Legacy of an empire

Not the British Empire. The Roman one!

Lasting for over 1000 years, from the time of the first Emperor Augustus (Gaius Julius Octavius, 63 BC – AD 14) in 27 BC, its physical legacy can be seen all over Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.

Julius Caesar

Eventually Britain (Britannia) came under the sway of the Romans. In 55 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) led an expeditionary force to this island, returning the following year. But that did not lead to conquest, taking almost another 100 years to complete, under the Emperor Claudius (Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, 10 BC – AD 54) in AD 43.

What is remarkable in many ways, is that the Roman occupation of Britannia lasted less than 400 years. By AD 410 they had upped sticks and departed.

Less than 60 years after the conquest of Britannia, the Romans built a road network of almost 8000 miles, and in AD 122, the Emperor Hadrian (Publius Aelius Hadrianus, AD 76-138) ordered the construction of a wall across the narrowest part of northern England, from the Solway Firth in the west to the North Sea coast in the east.

Twenty years later, under the Emperor Antoninus Pius (Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionus Arrius Antoninus, AD 86-161), the Antonine Wall was constructed from turf on a stone foundation, coast to coast, about 40 miles north from Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland. It was abandoned less than 10 years later.

Location of Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall

Hadrian’s Wall is surely one of the most conspicuous of all Roman remains, anywhere. It still stands proudly, although somewhat diminished, where once it guarded the most northwestern frontier of the empire against barbarians to the north. It was a remarkable achievement, and even today inspires wonder at the effort it took to construct the Wall over the wildest of landscapes.

And we can also wonder about the lives of the men (and women) who were stationed along the Wall and where they came from. It’s not just the physical legacy of the Wall (and other settlements around the country) but also the genetic legacy that the Romans left behind, in their offspring from relationships with local women, legitimate or otherwise. Romans didn’t just come from Rome, but from all corners of the empire even from the easternmost provinces of the Middle East and beyond. The ‘Roman’ genetic signature has obviously been diluted by successive waves of invasion into these islands.

The Romans have left a huge legacy for us all to wonder at. They were road builders par excellence. Roads were needed as the Romans spread out across the country, to maintain communications between towns and military garrisons, to allow troops to travel more effectively and rapidly, and to facilitate commerce. And their roads have endured even today, and some of England’s principal arteries follow the routes of former Roman roads, and are known, in part, by the same names.

I recently came across this stylized map (in the format of the iconic map of the London Underground created by Harry Beck) of the Roman road network that connected towns and cities, and military installations all over.

The author of the map, Sasha Trubetskoy, has also produced a second version with modern place names.

Even today, Roman roads are still being uncovered. There was a report recently in The Guardian of a road in west Wales that indicated the Romans had ventured deeper into Wales than previously appreciated.

As far as I can recall, the only Roman road I have walked was the Wheeldale Roman road on the North York Moors near Goathland. The exposed part is only about a mile long. The first time was in 1968 when I was at university, and then about 20 years later with my wife Steph and daughters Hannah and Philippa.

We now live in North Tyneside, just 3 miles north as the crow flies from Segedunum, the fort at the the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall. And with Hadrian’s Wall and other Roman remains so close, we have made quite a number of forays into the Northumberland countryside to explore them.

It’s quite remarkable just how much of Hadrian’s Wall remains, after 2000 years, despite much of the stone having been removed.

Hadrian’s Wall at Sycamore Gap.

The Wall was much higher than remains today, and the Mileposts and Turrets (or observation towers) have been reduced to shells of their former imposing structures.

Milepost 39 near Sycamore Gap.

However, further west beyond Birdoswald, where the Wall was built from turf, the signature of the Wall can still be seen as depressions in the landscape.

Even at forts like Chesters, Housesteads or Birdoswald, Corbridge Roman Town or Vindolanda in Northumberland, extensive as they are, it’s really just the foundations that have survived.

This is a panorama across Corbridge Roman Town.

At Wroxeter, in Shropshire, one part of a basilica wall still stands, and at Portchester the impressive outer curtain wall of the original Roman fort is still intact, 20 feet or more tall. Typical Roman concrete, just like I have seen in Rome itself.

The surviving 7 m high basilica wall (‘Old Work’) at Wroxeter, the largest free-standing wall in England.

The Roman walls of Portschester Castle.

And then there are the civil remains like Fishbourne Roman Palace near Chichester in West Sussex (that I haven’t visited) and Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire that we have.

And Roman remains are still being uncovered all over England. Not only hoards of coins, but also a beautiful mosaic that was discovered in a farmer’s field in eastern England a couple of years ago, with images of Homer’s Iliad, a unique find. Roman archaeology is thriving.

Then there are all the various artefacts, from jewelry to household items, monuments and statues that were left behind that allow us to paint a detailed picture of life in Roman Britain. Here are some kept in the museums at Corbridge Roman Town and Chesters Roman Fort.

And, in particular, the Vindolanda Tablets, the oldest surviving handwritten documents in this country, have provided a commentary of the lives of soldiers and their families.

The world-famous Vindolanda Tablets

These are some of the most important relics from the period of Roman occupation. And these, and other sites and remains from that time will keep archaeologists busy for years to come.


 

A baker’s dozen . . . and a close encounter of the most extraordinary kind!

A baker’s dozen¹. That’s how many National Trust (NT) and English Heritage (EH) properties—spanning more than 4500 years of history—Steph and I visited recently during the course of a 10-day and 1337 mile holiday in the south of England. We stayed at a cottage in the New Forest, near the village of Beaulieu in Hampshire, almost 300 miles due south (as the crow flies) from where we live in North Tyneside, near Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England, but almost 380 miles by road.

At the end of this piece I’ll also tell you all about that extraordinary close encounter that occurred on the last day.


We took two days each way, stopping off in Banbury, Oxfordshire on the way south, and Leek, in North Staffordshire (and my ‘home town’) returning north. And on each of these four days we visited one NT or EH property, and the other nine during six days in Hampshire. The round trip took in 19 non-metropolitan and metropolitan counties². And over the course of our break we managed to walk, on average, more than four miles each day.

Click on the map below to view the NT and EH icons for each of the 13 properties.

In this post I’ve made little attempt to provide a comprehensive description of each property. Rather I have selected a few highlights that caught my attention. But there are links to National Trust or English Heritage and other sites for each property where you can find much more detail. I have however included links to the photo albums I have created to display the many photos I took during this trip.


Nostell (photo album)
Looking for somewhere to visit, about half the distant to Banbury on the first day, I came across Nostell in the National Trust handbook. Located in West Yorkshire, a few miles south of the M62 (roughly between and south of Wakefield and Pontefract)  it was a convenient spot to break our journey after 110 miles on the road.

And we weren’t disappointed.

Dating from the 1730s, it was built, in Palladian style, for the Winn family who continued to live there until the property and contents were given to the National Trust in 1953.

Nostell is renowned for several treasures: an impressive doll’s house made for Susanna Winn and her sister in the 1730s; a fine collection of oil paintings including one by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, and a copy of a Holbein of the family of Sir Thomas Moore; and perhaps one of the finest collections of furniture designed and made by Thomas Chippendale.

The Nostell collection also includes a wooden clock, made in 1717, by John Harrison, the clock-making genius who made the world’s first marine chronometer.

We enjoyed a walk through the park (which covers more than 300 acres), around the lake and in the walled garden which had a stunning display of tulips.

Leaving Nostell by mid-afternoon, we headed south on the M1, M42, and M40 motorways to arrive at our Premier Inn for the night in Banbury, a distance of 142 miles.


Basildon Park (photo album)
After a satisfying Premier Inn full English breakfast (highly recommended!), we set off south again, covering the 53 miles in under 1½ hours, and crossing the lovely landscape of the Berkshire Downs close to Basildon Park which overlooks the River Thames near Pangbourne, west of Reading.

Basildon Park has had an interesting history. Built in the Palladian style and decorated inside by Robert Adam, between 1776 and 1783, it served as a convalescent hospital during WW1, a barracks for a US airborne division in WW2, and fell into disrepair thereafter. It was rescued by Lord and Lady Iliffe, who gave the property and estate to the National Trust in 1978.

Among the most impressive are the dining room, the octagonal room, and the extraordinary shell room. Much of the house has a homely feel, and apparently the Iliffe’s stipulated that each room should be displayed as though the family were still living there.

We also enjoyed a walk around the park of almost 5 miles, and came across the most wonderful display of bluebells I think I have ever seen. Unfortunately, the disease ‘ash dieback‘ has taken hold quite seriously across the estate.

Then we headed back to the A34 and south to the New Forest, and our ‘home’ for the next six nights.


The Vyne (photo album)
This is located in the north of Hampshire, a round trip of almost 120 miles from our accommodation near Beaulieu.

The Vyne, on the edge of Sherborne St John, is a Tudor mansion built for William, 1st Baron Sandys who was Lord Chamberlain to Henry VIII. At the time of the English Civil Wars in the 1640s, the Sandys family found themselves on the wrong, Royalist, side of the conflict, and they lost The Vyne which passed to the Chute (or Chewt) family. And there it remained until bequeathed to the National Trust in 1956.

The classical portico on the northwest face was added in 1654 by John Webb, a pupil of Inigo Jones.

Among the treasures of The Vyne are the Palladian staircase, in a classical Greek style added in the mid-18th century, the Oak Gallery (the most significant surviving Tudor room in the house), the Soho tapestries woven in the first two decades of the 18th century (and which had just been returned to The Vyne after years of conservation work), and the chapel, unchanged from its original Catholic origins, i.e. pre-Reformation.

Henry VIII visited The Vyne on several occasions with his first two wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. All around the house Catherine’s pomegranate motif can be seen on many carvings.

There are good walking opportunities at The Vyne taking in the gardens, lake, woodland, and wetlands. We covered just over 3½ miles.

Sandham Memorial Chapel (photo album)
That same afternoon we traveled west from The Vyne to the village of Burghclere, about 17 miles, to view the Sandham Memorial Chapel.

Externally, the chapel, constructed in the 1920s, is nothing particularly special to look at. It was commissioned as a memorial to Mary Behrend’s brother, Lieutenant Henry Willoughby Sandham who died from an illness contracted in WW1.

Inside, however, is something quite altogether different. The walls are covered in a series of frescoes painted by the English artist, Sir Stanley Spencer, that were inspired by his own experiences during the war. The paintings took him six years to complete between 1926 and 1932.

These next images are courtesy of the National Trust.


South Harting (West Sussex), Harting Down, and Uppark House and Garden (photo album)
On the Saturday we made the first of two forays into West Sussex, aiming for the village of South Harting, just east of Petersfield. Why? Well, there are two National Trust properties close by: Harting Down on the rolling chalk hills of the South Downs National Park; and Uppark House and garden. But, more importantly, South Harting is where some of Steph’s Legg ancestors come from. Her grandfather, Sidney Legg, was born there in 1893, and her mother Myrtle spent some years as a child living with her grandmother in ‘Rose Cottage, which we searched for but were unable to find.

Sidney’s father, Frederick (Steph’s great-grandfather, born 1858) was a gamekeeper, and it’s highly likely that he was the gamekeeper, or one of a group, working on the Uppark estate.

We drove up on to Harting Down, affording great views over the surrounding countryside, down into South Harting, enjoying a picnic lunch then driving on to Uppark, just a couple of miles further on.

Uppark is a late 17th century perched on the top of the down with marvellous views to the coast and even as far as The Solent and the Isle of Wight to the west on a clear day.

Only the ground floor and basement are open to the public. The Featherstonehaugh family that purchased the house in 1747 still has interest in upper floor apartments. No photography is permitted in the ground floor rooms. There are some real treasures there. But all was nearly lost in 1989 when a fire ravaged the building and destroying the upper floors. Much on the ground floor was rescued, however, and is on display today.

The dairy was not open during our visit, but the game larder (presumably where Steph’s great-grandfather spent much time) is now the tea room, and is (like the dairy) connected to the main house by a tunnel.

Another exquisite dolls’ house is on display in the basement, an equal of the one we saw at Nostell a few days before. These two dolls’ houses are certainly among the priceless treasures of the National Trust.


On the Sunday, we decided to make an easier day of it after so many days previously on the road, and spent time along the coast nearby at Lepe Country Park (with great views across to the Isle of Wight), and at King’s Hat and Hatchet Pond in the New Forest.


Mottisfont (photo album)
Mottisfont is an interesting house which shows its historical colors in different aspects of its architecture. It had been an Augustinian priory before the Reformation, and afterwards was given by Henry VIII to his Lord Chamberlain, Sir William Sandys (who we heard about at The Vyne).

It stands beside the River Test, a quintessential chalk stream full of trout, near Romsey, and west from Winchester.

It was during the 1930s that Mottisfont took its final turn, so to speak, with the arrival of Maud and Gilbert Russell, who completely refurbished the building, remodeling it in parts and exposing its medieval origins in some rooms. It came into the hands of the National Trust in 1957.

I suppose the pièce de résistance must be the Whistler Room, painted by renowned artist Rex Whistler over a period of several years. But not completed by the time he went to war (and was killed) in 1939. We’d seen work of his (much more vibrant) at Plas Newydd in Anglesey in 2017.

Hinton Ampner (photo album)
Overlooking the Hampshire countryside a few miles east of Winchester, Hinton Ampner is essentially a ‘modern’ house rebuilt from the charred ruins of a much older one that stood on the site until it was severely damaged by fire in 1960. It was originally a Georgian mansion built in 1793, remodeled  in the late Victorian period, and by 1936 had been ‘restored’ to its Georgian appearance by its last owner, Ralph Dutton, 8th Baron Sherborne. With no heirs, Hinton Ampner was bequeathed to the National Trust on his death in 1985.

There is a glorious view from the terrace.


Petworth House and Park (photo album)
Petworth, in West Sussex, is one of the National Trust’s jewels, and must also be one of its most-visited properties, conveniently located to London (about 52 miles southwest towards the coast).

For us it was 130 mile round-trip from our New Forest accommodation. But it was worth it, given the treasures on display and the extensive park and gardens to enjoy.

It’s a late 17th century house that underwent alterations in the 1870s.

But it’s perhaps best known for the treasures accumulated by George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont (1751-1837): paintings by Titian, Van Dyck, and many by Turner who was a frequent visitor to Petworth and on display today for everyone to enjoy, many in the Somerset Room. In fact, Petworth has one of the National Trust’s most extensive and, I guess, valuable collections. In the North Gallery there is also a large collection of ancient Greek and Roman marbles, as well as several that were contemporaneous with Wyndham’s occupancy of Petworth. I found that gallery rather overwhelming.

After our visit, I posted a tweet about the visit, and someone from the National Trust replied, asking which aspect had impressed me most. Not fair! There really is a cornucopia of artistic delights. But while the Somerset Room and its oils is predictably impressive, there are two other parts of the house which caught my attention.

First is the Grand Staircase, perhaps one of the best examples I have ever had chance to appreciate.

Then there is the Carved Room, with a large portrait of Henry VIII taking center stage, but surrounded throughout the room by wall carvings by the master craftsman, Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721). We had first appreciated his work at Sudbury Hall when we visited in 2017.


Portchester Castle (photo album)
On our last day in the south, we decided to venture much closer to home, as it were, taking in two English Heritage properties on the east side of Southampton.

At the head of Portsmouth Harbor, Portchester Castle has stood guard since the Romans erected the first walls between AD 285 and 290. In the post-Roman era it was occupied by the Saxons, but it came into its own after the Norman conquest of 1066, when a fortified keep was erected in the northwest corner of this extensive walled enclosure.

In the subsequent centuries it underwent extensive modifications under kings such as Richard II. In the 18th century it became a prison for French prisoners from the Caribbean captured during one of the interminable conflicts with France.

English Heritage has opened many parts of the keep, even with access to the roof from where there is a panoramic view over the castle and the harbor, all the way to the naval base (where both of the UK’s aircraft carriers were currently docked).

Netley Abbey (photo album)
This is the most complete surviving Cistercian monastery in southern England, under four miles east from Southampton city center. I was quite surprised how much of the monastery is still standing. During the 16th century Reformation it was seized by the crown and parts were added to or converted to a residence. Some of those Tudor influences can be seen in some of the windows.


Stonehenge (photo album)
Just under 40 miles northwest from our New Forest accommodation, the ancient monument of Stonehenge still stands proudly overlooking Salisbury Plain after more than 4500 years.

The stone circle was constructed from huge sarsen sandstone blocks that were strewn over the chalk landscape after the last Ice Age, which were also used to create other stone circles like Avebury that we visited in 2016. Unlike Avebury however, the stones at Stonehenge were dressed. What is also remarkable about Stonehenge is the presence of the so-called bluestones that were quarried in the Preseli Hills of Pembrokeshire, some 140 miles to the west. How they were transported to Stonehenge, and more importantly perhaps, why they were even chosen is somewhat of a mystery to this day, even though Stonehenge and the surrounding landscape has undergone extensive archaeological research. Much more is known, but there are still issues to be uncovered.

Stonehenge is a World Heritage Site, receiving more than 1 million visitors a year. It wasn’t too busy during our visit, and I was able cleverly to use the stones themselves to block any ‘rogue’ tourists in my photos. Take a look at the album.

The line of midsummer sunrise and sunset.

This was my second visit to Stonehenge, after more than 60 years! Returning from a caravan holiday in the New Forest with my parents and elder brother Edgar, we stopped off at Stonehenge. Back in the day, complete and close-up access to the stones was permitted. No longer; they are behind a rope, but you can get as close as 5 meters, unless you subscribe to a sunset or sunrise special tour limited to about 20 persons.

From Stonehenge, we headed north towards Swindon, crossing the M4 and traversing the Cotswolds, and arriving at Birdlip Hill (with its panoramic view over the valley of the River Severn) for a late picnic lunch.

From there we headed north to Leek as I mentioned earlier for our final night away.


Quarry Bank (photo album)
After a pleasant overnight stay in Leek (and an early morning stroll around the center of the town when we bought a dozen oatcakes), we continued our journey north, just 25 miles to Quarry Bank on the outskirts of  Wilmslow and south of Manchester, where the National Trust cares for one of the most important relics of the Industrial Revolution, a cotton mill where machinery to spin and weave cotton can still be seen in action.

Built in the 1780s by Samuel Greg, who came to England at the age of 15 from Belfast in Northern Ireland, he chose the site for his mill along the banks of the River Bollin in a steep-sided valley, where the power of the river could be harnessed to turn the machines in the mill.

At nearby Styal, Greg built a small community of cottages for his workers. Greg and his wife were Unitarians. Even so, their ‘philanthropy’ smacks of a form of slavery since workers were tied to the mill though their housing and where they could spend their wages to buy food in the company shop.

The grounds (woods and gardens) are extensive and we must have walked almost 5 miles around the estate and mill. What was a little disconcerting to discover was the main runway for Manchester Airport just a short distance behind the trees at Styal, and to watch large jets gather speed as they lumbered into the air.

Inside the mill there’s much to observe. With just one or two of the looms in action, the noise was deafening. You can just imagine what a whole floor of these machines must have sounded like, how it affected the workers’ hearing, and what other accidents occurred as workers, even children worked around and under the machines and all their moving parts.

Anyway, our interesting visit to Quarry Bank was over all too soon, and we hit the road again to take us on the next and last stage of our journey (some ) north to Newcastle and home.

We covered a lot in miles, years, art, and culture. It was a great break, and nice to be able to get away, even for a short while, as the pandemic restrictions are eased.


The close encounter
Steph and I had completed our walk around the woods and gardens at Quarry Bank, and were making our way to the mill entrance over the bridge through a gate.

I was vaguely aware of another couple with a spaniel as we passed through the gate. And immediately afterwards, someone behind me—the man—called my name. Momentarily confused, I turned around but didn’t recognize him or his wife.

‘It’s Alan Brennan’, he said. And with that you could have knocked me down with a feather. I hadn’t seen him in 63 years! Let me explain.

I was born in Congleton in November 1948; Alan a year later in December 1949. We lived a few doors apart on Moody Street and were best friends. My family moved to Leek in April 1956, and I lost touch with Alan, although he has since reminded me that we did meet up in Congleton in May 1959 when I came over from Leek to take part in a village fête at Mossley just outside the town.

Here we are Coronation Day in June 1953. I’m on the extreme right, Alan on the left.

And from the late 1950s until the other day, we had never met since. After Steph and I visited Congleton in September 2013, Alan came across that blog post and got in touch by email. It was from my blog photos that he recognized me as our paths crossed at Quarry Bank.

What were the chances of that happening? I’m sure a clever mathematician could devise some formula or other. But it must be millions to one that we’d be in the same place at the same time after more than 60 years.

Me and Alan – after 63 years!

Steph, me, Alan, and Lyn

Unfortunately we couldn’t stay chatting for too long since Alan and Lyn were coming to the end of their visit to Quarry Bank, and we had to complete our tour of the mill. We also needed to get on the road before the afternoon traffic build-up around Manchester. After all, we still had almost 170 miles to cover, and as it turned out, a slower journey due to hold-ups on the motorway.

Meeting Alan and Lyn was undoubtedly the icing on the cake as far as our holiday was concerned. Certainly a close encounter of the most extraordinary kind!


¹ A baker’s dozen, i.e., a group of 13. A dozen plus one, from the former practice among bakers and other tradespeople of giving 13 items to the dozen as a safeguard against penalties for short weights and measures.

² Starting in North Tyneside (Tyne & Wear) where we now live, we traveled south through County Durham, North Yorkshire. West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Warwickshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Hampshire, West Sussex, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, West Midlands, Staffordshire, Cheshire, and Greater Manchester.

 

What a transatlantic coincidence . . .

I never was a Led Zeppelin fan, Stairway to Heaven and all that.

Led Zeppelin formed when I was an undergraduate student in 1968, and were probably at their height of fame during the 1970s when I was away in South and Central America. The band just didn’t figure on my musical radar. And by the time I returned to the UK in 1981, Led Zeppelin were no longer active. Of course I knew about them, but their music, (whatever genre it was, heavy metal or not) never found favor with me.

I knew all about lead singer Robert Plant, long mane of blond hair, bare chest and the like. I never paid much attention to his ability as a vocalist. Until October 2007 that is.

In an extraordinary collaboration, Plant teamed up with multi-Grammy Award winner bluegrass singer and musician Alison Krauss, releasing Raising Sand to wide acclaim.

I’d first encountered the music of Alison Krauss around 2008 when I was on home leave that year, and later wrote about her and Union Station in 2012 (one of the first posts I wrote). But I’d not come across Raising Sand then. It wasn’t until I retired and returned to the UK that I first came across that album. And in the intervening years, it has become a firm favorite. The second track, Killing the Blues,  is my favorite track, and here are Plant and Krauss performing on the BBC show, Later . . . with Jools Holland.

Now, fourteen years later, they have renewed their distinctive collaboration with the release of Raising the Roof in November 2021. Both albums were produced by T Bone Burnett.

This album was a present from my wife last Christmas. I’m still working through it, and not certain yet which is my favorite track. Nevertheless, Raising the Roof is as good as Raising Sand, and has also been widely praised. The fifth track, Searching for my Love, is a perfect vehicle for Plant’s vocals.

The ninth track, Last Kind Words Blues is a good example of how Krauss and Plant cross genres. It was written and originally recorded by country blues singer Geeshie Wiley in 1930.


Yesterday, I’d come across an iPod Nano that I had misplaced for more than a year. I normally use that iPod in the car, so decided to copy Raising the Roof on to it (and another iPod Classic).

It was mid-afternoon, almost 15:30. I was sitting in the living room, reading one of Ann Cleeves’ Shetland series novels, and listening to Raising the Roof. My cellphone was on charge across the room, but I did hear the distinctive ping of a WhatsApp message but didn’t immediately bother to check it out.

It was from my elder daughter Hannah who lives in St Paul, Minnesota. It would have been almost 09:30 over there. Sitting at her desk (working from home for the past two years during the Covid pandemic) she had been listening to public radio, and heard an item about Raising the Roof.

As you can see from my reply, it was quite a coincidence that I should be listening to that album (probably the eleventh track Going Where the Lonely Go) at the very moment she sent me the message.


 

Collecting potatoes in Peru – following in Jack Hawkes’ footsteps (Part 2)

A year after returning from collecting in Ancash and La Libertad (as described in Part 1) I was heading north once again, this time to the Department of Cajamarca. In a long wheelbase Land Rover, a donation from the British government to CIP. But alone this time, almost. By May 1974 I was already quite fluent in Spanish, and had done more travelling around the country. It was assumed therefore I could look after myself, so we decided I should travel with just one of the CIP drivers, Octavio. I regret I cannot recall his surname.

Just about to head out (May 1974)

Parked on the side of the Panamericana Norte highway north of Lima

Cajamarca is also the capital city of the department, and is one of my favorite places in Peru. At 2700 m elevation, the city lies in a broad valley among rolling hills. The landscape of Cajamarca has a much gentler feel to it than the high peaks of Ancash or further south around Cuzco, or the altiplano surrounding Puno.

We must have split the journey to Cajamarca city. It’s almost 900 km and even today, on better roads, the journey is estimated to take more than 14 hours. North of the coastal city of Trujillo, the road to Cajamarca diverges east from the Panamericana Norte, winding through a lush river valley in the desert, and climbing into the mountains. Dropping down the other side, you eventually are treated to views of the city unfolding in the distance. The climate is spring-like, the food is good (the leche asada or caramel custard is a local treat), and the architecture of the (unfinished) cathedral on the main square of Plaza de Armas is a wonder.

We spent around three weeks travelling to remote areas, but were able to return from time to time to Cajamarca to enjoy the comforts of the Turista Hotel, and the Inca baths and their hot springs.

As with our collecting the previous year, we stopped to chat with farmers, ask about the varieties they and their neighbors cultivated, and requesting a sample of healthy tubers of each variety.

The market town of Bambamarca, 100 km or so north of Cajamarca was particularly interesting. It was a colorful, vibrant scene with many wearing their typical tall sombreros and russet-red ponchos, typical of Cajamarca.

On one day we stopped to chat with one farmer and his wife who became very interested why we were collecting potato varieties, and what we would do with them once back in Lima. They were so pleased to show me this particular variety with its large tubers. It’s one of my favorite images from my time in Peru.

There was even a little time for some sightseeing. Just 10 km northeast from the Plaza de Armas in Cajamarca stands an unusual archaeological site, the Ventanillas de Otuzco, a pre-Inca necropolis with more than 300 niches carved in the rock face. We even found wild tomatoes growing there.

If I have one abiding image of Cajamarca—city and landscape—it would be this one. Having eaten an early breakfast, Octavio and I headed north from the city, climbing above the valley. We stopped almost at the summit so I could take this photo of the Cajamarca valley. If you look carefully you can see the steam rising from the Inca baths in the distance.

Octavio and I got along quite well. He’d never traveled to that part of Peru before and, as a driver from the big city, had very little knowledge of potatoes. We had just the one falling-out, if you can call it that. He would insist in driving downhill along quite treacherous roads in high gear, or even in neutral, relying solely on the brakes alone to control our speed. I had to insist he use low gear to slow the vehicle or he wouldn’t be driving any more until we reached the coast and the Panamerican highway. Anyway, we arrived back in Lima after an incident-free trip.

Later on that year, I returned to Cajamarca with my wife Steph and two English friends from CIP. Again in 1988, as a member of a CIP project review team, I spent a few days in the city and surrounding countryside looking at seed production and storage systems.


When I visited CIP in 2016 as part of a review of the genebank, the staff showed me some herbarium sheets from some of the varieties I had collected on that trip to Cajamarca.


Earlier in 1974, in February, I traveled to Puno and Cuzco in the south of the country with Dr Peter Gibbs from the University of St Andrews, Scotland. He was studying the floral biology of another Andean tuber crop known as oca (Oxalis tuberosa). He had contacted CIP’s Director General to see if anyone might be headed south for fieldwork with whom he could travel.

I’d already decided to carry out some field studies of potato varietal mixtures and was looking for suitable locations. Peter suggested that we might head to Cuyo Cuyo, a municipality just under 250 km northeast of Puno and Lake Titicaca. Famous for its agricultural terraces or andenes, there had been one study in 1951 describing the cultivation of oca in the valley. Peter convinced me that it was worth heading in that direction. Which is precisely what we did.

On this trip we drove a short wheelbase Land Rover, another donation to CIP from the British government. It had a separate cab; the rear was covered with a canvas hood, not the most secure vehicle for venturing into remote parts.

Heading south down the Panamericana Sur, we had a road trip of almost 1300 km ahead of us. I know we stopped in Nazca on the first night, after driving 447 km. From there to Arequipa was another 568 km, and the final leg into Puno was 295 km. I think we must have made it to Arequipa on the second day, resting up before the climb to the altiplano on the third day.

In Puno, we rested for a couple of days, checking our gear, and meeting with some officials from the Ministry of Agriculture for further advice before setting off for Cuyo Cuyo. Peter had developed a taste for algarrobina, a popular Peruvian cocktail, a bit like egg-nog, but with a kick, especially after one too many. We weren’t in the best shape to head off across the altiplano the next day.

Each time I crossed the altiplano it was hard to understand just how people managed to survive in such a harsh environment: flat, cold, and often over 4000 m. Yet we passed farms, growing the bitter and frost-resistant potatoes that are processed to make chuño as well as herding llamas and alpacas. Crossing several rivers, we finally reached the head of the Cuyo Cuyo valley and, descending into the cloud, encountered workmen struggling to clear a landslide. However that gave an opportunity for some impromptu botany, finding a beautiful begonia with flowers as large as saucers.

Once clear of the landslide, and out of the cloud, the most amazing vista opened up before us. The whole valley was terraced and, as we learned over the next few days, supported a rotation system involving potatoes, oca, barley and faba beans (both imported by the Spanish in the 16th century), and a fallow.

Arriving in the village it was important to find somewhere to stay. We hadn’t thought to make any enquiries before setting out for Cuyo Cuyo. There was no hotel, but the postmaster offered us space to set up our camp beds and herbarium drying equipment, and there we stayed for about five days. We were certainly a curiosity with the village children.

Peter set about collecting samples of oca with different floral structures for his study, and to make herbarium specimens to take back to St Andrews. At the time of our visit many of the oca fields were planted in the lower levels of the valley often close to the river. I set off on my own, guided by a local farmer, to potato terraces higher up the valley to study the varietal mixtures and to learn more about the agricultural system. That study was finally published in the journal Euphytica in 1980 and can be read here.

Peter’s oca samples were the devil to dry because of their fleshy stems. When he finally made it back to St Andrews a couple of months later, he found that his ‘dry’ specimens were still alive. So he planted them in a university glasshouse, and had the best of both worlds being able to continue his study with living plants.

Leaving Cuyo Cuyo, we headed back to Puno staying one night there before setting off for Cuzco some 385 km to the northwest.

I was interested in locating another site for study, and we settled on a community near Chinchero outside Cuzco. We hired horses to reach remote fields, and there I collected flower buds (for chromosome counts) from several fields.

It was interesting to find large commercial cultivation of potatoes (for sale in markets like Cuzco) alongside smaller plots of native varieties that farmers grew for home consumption. As I was collecting samples from one field, two women stopped close-by and one of them crouched down to feed her baby. Both were dressed in the typical costume of that region.

Soon we had all the information we thought we needed (in hindsight I would have done things very differently, and at Cuyo Cuyo), and headed back to Cuzco where we left the vehicle to be collected by Zósimo Huamán who was heading south for his own field studies, and who would drive it back to Lima.

While we in Cuzco, we visited the home of Professor César Vargas, a renowned Peruvian botanist, who I had first met in January 1973 when Jack Hawkes introduced me to him. Jack first met Vargas when he was working in Colombia between 1948 and 1951. Also, Vargas’ daughter Martha was an MSc student at St Andrews so it was a good opportunity for Peter also to meet him.


I only made one field trip with Jack Hawkes, in March 1981 just a few weeks before I left CIP to return to the UK and take up a lectureship at The University of Birmingham.

Jack was in Lima on his way back to the UK having led yet another expedition to collect potatoes in Bolivia. He suggested that we take a long weekend to head up into the mountains and see what wild species of potato could be found. A CIP colleague, potato breeder Juan Landeo, came along for the trip.

On the first day, we set off east up the Carretera Central, over Ticlio at 4800 m and on to the smelting town of La Oroya, before heading north to the important mining center of Cerro de Pasco (4330 m), one of the highest (and bleakest) cities in the world.

The next morning we continued north, finally descending to the warmth of Huánuco, a lovely city at just 1880 m. We spent the night there.

I don’t recall if we split the journey back to Lima (or the exact route) or traveled from Huánuco in one day, stopping every now and then to collect potatoes.

Early in the day we came across some farmers using the traditional foot plough or chaqui tacclla. This is an iconic image.

We passed through some awesome landscapes. Even encountering a significant landslide that blocked our path. Closer to the coast the mountains were lost in the clouds as we made our way down the side of the valley.

I learned one very important lesson from Jack Hawkes: that a sound knowledge of the ecology of the species was very important (a point emphasized by Israeli geneticist Gideon Ladizinsky when I took a party of Birmingham students to a genetic resources course near Tel Aviv in 1982).

We’d be driving along, when Jack would suddenly ask us to pull over, saying that we’d find potatoes in the vicinity. Even naming which species we’d be likely to find. And I don’t remember him ever being wrong. It was fascinating to see how his deep knowledge guided his approach to collecting wild potatoes.

This is the only photo of me in the field with Jack, as we collected Solanum multiinterruptum (or was it S. multidissectum?).

It was a great experience, learning more about wild species in the field, from the master. These are memories that will stay with me for years to come.


 

 

Collecting potatoes in Peru – following in Jack Hawkes’ footsteps (Part 1)

Professor Jack Hawkes examines a specimen of the wild potato species Solanum raphanifolium in the ruins of Sacsayhuaman outside Cuzco, January 1973

Potatoes are native to the Americas; the wild Solanum species are found from Colorado in the United States, south through Mexico and Central America, and throughout the Andes as far south as northern Argentina. They even grow on the plains of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. Different forms of potato were domesticated thousands of years ago in the Andean region and southern Chile. Even today, farmers in the Andes grow (and conserve) a wonderful range of potato varieties.

Over many decades potato scientists made expeditions to the Americas to collect wild and cultivated potatoes, to learn about their biology and ecology, and how they might be used to enhance potato productivity through plant breeding. Among the potato pioneers was my friend, colleague, and mentor, the late Professor Jack Hawkes, a world-renowned expert on potato diversity and taxonomy and a leading light in the genetic resources conservation movement that emerged in the 1960s.

The wonder of potato diversity

I began my own studies on potato under Jack’s tutelage in September 1971 at The University of Birmingham, after graduating with an MSc degree in genetic resources conservation. Jack took me under his wing, so to speak, to teach me about potatoes and prepare me for a posting at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru where (from January 1973) I worked as an Associate Taxonomist for three years. I had just turned 24 the previous November.

Jack made his first trip to South America in 1939 at the age of 23, turning 24 during the course of the expedition in June that year, as a member of the Empire Potato Collecting Expedition to South America and spending nine months collecting wild and cultivated potatoes along the Andes of Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia.

Jack Hawkes (second from right) with expedition leader Edward Balls (on Jack’s right) and two others outside a church in La Paz, Bolivia in March 1939.

Returning to Cambridge in December 1939, just after the Second World War broke out, Jack continued to study the materials collected on the Empire expedition, completing his PhD in 1941. He remained at Cambridge until 1948 when he was seconded by the Government of Colombia to set up a research station for potatoes near Bogota.

In 1952, he returned to the UK, joining The University of Birmingham as a lecturer in the Department of Botany, but he returned to the Americas many times over the next four decades to collect potatoes. Awarded a personal chair in taxonomic botany in 1961, he became Mason Professor of Botany and head of department in 1967.

In 1969 he launched the one year MSc course I referred to earlier, and that’s when I first met him a year later. It would be no exaggeration to state that Jack Hawkes played an incredibly important role in shaping my subsequent career in international agricultural research and academia.


In December 1970, just three months after I arrived in Birmingham, Jack joined his Danish colleague Peter Hjerting on an expedition to collect wild potatoes in Bolivia, accompanied by Jack’s research assistant and PhD candidate Phil Cribb.

Richard Sawyer

The expedition received support from the newly-established International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima whose Director General, Dr Richard Sawyer kindly loaned a four-wheel drive vehicle. Joining the expedition was a young Peruvian scientist, Zósimo Huamán who had been hired by CIP to manage its large germplasm collection of native potato varieties.

While in Lima, Jack was asked to accept Zósimo on the Birmingham MSc course in September 1971. And then Sawyer asked Jack if he could recommend someone to join CIP on a one-year posting to cover for Zósimo while away in Birmingham. Apparently, so Jack later told me, my name immediately came to mind. Perhaps I’d mentioned that I had a burning ambition to visit South America and, in any case, I would graduate just when Zósimo was expected in the UK.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, immediately on his return to Birmingham at the end of February 1971, Jack told me about the opportunity at CIP. Was I interested? There was no question about it.

Zósimo and Jack in a potato field in Bolivia standing beside a variety of S. ajanhuiri

As it turned out, my departure to Peru was delayed by 15 months while different funding options for my posting were finalized. I began my PhD study, and after he graduated with his MSc in September 1972, Zósimo also registered for a PhD, studying the evolution of a frost-resistant form of cultivated potato known as Solanum ajanhuiri that he and Jack had collected at high altitude in Bolivia.

I departed for Lima on 4 January 1973, and by the beginning of April that year Zósimo had also returned to Peru having completed the first six month residency requirement for his PhD at Birmingham.


With hardly any time to get himself sorted after being outside Peru for 18 months, Zósimo and I organized a trip in May to collect potato varieties from two departments to the north of Lima: Ancash and La Libertad.

To say that I found the experiences beyond my expectations would be an understatement. Peru was everything I hoped it would be when I spent hours poring over a map of the country as a young boy. It is an extremely beautiful country, even if (at least in the 1970s) it was not the easiest country to travel around.


After 49 years, and without access to any notes we made, reports we wrote, or the books in which we recorded the germplasm samples collected, I am unable to detail the routes we took with any degree of confidence, except in the most broad terms. We were away from Lima for almost a month, and explored much of these two departments as best we could: by road, on foot, and on horseback.

At the end of the road, preparing to walk into a distant village; and below, riding back from a side-trip to a village

This was the first collecting trip that I had made. Time to put theory into practice. I bowed to Zósimo’s better knowledge, not only of potatoes and the terrain, but because he was a native Spanish speaker and after just a few months in Peru my Spanish was rudimentary to say the least. Also, as I mentioned earlier, Zósimo already had experience of collecting, having joined the Hawkes-led expedition to Bolivia in 1971.

We headed north on the Panamerican highway, destination Huaraz, the capital of Ancash located in the Callejón de Huaylas, a long north-south valley between the Cordillera Blanca to the east with the highest snow-covered peaks in the country and the Cordillera Negra to the west. Our aim was to explore regions right round these mountain ranges, and we certainly found ourselves in some remote locations.

We moved north into La Libertad, spending a little less time there than in Ancash before heading back to Trujillo on the coast for a well-deserved shower and rest at a good hotel, and better food before heading south to Lima, a journey of 575 km. I don’t recall if we attempted that last sector in one day or made an overnight stop about half way. In any case the journey would have taken about 10 hours or more, and given an incident on the way south that I’ll explain below, maybe we did split the journey.


In 1973, the Peruvian government was led by left-wing-leaning military junta headed by General Juan Velasco Alvarado who came to power in 1968 following a coup d’état. We encountered military checkpoints frequently on our travels in the mountains, often manned by young recruits or conscripts, teenagers even, armed with automatic weapons. Coming from a country where the police never carried firearms (at least then) nor were the armed forces deployed on the streets (that would change in Northern Ireland in the 1970s) I found it extremely disconcerting to be faced with soldiers pointing weapons at me and wondering if their discipline was as tight as I hoped. Needless to say we never encountered any specific threats or hostility.

What particularly struck me during this trip (and others that I made in 1974 and 1975, which I describe in Part 2) was the generosity of almost everyone we met. Farmers were generous with the potato varieties and knowledge they shared with us. Each potato variety collected was carefully labeled with a unique number inscribed on each tuber, and on the paper bags in which they were stored. All the details were recorded in a small booklet; I wonder if these are still archived in the CIP genebank in Lima.

Often we were invited to share a meal with a family, and only on one occasion did I baulk at what was put in front of me: fried cuy or guinea-pig (which are native to Peru and most households keep a small herd of them running around the house ready for the pot). I just couldn’t bring myself to tuck in. Guinea-pigs, to my mind, were furry pets. Needless to say that, as I grew older, such inhibitions diminished.

Despite being memory-deficient when it comes to the route or the places we stayed, there are several anecdotes that are still fresh today.

One experience was particularly emotional. Just 57 km north of Huaraz lies the town of Yungay, and a few kilometers closer to Huaraz, the town of Ranrahirca. On 31 May 1970 a powerful earthquake off the coast west of here, dislodged a massive landslide, a mixture of ice and rocks, that fell from Huascarán, Peru’s highest mountain.

Looking north along the Callejón de Huaylas towards the twin peaks of Huascarán

Travelling at speeds up to 335 kph the landslide quickly reached and obliterated both towns, killing tens of thousands. In Yungay, when we visited almost three years later, the only remains of the town still standing were the cemetery mound with a statue of Christ with outstretched arms, and four palm trees. They had survived, yet everywhere else the landscape was dotted with crosses marking where houses used to stand and presumably families perished. What a sobering sight indeed.

The statue of Christ in the site of Yungay, May 1973

This was the site of Ranrahirca where the town had been obliterated by boulders the size of houses, May 1973


We followed the road south from Huaraz and round to the east of the Cordillera Blanca, to Chavín de Huántar.

A stone tenon head, one of the iconic features of the ruins at Chavín

The next day we headed north up a steep and extremely muddy road, slipping and sliding from side to side. Fortunately the road was wide and there were no drop-offs, until we reached the highest point. The road levelled off, snaking along the side of the valley, barely wide enough for our Toyota Landcruiser. It was also quite muddy there as well.

We could see there was a drop-off, but given that we were in cloud, couldn’t see more than about 50-100 m ahead. It was only on the return journey and checking our maps that we saw that the side of the road plunged about 1000 m to the valley below. Talk about a stressful situation.

Having enjoyed a good bistek in Chavín that evening, we both got very drunk on Ron Pomalca, regretting sincerely the following morning that we had imbibed so freely. Incidentally, Zósimo found that the rum was also a useful liniment after several hours on horseback, and kept a bottle for that purpose.


On one occasion, we drove as far as we could before walking to two villages some kilometers away. When we arrived at the first village, we found everyone celebrating the jubilee of its founding (and were informed that the next village was also in fiesta mode). We were made welcome, offered refreshments, and talked with village officials before explaining that we had to push on to the next village before it got dark. There we found almost everyone in an advanced state of inebriation, especially the schoolteacher, who spoke a little English.

As special guests on that auspicious day, the mayor invited us to a reception, where the whole village crammed into the town hall. Speeches were made, with Zósimo translating for me. It was clear we would have to respond, especially me as a representative of La Reina Isabel. I frantically whispered to Zósimo how to say such and such in Spanish, writing his translations on the palm of my hand. When it was my turn to make a short speech, I nervously complimented the village on its anniversary and how pleased we were to be there. On sitting down, everyone in that room, at least a hundred men and women, maybe more, came and shook my hand. What a memory.

Zósimo (on the right) beside the teacher, his wife and child in front of his house where we spent the night


Later in the trip in La Libertad, we arrived in one village looking for a hotel. There were two: one had been opened not many months before our arrival there; the other was quite run down. We chose the new hotel, ignoring ‘advice’ that it was flea-infested. Surely that couldn’t be the case? How wrong could we be, waking next morning covered in flea bites and itching madly. Those pesky fleas got everywhere, so we had to endure several days of purgatory until we reached the coast and could send all our gear for cleaning. And take a welcome shower.


Finally, on the return journey south on the Panamerican Highway south of Trujillo, there was a puncture in the rear nearside tyre. We quickly replaced it with the spare, and resumed our journey, hoping to find a grifo or garage soon where the tyre could be repaired. I was driving. Suddenly there was a bang, and the vehicle lurched wildly. I managed to bring it under control, even though the rear was touching the ground. You can imagine our surprise when the wheel passed beside us, travelling at speed ahead. Zósimo and I had each thought the other made a final check of the wheel nuts. They just worked their way loose until the wheel fell off. Our humble jack was not powerful enough to lift the vehicle, but we flagged down a truck driver who used his more robust jack. We retrieved the wheel several hundred meters down the road, and even located all four wheel nuts scattered across the highway. What luck! Fortunately there were no further incidents before we reached CIP’s headquarters in the La Molina district of the Lima.


What an experience, and despite some stressful incidents (and occasional differences of opinion with Zósimo) we returned to Lima after a successful collecting trip. Maybe there were a couple of hundred samples or more to add to CIP’s germplasm collection. That collection eventually grew to around 15,000 samples or accessions but was reduced to its current more manageable size of around 4000 accessions after possible duplicate samples were removed (although converted to botanical or true seed samples before discarding the tubers). On his trips to Peru after 1973 Jack would spend time in the collection at CIP’s high altitude station in Huancayo (3100 m), a six-hour drive east of Lima, working through the germplasm samples and giving his advice about their conservation status. In the photo below, taken in early 1974, I briefly left off my own research to join Jack as he studied different varieties.


In Part 2, I write about the trips I made to Cuyo Cuyo in the south of Peru in February 1974, then to Cajamarca in May the same year. Finally, I describe the trip over a long weekend I made in March 1981 with Jack and a CIP colleague to collect wild potatoes in the mountains northeast from Lima. This was the only time that I went collecting with Jack, but even in that short journey I learned so much.


 

I thought I was going to have a heart attack

Laughter, so they say, is the best medicine. Until it (almost) kills you! Like the other day. I could hardly breathe I was laughing so hard. It was painful. I had to close the video clip I was watching and get my breath back.

So who nearly brought about my demise?

Billy Connolly, of course. The Big Yin! Comedian, story-teller, musician, actor, artist, documentary maker, Knight of the Realm! And one of the funniest persons (in my opinion) to grace our TV screens. There are many clips from his one man shows on YouTube, and I delve into them from time-to-time if I need cheering up. I find myself laughing just as much after watching for the umpteenth time as I did the first. There are few comedians who really make me laugh, and laugh out loud. Billy Connolly never fails.

Born in Glasgow in 1942, he grew up in the tenements of the Anderston area of the city that were demolished in the 1970s and residents moved out to barren housing estates on the outskirts of the city.

He became a welder in the Glasgow shipyards after leaving school, but knew that there was a brighter life beckoning him. Turning to folk music, he paired up with fellow Scot and singer-song writer Gerry Rafferty to form The Humblebums. But, as Billy himself acknowledged, it was his patter between songs that began to attract interest from the audience. Thus began his transition to stand-up comedian and story-teller.

And that’s how I see him, a raconteur rather than as a traditional stand-up. Yes, he tells jokes (perhaps much more in his early career), but his act developed much more depth than that. He weaves stories, narratives, heading off at a tangent almost to the absurd, before reining the tale back in to its original direction. He is a brilliant master of story telling. That’s all I can say. Watching his performances, it’s clear he holds his audience in the palm of his hand. Given his propensity for using his Glaswegian vernacular (rather a lot of swearing) no-one would attend one of his shows if they were about to be offended.

He got his big break nationally appearing on the BBC’s Parkinson, a weekly chat show hosted by journalist Michael Parkinson, in 1975, telling this joke. And over the years he made 15 appearances on that show before it came to an end in 2007.

I still haven’t seen Connolly alongside Dame Judi Dench (as Queen Victoria) in Mrs Brown, the 1997 film that cast him as John Brown, a servant of the Queen and believed to have had a relationship with her. From the clips I’ve viewed, Connolly’s performance was outstanding, and he did receive nominations for several acting awards.

In recent year, documentaries of his travels throughout the USA, Australia and New Zealand, as well as his native Scotland have been widely acclaimed.

He was made a Knight Bachelor in the 2017 Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to entertainment and charity.

In 2013 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and has become increasingly frail. In this clip he talks about the challenges he faces.


Anyway, enough of my musings. Sit back and watch (if you dare) some of the videos by Sir Billy Connolly that I’ve enjoyed recently.

WARNING: If you are offended by strong language, take care.

This is is the video that got me going on Christmas Day. It was the balsamic vinegar . . .


 

Is it really five decades?

years ago today (Friday 17 December 1971) I received my MSc degree in Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources from the University of Birmingham. Half a century!

With my dissertation supervisor Dr (later Professor) Trevor Williams, who became the first Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (now Bioversity International).

I hadn’t planned to be at the graduation (known as a congregation in UK universities). Why? I had expected to be in Peru for almost three months already. I was set to join the International Potato Center (CIP) (which has just celebrated its 50th anniversary) as an Associate Taxonomist after graduation, but didn’t actually get fly out to Lima until January 1973. Funding for my position from the British government took longer to finalize than had been envisaged. In the meantime, I’d registered for a PhD on the evolution of Andean potato varieties under Professor Jack Hawkes, a world-renowned potato and genetic resources expert.

So let’s see how everything started and progressed.


1970s – potatoes
Having graduated from the University of Southampton in July 1970 (with a BSc degree in Environmental Botany and Geography), I joined the Department of Botany at Birmingham (where Jack Hawkes was head of department) in September that year to begin the one year MSc course, the start of a 39 year career in the UK and three other countries: Peru, Costa Rica, and the Philippines. I took early retirement in 2010 (aged 61) and returned to the UK.

Back in December 1971 I was just relieved to have completed the demanding MSc course. I reckon we studied as hard during that one year as during a three year undergraduate science degree. Looking back on the graduation day itself, I had no inkling that 10 years later I would be back in Birmingham contributing to that very same course as Lecturer in Plant Biology. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Arriving in Lima on 4 January 1973, I lived by myself until July when my fiancée Steph flew out to Peru, and join CIP as an Associate Geneticist working with the center’s germplasm collection of Andean potato varieties. She had resigned from a similar position at the Scottish Plant Breeding Station near Edinburgh where she helped conserve the Commonwealth Potato Collection.

Later that year, on 13 October, Steph and I were married in Miraflores, the coastal suburb of Lima where we rented an apartment.

At Pollería La Granja Azul restaurant, east of Lima, after we were married in Miraflores.

My own work in Peru took me all over the Andes collecting potato varieties for the CIP genebank, and conducting field work towards my PhD.

Collecting potato tubers from a farmer in the northern Department of Cajamarca in May 1974.

In May 1975, we returned to Birmingham for just six months so that I could complete the university residency requirements for my PhD, and to write and successfully defend my dissertation. The degree was conferred on 12 December.

With Professor Jack Hawkes

Returning to Lima just in time for the New Year celebrations, we spent another three months there before being posted to Turrialba, Costa Rica in Central America at the beginning of April 1976, where we resided until November 1980. The original focus of my research was adaptation of potatoes to hot, humid conditions. But I soon spent much of my time studying the damage done by bacterial wilt, caused by the pathogen Ralstonia solancearum (formerly Pseudomonas solanacearum).

Checking the level of disease in a bacterial wilt trial of potatoes in Turrialba, July 1977.

Each year I made several trips throughout Central America, to Mexico, and various countries in the Caribbean, helping to set up a collaborative research project, PRECODEPA, which outlasted my stay in the region by more than 20 years. One important component of the project was rapid multiplication systems for potato seed production for which my Lima-based colleague, Jim Bryan, joined me in Costa Rica for one year in 1979.

My two research assistants (in blue lab-coats), Moises Pereira (L) and Jorge Aguilar (R) demonstrating leaf cuttings to a group of potato agronomists from Guatemala, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Costa Rica, while my CIP colleague and senior seed production specialist, Jim Bryan, looks on.

There’s one very important thing I want to mention here. At the start of my career with CIP, as a young germplasm scientist, and moving to regional work in Costa Rica, I count myself extremely fortunate I was mentored through those formative years in international agricultural research by two remarkable individuals.

Roger Rowe and Ken Brown

Dr Roger Rowe joined CIP in July 1973 as head of the Breeding and Genetics Department. He was my boss (and Steph’s), and he also co-supervised my PhD research. I’ve kept in touch with Roger ever since. I’ve always appreciated the advice he gave me. And even after I moved to IRRI in 1991, our paths crossed professionally. When Roger expressed an opinion it was wise to listen.

Dr Ken Brown joined CIP in January 1976 and became Director of the Regional Research Program. He was my boss during the years I worked in Central America. He was very supportive of my work on bacterial wilt and the development of PRECODEPA. Never micro-managing his staff, I learned a lot from Ken about people and program management that stood me in good stead in the years to come.


1980s – academia
By the middle of 1980 I was beginning to get itchy feet. I couldn’t see myself staying in Costa Rica much longer, even though Steph and I enjoyed our life there. It’s such a beautiful country. Our elder daughter Hannah was born there in April 1978.

To grow professionally I needed other challenges, so asked my Director General in Lima, Richard Sawyer, about the opportunity of moving to another region, with a similar program management and research role. Sawyer decided to send me to Southeast Asia, in the Philippines, to take over from my Australian colleague Lin Harmsworth after his retirement in 1982.

However, I never got to the Philippines. Well, not for another decade. In the meantime I had been encouraged to apply for a lectureship at the University of Birmingham. In early 1981 I successfully interviewed and took up the position there in April.

Thus my international potato decade came to an end, as did any thoughts of continuing in international agricultural research. Or so it seemed at the time.

For three months I lodged with one of my colleagues, John Dodds, who had an apartment close to the university’s Edgbaston campus while we hunted for a house to buy. Steph and Hannah stayed with her parents in Southend on Sea (east of London), and I would travel there each weekend.

It took only a couple of weeks to find  a house that suited us, in the market town of Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, about 13 miles south of the university. We moved in during the first week of July, and kept the house for almost 40 years until we moved to Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England almost 15 months ago. However we didn’t live there continually throughout that period as will become apparent below.

Our younger daughter Philippa was born in Bromsgrove in May 1982. How does the saying go? New house, new baby!

With Brian when we attended a Mediterranean genetic resources conference in Izmir, Turkey in April 1972. Long hair was the style back in the day.

I threw myself into academic life with enthusiasm. Most of my teaching was for the MSc genetic conservation students, some to second year undergraduates, and a shared ten-week genetic conservation module for third year undergraduates with my close friend and colleague of more than 50 years, Brian Ford-Lloyd.

I also supervised several PhD students during my time at Birmingham, and I found that role particularly satisfying. As I did tutoring undergraduate students; I tutored five or six each year over the decade. Several tutees went on to complete a PhD, two of whom became professors and were recently elected Fellows of the Royal Society.

One milestone for Brian and me was the publication, in 1986, of our introductory text on plant genetic resources, one of the first books in this field, and which sold out within 18 months. It’s still available as a digital print on demand publication from Cambridge University Press.

This was followed in 1990 by a co-edited book (with geography professor Martin Parry) about genetic resources and climate change, a pioneering text at least a decade before climate change became widely accepted. We followed up with an updated publication in 2014.

The cover of our 1990 book (L), and at the launch of the 2014 book, with Brian Ford-Lloyd in December 2013

My research interests in potatoes continued with a major project on true potato seed collaboratively with the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge (until Margaret Thatcher’s government sold it to the private sector) and CIP. My graduate students worked on a number of species including potatoes and legumes such as Lathyrus.

However, I fully appreciated my research limitations, and enjoyed much more the teaching and administrative work I was asked to take on. All in all, the 1980s in academia were quite satisfying. Until they weren’t. By about 1989, when Margaret Thatcher had the higher education sector firmly in her sights, I became less enthusiastic about university life.

And, in September 1990, an announcement landed in my mailbox for a senior position at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. I applied to become head of the newly-created Genetic Resources Center (GRC, incorporating the International Rice Genebank), and joined IRRI on 1 July 1991. The rest is history.

I’ve often been asked how hard it was to resign from a tenured position at the university. Not very hard at all. Even though I was about to be promoted to Senior Lecturer. But the lure of resuming my career in the CGIAR was too great to resist.


1990s – rice genetic resources
I never expected to remain at IRRI much beyond 10 years, never mind the 19 that we actually spent there.

Klaus Lampe

I spent the first six months of my assignment at IRRI on my own. Steph and the girls did not join me until just before the New Year. We’d agreed that it would be best if I spent those first months finding my feet at IRRI. I knew that IRRI’s Director General, Dr Klaus Lampe, expected me to reorganize the genebank. And I also had the challenge of bringing together in GRC two independent units: the International Rice Germplasm Center (the genebank) and the International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER). No mean feat as the INGER staff were reluctant, to say the least, to ever consider themselves part of GRC. But that’s another story.

Elsewhere in this blog I’ve written about the challenges of managing the genebank, of sorting out the data clutter I’d inherited, investigating how to improve the quality of seeds stored in the genebank, collaborating with my former colleagues at Birmingham to improve the management and use of the rice collection by using molecular markers to study genetic diversity, as well as running a five year project (funded by the Swiss government) to safeguard rice biodiversity.

I was also heavily involved with the CGIAR’s Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources (ICWG-GR), attending my first meeting in January 1993 in Addis Ababa, when I was elected Chair for the next three years.

The ICWG-GR at its meeting hosted by ILRI (then ILCA) in Addis Ababa, in 1993.

In that role I oversaw the development of the System-wide Genetic Resources Program (SGRP), and visited Rome several times a year to the headquarters of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI, now Bioversity International) which hosted the SGRP Secretariat.

But in early 2001 I was offered an opportunity (which I initially turned down) to advance my career in a totally different direction. I was asked to join IRRI’s senior management team in the newly-created post of Director for Program Planning and Coordination.


The 2000s – management
It must have been mid-January 2001. Sylvia, the Director General’s secretary, asked me to attend a meeting in the DG’s office just after lunch. I had no idea what to expect, and was quite surprised to find not only the DG, Dr Ron Cantrell, there but also his two deputies, Dr Willy Padolina (DDG-International Programs) and Dr Ren Wang, DDG-Research.

To cut a long story short, Cantrell asked me to leave GRC and move into a new position, as one of the institute’s directors, and take over the management of resource mobilization and donor relations, among other responsibilities (after about one year I was given line management responsibility for the Development Office [DO], the Library and Documentation Services [LDS], Communication and Publications Services [CPS], and the Information Technology Services [ITS]).

With my unit heads, L-R: me, Gene Hettel (CPS), Mila Ramos (LDS), Marco van den Berg (ITS), Duncan Macintosh (DO), and Corinta Guerta (DPPC).

In DPPC, as it became known, we established all the protocols and tracking systems for the many research projects and donor communications essential for the efficient running of the institute. I recruited a small team of five individuals, with Corinta Guerta becoming my second in command, who herself took over the running of the unit after my retirement in 2010 and became a director. Not bad for someone who’d joined IRRI three decades earlier as a research assistant in soil chemistry. We reversed the institute’s rather dire reputation for research management and reporting (at least in the donors’ eyes), helping to increase IRRI’s budget significantly over the nine years I was in charge.

With, L-R, Yeyet, Corinta, Zeny, Vel, (me), and Eric.

I’m not going to elaborate further as the details can be found in that earlier blog post. What I can say is that the time I spent as Director for Program Planning and Communications (the Coordination was dropped once I’d taken on the broader management responsibilities) were among the most satisfying professionally, and a high note on which to retire. 30 April 2010 was my last day in the office.


Since then, and once settled into happy retirement, I’ve kept myself busy by organizing two international rice research conferences (in Vietnam in 2010 and Thailand in 2014), co-edited the climate change book I referred to earlier, and been the lead on a major review of the CGIAR’s Genebank Program (in 2017). Once that review was completed, I decided I wouldn’t take on any more consultancy commitments, and I also stepped down from the editorial board of the Springer scientific journal Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution.

As I said from the outset of this post, it’s hard to imagine that this all kicked off half a century ago. I can say, without hesitation and unequivocally, that I couldn’t have hoped for a more rewarding career. Not only in the things we did and the many achievements, but the friendships forged with many people I met and worked with in more than 60 countries. It was a blast!


 

A cielo abierto . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

 

 

We’ve waited four decades . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Engraved on my mind . . .

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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


 

The beguiling girl from Malaga . . .

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

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

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

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

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

And the song? Malagueña Salerosa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Better than the original? I think so.


 

The Commonwealth Potato Collection – it really is a treasure trove

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack Hawkes

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

Let me tell that story.


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

Jack in Bolivia in 1939

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

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

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

Nikolai Vavilov

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

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

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


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

Route taken by the Empire Potato Collecting Expedition

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

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


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

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

Redcliffe N Salaman

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Morris dancing and genetic resources – an unlikely combination

I was never much good at taking exams. That is, until I studied for my Masters degree in Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources at the University of Birmingham in 1970-1971. So how come I improved?

It was exactly 50 years ago, Tuesday 1 June 1971, when I sat the first of four written exams over consecutive days. It was also the day after the Late Spring Bank Holiday, the 31st and the last Monday of May. I spent that day—all day, in fact—Morris dancing in Lichfield, a town in south Staffordshire famous for its three-spired medieval cathedral, the ‘city of philosophers’ according one of its famous sons, Samuel, Dr Johnson.

Let me backtrack a few years.

Soon after arriving in Southampton in October 1967 to begin my undergraduate studies at the university, I joined the English & Scottish Folk Dance Society in the Students’ Union, although I’d never danced before. Then, a year later, I co-founded (with Dr Joe Smartt, a genetics lecturer in the Department of Botany) the Red Stags Morris that is still dancing today although no longer associated with the university for many years now.

The Red Stags dancing outside the Arts Faculty in March 1970 at a university Open Day. I’m the second dancer from the left, facing Joe Smartt, with Dudley Savage from the Winchester Morris Men playing the fiddle.

As I described in that earlier post about the Red Stags, we were supported from the outset by the Winchester Morris Men, and during the summer term we would join them when they danced out around the villages and pubs of Hampshire. Such a beautiful county.

Each Late Spring Bank Holiday, the Winchester Morris Men would also organize a Day of Dance, beginning in late morning and lasting well into the evening, and probably visiting half a dozen villages in the process (and their hostelries). The Red Stags joined the 1969 Day of Dance around the New Forest and ending up in Winchester by early evening. By then, we’d developed some dancing skills in the Headington and Adderbury traditions and didn’t embarrass ourselves among much more accomplished dancers. Here is a group of photos taken on that particular Day of Dance, 26 May.