meaning: self isolation. Here’s me, taking a selfie while taking a selfie.

Steph and I are self isolating since we are in that elderly, over 70 demographic. But if the weather is fine (like earlier today) we have gone out for a walk. We need the fresh air. So we went along the Worcester and Birmingham Canal a few miles from home, and encountered only one or two other walkers while maintaining the necessary social distance.


I came across this the other day. Maybe our antipodean friends will soon be evolving some pandemic language variants.


Stay safe everyone. WASH YOUR HANDS – repeatedly, and thoroughly. Here’s the best demo I’ve yet seen on how to wash your hands properly, using black ink in place of soap to illustrate just how it should be done. Never mind that the commentary is in Spanish. That’s not needed.


 

Remembering an old friend: Bent Skovmand (1945-2007)

In preparation for a house move this year (that is increasingly likely to be delayed indefinitely until the Covid-19 crisis has passed), I’ve been working through dozens of envelopes of old photos, getting rid of those out of focus or we can’t determine when or where they were taken. I have come across quite a number from the years I spent working abroad, but before I went digital in the mid-noughties.

During the decade (1991-2001) that I had responsibility for the International Rice Genebank at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, as Head of the institute’s Genetic Resources Center, I met and collaborated with some remarkable colleagues among the genetic resources community of the international agricultural research centers supported through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

These specialists met annually as the Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources (ICWG-GR). But unlike other CGIAR inter-center working groups, all of the CGIAR centers were represented on the ICWG-GR, covering crops and their wild relatives, animals, forestry and agroforestry, aquatic resources, irrigation management, and food policy.

I attended my first meeting in January 1973, held at ILCA, the International Livestock Centre for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (that merged with the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases, ILRAD, in Nairobi in January 1995 to form the International Livestock Research Institute, ILRI).

The ICWG-GR at its meeting in Addis Ababa in January 1993. L-R: Brigitte L. Maass (CIAT), Geoff Hawtin (IPGRI), Ed Rege (ILCA/ILRI), Ali Golmirzaie (CIP), Jan Valkoun (ICARDA), ??, ??, Masa Iwanaga (IPGRI), Roger Rowe (CIMMYT), ?? (World Agroforestry), Melak Mengesha (ICRISAT), Mike Jackson (IRRI), Murthy Anishetty (FAO), Quat Ng (IITA), Jean Hanson (ILCA/ILRI), and Jan Engels (IPGRI).

I was elected Chair of the ICWG-GR at that Addis meeting, and remained in that role for the next three years, overseeing a major review of genetic resources roles of the centers that led to the launch of the System-wide Genetic Resources Program (SGRP) in 1994. The SGRP was active for around a couple of decades, but has now been replaced by the CGIAR Genebank Platform that . . . led by the Crop Trust, enables CGIAR genebanks to fulfill their legal obligation to conserve and make available accessions of crops and trees on behalf of the global community under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

Enjoying a break in discussions in Kenya when World Agroforestry hosted the ICWG-GR in 1998. Bent Skovmand is on the far left.

I don’t remember the details of all the ICWG-GR meetings and their dates, but after 1993 we met at ICARDA in Aleppo, Syria; CIP in Lima, Peru; IITA in Ibadan, Nigeria; IFPRI in Washington, DC; CIFOR in Bogor, Indonesia; World Agroforestry in Nairobi, Kenya; and at IPGRI in Rome on at least a couple of occasions. But not necessarily in that order.

These meetings were a great opportunity to catch up with old friends, besides discussing and setting in train some important policy decisions for the centers regarding the management of and access to the important germplasm collections conserved in their genebanks.

Among the many members of the ICWG-GR, there was one with whom I struck up a particular friendship. This was Dr Bent Skovmand (above), a Danish plant pathologist in charge of the wheat genebank at CIMMYT (the International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement) in Mexico.

Bent and me during the 1998 meeting of the ICWG-GR meeting held in Kenya.

I’m not sure why Bent and I hit it off so well. I think it was because we didn’t take ourselves too seriously. Perhaps it was our mutual love of beer!

Besides the ICWG-GR meetings, Bent and I would often meet at the annual conferences (usually in November) of the Crop Science Society of America (CSSA) held in different cities in the USA. Bent was a very active member in what was then the C8 Section of the Society, and what I think is now the Plant Preservation section or group.

Bent studied at the University of Minnesota in St Paul on the Minnesota Agricultural Student Trainee international exchange program, gaining a masters degree in 1973 and his PhD in 1976 (in plant pathology). He then joined CIMMYT and remained there for much of his career until 2003. Before heading the wheat genebank, he had also spent time with CIMMYT in Turkey.

In 2003 he was honored twice. First he received the Frank N Meyer Medal for Plant Genetic Resources from the CSSA. Then, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark awarded him the Knight’s Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog.

But, in some ways, these awards were bittersweet. CIMMYT restructured in 2003, and Bent was made redundant. Having spent so many years at a center that he loved, and based in Mexico (the home of his second wife Eugenia) it was a huge blow to have to leave. Not yet 60, he looked for other employment opportunities, and was soon appointed Director of the Nordic Gene Bank (NGB, now NordGen) in Alnarp, Sweden. In that position, he took a lead role in the establishment of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which opened its doors in February 2008.

Entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. (Courtesy of the Crop Trust).

Bent never got to see this event. Having been diagnosed with a brain tumor some months earlier and his health deteriorating rapidly, he passed away in February 2007.

There’s one particular memory I have of Bent. When in Rome together, he and I would try and eat, at least once, in the Taverna Cestia at the southern end of the Viale Aventino, near the Pyramid of Caius Cestius. Just inside the entrance, on a side-table, was a large meat slicer for carving prosciutto ham. It looked like it had been there for decades.

Every time we ate there, Bent would tell me: ‘I’m going to make them an offer for that slicer, one day.‘ He never did.

Sadly missed by his friends and colleagues in the genetic resources community, not just among the CGIAR centers, but more widely around the world, Bent left a strong and deservable legacy.


I found this obituary for Bent that was published on the website of The American Phytopathological Society (APS). But I have also downloaded it as a PDF file, accessible here.

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 26: A sojourn in Sri Lanka

I visited Sri Lanka just the once. However, I don’t even remember which year or month. Only that it was the early 1990s, probably around 1993 or 1994. That was when I was planning a major rice conservation project at IRRI, and I wanted to determine if or how any Sri Lankan organizations would participate. As it turned out, for reasons that I’ll explain in due course, Sri Lanka did not join the project.

The Sri Lankan genebank, The Plant Genetic Resources Centre (PGRC) is based in Kandy in the island nation’s Central Province, of which it is the capital. It lies amongst the hills of the central plateau. The hills surrounding Kandy are covered in tea plantations. And, in many ways, Kandy is a magical place to visit. The scenery is outstanding.

Although I don’t remember in which hotel I stayed, I do remember it was perched on the summit of one of the hills, with views in every direction, as you can see in the gallery above. In the stillness of the dawn, I woke each morning to the sounds of birds calling to each other across the valleys. What a wonderful start to the day.

Kandy is home to a magnificent botanical garden (the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya just west of the city) and one of Buddhism’s most sacred places of worship, the Temple of the Tooth or Sri Dalada Maligawa, is located in the city center.


The Plant Genetic Resources Centre was opened in 1990. Its construction was a donation from the Government of Japan in 1989. So when I visited it had been open for just a few years—and looked like it. But, unlike one or two other genebanks whose construction Japan had supported in other Asian countries, the staff at PGRC were certainly making the most of their expanded facilities to store seeds and tissue culture or in vitro conservation.

Once again I am unable to name most of the people I met at PGRC, with one exception: Mr CN Sandanayake, who was one of my MSc students at the University of Birmingham in 1986.

CN Sandanayake talks with one of his colleagues at PGRC.

And as you can see from one of the photos in the gallery above, everything stops for tea!

When I discussed participation in the IRRI-led rice biodiversity project, it was clear that Sri Lanka had already made significant progress to collect and conserve indigenous rice varieties and wild species. My former colleague at IRRI, Dr Duncan Vaughan had visited Sri Lanka in the 1980s to help with the collection of wild rices.

Furthermore, PGRC had a cadre of excellent technical staff, and as you can see from the photos, excellent facilities for germplasm conservation. And, given the ongoing civil war there were many no-go areas in the country, especially in the north and east. However, in Kandy, there was no tangible signs of the conflict.

I made a side trip, with Sandanayake, to the Rice Research & Development Institute at Batalagoda, some 50km north of Kandy. Here are a couple of photos I took on that journey.

There I met with MS Dhanapala, a rice breeder who had also come to Birmingham in the 1980s to attend short courses on plant genetic resources, and also spend some time in the Department of Genetics.

Sitting, L-R: Dhanapala, me, Sandanayake. I don’t remember the names of those standing.

Sri Lanka has had a very successful rice breeding program, and many of its varieties have been adopted throughout Asia, after being shared and trialled through INGER, the IRRI-led International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice, that I wrote about in 2015.


Now to return to Kandy tourism.

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Peradeniya cover almost 150 acres. There are wide open spaces to wander around, but also exquisite orchid houses to enjoy, with a multiplicity of species and varieties to take in.

As I mentioned, the Temple of the Tooth is a sacred shrine to Buddhists, and although not overrun with pilgrims during my visit was, nevertheless, quite busy.

One of the most impressive exhibits, in a side room, is a huge, stuffed elephant that died in 1988. This was Raja, a tusker who led ceremonial processions from the Temple for over 50 years.

All too soon my stay in Kandy was over, and I headed down to Colombo on the west coast to take my flight back to Singapore, and from there to the Philippines. It’s certainly a country I would like to return to.


 

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 25: Walking the Great Wall of China

During the nineteen years I spent in the Far East, I visited China just twice. The first time was in March 1995, and this post is all about that visit. It must have been in 2009 that I was in China again, for the annual meeting of the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) held in Beijing, just across the street from the famous Beijing National Stadium (aka Bird’s Nest) built for the 2008 Olympic Games.

However, back to 1995.

Dr Bao-Rong Lu

A year earlier I had recruited Dr Bao-Rong Lu (a Chinese national from the southwest Sichuan Province) to work in IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC) on the diversity of wild rice species. Bao-Rong had just completed his PhD in Sweden at the Swedish University of Agriculture under the supervision Professor Roland von Bothmer, studying the cytogenetics of wheat species, if memory serves me correctly. He had also spent some months working at the Institute of Botany, The Chinese Academy of Sciences (IB-CAS), in Beijing prior to joining IRRI.

With a major rice biodiversity project getting underway at IRRI in 1995, I decided that a visit to China with Bao-Rong was the appropriate moment to initiate some further contacts and possible collaboration. Our visit took in three cities: Beijing, Hangzhou (in Zhejiang Province west of Shanghai), and Guangzhou (Canton) in the south.

First stop was the IB-CAS where I met with the Director (whose name I cannot recall, unfortunately) and many of the staff.

With the Director of the Institute of Botany and staff. Bao-Rong is standing on my left, and the Director on my right.

I was invited to present a seminar about the International Rice Genebank at IRRI and its role in the global conservation of rice genetic resources.

There was also some time for sightseeing around Beijing, and this was my opportunity to tick off another item on my bucket list: walking on the Great Wall of China (at Mutianyu, about 45 miles north of Beijing).

As you can see from these photos, there were few visitors, unlike scenes I have seen in the media in recent years.

We also took a tour of the Forbidden City in Beijing, and a walk around Tiananmen Square. Again not crowded! In one of the photos you can see the Great Hall of the People behind Bao-Rong. During the CGIAR meeting in Beijing that I mentioned earlier, the official dinner (and entertainment) was hosted by the Chinese in the Great Hall. It’s massive!

The photos appear hazy, because it was. It was quite cold in Beijing in March, with a stiff northwesterly breeze blowing over the city, laden with dust from the far west of China. It felt like being sand-blasted.

We also visited some Ming era tombs near Beijing, but I’m unable to find any photos of that particular visit.

On one night the Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences hosted a small dinner in my honor. On another, Bao-Rong introduced me to the delights of spicy Sichuan cuisine. There was a Sichuan restaurant in our hotel where all the staff were from the province.

Trevor Williams

Later that same evening, as Bao-Rong and I were enjoying a beer in the bar overlooking the hotel reception, I saw someone who I recognised enter the dining room. I had to investigate. And, lo and behold, it was Trevor Williams who had supervised my MSc dissertation at the University of Birmingham in 1971. Around 1977, Trevor left Birmingham to become the first Director of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR – now Bioversity International) in Rome. In 1995 I hadn’t seen Trevor for about six years, and so we spent the rest of the evening catching up over rather too many beers. Having left IBPGR by then, he was in Beijing setting up an organization that would become INBAR, the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan with its headquarters in Beijing.

After a few days in Beijing, we headed south to the city of Hangzhou (inland from Shanghai on the Qiantang River) in Zhejiang province. We were there to visit the China National Rice Research Institute (CNRRI) and meet with its director Professor Ying Cunshan. Professor Ying participated in the rice biodiversity project as a member of the project Steering Committee. CNRRI is the home of China’s largest rice genebank, which was modelled (inadvisedly in my opinion) on the genebank at IRRI.

With Bao-Rong and Professor Ying outside the entrance to CNRRI.

Inside the genebank with Professor Ying.

After a couple of days in Hangzhou, we headed southwest to the city of Guangzhou (Canton) and I experienced one of the most nerve-wracking flights ever.

Much as I am fascinated by aviation in general, I’m somewhat of a nervous flyer. And in the mid-1990s Chinese airlines were only just beginning to modernise their fleets with Boeing and Airbus aircraft. Many were still flying Soviet-era Russian aircraft, like the Tupolev (probably a ‘154’) that was assigned to our flight. On that morning, flights out of Hangzhou were delayed due to fog, and at the same time Guangzhou was also fogged in. Over a period of a couple hours, other flights (of mainly new aircraft) did depart, leaving just the Tupolev on the apron for our flight. Eventually the flight was called and we made our way out to the aircraft. Looking around the cabin as I made my way to my seat, it crossed my mind that this aircraft had seen better days.

Anyway, we took off and headed for Guangzhou. Approaching that city after a flight of about 90 minutes, the captain informed us that fog was still hanging over the airport but he would continue the landing. Only to abort that just before touching down, and returning to Hangzhou! My nerves were on edge. After refuelling, and a further delay, we departed again. This time we did find a gap in the fog and landed. As we were on our final approach and seconds from touch-down, a female passenger immediately in front of me decided to get out of her seat to retrieve her hand luggage from the overhead bin. That was the final straw for me, and I shouted at her, in no uncertain terms, to sit the f*** down. Not my best moment, I admit.

In Guangzhou, our destination was the Guangzhou wild rice nursery and meet with the staff (again I don’t remember who precisely). I believe the nursery was managed through the Guangzhou Academy of Agricultural Sciences. As in Beijing, I gave another seminar here.

In a 2005 paper, Bao-Rong and others has written about wild rice conservation in China.


Completing our visit to Guangzhou, I took a flight into Hong Kong (maybe under 40 minutes) to connect with another back to Manila.

Although China did not participate directly in the rice biodiversity project since the country had already invested heavily in rice collection and conservation, Professor Ying Cunshan served on the Steering Committee for the 5-year life of the project. We felt that his experience, and recognition among other rice scientists, would be an invaluable addition to the team.

I have two particular reflections on this first trip to China. First, in crowded areas the Chinese had little ‘respect’ for personal space, and I often found myself checking my pace of walking as others crossed in front of me, seemingly oblivious of the fact that I was there. And it wasn’t just me, being a foreigner. It just seemed the normal thing to do.

Secondly, I realised that I am not a very adventurous eater. Some of the dishes I was presented with did not encourage my appetite. There was certainly a lack of synchronization between my stomach, eyes and brain. I did find Sichuanese cooking delicious, however. In Guangzhou, where many ‘exotic’ dishes were prepared, I got round any difficulties by explaining to my hosts, through Bao-Rong, that I was vegetarian. And those dishes were equally delicious.

Bao-Rong remained at IRRI for two contracts, a total of six years. After he left IRRI in 2000, he returned to China and it wasn’t long before he joined Fudan University in Shanghai. He is now Professor and Chairman of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Deputy Director of the Institute of Biodiversity Science. He currently serves as a Member of the Chinese National Biosafety Committee.


 

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 24: A Laotian experience

Laos or the Lao PDR (the Lao People’s Democratic Republic – actually a Unitary Marxist–Leninist one-party socialist republic) is one of the few landlocked countries in Asia. But it does have a connection to the sea, down the Mekong River where, through its mighty delta in Vietnam, it disgorges into the South China Sea. For a considerable length, the Mekong is the international border between Myanmar and Laos, and Thailand and Laos.

During the 19 years I spent in Asia (with the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines) I visited Laos more than any other country, probably a couple of times a year over a five to six year period. Why? Because it was a focal country for the major rice conservation project that I managed between 1995 and 2000, funded by the Swiss government.

The Swiss, through the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), also funded an in-country Lao-IRRI Program. So, as we were looking to strengthen the collection and conservation of indigenous rice varieties and wild rices in that country, it was a logical step to associate our rice biodiversity project administratively with the Lao-IRRI Project. The scientist who we hired for the Lao component of the project, Dr Seppana Appa Rao (originally from a sister center, ICRISAT, in Hyderabad, India) was based in the Lao capital Vientiane, and reported on a day-to-day basis to the leader of the Lao-IRRI Project, Australian agronomist Dr John Schiller (who passed away a couple of years ago).

Enjoying dinner with Appa Rao and John Schiller at John’s home in Vientiane.


In February 1997 I was joined on one of these visits to Laos by my wife Steph. IRRI had a generous travel policy. For every so many days a scientist was travelling outside the Philippines (but discounting the days of departure and arrival), his/her spouse or partner was entitled to one trip to a destination in Asia. So, we took advantage of that policy for a slightly extended visit to Laos (to take in some of the sights) as well as a weekend in Bangkok, through we had to transit in any case. A trip to Laos inevitably involved an overnight stop in Bangkok on both legs of the journey, taking a late flight out of Manila to Bangkok (about three hours) then the first flight on Thai Airways or Lao Aviation the next morning to Vientiane.

When I first visited Laos in 1995, the population of Vientiane was less than 400,000. It’s now reported at over 800,000. Back in the day it had the feel of a small town hugging the banks of the Mekong. But even then the traffic could become snarled at times. I wonder what it’s like nowadays? Looking at a satellite image the other day, the spread from the city center is clear. Even back in the 1990s, the city had begun to rapidly spread eastwards. The National Agricultural Research Center (NARC) of the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute (NAFRI) had its research station in this area, and where a rice genebank was constructed with financial support from the Swiss.


On this particular trip, Steph and I spent time with Appa and his Lao colleagues, Dr Chay Bounphanousay and Ms Kongphanh Kanyavong at the research center, looking at the genebank, field plots and various other facilities used to conserve the rice varieties collected throughout the country. This was also of interest for Steph as she originally trained in genetic resources, and has an MSc degree in genetic resources conservation  and use from the University of Birmingham (where we met in 1971/72).

L-R: Kongphanh Kanyavong, Appa Rao, and Chay Bounphanousay

We also visited a research site where wild rices were being monitored in a joint project with Japanese scientists. It was hoped that data from that project would inform the establishment of field or in situ conservation sites around the country.


Driving around Vientiane as tourists, we noted that two buildings dominate the skyline in the city center. The first, the Patuxai monument, is a huge war memorial that commemorates the struggle for independence from France. The other, a short distance away to the northeast, is Pha That Luang, a large, gold covered Buddhist stupa.

And after a hard day in the field, or touring the city and markets, what better way to end the day than a stroll along the banks of the Mekong.

That’s Thailand on the far bank.

On another day, Appa, his wife, Chay, and Kongphanh took us for a boat excursion round the Nam Ngum Reservoir, about 70 km north of Vientiane, and afterwards to the Lao Zoo nearby.


Steph and I were also invited to participate in a Baci Ceremony at John’s home, which involves the tying of white cotton strings around person’s wrists and the prayer saying or well wishing for the person that the ceremony is intended for. I had been to one of these ceremonies before, during my first visit to Laos. Another new IRRI staff member, agronomist Bruce Linquist and his family, were also welcomed to Laos at this particular ceremony.


But the tourist highlight of our visit was a weekend in Luang Prabang (a 40 min flight north of Vientiane), an ancient city standing on a peninsula at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan River.

In 1997 there were few tourists in the city besides ourselves. As we walked through the streets of the ‘old town’ the locals we passed would smile and say hello, and go on about their business. They paid no attention to us whatsoever. Luang Prabang has become a mecca for tourists from afar, and must be a very different place nowadays.

After checking into our hotel (I don’t remember which one—it was new and on the southwest of the city center), we set out to explore the sights.

First on our list was the sixteenth century Buddhist temple Wat Xieng Thong, or Temple of the Golden City, at the northern end of the peninsula. It is one of the most important shrines in the country.

The architecture is breathtaking, and as we wandered around the temple, there was a just a feeling of serenity.

Later in the day before sunset, we climbed 100m high Phousi Hill to enjoy the 360° panorama from the summit, looking north over the old town and the Nam Khan River.


I guess the highlight of our trip to Luang Prabang was the 25 km or so boat trip we took upstream along the Mekong to visit the shrines at the Pak Ou Caves, which are opposite the mouth of the Ou River as it flows into the Mekong.

As I already mentioned, Luang Prabang was very quiet, and we hired a river boat to ourselves. The journey took about two hours, during which we had the chance to take in, close-up, the majesty of the Mekong.

At the landing stage where we took our boat. You can see several of these boats behind Steph, looking north along the Mekong.

Approaching the landing stage at Pak-Ou, our boatman carefully positioned his boat so that we could disembark safely. While we were ashore, he turned the boat around ready for the return, but also a short diversion into the mouth of the Ou River.

There are two caves: Tham Ting is the lower; Tham Phum is the upper. Both are filled with hundreds if not thousands of Buddha sculptures.

We were the only visitors on this day, and had the site to ourselves. Nowadays, it’s rather different as this photo (copied from the website http://www.viajeasean.com) clearly shows.

After a late afternoon meal overlooking the Mekong back in Luang Prabang, our visit to this ancient city came to an end, and we flew back to Vientiane the following morning, and on to Bangkok.


 

It’s hard to be an optimist right now

I am an optimist by nature. But perhaps not to the same extent as these Monty Python characters from the 1979 film Life of Brian.

Mostly, my glass is half full. But, in recent months, and particularly over the past four weeks, my natural optimism has been severely challenged.

It has been a perfect storm, if you’ll excuse the pun, of bad news and events.

My faith in human nature took a serious dent on 12 December last year when Boris Johnson’s Conservatives (or Tories) won a thumping parliamentary majority, taking seats (mainly in the north of England) from Labour in constituencies that had either never voted Tory, or hadn’t for a generation or more. That was the signal for the Tory Brexiteers to push through the legislation on the EU Withdrawal Act and take us out of the EU on 31 January. Get Brexit Done! was the slogan. But we are just at the end of the beginning. And, it seems, Johnson has drawn so many hard red lines prior to new free trade negotiations that a No Deal Brexit at the end of this year seems evermore likely.

So what’s causing a drop in my spirits, apart from the obvious Brexit catastrophe?

The Prime Minister Boris Johnson

First of all, we now have a seemingly amoral Prime Minister in No 10 Downing Street in the shape of Boris Johnson—someone for whom I have utter contempt, as you will realise if you refer back to an earlier Brexit-related post I published in June last year.

But what tipped me over the edge from optimism to pessimism yesterday (1 March, the first day of meteorological Spring, when we should be thinking more positively) was the adulation in the Tory-supporting press over the news that Johnson and his fiancée Carrie Symonds (presumably his former mistress since he is/was still married to his second wife of 27 years) were expecting a baby later this year. Can you imagine, The Mail on Sunday published an ‘exclusive’ six page special? Could this really be more important news than anything else that’s going on right now? [1]

For weeks now, since the General Election, Johnson has been our ‘invisible Prime Minister’. And that at a time when the world faces a serious public health challenge in the form of Covid-19, which marches on inexorably it seems. Indeed, I just read an item in today’s The Guardian online reporting that a senior health official here in the UK has now stated that we must expect widespread infection with the coronavirus fairly soon. And yet, Johnson decided only a few days ago to call a meeting—today—of the COBRA committee to coordinate the government’s response to this threat.

Already there has been a calamitous impact on the financial markets, which plunged worldwide last week by 10-13%, marking the end of a sustained bull market, and threatening all our pension prospects.

Then, in the UK, we’ve had four consecutive weekends of storms, three of them named: Ciara, Dennis, and Jorge (the last named by the Spanish meteorological service). These storms come after significant amounts of rain at the end of 2019. February was the wettest month on record. On record! And many parts of the country have suffered catastrophic flooding. Just a few miles to the south and west of where I live in Worcestershire, the River Severn rose to unprecedented levels.

Where was Boris Johnson? Nowhere to be seen or heard. Nor letting any of his ministers appear on one of the BBC’s flagship newscasts, Radio 4’s Today to answer any questions. Outrageous! It’s also been reported today that No. 10 has forbidden Department of Health officials from attending an EU-coordination meeting to address the potential Covid-19 pandemic. So much for taking back control. “We’re doomed, doomed I tell ye“, as Private Frazer from Dad’s Army would have commented.

He’s presiding over a dysfunctional government, even though it was elected under three months ago. Just a fortnight ago, the Chancellor the Exchequer and MP for my local Bromsgrove constituency, Sajid Javid, resigned after being presented with reappointment terms he could not accept. Over this past weekend, the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office (Interior ministry), Sir Philip Rutnam resigned after accusing the Secretary of State, Priti Patel (#PritiAwful, #PritiPathetic) of appalling behaviour.

At the heart of government is the unelected Chief Adviser to the Prime Minister, the sinister Dominic Cummings (who made his name as an architect of the Leave campaign in the 2016 EU referendum). Unelected and unaccountable it seems!

On top of all these things, we have the climate change deniers. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison is a case in point. Not to mention POTUS45, Donald Trump. I said not to mention him!

And what depresses me more about that moron, each and every day, are not just the lies that he spews and the inanities that issue forth from his mouth, and his politicization of the coronavirus crisis, but the fact that he may well be re-elected for a further four-year term come the election in November. What has the US electorate brought on itself, and the rest of us for that matter?

I haven’t even got round to commenting on the escalating humanitarian crisis on the Turkey-Syria border, the conflict in Idlib Province in Syria, or what is happening currently on the border between Turkey and Greece.

No wonder my optimism levels are low. Having got these concerns off my chest, do I feel better? Not really.

Better go wash my hands . . . and you too.


[1] This point of view appeared in The Guardian (online) today (3 March 2020) and is completely in line with what I wrote in this blog post a day earlier.