Monday, July 25, 2011

How I spent my summer vacation

Map of Durham by John Speed, 1610.  The Cathedral and Castle are shown, as is the River Wear, which surrounds the city on three sides.  

Welcome to Durham City! Modern tourist map, which unfortunately leaves out many of the streets, footpaths, and “vennels,” little alleyways and lanes just wide enough (maybe!) for two people to pass, which act as shortcuts through the city. Still, you can see the unmistakable meander of the River Wear around the city.

As some of you know, I have just spent the past few weeks in England, mainly for the purpose of attending the International Medical Geography Symposium at the University of Durham, in northeastern England.  So it wasn’t a true, unadulterated vacation, per se, although it was very enjoyable.  Without having this blog posting turn into a travelogue, I would like to record some of my random thoughts about being back in England for the first time since 1997 – Holy Smokes, almost 15 years ago!  I have visited the British Isles numerous times, the first time back in 1969.  When a very much younger friend recently asked me why I decided to go to England way back then, I had a hard time putting it into words.  It was the ‘60’s!  It’s where you went if you were young, into music, fashion, and “youth culture” stuff.  It was Swinging London!  The silly old (truly awful!) country music song by Roger Miller popped into my head: “England swings like a pendulum do!” (1965)
England swings like a pendulum do.
Bobbies on bicycles, two by two
Westminster Abby, the Tower of Big Ben,
The rosy red cheeks of the little child-ren
There are so many great songs about England and London, I can't understand why this particular ditty was the first one that came to mind!  also, you know you’re getting old when one of the comments under the YouTube video says “My grandfather used to listen to this song”  (!!)

         As I settled in for the train ride from King’s Cross station to Durham, where the conference was being held, I noticed some beautiful/funny/strange/interesting things from the train window: 
  • The train tracks were lined the entire way, nearly three hours of relatively fast-moving train clackety-clack, with vast linear clumps of wild lavender, interspersed with purple and white butterfly bushes; 
  • A Wind Turbine farm, wind mills turning furiously in the north winds. 

(Coincidentally, the Times the next Sunday had a big feature article in their magazine discussing the problems and controversies in the UK with the proliferation of wind farms, including a map of all the existing and proposed locations.  They don’t fool around when it comes to trying alternative energy sources!); map from “Blades of Fury,” by Matt Rudd, The Times, July 17, 2011

  • Three nuclear power plants, (in the space of about 1 hour of train travel time) one of which had at least 12 cooling towers – The British, and Europeans in general, rely much more heavily on nuclear power than the U.S. does;
  • A soggy looking bright green field with a banner strung between two poles, proudly announcing “British Soy Grown Here”;
  • Another field of some low grass-like crop, with a little wooden desk sitting incongruously alone in the middle of the field;
  • A sign on a storefront in one of the towns, saying “Pumpkin Smith”  - what could that mean? They fix pumpkins?  They make jack-o'-lanterns?; 
  • An ordinary-looking mundane storefront, with the ominous sign (in purple) reading “The FuneralCare Cooperative.”  What next.  

The most arresting feature of East Coast train travel in Britain is the plethora of fields, hemmed in by hedgerows, some with grazing animals, and quite rural in appearance, considering it starts pretty much as soon as you leave the London suburbs.  Many of the little towns along the way were obviously market towns back in the day (and perhaps still are considered so), the railroad was built to connect these places to the city to provide fresh produce, eggs, meat, etc.  There is a bit of industry here and there, but it is a very bucolic landscape that one rides through, now-a-days. 

Town Mining Banner of Ashington
I arrived in Durham on the annual Miner’s Day Gala.  The villages all around here were coal mining communities, and once a year all the old mining towns gather their people together, have marching bands parade through the towns, then put everybody on a coach to Durham, the central city of the surrounding hinterlands.  All the mining villages march under their own banners, and have a big festival on the Palace Green.  This has been a tradition for 127 years and it remains the largest socialist trade union event in the world - even though the last coal mine in this region closed in 1994, and most of the other hundreds of mines closed in the turbulent period of nationalization and union-busting 1950’s through the 1970’s.  In 1919 there had been quarter of a million coal miners employed in this county.  It was a major way of life in the area, with generations of men in the same families working in the same mines, often starting as young as 13 years old, in the days before compulsory schooling until 16.  The mining identity is still firmly rooted in the collective psyche of the region.

View of the Cathedral Tower and the Castle Keep from the Framwelgate Bridge, the River Wear below.
Durham is a very old settlement, with evidence of human habitation since at least 2,000 BC.  Durham gets its name from the Old English “Dun” meaning hill, and “Holme,” from the Old Norse, meaning island.  The Cathedral, Castle, Market Place, and the older parts of the University sit on a near-island in the middle of a meander of the River Wear, which effectively forms a moat around three sides of the city.  This came in useful when Durham was a kind of de facto northern defensive outpost against the Scots.  The old Prebends Bridge has a plaque of Sir Walter Scot’s words about Durham: “Grey towers of Durham; Yet well I love thy mixed and massive piles; Half church of God, half castle ‘gainst the Scot; And long to roam these venerable aisles; With records stored of deeds long since forgot.”       
                                                                              The Prebends Bridge, built in 1772 by George Nicholson, currently damaged by water seepage and under restoration, is a Grade 1 listed structure in the UK, meaning the highest class of buildings of exceptional worth.  (A “prebend,” btw, is a stipend furnished to an abbott or other clergyman from the cathedral or collegiate church.  Most likely the abbott’s prebend was used to construct the bridge, hence its name.)  

View of the Cathedral Tower through the tracery windows of the Cloisters. 
The Cathedral is considered to be the finest example of Norman architecture in the world, and UNESCO has designated it, along with the Castle and other venerable parts of the city, a World Heritage Site.  The Bishopric dates from 995 AD, the present cathedral was founded in 1093, and it houses the Shrine of St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, the head of St. Oswald, and the remains of the Venerable Bede.  Some things I found interesting: a wall plaque listing the names of all the Masters of the Organ and Choristers since 1534 down to the present Master.  And there were fewer than twenty of them!  Only 19 or so Masters of the Choristers separate us from 1534.  Another plaque, detailing the service of one Richard Dawson (1736), his son, his grandson, and his great-grandson (1934), all “Agents of the Dean.”  Can you imagine anyone nowadays having the same job for four generations?
Through the years, the city has been renowned for various industries, aside from coal mining: wool fulling, carpet making, (the famous Axminster rugs were made here) mustard processing, and also more recently, the setting for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies.  The Cathedral’s Chapter House was the film’s classroom, and there are Harry Potter references all over town.  Durham is an ideal walking city, that is, if you don’t mind everything being both up AND down hills, steps, and footpaths!  I did my share of walking, that’s for sure! 

The conference organizers arranged a great field trip for us to the north.  This is a small extant section of Hadrian’s Wall near Cawfields (built in roughly 122 AD), ostensibly to keep the Scots out of England, but most probably more for the purpose of collecting customs, tolls, duties, regulating commerce and population movements, and catching smugglers.  Recent historians suspect that this was actually the main purpose of the wall, since the Romans were known for their love of taxation and control.  In many places the wall would have been about 20 feet high, with small fortlets called Milecastles located every mile along it.  The excellent Roman-quarried-and-dressed stones were re-purposed by local farmers for their farmsteads and sheep pens, in the intervening centuries since the Romans pulled out of Britain.  (In a move worthy of the famous President Ford headline when NYC was facing bankruptcy in the 1970’s – “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” the Emperor Honorius said in 412 AD that Roman troops would no longer be able to protect Britain against invaders, and he withdrew most of the soldiers, who were from all over the Empire, as well as ceased support for the administrative infrastructure, leaving the British people to their own devices. Enter: the Dark Ages.)

The Medical Geography conference was excellent – so many good paper presentations, and interesting people to meet.  The conference organizers also made sure we got a little taste of various aspects of the University, the city, and the region as a whole by staging several events: they hosted a reception for the conference participants in the halls and croquet lawn of St. Chad’s College, one of the older colleges in the University; they took us on a field trip to a Colliery Museum and Interpretive Centre, Hadrian’s Wall, and excavations of a Roman Fort circa 80 AD; and they had a banquet for us at Beamish Hall, a beautiful 18th century country estate (with Norman origins going back to the 12th century).  Kudos to the IMGS and Durham University for a wonderful conference. 

 The Department of Geography at Durham University in its very own BUILDING! (photo source: ROBUST webpage of the Durham University Institute for Hazard,  Risk, and Resilience.)     

One of the noteworthy things about the UK (as well as other parts of Europe) is the seriousness with which they take Geography as a discipline.  They (the academics) actually seem to hold it in high esteem!  So refreshingly different from the way Geography (and geographers) are viewed in the U.S., if, indeed, anyone thinks about them at all!  I had several interesting conversations with British Ph.D. students and faculty about why this might be so, but we could come to no definitive conclusions.  In the U.K., students actually view Geography as a practical, advantageous, and desirable subject to study.  In the U.S., Geography is a bit of a mystery discipline, certainly to lay people, and even within academia.  Are we natural scientists?  Well, if you are a climatologist, oceanographer, hazards specialist, a geomorphologist, or physical geographer of any stripe, the answer is probably a resounding borderline “yes”!  All others are relegated to the realm of social science, not that there’s anything wrong with it!  But I find that “science” as opposed to “social science” has a higher degree of importance, respect, and cachet in the US, especially when applying for grant funding.  NSF has actually turned down applications for geosciences projects written by geographers, saying that Geography was not a Geoscience!  Hey, we are the ORIGINAL Geoscience, you nimrods!  Just ask Eratosthenes!  In the US no one seems to know, really, what geographers do.  At Durham University, the Geography Department has their very own, very new and attractively-designed, technologically state-of-the-art building.  An entire building!  And they seem to have more Geography faculty than my department has students!  AND, the building is centrally located in the University’s “Science Site.”  Ah, well!

When I returned to London for a few days after my time in Durham, there were a number of things on my “to-do” list.  I wanted to see the new exhibit of hand-drawn maps of London at the London Museum, and I wanted to visit the Royal Geographical Society.  I managed to do both, and also to take a little tourist cruise on the Thames River, to see all the waterfront development that has taken place in the intervening years since I’ve been there - the building affectionately known as the “Gherkin” because of its shape (see photo to the left), the Shard of Glass (which will be the tallest building in Europe when complete, and looks like, well, a shard of glass), the London Eye (huge Ferris wheel), and also to see all the posh new housing along the riverfront.  The river cruise was also intended to serve the dual purpose of getting me to Greenwich without having to walk through that mile-long scary, all white-tile-surfaced pedestrian tunnel from the Docklands underneath the Thames!  A clostrophobic's worst nightmare! Never again!  I wanted to get to Greenwich, of course, to visit once again the Royal Greenwich Observatory, founded in 1675 (you know, Greenwich - where the Prime Meridian slices the earth into longitude west and longitude east, and also the epicenter of Greenwich Mean Time, from which all other times are reckoned).  You have to hand it to the British geographers – they got to say not only where Time starts, but also where Longitude 00o00’00” is!  Very clever of them! 

Charles Booth’s Poverty Map Room in the London Museum
 The London Museum provides a fascinating look at the history of what is now the City of London, going back to before the last Ice Age, through the Celts, Roman times, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, and so forth, up to the present.  There’s a nice section of maps of the Thames River, showing how the course of the river was altered, quite drastically, by climate and environmental conditions over the past millennia.  There was a whole room dedicated to Charles Booth’s poverty maps of London in the 19th century, wherein he categorized every street in the city as to its apparent socio-economic status.  He (and his minions) actually walked every street in London with little notebooks, jotting down observations and little sketch maps.  The room is papered with a large-scale facsimile of his maps, including the floor and ceiling, and there is an interactive computer embedded in one of the walls where you can zoom in on different sections of the city, pull up accompanying photos of the area, and read his neighborhood descriptions in the actual log book. 

 Detail of one of the Neighbourhood Maps

The Legend to the Maps (from the interactive computer map)

Notations from Booth’s Notebook on the Paddington area
“Charles Booth’s survey into life and labour in London, 1886-1903.  Charles Booth’s survey was an ambitious attempt to assess the scale of poverty in London.  Whereas artists and writers painted emotionally charged pictures of the poor, Booth wanted to map poverty scientifically.  His researchers went out into London with the aim of assessing the social characteristics of every street.  A ‘rough’ working-class area was defined as one with open doors, broken windows, prostitutes, thieves, and ‘a row always going on between warlike mothers.’  Flowerpots, lace curtains, scrubbed doorsteps and hanging birdcages were the hallmarks of a respectable neighourhood.  Booth’s map provides an extraordinary snapshot of London at the end of the 19th century.” Source: Text from the London Museum exhibit. 

"How I Spent My Summer Vacation" continues in the next two posts:
"Hand-Drawn Map from the London Museum"
"My Visit to the Royal Geographical Society"


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