Saturday, 18 July 2020

The wild side of the M25

Helen Macdonald, author of 'H is for Hawk' has completed a journey around the M25 exploring the wildlife that lies along its margins.

Catch it on iPlayer.

Is there a wild side to Britain’s busiest road? Author and naturalist Helen Macdonald embarks on a clockwise loop around London’s orbital motorway - searching for hidden wildness and natural beauty within the sight and sound of the M25. Along her journey, Helen encounters the remarkable people, plants and animals living above, beside and beneath the motorway, and delves into the controversial history of the UK’s longest and least-loved bypass.

The M25 has been part of Britain’s landscape for nearly 35 years, so how has the natural world adapted to the motorway carving a path through its environment? Starting just south of the Thames at Kent’s Junction 1, Helen explores the woodland that lines the first 40 miles of the M25. In a first sign of how animals’ lives are shaped by the man-made world, great tits are changing the pitch of their calls in order to be heard above the roar of the road. But humans have often been less willing to adapt to the M25’s noisy presence.

The village of Shoreham won a battle to divert the motorway, thanks to the landscape paintings of 19th-century artist Samuel Palmer. Palmer’s paintings are highly prized today for their pre-impressionistic style and their idyllic visions of a benign countryside. Although Palmer’s vision was at odds with the harsher reality for farmworkers of the time, 20th-century locals leveraged their emotive value to save Shoreham’s valley and re-route the motorway through nearby woods.

Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Place 2020

Place 2020 is a new project which has been launched as part of the Centre for Place Writing.

The work here explores, via a dynamic mix of new writing (poetry, essay, commentary, reflection and story), films, photography and podcasts, how ideas of ‘place’ shifted radically across the globe in 2020, as billions of people went into lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter Movement changed how we think about everything.

New work will feature on this site throughout 2020.

An excellent piece by Amy Liptrot is part of the first few pieces, exploring young people's relationship with nature.

I often think about how the geographies of our childhoods define our psyches. I grew up next to cliffs, in big skies with the open ocean and wide horizons. I’m coming to see that my son’s ‘local acre’, his native mile, will be different. Where we now live, in West Yorkshire, is about as landlocked as you can be in the UK. His is a world of woods and rivers, of terraced houses among trees: a world of gritstone and green rather than sky and sea.

It’s been striking how something global (a pandemic) has made me focus on the local. Our street leads onto the woods: a gorge extending a mile or so up the valley along a stream. This locality - both the street and the woods - has taken on a greater significance in the last twelve weeks than ever before. Discouraged from driving, and accompanied by a two-year-old, my horizons have contracted.

Reminds me of a quote I've used for many years in presentations

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Landscapes of Detectorists

"Alright geography degree, where should we be searching?"

I've been waiting for this book for some time, and it's lovely to finally hold it in my hand and flick through its contents before diving in. I didn't quite do a "gold dance" when my lovely postlady left it on the doormat and retreated two metres, but not far off.
'Detectorists' instantly grabbed me when the first episode of the first series was broadcast on the BBC on 2nd of October 2014. The week before I'd watched another wonderful Toby Jones performance in 'Marvellous' about the life of Neil Baldwin, so I was keen to see him in this new series too.
There was something calming about the series as it progressed, with the relationship between Becky and Andy, the banter about 'University Challenge', their random finds and changing relationships. There are so many small moments of joy (many of which make it into the pages of the book)

  • The random curries made from whatever was in the boxes Lance was unloading with his fork-lift.
  • The changing dynamic of friendship and relationship with the arrival of Sophie.
  • The bickering with Simon and Garfunkel.
  • Mr. Bishop and his phantom dogs.
  • Sheila's lemonade - the sharpest lemonade on the planet.
  • The tension-filled pub quiz.
All wonderful vignettes making up a fantastic narrative, and pastoral first series, which was followed by two others. It also had the perfect ending for home-maker Andy and his family. The casting of Diana Rigg as Becky's mum (the actress Rachael Stirling is her daughter) was also a lovely touch.

As I was watching it, Jo Norcup and Innes Keighren were also watching, and later discussing it, and unpicking the themes and identifying a number that were geographical beyond the obvious "sense of place" and "landscape as palimpsest" that were perhaps clearer to the viewer, with the treasures buried just out of sight by people long past. There were also references to reading the landscape, Ordnance Survey maps and Google Earth.
Danebury's OS sheet is reproduced at the start of the book, just as it was glimpsed in the episode where Becky uses her geographical skills to suggest the most likely location for the ship they are seeking. Andrew Harris noticed the connection with verticality: how Andy was always looking at the ground, even when performing, and how he took on jobs whose actions mirrored detecting. They noticed how it was Becky who made the decisions, with gender roles being explored, and how detecting is an act which connects you with the quotidian of yesterday.

Later, Jo and Innes developed their ideas and thinking into a session for the RGS-IBG's Summer conference in 2018. When they published an open call for papers I even started writing one. I visited the filming locations in Suffolk, including Framlingham and Aldham, but didn't get it finished, and it would have been rather less than academic if I had.
I had started to explore how programs like 'Detectorists' can lead to a growth in tourism, with people wanting to visit the filming locations. It also explored how the real place is subtly changed by the film makers, so that its geography is changed. Those living in the place can immediately see the lack of logic to particular scenes when they watch them, those unfamiliar remain blissfully ignorant.

Here's an extract from the RGS session abstract which led to the book:

The BAFTA-winning situation comedy-drama “Detectorists” has, across three series and a Christmas special (2014–17), garnered critical praise for its affectionate portrayal of metal detecting and amateur archaeology in rural England. In its attention to the embodied practice of detecting and to the social worlds of detectorists, the programme has been described by critics variously as “about hardly anything and almost everything” (Lloyd 2015) and “the most accurate portrait of men being men that you’ll find in current popular culture” (Fewery 2015). For one Twitter user (Sumsion 2014), the show is simply “a warm, beguiling, slow-burn meditation on male friendship and prosaic details of Englishness, plus some metal”. Explaining his motivation for creating “Detectorists”, Mackenzie Crook, writer and director of the programme, has said “I wanted to do an exploration of men and their obsessions, and I wanted to do a celebration of people and their hobbies, and a celebration of the English countryside” (Crook 2015).

Jo describes the lead up to the session when they wondered whether they were going to make fools of themselves, but it turned out to be very successful and well received, and the programme's producer, Adam Tandy came along too. Isla Forsyth and Andrew Harris added their own pieces as well.

Following the session, Jo and Innes were approached by Colin Sackett of Uniformbooks and asked if they would like to turn the session papers into a book.

The book is beautifully presented and has the added value of a foreword written by Mackenzie Crook who professes himself surprised at how the 'readings' of the authors of each essay have revealed to him some things he never noticed himself - reminding us how geographers see the world with 'a different view', to add to the views of archaeologists and detectorists to interpret the landscapes of anywhere, not just the Landscapes of Detectorists.
Crook has since turned his talents to a resurrection and new interpretation of ‘Worzel Gummidge’, drawn from similar themes of folk tales blended with warnings of climate change and the seasons being out of balance - other geographical themes. A series is apparently forthcoming.
I appreciated the references to some relevant geographical scholarship and others such as Joe Moran, who has written on the quotidian (a personal interest of mine as well), and Tim Edensor, both of whom also consider the creation of the landscape and the role of artefacts to connect us with the lives of those who have occupied the landscape before. The third series introduced more images of the previous occupants, alongside the family of magpies that have been collecting gold in their nest in the tree beneath which Andy and Lance sit to eat their lunch and reflect on their hobby.

The text is accompanied by plentiful black and white stills from the series.

Reading the book gave me a desire to rewatch key scenes from the series to spot things I hadn't noticed. I'd forgotten one scene at the start of the third series, for example, where the solar farm developers Photon Harvest are talking about a new development and unroll a large aerial photograph on the desk in a London highrise. It shows Church Farm outside Danebury.
The camera zooms down into the landscape, 'Powers of Ten' style, to reveal a yellow TVR and Lance and Andy walking out to start the day detecting...

Lance looks up, and says: "Look at that, not a cloud in the sky"....

Reading this wonderful book has given me a desire to visit the church at Aldhouse again.
Now that the pubs are open I'll also head for Great Glemham and raise a glass to Innes and Jo in 'The Two Brewers'.
I'm also going to finish off my 'paper' on the landscapes explored in the series. This book is very much a book by and for geographers, for those interested in place-making and cultural geography, such as the sub-culture of detectorists and their practice. It's also about the construction of a narrative which has hidden depths, just as any ploughed field has. One particular field on the edge of the village in Snettisham in Norfolk where I lived for 12 years yielded up a golden treasure which, like Lance's brooch is now on display in the British Museum.

Some details on how the book came about, and the development of the essays can be seen in this interview here.

Full disclosure: I was sent a review copy of the book by Colin Sackett of Uniformbooks, but would have purchased a copy of my own.

Uniformbooks have always been supportive of, and receptive to, geographical thinking, having previously published books featuring the work of former GA President Geoffrey Hutchings and also David Mattless.

P.S: Jo, I'm still hoping to get my pin badge from the finds table :)

Images: Screengrabs from iPlayer - copyright BBC

Thought for the Day

"I think imagination needs a precise geography"

Robert MacFarlane

Thursday, 2 July 2020

OFQUAL Fieldwork Consultation

“Fieldwork is the best and most immediate means of bringing the two aspects of the subject (i.e. a body of knowledge and a distinctive method of study) together in the experience of the pupil. Therefore, fieldwork is a necessary part of geographical education; it is not an optional extra”  

(Bailey, 1974)

Over the years I've been part of many consultations and responses to consultations from the GA and also in a personal capacity. 
Over the years the GA and other bodies have had to fight to keep aspects of the subject, indeed the whole subject itself, on the curriculum.
Many consultations receive a low number of responses.
This often plays to those who want to skew the result in a particular way by saying "look, there's no real opposition to this in the responses to the consultation".
OFQUAL has a consultation running until the 16th of July. TAKE PART!

This consultation is on the content and running of the 2021 Exams for GCSE, AS (which nobody really does anymore) and A levels. There are some suggested changes which are being consulted on.


Here is the bit that is important for us as geographers.

A look at the annex shows that the History GCSEs have had their content slimmed down - sometimes losing quite a lot of content, but Geography has just had the fieldwork element removed.

If fieldwork goes, then there is a great possibility that it will be lost forever, and if we have "done without it" the expectation will be that we can continue to "do without it".

The wording could perhaps be adapted so that the requirement to carry out fieldwork "beyond the school gates" is removed - there are options for fieldwork on the school grounds, or in the immediate area, or using secondary data more substantially. Or remove the requirement for it to be assessed in quite the way that it is currently, or perhaps as an alternative to a part of the course, that those schools who had already carried out fieldwork could opt for.

It is very important that fieldwork is retained. Remove other course content to free up time but keep one of the key elements of geographical study, and one which so many other former and indeed present Geographical Association Presidents have championed and fought for in decades past.
From Geoffrey Hutchings, to Patrick Bailey, to Nick Lapthorn and Gill Miller (and others) the GA has led on a whole range of fieldwork projects. The GA has a stategic partnership with the GA, showing the value placed on fieldwork. August 2015-16 saw the Year of Fieldwork.
During the summer the 2nd edition of my new book on 'Fieldwork through Enquiry' - a 2nd edition of the popular book co-written with John Widdowson will be published.

Virtual experiences are not fieldwork...
Chris Durbin's quote remains important here: "virtual fieldwork is like a virtual pint of beer~....

Add your voice to keep fieldwork.
For ideas for local and school-based fieldwork check out the GA's Geography from Home section of the website.

This blogpost represents my personal views.
The Geographical Association is also responding to the consultation and recommending to other geography teachers that they do the same.
Here's Alan Kinder's view in the TES