Exploring the southern Lincolnshire Wolds and Cambridgeshire Fens*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can see more photos here.

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

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

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

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

The complete set of Bolingbroke photos can be viewed here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out more photos of Peckover House and garden.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

There’s a full album of photos here.

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

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

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

Biddulph Grange – a masterpiece of Victorian garden design

Steph and I became members of the National Trust in 2011. Since then, we have enjoyed visiting more than 100 properties in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and a handful owned by the National Trust for Scotland.

One of the first properties we visited in 2011 was Biddulph Grange Garden, between Biddulph (in North Staffordshire) and Congleton (where I was born) in southeast Cheshire. And just over a week ago, we returned for a second visit.

My family had a long connection with Biddulph Grange, way before it was taken over by the National Trust in 1988. Before then, Biddulph Grange was an orthopaedic hospital, founded by Lancashire County Council in 1928 as a hospital ‘for the crippled children of East Lancashire’.

After the Second World War, my father, Fred Jackson, joined the Congleton Chronicle newspaper as a staff photographer. His work took him around the area, within a 10 mile radius I guess of Congleton, taking photos of local events and happenings for publication in the newspaper.

Every Christmas morning he would take photos of Santa visiting all the children on the wards at Biddulph Grange. Even after our family moved to Leek in 1956, Dad (accompanied by Mum) continued to visit Biddulph Grange at Christmas. I remember visiting on many occasions, and meeting the Matron (right), but I don’t remember her name.

During our 2011 visit, there was an album of old photos taken during the hospital years, and I believe many of them had been taken by Dad over the years. There was even a photo from one of the Nurses’ Balls, that Mum and Dad would attend each year (they loved ballroom dancing), and I found Mum among the large group of ball-goers.

The National Trust now looks after the Garden, while the house has been converted to private residential apartments. By the 1980s the garden had suffered from decades of neglect during the hospital years. Now the Trust has brought the garden back to its former glory, as envisaged by the couple who designed and built the garden in the mid-nineteenth century, James and Maria Bateman.

James Bateman was a wealthy landowner (and lay preacher) who bought an old rectory at Biddulph (he moved there from nearby Knypersley Hall) in the 1840s, and set about expanding it to the house we see today. Bateman and his wife were passionate gardeners. He was a keen horticulturalist, and collector of plants from around the world.

Assisted by Edward William Cooke, the Batemans built what has become a world-famous garden. Yet the Batemans did not reside at Biddulph for more than a couple of decades. It never ceases to amaze me how landscapers and gardeners in the 18th and 19th centuries spent all their energies creating gardens they would never come to appreciate in all the glory that we can enjoy today.

Bateman and Cooke’s garden takes you around the world—China, Egypt, and Italy, among others—but the garden is divided into areas and themes. Around every corner there’s something different to see and experience, glens to weave through, tunnels to duck into, and tree-lined walks (lime and Wellingtonia) to add to the broad landscape experience.

The resurrected Dahlia Walk is a real delight in late summer. During the hospital years it had been filled in, and once the National Trust had command of the Garden, it had to be excavated almost archaeologically to reveal its former glory. It’s certainly one of the highlights of the Garden, as are the various parterres below the house.

Here is just a small sample of photos of some areas of the garden which show the garden at two different seasons. Do take a look at this photo album for many more photos.

Another interesting feature is Bateman’s Geological Gallery, now refurbished by the National Trust.


 

Turbocharging rice photosynthesis – the vision and legacy of John Sheehy, a brilliant scientist

Yesterday, I received the sad news that my dear friend and former colleague at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), John  Sheehy, had passed away on 7 June after battling Parkinson’s Disease and Multiple System Atrophy (MSA) for several years. He was just 76.

I first met John in 1995, when he applied for the position of Systems Modeller at IRRI. I was Chair of the Search Committee. John came to IRRI after a successful career at the Grassland Research Institute (GRI) in Hurley, Berkshire, until it closed in 1992. His groundbreaking (and award-winning) work at GRI on nodulation, gaseous diffusion, and nitrogen fixation in grassland legumes, and other aspects of crop physiology focused on yield potential.

I knew the first time I spoke with John he was someone who would bring a very different scientific perspective to IRRI’s research. And that’s just what he did. He wasn’t some fresh-faced graduate or postdoc expected to toe the line in terms of rice science orthodoxy, so to speak. Always polite, he often challenged the perspectives and approaches of some IRRI old timers who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) appreciate John’s breadth of quantitative expertise. He had graduated with a BSc degree in Physics, completed an MSc in Electronics, and then studied for his PhD in ecophysiology under Professor John Cooper, CBE FRS at the Welsh Plant Breeding Station in Aberystwyth.

In coming to IRRI, he led research on and supported breeding the so-called New Plant Type (NPT) that was expected to push the yield barrier in rice.

Setting up the Applied Photosynthesis and Systems Modeling Laboratory, John came to the conclusion that a completely new approach was needed if rice yields were to be increased significantly. That’s because photosynthesis in rice (known as C3 photosynthesis) is inefficient compared to the system (C4) in other cereals like maize. John began to develop ideas to turbocharge photosynthesis by introducing ‘C4’ traits into rice, thereby aiming to increase photosynthetic efficiency by 50%, as well as improve nitrogen use efficiency, and double water use efficiency.

Rather than me trying to explain the rationale for this vision, why not listen to John explaining the need for a C4 rice.

John appreciated that IRRI could not realize this dream of a C4 rice alone. So he set about persuading, and bringing together, a group of many of the best scientists worldwide in a C4 Rice Project, that is partly funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The continuing Project is an important part of John’s scientific legacy.

It is now coordinated by Professor Jane Langdale, CBE FRS at the University of Oxford.

At the time of his death, and after 20 years of research, C4 rice is not yet a reality, but significant progress has been made.


John’s scientific output was prodigious, and his many publications appeared in some of the best rated journals in his field, like Field Crops Research for example, a reflection of his research stature at IRRI (and before he joined IRRI). You can check his publications on Google Scholar.

He also waded enthusiastically into the controversy over the System of Rice Intensification or SRI, questioning—based on solid quantitative analysis of yield potential in rice—the yield claims of SRI adherents.


John retired in 2009 and returned to the UK. Before leaving IRRI, he met with Gene Hettel (former Head of IRRI’s Communication and Publications Services, and ‘IRRI Historian’) to record his thoughts on rice science and the challenges that IRRI would face.


In 2012, John was recognized in the New Year Honours (see page N.24) with an OBE for services to agricultural research and development, which was conferred during an investiture at Buckingham Palace on 14 February.

John receiving his OBE from HRH The Prince of Wales (L), and after the ceremony with wife Gaynor (L), and daughters Isabel (L) and Rhiannon (R).

In July 2014, John was honoured as a Fellow of his alma mater, Aberystwyth University.


In 2011, Steph and I joined John and Gaynor’s many friends and relatives to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.

L-R: Rhiannon, Gaynor, John, and Isabel

While at IRRI, John had taken enthusiastically to golf, and could be seen almost every weekend out on the golf course south of Los Baños where he had become a member. On his retirement to the UK, he was unfortunately unable to continue with this passion, due to bouts of poor health.

After I retired in 2010 back to the UK, John and I kept in touch regularly by email, on the phone, or SMS, when either Wales or Ireland were doing well at rugby, especially in the Six Nations championship. He had divided loyalties, born in Wales of Irish ancestry.

The last time I saw John was in July 2017, when Steph and I spent the weekend with him and Gaynor in Marlow, and met up with other IRRI friends, Graham and Sue McLaren (who now reside in Canada),

L-R: Gaynor, Graham, Sue, Steph, John, and me.

It was also an opportunity for John and me to swap OBE investiture reminiscences. I had also been made an OBE in the same New Year Honours as John, but attended an investiture two weeks later on 29 February.


John was a far better scientist than I could ever aspire to be. I always sought his advice on science issues. In return, he asked my advice about how to manoeuvre through institute politics and management to influence his research agenda, especially after I had moved upstairs, so to speak, to join IRRI’s senior management team.

But what I remember most about John was his cracking, but rather dry, sense of humor. His generosity of spirit. He was an excellent host. Many’s the dinner or BBQ Steph and I enjoyed with John, at his house or ours.

Christmas Day 2006 Chez Sheehy. L-R: John, Sue McLaren, Steph, Catherine McLaren, me, Gaynor, Alex McLaren, and Graham McLaren.

John, you will be sadly missed. Rest in Peace!


This obituary (written by Gene Hettel) has just been published on the IRRI website.

And this obituary (written by me) appeared in The Guardian on 5 July 2019.

“A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life”. Charles Darwin

It is clear from our recent visit to Down House in Kent, the Georgian manor that Charles and Emma Darwin called home for 40 years until his death in 1882, that Darwin certainly did discover the value of life.

Charles Darwin, naturalist and confirmed agnostic, turned the world upside down in 1859 with the publication of his seminal On the Origin of Species, published to great claim, and controversy. It was written at Down House as was much of his prolific output.

Born in Shrewsbury in 1809, the son of a doctor and successful businessman, Robert Darwin, he had two illustrious grandfathers: natural philosopher Erasmus Darwin, and potter Josiah Wedgwood, both anti-slavery abolitionists and members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham. Darwin never knew his grandfathers, as both passed away before his birth.

Coming from a wealthy background and supported by his father and the Wedgwoods, Darwin had no need to find other employment. He could concentrate on developing his theories and publishing his ideas. He did not have to sell many of his precious specimens as was often the case for many naturalists like Darwin’s ‘rival’ Alfred Russel Wallace, for example, to keep body and soul together. Many items of Darwin memorabilia are on display at Down House today.


Darwin married his first cousin Emma Wedgwood in January 1839, and over the next seventeen years had ten children. Moving from a cramped house in London in September 1842, Down House was the ideal location for the Darwins to raise their growing family, and for Darwin himself to have the space and tranquility to develop his theories on evolution and natural selection.

When they moved to Down House, the Darwin’s were already the proud parents of a son, William (b. 1839) and a daughter Anne (b. 1841). Another daughter, Mary was born at the time of the move, but lived for less than a month.  Their last child, Charles W. (b. 1856), died in infancy aged 18 months. Anne succumbed to tuberculosis in 1851.


Our visit to Down House was the first stop in a recent week-long break in the southeast. From home in northeast Worcestershire to Down House is a journey of 156 miles, under three hours by road, almost entirely on motorways (M42-M40-M25). Leaving the M25 at Junction 4, we took to the narrow lanes to cut across country to the Kent village of Downe.

 

Just four rooms are open to the public on the ground floor: Darwin’s Study (one can stand there in awe), the Dining Room (that Darwin, as a local Justice of the Peace, used as his court room), the Billiard Room, and the Parlour. No photography is permitted inside the house because all the items on display still belong to the Darwin family.

In the Dining Room there are two fine oil paintings of grandfather Erasmus. The porcelain on the dining table must surely be Wedgwood?

On the first floor (there’s no access to the upper floor) several rooms are filled with Darwin memorabilia, his journals, awards and the like. It’s a snapshot of Darwin’s life. One room was filled with wood engravings by Darwin’s granddaughter Gwen Raverat.

Another room, supposedly the Darwin’s bedroom, with a magnificent bow-window view over the garden, has been reconstructed by English Heritage, and photography is permitted there.


Down House has quite modest grounds, including an orchard. In the walled garden where Darwin conducted many of his experiments, the lean-to greenhouse has a small but fine collection of carnivorous plants and orchids.

At the far end of the garden, and parallel to the house and terrace, is the Sandwalk, a gravel path where Darwin (a creature of habit) would take a walk every day and work through all the ideas swirling around his mind. It’s not hard to imagine Darwin strolling along the Sandwalk.


As an evolutionary biologist who has worked on the variation in domesticated plants and in nature (addressed by Darwin in Chapters 1 and 2 of his On the Origin of Species) in potato and rice and their wild species relatives for much of my career, I had long been looking forward to this visit to Down House.

And I was both pleased and disappointed at the same time. It was incredible to see where Darwin had lived, and formulated one of the most important scientific theories ever, to see his journals and many other personal items, to learn something about his family and family life. Darwin often suffered from ill health, almost considered a hypochondriac. Now it’s thought that he may have been suffering from recurring bouts of Chagas disease that he picked up in South America during his voyage there on HMS Beagle.

On the other hand, I came away feeling that something had been missing. I didn’t feel much emotional connection to Down House as I have experienced in visits to other properties (such as Chartwell or Bateman’s, to mention just a couple). I know Darwin had lived in Down House. There was all the evidence in front of me. It just didn’t feel as though he had.

I mentioned that photography is not permitted inside Down House. Visitors are greeted at the entrance with a sign stating that photography is prohibited. Prohibited! Perhaps English Heritage could tone down the ‘request’. A more welcoming approach would be more appropriate.


Before visiting Down House, I decided to re-read On the Origin of Species, which I had first read many decades ago. I didn’t make good progress. It’s not that the subject matter is difficult. After all, Darwin’s ideas were ‘meat and potatoes’ to me during my working life. It’s just that Darwin’s style of writing is challenging, not helped by an extremely small font in the version I have. I’ll get there, eventually.

Everyone’s a taxonomist

I’ve just discovered (via Twitter) that 19 March was Taxonomist Appreciation Day. This was, as far as I can make out, a celebration of the important—fundamental even—contribution that biologists known as taxonomists make to our understanding of the living world. Taxonomists bring order to the biodiversity that’s all around us. Indeed, without this order and understanding, it would be more difficult to know for example which plants and animals are endangered, and to prioritize what to conserve, and where.

The most celebrated taxonomist of all was surely the eighteenth century Swedish botanist Carl von Linné (whose Latinized name, Linnaeus, identifies him as the taxonomic authority, L., for many plants and animals).

So what do taxonomists do? One of their important roles is to describe and catalogue all plants and animals and, in the case of plants, publish this information in compendia known as Floras as an aid to identification, like those written about the plants of the British Isles and Europe that have been studied for hundreds of years.

Other Floras are still being written. Take the Flora Zambesiaca, for example, a project started in 1960 as the taxonomic study of native and naturalised plants of the Zambezi River basin, covering the territories of Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe and the Caprivi Strip. This is a work in progress, and there are many other parts of the world where the diversity of plants is only now being discovered and documented, particularly in the Tropics.

But taxonomists also look at the variation within species, and assess the dynamics of species distribution and evolution.


Mr Les Watson

I had my first taste of taxonomy at the University of Southampton where, as first year students or freshmen in 1967/68, we studied the diversity of flowering plants under the tuition of taxonomist Les Watson. He and another colleague Alan Myers took us to the west coast of Ireland for a field course in July 1968 where we studied the vegetation of the Burren in Co Clare.

Professor Vernon Heywood

In my final or senior year in 1970, I sat in on a plant taxonomy course given by eminent taxonomist Professor Vernon Heywood from the University of Reading (Les Watson had moved to Australia in 1968/69, and had not been replaced in the Department of Botany). I met up with Professor Heywood in 1991 at a conference in Rome where we had an opportunity to reminisce about that course.

I never expected that, one day, I would engage in taxonomic research. However, I never participated in describing or naming plant species, nor undertaking the enormous task of contributing to Floras that is sometimes considered the be-all and end-all of taxonomists’ work. I take my hat off to those taxonomists who write Floras, often relying on dried herbarium specimens of plants collected in nature. Nevertheless, in my own work, I have used herbaria on occasion, and twice spent time looking at specimens of lentil (Lens culinaris Medik.) and grasspea (Lathyrus sativus L.) among the millions of herbarium sheets curated in the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. My interest was in the relationships of these cultivated plants and their wild relatives.

Comparing notes in the field in the Andes of central Peru with potato taxonomist Professor Jack Hawkes (who supervised my PhD dissertation).

In 1973 I joined the International Potato Center in Peru as an Associate Taxonomist, studying the evolution of cultivated potatoes. Biosystematics, a sub-discipline of plant taxonomy, was my field, and I investigated species relationships through field experiments to understand patterns of morphological variation, through breeding experiments, and cytogenetic analysis of chromosome pairing in hybrids, among other several different approaches.

When I returned to Birmingham in 1981 as Lecturer in Plant Biology, I continued research on wild potatoes, and also several legume species. I also contributed about half the lectures to a second year module on flowering plant taxonomy.

On moving to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in July 1991, my colleagues and I delved into the taxonomy and species relationships of the two cultivated species of rice, Oryza sativa L. and O. glaberrima Steud., and the 20 or so wild species in the genus Oryza. We published quite extensively, and you you can peruse a list of rice publications (many with PDF files) here.


Just last week I met up for lunch with six retired former colleagues from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Birmingham: three plant scientists (including me), three geneticists, and a zoologist. Inevitably we began to discuss not only the administrative and organization changes that had occurred at the university (I taught there between 1981 and 1991), but how the teaching of biology had also changed, and the topics that now form a core biology curriculum.

Back in the day, whole organism biology still formed an important component of an undergraduate degree in biological sciences at Birmingham. Nowadays, and for obvious reasons, there’s much more focus on molecular biology, and recent hirings in what is now the School of Biosciences (Biological Sciences and Biochemistry merged some years back) reflect that change of emphasis.

Alas, it’s no longer possible to study at Birmingham for a biology degree with a plant sciences focus. But that’s not just a Birmingham issue; it’s nationwide. And taxonomy is perhaps the discipline that has suffered more than most. Taxonomists are just not coming through the system. Just at the time when one can argue there should be more demand for taxonomists than ever before, given the environmental changes that threaten the world’s vegetation. In some regions we may be losing species even before they have been identified. Harvard biologist EO Wilson wrote this in 2017: Our incomplete taxonomic knowledge impedes our attempts to protect biodiversity. A renaissance in the classification of species and their interactions is needed to guide conservation prioritization [1].


Now, I started this piece stating that everyone is a taxonomist. Is that a fair assumption?I think so.

Appa Rao collecting upland rice varieties from a farmer in the Lao PDR.

Taxonomy (and classification) is a fundamental human characteristic, something we do every day. We sort the complex world around us into meaningful categories, and we give them names. In many societies, farmers and their husbands use so-called ‘folk taxonomies’ to manage the various crops grown, and often the diversity of different varieties within a crop. I have myself talked to potato farmers in the Andes of southern Peru about their cultivation of different varieties, and why these are grown in different ways. In the Lao PDR, with my colleague Dr Appa Rao, we looked at how farmers name all their rice varieties.

Even before talking to my second year students about flowering plant taxonomy as such (and the different approaches used to study variation), I asked them to practice some simple taxonomies on themselves: males vs. females, blondes vs. brunettes, spectacle users vs. non-users, for example. These are discrete characteristics, binary, one or the other. Then we’d look at the complexity of coping with characters that vary quantitatively, such as height, length, etc.

Fortunately, there are many numerical techniques that allow us to cope with all sorts of measurements, and reduce complexity to a state that can be interpreted more easily.

The classification of different rice species based on the measurement and analysis of a range of morphological characters.

The use of different molecular markers now allows us to refine taxonomies built using morphological data. But, as I once read in a letter published in a scientific journal, a professor of taxonomy decried the lack of basic species knowledge among many students using molecular approaches. They could wax lyrical, he stated, about the value of different molecular techniques, but they had hardly looked at a living plant. That brings me back to my concern about the reduction in teaching whole organism biology.

As I say, we are all taxonomists, one way or another. Unfortunately I don’t see any scientific expansion (in the UK at least) in this particular discipline.

The situation may be different in North America. Plant sciences are still very strong in many US universities, and indeed there is a bill before Congress that promotes botanical research & sciences capacity, generates demand for native plant materials, & authorizes related federal activities.


[1] Wilson, EO (2017). Biodiversity research requires more boots on the ground. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, 1590 –1591

Lentils (and Mrs. Vavilov) on my mind . . .

Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (1887-1943)—The Father of Plant Genetic Resources—is one of my scientific heroes. Yet I knew nothing about him until September 1970 when I began my graduate studies concerning the conservation and use of plant genetic resources at The University of Birmingham (in the Department of Botany as it was then).

Last Saturday, 26 January, was the 76th anniversary of Vavilov’s death in a Soviet prison.

Prison photos of Vavilov.

Vavilov’s grave in Saratov.

Botanist, science writer, and broadcaster James Wong (@Botanygeek) posted a short thread of tweets about Vavilov. So, I tweeted a reply to James about three scientists (two I worked with; the other I’d been introduced to) who met Vavilov in the 1930s.

I followed up with another  tweet.

Actually, Elena Barulina (1896-1957) was Vavilov’s second wife who passed away just two years after Vavilov had been ‘rehabilitated’ by the Soviet government, as she was working her way through his various publications.

Vavilov had first married Ekaterina Saharova in 1912, and they had one son, Oleg (born 1918).

Vavilov with his first wife Ekaterina, and son Oleg.

Vavilov divorced Ekaterina in 1926 and married Elena; they had one son, Yuri (born 1928). Both Oleg and Yuri became physicists, like their renowned uncle Sergey, Nikolai’s younger brother. Ekaterina died in 1963 never having remarried.

Elena Barulina and Nikolai Vavilov.


Elena (Helena) Barulina was an international lentil expert, publishing an important monograph in 1930. During the course of 1970-71, I got to know this publication in great detail.

So how did I get involved with lentils, and what was the outcome? As part of the MSc course requirements at Birmingham, each student had to present a short dissertation. I opted to carry out a study of crop variation, but first I had to choose the species for my study.

Trevor Williams

My dissertation supervisor was Dr J Trevor Williams (who went on to become the first Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources or IBPGR (that then became the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute or IPGRI, and is now Bioversity International) in Rome.

In November 1970, we scanned the pages of Flora Europaea, looking for potential targets among the various legume species. And there, under the cultivated lentil (Lens culinaris) was the important comment: Origin unknown. Now there was a challenge if ever we saw one!

Lentil is an ancient crop, associated with the earliest developments and spread of agriculture in the Near East and Mediterranean, and this is where the wild lentil species are also found. When I began my study, there were just five recognized lentil species (this was increased to seven in a 2015 paper):

  • Lens culinaris (the cultivated species)
  • L. orientalis
  • L. nigricans
  • L. ervoides
  • L. montbretii (now regarded as a species of Vicia)

I presented my dissertation, Studies in the genus Lens Miller with special reference to Lens culinaris Medik., in September 1971, having used Barulina’s monograph as my lentil ‘Bible’ throughout.

I grew a large field trial of lentil varieties and, from my analysis of the variation in morphological characters, some chromatographic analyses, and growth pattern relationships, concluded that the small- and large-seeded forms described by Barulina as subsp. microsperma and subsp. macrosperma were the extremes of a continuous variation pattern, and not correlated with geographical origin. Similar small- and large-seeded forms can also be seen in other legumes like faba bean and grasspea.

To analyze the relationships between the different lentil species, I spent several days working in the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, measuring variation in many morphological characters on as many herbarium specimens of lentil species I could get my hands on. I also borrowed herbarium specimens from several other herbaria. In all I must have looked at least a couple of hundred herbarium sheets.

Hybrid indices for lentil species.

Species were compared by constructing hybrid indices (a numerical method developed and first described in 1949 by renowned American botanist, Edgar Anderson—another scientific hero of mine—in his seminal publication Introgressive Hybridization). This allowed me to determine to what extent variation patterns in lentil species overlapped, or were distinct. Click on the image to the right to see an enlarged version of the resulting hybrid indices.

While the variation patterns between some species were quite distinct, the continuity in variation between L. orientalis and L. culinaris led me to the conclusion that we might be describing a wild species progenitor-domesticate relationship. And, indeed, this is what I proposed in my dissertation.

A year later, the eminent Israeli botanist Daniel Zohary actually published a paper¹ in the scientific journal Economic Botany arriving at the same conclusion. The studies I commenced in 1970-71 were continued by Carmen Sánchez Kilner the following year, and in our 1974 paper we proposed that L. culinaris and L. orientalis were subspecies of the same species, L. culinaris. In 1979, another Israeli botanist, Gideon Ladizinsky, reached the same conclusion based on hybridization experiments and cytogenetic analysis, in a paper published in Euphytica.

Today, I’m sure students would dive straight into analyses of molecular markers to clarify the taxonomy and species relationships. Almost 50 years ago these techniques were not available, so we had to rely on a thorough analysis of species morphology, an approach that is often regarded today as ‘old hat’ but still remains the solid foundation of plant taxonomy. It was an approach that served us well, and our conclusions were corroborated by others later on.

I see my studies on lentils as an important link to Vavilov and his colleagues such as Elena Barulina. Also, in later research, I drew on Vavilov’s Law of Homologous Series and its relevance to potatoes, especially with regard to resistance to the cyst nematode (Globodera spp.).

It’s also interesting to note just how relevant the ‘Vavilov approach’ still is today (76 years after his death), guiding the exploration and use plant genetic resources to increase agricultural productivity, which was the focus of my career over 40 years.


¹ Zohary, D., 1972. The wild progenitor and the place of origin of the cultivated lentil, Lens culinaris. Econ. Bot. 26: 326–332.

A botanical field trip to the south of Peru . . . 45 years ago

In 1976, a paper appeared in the scientific journal Flora, authored by University of St Andrews botanist Peter Gibbs¹ (now retired), on the breeding system of a tuber crop, oca (Oxalis tuberosa), that is grown by farmers throughout the Andes of Peru and Bolivia.

Like a number of Oxalis species, oca has a particular floral morphology known as heterostyly that promotes outcrossing between different plants. In his 1877 The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species, Charles Darwin had illustrated (in Fig. 11) the particular situation of tristyly in ‘Oxalis speciosa‘, the same floral morphology that is found in oca. In this illustration taken from Darwin’s publication, the ‘legitimate’ pollinations are shown; stigmas can only receive pollen from stamens at the same level in another flower.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, Peter had visited Peru in early 1974 (hard to believe that it’s 45 years ago), made collections of oca from a number of localities, particularly one village, Cuyo Cuyo, in the Department of Puno in the south of Peru (just north of Lake Titicaca), and then studied the breeding system of the oca varieties that he’d collected. His 1976 paper in Flora emanated from that field trip.


But there’s more to that story (and publication) than meets the eye. It was also tied up with the research I was carrying out on potatoes in the Peruvian Andes at that time. Peter and I made that field trip together, spending at least three weeks on the road, before flying back to Lima from Cuzco.

I don’t recall precisely when I first met Peter. We were obviously in touch when planning the trip south, but I simply can’t remember whether, during 1973, Peter had passed through Lima where I was working at the International Potato Center (CIP) in La Molina since January that year, or he had contacted CIP’s Director General Richard Sawyer asking if the center could provide logistical support and the DG had passed that request on to me. Whatever the course of events, Peter and I came to an agreement to make a field trip together to the south of Peru.

This is the route of more than 2000 km that we took.

While working as an Associate Taxonomist at CIP I was also registered for a PhD in potato biosystematics (under potato expert Professor Jack Hawkes at The University of Birmingham) which I was expected to complete by 1975. My work, studying the breeding relationships of potato varieties with different chromosome numbers was similar, in some respects, to that Peter envisaged with oca.

I’d been looking for suitable field locations where it might be possible to study the dynamics of potato cultivation in an ‘unspoiled’ area where mostly traditional potato varieties were cultivated rather than varieties bred and released on the market in recent years. At the back end of 1973 I made a short visit to Puno on the shore of Lake Titicaca to explore several possible field sites. Then, Peter proposed we visit the remote village of Cuyo Cuyo, around 250 km north of Puno. He’d come across a paper (either one by AW Hill in 1939 or another by WH Hodge in 1951 – both are cited by Peter in his Flora paper) that described widespread oca cultivation at Cuyo Cuyo on a series of ancient terraces, but also of potato varieties. I wasn’t sure if this was the location I was looking for, but agreed that we could explore Cuyo Cuyo first before heading north towards Cuzco in search of other likely sites.


Our journey south to Puno took at least three days if memory serves me correctly. Our trusty chariot was a short wheelbase Land Rover, with a canvas hood.

Not the most secure vehicle if you have to park up overnight in an unprotected lot. Nor the most comfortable; very sturdy suspension. But an excellent vehicle otherwise for ‘driving’ out of tricky situations.

We headed south on the Panamericana Sur, stopping at Ica or Nazca on the first night south of Lima, then on the Arequipa on the second day.

The Panamericana hugs the coast through the southern desert, crossing river valleys that flow down from the Andes to meet the Pacific Ocean. Along these, and in the area of Camana (where the road heads inland to Arequipa) quite a lot of rice is grown.

From Arequipa it must have taken another day to travel to Puno across the altiplano.

We then had another night to recoup in Puno, enjoying a comfortable bed, some good food, and perhaps one too many algarrobina cocktails (made from pisco) that Peter had taken a shine to.

Along the shore of Lake Titicaca near Puno


It took a day to travel to Cuyo Cuyo, across the altiplano (>4000 masl), fording rivers, and then, as we approached the village from the south, dropping into a steep-sided valley, the Sandia Gorge.

We hit a cloud layer, obscuring views of the valley, but also coming across a landslide that had to be cleared before we could make progress.

Once past that barrier, the cloud cleared and we began to see something of the majesty of the Cuyo Cuyo valley, with the steep valley sides covered in ancient terraces that, as we discovered over the next few days, were still be farmed communally as they had been for generations apparently. On the descent into Cuyo Cuyo, the banks alongside the road were also covered in masses of a beautiful begonia (Begonia clarkei Hook.) with large white flowers about 3-4 inches in diameter.


Where to stay? There was no hotel or pensión in Cuyo Cuyo. We did however have some camping gear with us such as camp beds, sleeping bags and the like. Plus all our other equipment for collecting (and drying) herbarium samples, and flowers and flower buds for pollen and chromosome studies.

After some enquiries we met Sr Justo Salas Rubín (who was, if I remember correctly, the local postmaster – seen with Peter below) who gave us space in one of the rooms of his home (the ‘post office’?) to set up ‘camp’. We also soon became quite a curiosity for the local children (and some animal friends as well).

I was not disappointed that we chose Cuyo Cuyo first. It was an extraordinary location where we could interact with potato and oca farmers who grew a wide range of varieties, and who were open to collaborate with us. Since that visit in 1974 several other botanists (and anthropologists) have made field studies at Cuyo Cuyo on the agricultural terraces that I described here.

While Peter set about collecting samples in the many oca fields (mainly beside the river on the valley floor), I set off up the terraces to study a couple of fields for their varietal composition, the ploidy (or chromosome number) of these varieties, and the factors that led farmers to accept or reject varieties. I was interested to see how triploid varieties (sterile forms with 36 chromosomes that can only be formed following hybridization between varieties with 48 and 24 chromosomes) could enter farmer systems, and at what frequency.

I also looked at the methods used to cultivate potatoes, and the tools used.²

On the left is a foot plough, about 4 feet in length, known in Cuyo Cuyo as a ‘huire’ (most often ‘chaqui taccla’ in other parts of Peru). Its component parts are: A. ‘calzada’ that rests on the shoulder; B. ‘huiso’ or hand grip; C. ‘lazo’ or leather binding fastening the parts together; D. ‘taquillpo’ or foot rest; and E. the ‘reja’ or blade. On the right is a hand tool used for harvesting potatoes (and presumably oca as well) called the ‘lawccana’, as well as other cultivations during the growing season. Its component parts are: A. the ‘ccalo’ or handle; B. the ‘lazo’, a leather thong holding the blade C. or ‘chonta’ on to the handle.

My paper on potatoes at Cuyo Cuyo was finally published in 1980 in the journal Euphytica. And that’s a tale in itself.³

Peter was keen to make herbarium sheets of many of the varieties he’d collected. We set up a dryer in the house where we were staying. But there was a problem. Most of the samples were pretty wet to begin with, as we experienced intermittent rain during our stay in Cuyo Cuyo. Oca stems are very fleshy, and despite our best efforts, they just didn’t dry out. Even when we got them back to Lima, and Peter prepared them for shipping back to St Andrews, many of the samples were still showing signs of life.

Indeed, after he returned to Scotland, Peter was able to take cuttings from his herbarium samples and grow plants to maturity in the glasshouse, thus continuing his studies there.


After three or four days in Cuyo Cuyo, we retraced our steps to Puno, then headed north towards Cuzco and further study sites near Chinchero.

At these, I was particularly interested in taking flower bud samples from different potato fields. In the area we chose, farmers grew a combination of bred varieties for sale in the local markets of Cuzco and, around their homes, native varieties for home consumption. In this photo, large plantings of commercial varieties stretch into the distance. Around the homes in the foreground, in walled gardens, farmers grew their native varieties.

As I was busy looking at different varieties, these two women came by, and one sat down to breastfeed her baby. They are wearing the traditional dress of that region of Cuzco.

On another day we set out to study potato (and oca) fields a little more remote, so had to hire horses to reach our destination.

Field work complete, Peter and I spent a couple of days resting up in Cuzco before flying back to Lima. We left the Land Rover there for one of my colleagues Zósimo Huamán to pick up, as he planned to undertake some fieldwork as well before driving back to Lima.

During the couple of days in Cuzco we paid a call on Prof. César Vargas, a renowned Peruvian botanist (and close friend of my PhD supervisor Jack Hawkes), who I’d met once before in January 1973 not long after I arrived in Peru. Prof Vargas’s daughter Martha studied for her MSc degree in botany at the University of St Andrews.

L to R: my wife Steph, Peter, and Martha Vargas

All in all, we had a successful field trip to the south of Peru. It’s hard to believe it all took place 45 years ago next month. But it remains, in my mind’s eye, quite a significant trip from the years I spent in Peru.


¹ Peter graduated in botany from the University of Liverpool, and completed his PhD in 1964 there under the supervision of Professor Vernon Heywood, who moved to the University of Reading to become head of that university’s Department of Botany a couple of years later. Peter and I had a lot to talk about, because in 1969-70, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Southampton, Vernon Heywood gave a series of 20 lectures on flowering plant taxonomy over 10 weeks to Southampton botanists, because Leslie Watson, Southampton’s taxonomy lecturer had moved to Australia. Vernon and I renewed our acquaintance some years later, in 1991, when he and I attended a genetic resources meeting at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome just before I moved to the Philippines to join the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

² One interesting piece of information that didn’t make it into my thesis but which I remember clearly was the incidence of geophagy among some residents of Cuyo Cuyo. I was taken to a location where farmers would excavate small quantities of a hard clay, that would be ground to a powder and mixed with water to form a slurry or soft paste. They would then dip recently harvested boiled potatoes in the clay as this, apparently, would decrease the slightly ‘spicy’ flavor of some of the varieties. I’m not sure how widespread this behavior was, but it’s something that has stuck in my mind all these years. I think I once had photos but they are long lost, more’s the pity.

³ I completed my PhD in December 1975, and shortly afterwards moved to Costa Rica to continue working for CIP, in potato breeding and agronomy. I started to prepare three manuscripts from my thesis for publication in Euphytica. The first, on varietal diversity, was submitted in February 1977, and published later the same year. The second, on breeding relationships, was published in 1978, having been submitted in July 1977. The third, on the ethnobotany of potato cultivation in Cuyo Cuyo finally appeared in print in 1980, having been submitted to Euphytica in February 1979.

But Euphytica had not been the first choice for this third paper. I actually produced a manuscript for the journal Economic Botany, and it included more details of the cropping systems and varietal choices made by farmers. My paper was received by the journal and acknowledged, but then I heard nothing more, for months and months. Eventually I wrote to the editor asking about the status of my manuscript. And I received a very strange reply.

It seemed that the editor-in-chief had retired, and his replacement had found, on file, manuscripts that had been submitted up to 20 years earlier, but had never been published! I was asked how I wanted to proceed with my manuscript as there was no guarantee it would appear in print any time soon. But about the same time, I received a nice letter from the then editor of Euphytica, Dr AC Zeven, complimenting me on my PhD thesis (which he had read in the library at Wageningen University in the Netherlands) and encouraging me to publish my work on the ethnobotany of potatoes – if I hadn’t already done so. I withdrew my manuscript from Economic Botany, and after some reformatting to fit the Euphytica style, sent it to Dr Zeven. He requested some deletions of the more descriptive sections on ethnobotany, and published my paper in 1980.


One last thing: I also remember was the novel that Peter was reading throughout the trip. Watership Down by Richard Adams, first published in 1972, that went on to become a literary sensation. I did read it myself at some point, but whether I borrowed Peter’s copy immediately after the trip, or some time later, I don’t recall. I know I didn’t think it would become the phenomenon that it did. What do I know?