My earliest inkling of the FSC was when I visited Malham village, staying at Beck Hall with my parents between my first and second year studying Geography at Bristol University in 1966 – and we heard that there was this place called a “Field Centre” somewhere nearby. In 1968 after I graduated I spent some time working for the Nature Conservancy Council on limestone sites in the north as part of the NCC Reserve Review. As I had done my undergraduate dissertation on the Burren limestone area, my tutor, and soon to be PhD supervisor, Dingle Smith suggested I apply (NCC had sent out requests for helpers). I soon found myself working for Helga Frankland at Merlewood and they were pleased to find that I could identify grasses (I had a good Botany master at school). In what I still think of as one of the best jobs I have ever had, they sent me off with a Morris Minor Estate to spend the summer surveying the vegetation and pavements of limestone areas. I had to study each limestone SSSI in the North Region and compare those with non-SSSI sites. One of my first stops was to see Paul Treganza the botanist at Malham Tarn Field Centre who started me off with advice about local sites. I thought what a wonderfully romantic wild place Malham was - and I was hooked.
My first proper Field Centre experience was running courses for teachers at Slapton in the early 1970s when I had finished my PhD and become a lecturer in Geography. My Bristol PhD supervisor Dingle Smith was on the Field Studies Council Executive Committee through contacts with David Dineley, a geologist who ran FSC courses, and Ian Mercer who all knew each other through fieldwork in the Arctic. Dingle was keen to organise courses for teachers, encouraged by Bob Troake a former teacher himself and then Warden at Slapton. I remember doing a course with Darrel Weyman and another with Frank Courtney. I did the soils and geomorphology while the others did the statistics. My memories are a bit hazy except that I remember two things. One was always to give the teachers lots of handouts to take away (I subsequently published them as books on techniques). The other was a memory of the last time I gave a course for teachers at Slapton. Half way through on the Wednesday night we sat in the Tower Inn and I said that it was time for a review of the course contents and I asked if there was anything they would like me to do which wasn’t on the schedule for the remaining days – so we could fit it in. One teacher turned to me and she said “I don’t think I’d like it whatever you did”. I comforted myself that she had been sent on the course and didn’t want to be there anyway – especially when she swore at me on the last night. But maybe, just maybe it was in fact that she just didn’t like me… I must admit that later in life a close friend did venture to observe that he sometimes found me very arrogant and conceited. The only response I could think of was the reply “yes, but I’m very good at it” – so maybe the teacher did have a point.
Dingle Smith had also done a lot of water tracing work at Malham when I was a postgraduate, though I hadn’t been involved in that, but sometime later I somehow agreed to give a course for teachers at Malham. I recollect that there was a young Tony Thomas teaching there together with Maggie Calloway and Henry Disney was Warden. Before the course I was sitting on Highfolds gazing down at the Tarn and became engaged in conversation with a passing walker who said I looked pensive. With total inevitability I revealed that I was running a course for teachers and I wasn’t sure if I was looking forward to it – he didn’t respond to that but, of course, I found him sitting opposite me at the dinner table ready to attend my course. That was my last course for teachers. I did however then go back to Malham to do some field work with Tony Thomas and Maggie Calloway on limestone erosion and I also taught soils there with Rob Lucas. I even featured in a schools TV program on erosion filmed at Malham (it took 3 days filming for the 20 minutes broadcast).
In the mid 1970’s Dingle Smith decided to emigrate to Australia and, knowing my interests in natural history, he put forward my name for the FSC Executive Committee. Having spent my youth in Norfolk bird watching and being very active in the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society field outings I was immediately keen and interested. I duly fetched up for my first FSC Executive meeting in the Board Room of the Natural History Museum, complete with Charles Sinker as Director and a very august collection of people. Chris Bayliss actually found the original book which I first signed, dated 11th May 1976, and sent me a photocopy. The Committee was then chaired by Fyfe Gillies and included Professor Cloudsley-Thompson, John Fordham, Professor Grieg-Smith, Ian Mercer, Professor Prentice, Professor Southwood and David Streeter; Peggy Varley was Chair of Science and Education and David Stanbury Chair of Finance and Admin. Professor Grimes was President and the Vice presidents were Professor Clapham, Earl Cranbrook and Sir Frank Fraser Darling; Secretary Roger Chapman.
From there I never looked back and spent some 25 years on the Executive Committee and also the Science and Education Committee, chairing the latter for a while. I also chaired the environment committee which helped to green the Centres before the Eco-Centre scheme came along.
I spent 20 years lecturing in Geography at Sheffield University before I moved to Cambridge Geography Department and Robinson College in 1995/6. I remember persuading several members of staff at Sheffield that it would be a good idea to take the Second Year Physical Geography students, maybe 50 of them, to Rhyd-Y-Creuau. We went there for several years, doing field work on micro-climate, river geomorphology, and soils and vegetation visiting the same areas in shifts over 3 days so each student did each project. They then did their own projects and presented them on the last day after we had all been to Cwm Idwal. One year we had arranged for all the students to go to one pub on the last evening and the landlord arranged for a band. However, later in the evening he objected to the female students dancing – I can still remember my disbelief as he voiced his objection: “Girls are dancing. It’s got to stop”. We went to another pub.
Meanwhile I had volunteered to visit a new potential Field Centre at Blencathra and I put my bike on the train from Sheffield with a PhD student then lodging with me, Alistair Kirkbride. We cycled over the Pennines and fetched up at the old TB hospital, meeting Rob Lucas there. We spent a night in one of the wards which could be opened to the fresh mountain air. All agreed that it would be a viable place for a Field Centre and so it wasn’t too long before we moved our Second Year field course to Blencathra. The bar arrangements there were not without some relief for me as the students would get a drink from the in-Centre bar and happily carry on working till late (and no difficult landlords). It was also deeply impressive that when we went up into the hills they gave us walkie-talkies so the staff could not only talk to each other when strung out on a footpath but also we could check the weather forecast and talk to the Parks Authority if needs be. Very comforting when you are responsible for a large group of people.
Soon after I arrived at Sheffield I also began taking my own Third Year Option on Soils, Agriculture and Environment to Slapton each year, first with Tony Thomas as Warden and then with Keith Chell. This started a long and happy association with Jim McPetrie. As the local farmer we would team teach where I would do the academic discourse and he would then say; “that’s all very well, but in practice….” Generations of students dutifully made reference to the authority of ‘Jimmy the Farmer’ in their Finals exams scripts, much to the puzzlement of a succession of External Examiners.
Parallel to this I received some NERC funding for a research studentship on nitrate. While I was trying to fill this post Tim Burt, then lecturing in Human Ecology at Huddersfield and who I already knew via the Bristol connection, suggested Nigel Coles as a candidate. He had done his Human Ecology placement year, as many from Huddersfield did, at Slapton. Nigel soon asked if he could do his field work at Slapton rather than around Sheffield and while I was temporarily reluctant it rapidly dawned on me that supervising his research would happily involve me in regular and frequent trips to Slapton. Tim and I also subsequently gained a couple of NERC Research grants to work at Slapton with Brian Arkell and Louise Heathwaite so for much of the 1980’s I practically lived at Slapton (and indeed actually did for one Study Leave period). I happily helped with guided walks and soon became a member of the Nature Reserve/Land Management Committees. My fondest memory of that was when Keith Chell showed me the Nature Reserve Agreement with the Whitley Trust where early on it said that the local hunt, with horses and dogs, shall be allowed on the land and later on it carefully observed that ‘all dogs must be on a lead’. I found the resulting mental image most amusing.
When I went to Cambridge I kept in close touch with Slapton while Nigel Coles was a Tutor there but soon he and others I associated with the Centre like Liz Cole, Dave Butcher and Rob Lucas had all dispersed to other posts. I did return to Slapton a couple of times running the field course for the Masters students but, despite the balmy nature of the Slapton climate, I soon succumbed I to the warmer delights of the Cambridge undergraduate field course to Mallorca. I still go back though and when I was chairing a Slapton Research Seminar a few years ago, in my summing up at the end I said “I am sure I am not alone in saying what a debt I owe to this place”. The debt not only involves many life-long friendships and a wealth of rich and rewarding experiences but also two very particular awakenings.
The first relates to the FSC’s admirable desire to communicate its work to the public coupled with getting to know Jimmy the Farmer. Early in our research at Slapton we were holding a public meeting at Slapton to inform local people about our findings and I was standing by a graph of water quality monitoring stretching from the initial pioneering work of Bob and Lorna Troake in the 1970’s to our 1980’s work. I told Jimmy that it was clear that nitrate in the stream was increasing – obviously in line with increased fertiliser use by farmers. In true style he said: “No it isn’t” and proceeded to give his own views, thereby teaching me a lot. I learnt that what I took for granted might be challenged by others who wouldn’t even see the pattern let alone agree with the explanation and that the perception of issues and people’s positionality was just as important as doing the science. In short in order to tackle environmental issues the science was necessary but not sufficient. I could never go back to just doing science again. This thus started me on a new career involving research and teaching about the social and psychological aspects of how we regard nature. It also made me embark on the study of people’s attitudes to environmental information and I have done several surveys of public views of nature at Slapton. These surveys have then formed the basis of papers which I have published on the psychology of nature conservation and on attitudes to coastal erosion. Jim continues to challenge everything I say, which is not only good for me, he actually manages to do it so supportively that I acknowledged the debt I owe to the discussions in Jim and Di’s kitchen in the Preface to one of my books on the environment.
The other awakening I can’t thank the FSC enough for was the suggestion that FSC Executive members should go on a course to see what it is like to be a customer. I remember David Stanbury the former Exec Chair summed this up as ‘looking at the back of the toilet door to see if it is clean’ – which was his way of saying that an inspection visit from an outsider isn’t the same of being involved from the inside. Having done some landscape painting when I was younger, for my ‘insider’ experience I chose to go on Karen Scadeng’s art course at Slapton as a participant – rather than as course teacher/Executive member. I loved it. While I did duly report back, making some suggestions about the Centre, once again I never looked back. I found that not only had I thoroughly enjoyed Karen’s course but also that I needed some basic tuition in techniques. Consequently, I spent a day on Hilary Gibson’s introductory art course at Slapton and later I went on her full course. When she and other course participants heard me talking about how the landscape had originated, which most agreed acted to inform their paintings, the idea evolved that we would run joint courses. Now ‘Art and a Sense of Place’ is running at Slapton and we have run ‘Art and the Limestone Landscape’ for a few years at Malham. I’ve done flower painting at Flatford, Preston Montford and Malham and art has become a central activity in my life. I’ve sold some of my paintings in aid of the FSC Kid’s Fund to try to give something back to the FSC. I’d like to do more of that as while I have spent a lot of time doing things for the FSC because I believe in it, the FSC has given me so much that I shall always feel indebted to it.