Then we remembered that while at Dale the previous year, the young John Crothers had told us that he would soon be taking over as the first warden of the new Leonard Wills Field Centre at Nettlecombe. We at once made a booking.
Our party, consisting of some 25 second-year biology undergraduates from the Polytechnic of North London, myself as zoologist and Dr David Irvine as botanist, arrived at Nettlecombe in mid-July 1968 on the wettest day of the summer. The roads ran red with sandstone, the streams were in spate, and if you wanted to stay dry while eating in the Great Hall, it was best not to sit too near the windows.
We spent a fortnight exploring the area; local names had a resonance which endures: Bird’s Hill, Black Monkey Bridge, Stogumber, Monksilver and Carhampton. At that time the pub in Monksilver was run by the last hangman (ret’d) in Britain and Carhampton was said to be the last place in the country where wassailing still went on – whereby, according to local custom, late apples were shot out of the trees by gunfire on Twelfth Night. We discovered the strength of the local scrumpy. This, of course, was all in addition to the wealth of educational potential we unearthed in the local terrain.
For me personally, 1968 marked the beginning of a totally new research pre-occupation. It began at Parsonage Pond, just up the valley, where I noticed a song thrush breaking snails on a stone. This led to field experiments to determine whether this predation was selective in respect of shell-colour and banding pattern, and then, quite logically, to whether size of shell was an additional factor. (I had meanwhile discovered that on nearby Steepholm, where there were no thrushes, the snails were noticeably larger than on the mainland, but that on neighbouring Flatholm, where there were thrushes, the snails were more the usual size). I roped in Adrian Bayley, Assistant Warden at the Centre, in these experiments; one summer he had to unique-mark and measure several hundred live snails and release them in the Nettlecombe Camellia House where song thrushes were nesting. I roped in one of the domestic staff, Kim Noble, in contributing to a huge survey of snail populations in a 10x10Km square round Nettlecombe, and resident Geographer Simon Ratsey in discussions about the local climate. The Centre lies on the edge of a frost-hollow and the flow of cool evening air running down from the surrounding hills acts selectively on snails, depending on their shell colour.
By the late 1970s the Science Research Council was funding much of this research, with Steve Tilling becoming a resident Ph.D research student at the Centre, working solely on snail projects. Additionally, my own research in London was investigating chromosome behaviour in one of our snail species which we discovered to be on the edge of its range in the Nettlecombe area. All in all the work generated a steady stream of original publications in the international scientific literature, all deriving from questions asked of the Nettlecombe snails.
While this was going on we were still bringing down groups of students for their fieldwork. Certain memories persist; the discovery of the extreme similarity of a dead bracken frond to a coiled adder, and the confusion this generated on the far side of Bird’s Hill where we once counted over twenty adders in one morning, as well as lots of dead fronds. I still feel slightly guilty at having told a young bare-armed Malayan student, new to Britain, to look for snails in a particular nettlepatch and forgetting to warn him that nettles could sting, especially so as the other students had already terrified him with the news that the local black cows were wild and exceedingly dangerous.
As a warden John Crothers was an invariable and impressive presence. Simultaneously authoritative and imperturbable, he always managed to persuade visiting academics not only to endure any occasional shortcomings of the Centre, but somehow make them feel they were conferring an honour on the system by doing so. He never failed to make all the resources of the Centre available to whatever project was underway. But I do remember just one occasion where his generosity was declined. On the evening of 21st July 1969, he walked into the lab we were using and looked at the students, head down to whatever they were doing. He then invited the entire party to his flat to see Neil Armstrong land on the moon. Not a single student budged.