How to be an ecologist #4

The British university system somehow manages to train ecologists despite two major impediments: most universities are in cites and all teach during the periods of the year that are least enticing for the budding field scientist.   Together, these factors work as two strong selective factors: getting thoroughly damp in a forest in Hampshire on a wet Sunday (because it is easier to timetable a whole day trip at the weekend), following a two hour coach trip, is a fine way of weeding out those with romantic notions of ecology gleaned from David Attenborough documentaries.

Then, of course, there is the residential field course, where students are immersed in an alien environment for an entire week (two, in some cases). These days, field trips seem to function as part of the marketing blurb in the prospectus, with departments vying with each other to offer the most exotic location. It makes as much sense to the customer (and that is what students are, let’s be honest) as a financial advisors offering a free pen to anyone who signs up to a pension plan.   Back then, we were taken, by boat, to Blakeney Point in Norfolk, and dumped outside the wooden hut that served as University College, London’s field station. We camped amongst the sand dunes and spent the days learning about the saltmarsh and sand dune plants under the tutelage of Dickie Clymo.

I still contend that you can learn more in a week about plant ecology on a British salt marsh or sand dune than in twice that time in a more exotic habitat.   Sand dunes and salt marshes have the additional benefit of having only a limited number of species, which means that we were able to focus on why they grew where they did rather than having to memorise long lists of names.   But then I do not have to recruit students for a degree course.


Left: saltmarsh vegetation at Blakeney Point, Norfolk, October 2011; right: close up of Suaeda maritima (Annual Sea Bite) from Blakeney Point.

I also learned a second very important lesson about ecology: that week among the sand dunes generated enough data to keep our ecology class busy through the winter months, as we analysed the data in all sorts of ways.   I learned multivariate statistics – ordination and classification – the slow way, crunching the numbers by hand.   The process worked, I think, because we could relate the graphs we produced to the communities that we had seen just a few months earlier.   I found Dickie Clymo’s way of teaching ecology sufficiently inspiring that I opted for a plant ecology-based project in my final year, and Dickie set me to work on his favourite type of habitat (the peat bog) and plant (Sphagnum moss).

I dug my dissertation out of the loft to see how it had stood the test of time as I was thinking about the post and memories came rushing back. My aim was to look at how the density of Sphagnum plants in a peat bog affected their properties.   I had read parts of John Harper’s book Population Biology of Plants during Dickie’s ecology course and was interested in how organisms competed with one another.   Bogs are seemingly prosaic habitats but, like the salt marshes where we had honed our ecological skills, they were excellent testing grounds for new ideas.


Sampling Sphagnum at Thursley Common, Surrey, early in 1983.

I made two visits to lowland bogs in southern England, Cranesmoor in Hampshire and Thursley Common in Surrey, pushed a metal quadrat with 3 cm sides into the top of the bog at various locations, and removed 1 dm2 squares of Sphagnum to take back to the laboratory. There, I counted the number of shoots and measured the length and mass of the green parts of the shoots. It was slow, painstaking work, which I slotted around my other lectures during my final year at Westfield, sitting in one corner of a research laboratory that Dickie’s PhD student shared with Brenda Thake’s students.   I also tried to look at the amount of chlorophyll in Sphagnum plants, and have a scar from pushing a pipette bulb onto a pipette with so much force that the pipette snapped and drove into my finger. This happened on a Sunday afternoon, when I was working in the laboratory on my own.   Back in those unenlightened days, I can’t even remember filling in an accident form.


The effect of density on shoot mass in different species of Sphagnum from bogs in southern England. Pearson correlation coefficient, r = 0. 75, P < 0.001. From my undergraduate dissertation.

The first graph that I have included makes a point that may be rather obvious to anyone who has grown vegetables – that the greater the density of shoots, the smaller each shoot tends to be.   They are competing with each other for resources and, the more plants that there are, the fewer resources each shoot can acquire.   Having made that point, you’ll see that species that tend to be found on the hummocks in peat bogs – such as S. capillifolium – tend to be smaller than those found in bog pools – such as S. subsecundum and S. cuspidatum.   The crowding may actually favour the former as they rely on capillary action to draw up the water that they need from the bog.

However, each shoot of Sphagnum is not really an independent “plant”, simply one of many genetically identical clones (called “ramets”) of a much larger organism.   The individual, in the sense that you and I are unique beings with a distinct genetic identity (a “genet”), is hard to distinguish from it’s neighbours; however, we can infer the response of the individual to density by looking at the frequency with which branches fork (leading to an increase in the size of the genet.   Once again, there was a linear relationship to density, with the greatest frequency of forks observed at low densities, suggesting that density was influencing the size of genets, as well as ramets. Of particular interest to me was that the slope of the relationship (ignoring the two pool species) was -1.42, which is close to -1.5, the theoretical relationship between density and the size of genets proposed in a 1963 paper by Japanese workers (“the -3/2 self thinning rule” which, I confess, I wrote in my lecture notes as the “three tooths law”, as if it were some arcane Japanese philosophical notion). It suggests that an element of “survival of the fittest” was working within Sphagnum populations, in ways that it was not easy to perceive.


The effect of density on the probability of a shoot of Sphagnum forking. The two points in the lower left hand corner (circled) are both pool species. Pearson correlation coefficient, r = 0.551; P < 0.05 (ignoring these two points). From my undergraduate dissertation.

Work on my dissertation took me perilously close to the start of my final examinations and I remember when Brenda Thake, phycology lecturer and unofficial mentor, took me aside and told me bluntly to finish writing and get stuck into some serious revision.   On reflection, I had reached the stage when data that has taken a long time to acquire (long enough, indeed, for you to question the validity of your original hypotheses) suddenly comes together. After all that time, there is a delirious sense of intoxication as you get stuck into the analyses and see patterns emerge.   It was my first taste of research as a vocation rather than as just another job, and it confirmed my desire to continue with my studies.

But that’s a story for another day.


Clymo, R.S. & Hayward, P.M. (1982).  The Ecology of Sphagnum.  In: Bryophyte Ecology (edited by A.J.E. Smith).  Chapman & Hall, London.

Harper, J.M. (1977). Population Biology of Plants. Academic Press, London.

Yoda, K., Kira, T., Ogawa, H. & Hozumi, K. (1963). Self thinning in overcrowded pure stands under cultivated and natural conditions. Journal of the Institute of Polytechnics, Osaka City University, Series D 14: 107-129.

How to make an ecologist #3

I took the opportunity of a trip to London last week to return to some of my old undergraduate haunts in order to continue my musings on how I ended up where I have. That meant a Northern Line tube journey as far Hampstead, and then continuing on foot around the streets, some of which were as familiar now as when I was a student 30 years ago, some of which had dropped completely from my memory. I recognised Flask Walk and Heath Street (the setting for Ford Madox Brown’s masterpiece “Work”), got lost in a maze of streets until I found myself in the Vale of Health, on the edge of Hampstead Heath, then found my way back to Whitestone Pond and the pub Jack Straw’s Castle. From here, I knew I should follow the streets roughly westwards and downhill.

When I was a student, I knew the kilometre or so route from Westfield College to the pubs of Hampstead intimately; now I wandered around, occasionally with a flash of recognition, sometimes with no memory at all.   Eventually, after some backtracking, and checking a map, I saw the familiar street sign of Kidderpore Avenue.   My failure to recognise what once had been so familiar was an intimation of what it must be like to suffer from Alzheimers: to be lost in a place that I knew was, somehow, far less comfortable than if I was in a place I did not know at all.

The sense of dislocation continued even when I arrived at the site of Westfield College.   The absence of triggers for my memory were, at least, easier to explain: most of the buildings had been demolished and replaced by high end apartment buildings (close on £2 million for a 3-bedroom flat).   King’s Building, where the science laboratories and lecture theatres were located, had disappeared completely, as had the old refectory / student union building.   A quadrangle of what were once women’s halls of residence (no mixing of the sexes in those days!) still existed and had been, until recently, accommodation for King’s College students. However, this and other buildings were empty: either awaiting redevelopment or perhaps, even, demolition. One – the Queen Mother Hall – was only completed in 1983. The far end of Kidderpore Avenue, where some rather ugly 1970s halls of residence once stood, was a building site, and the hoardings announced yet more chic apartments.


Kidderpore Avenue, Hampstead, looking towards the site of the King’s Building, once the science laboratories of Westfield College, now replaced by apartments.

Westfield College was a constituent college of the University of London yet, unlike the behemoths of Imperial, UCL and King’s College, it was a small college (only about 1100 students during my time) with the residences and teaching rooms all located on the same site – a triangle of land between Kidderpore Avenue and Finchley Road.   Most of the houses lining Finchley Road were either the locations for smaller departments (Classics, I recall, only had about three single honours students in my year) or residences, and their gardens had become the leafy grounds of the campus. However, my pleasant memories of student life are probably also the reasons for the current sad state of affairs. The size of the college was deemed uneconomic as the Thatcherite years got underway, and Westfield, along with several other small colleges within the university, were merged into the larger colleges.   Westfield joined Queen Mary College, with the academic staff moving to the rather less salubrious environment of the Mile End Road.   For a while, the joint college was called “Queen Mary Westfield” but, in 2013, the “Westfield” part of the name was dropped.

Finchley Road, the busy road that runs along the Westfield’s south-western edge, is the boundary between the postal district NW3, which includes the highly desirable Hampstead Village and environs, and the somewhat less chic NW6. Consequently, once the teaching functions had gone, the Westfield site became prime real estate and the fate of the rather functional college buildings was sealed.   It was sad: my diversion to Westfield and the walk along Kidderpore Avenue provided me with very few of the triggers I needed to stimulate memory – that link with Alzheimer’s rearing up again …  I had good times there but my walk down the hill from Hampstead Village convinced me that I had forgotten much and I wonder what else might have been unlocked by a wander through Westfield’s grounds?

On the plus side, all these upheavals to Westfield mean that I have dropped off the university alumnus records completely, so am never plagued by requests for donations.   Small recompense, maybe?

Next time, I’ll write about what I learned about ecology during my time at Westfield.


Westfield College: the former Principal’s residence, with women’s halls of residence beyond.


The democratisation of stream ecology?


About a year ago, I reported on the development of a rapid assessment method for assessing the condition of rivers using algae that are visible to the naked eye (see “Ecological assessment in the fast lane …“).   Last week, our first paper on this subject was published in Science of the Total Environment, a journal which also requires authors to submit a “graphical abstract” (“a single, concise, pictorial and visual summary of the main findings of the article”, according to the Elsevier website). I’ve put our graphical abstract at the head of this post to spare you, dear readers, of the need to read the article.

On the left we have a river then, moving to the right, there are two options: the upper image shows diatoms, followed by a stopwatch indicating the passage of time, and finally a block of five colours which are supposed to indicate the five ecological status classes specified by the Water Framework Directive (blue= high; green = good; yellow = moderate, orange = poor; red = bad). Underneath, we have a picture which is supposed to indicate visible algal growths (green filaments and a crust of Hildenbrandia), followed by a stopwatch indicating the passage of rather less time than is the case for diatoms, leading, again, to the five ecological status classes.   It is, in brief, a concise pictorial and visual summary of why you should not assume that someone with a Fine Art degree can do something that is, strictly speaking, the specialism of someone with a degree in Graphic Design. I make no excuses.

I am, to be honest, rather proud of this paper, largely because it is a piece of “bottom up” science, driven by the needs of end-users rather than, as is often the case, by an agenda set by the high-ups.   It is also a piece of science that eschews the trend to confuse complicated methods with intellectual sophistication.   Unfortunately, this did not endear us to one of the referees.   Only after suggesting, diplomatically, to the editor that perhaps peer review required the reviewer to actually read the paper properly before writing down all of his prejudices, did we scrape through and get our manuscript accepted.

The big change in RAPPER since I last wrote about it, is that we now have two “maybe at risk” categories.   The first (“maybe (1)”) represents situations where there are genuinely ambiguous combinations of algae present at the site, suggesting that there may be some enrichment, but not so much that the sensitive species have disappeared.   The second (“maybe (2)”) represents situations where we did not get a strong signal either suggesting good conditions or enrichment. This happens sometimes, for example when the stream is strongly shaded or (in a few cases) where the dominant algal genus has a very broad ecological tolerance.   In earlier versions, we referred to this latter case as “no data” but, on reflection, it represents a different type of uncertainty and there are usually good reasons why few algae are present at a site.


Graph comparing the TDI (Trophic Diatom Index) scores for sites classified by RAPPER as not at risk, maybe at risk or at risk.   There is a significant difference between TDI scores for the four categories. From Kelly et al. (2016).

One other reason why I am proud of this work is that it is a step towards reconnecting science with non-technical water users. I wrote about this last June (see “So what?”).   I have been concerned for some time that the science of assessing the state of rivers has become so complicated that it now means little to the average angler or to a man walking his dog along the bank.   RAPPER focusses on visible growths of algae, and so there is a more direct link between the outcome of the assessment and what these people actually see.   The “at risk” category, for example, largely consists of sites with a blanket covering of green algal growths on the stream bed and links into some work in the USA which demonstrated how such growths impact upon public opinion of the health of streams and rivers.

This, in turn, raises some further questions about whether the method can be used by people with an interest in the state of rivers but who are not specialist biologists.   The problem is that not all green algal growths necessarily indicate bad conditions (although persistent growths are usually indicative of a problem of sometime). This, in turn, means that the identity of the algae needs to be checked.   At the moment, everyone who has used RAPPER has access to a good microscope.   How well can the method be used by someone with just a hand-held microscope (which rarely exceed 100x magnification)?   That’s the next question that we need to address.   I have been working with a student to explore the potential for modifying the method so that it can be used for “citizen science”, and have some encouraging results.   I’ve also had some useful discussions with a river trust in the north of England and am hoping to meet with angler’s groups too.   That would be a step towards making ecological assessment “a priesthood of all believers” rather than the exclusive preserve of nerds …


Kelly, M.G., Krokowski, J. & Harding, J.PC. (2016).   RAPPER: a new method for rapid assessment of macroalgae as a complement to diatom-based assessment of ecological status. Science of the Total Environment

Suplee, M.W., Watson, V., Teply, M., McKee, H., 2009. How green is too green? Public opinion of what constitutes undesirable algae levels in streams. J. American Water Resources Association 45: 123–140.

Fieldwork at Flatford


If you look just behind the horse in Constable’s landscape (on display at Tate Britain) showing the River Stour with Flatford Mill in the background (1816-1817), you’ll see a man crouching down.   He’s just disconnected the rope between the barge and the horse to enable the barge to pass under Flatford Bridge but, by coincidence, it is roughly the point where, on 30 December, I crouched down to pull out a handful of weed from the River Stour for some post-Christmas natural history.

I pulled up a handful of Canadian pondweed, Elodea canadensis, which happened to have some filaments of a green alga tangled around it.   It was tough, wiry stuff and, as far as I could see with the naked eye, unbranched, which ruled out the most likely candidate, Cladophora glomerata, so I stuffed a handful of the weed into a sample bottle that I had brought along and brought it back home for a closer look.   However, what I thought would be a straightforward identification task proved problematic.   Rhizoclonium hieroglyphicum is an unbranched alga in the same order as Cladophora (Cladophorales) but the Flatford material was too broad to fit the description. Another candidate, a marine/brackish species occasionally found in freshwaters, is Chaetomorpha linum. The Flatford material was broad enough to qualify as this species, but the cells of C. linum are typically less than twice as long as broad, whereas the Flatford alga had cells with a longer length:breadth ratio.   So, even after consulting Dave John, who wrote the relevant section of the Freshwater Algal Flora of the British Isles, I am still not confident that I know the genus, let alone the species.


Flatford Mill algae: a. the tangle of Elodea canadensis and filamentous algae that I pulled from the River Stour; b. the unidentified alga with epiphytic diatoms (Cocconeis spp. and Rhoicosphenia abbreviata); c. a filament of Ellerbeckia arenaria, also tangled amidst the E. canadensis. Scale bars: 10 micrometres (= 100th of a millimetre).

The filaments were, in turn, smothered with diatom epiphytes – mostly Cocconeis placentula but also some C. pediculus and Rhoicosphenia abbreviata and there were also a few chains of the large centric diatom Ellerbeckia arenaria (see Ellerbeck and Ellerbeckia) alongside a variety of other diatoms including chains of Melosira varians.   The tangle of Elodea and Cladophorales filaments presumably creates a “micro-backwater” within which these other organisms can thrive away.


Unidentified Cladophorales from River Stour near Flatford Mill, 30 December 2015; scale bar: 50 mm (= 1/20th of a millimetre).

My final picture for this post is a view down my microscope during my examination of this material – a homage to John Constable’s landscapes, of sorts, except that distances in my image are measured in micrometres rather than metres.   You can see a filament of the Cladophorales complete with epiphytes at one side and, on the other, a few cells of the diatom Melosira varians. Understanding of the composition of a sample of algae comes from examination of many fields of view such as this, partly because, as you can see, there is usually a lot of non-algal material present that would obscure the algae if preparations were much denser.   I’ve also taken some liberties with depth of field in putting this sketch together.   The experienced microscopist is constantly adjusting the fine focus to get an insight into the three-dimensional structure of his samples. With microscopy, what you see is rarely what you get … but I’ve written about that quite recently so perhaps it is time for me to stop…


A view down the microscope (400x magnification) whilst examining the material from Flatford Mill. Watercolour, gouache and pencil.

How to make an ecologist #2


My New Year musings over the origins of my professional interest in ecology included a journey along the A12 out of London to the Dedham Vale, on the Essex-Suffolk border.   If the building in the photograph above looks familiar, it is because it forms the backdrop to John Constable’s The Hay Wain.   It is also one of the accommodation buildings for Flatford Mill Field Studies Centre and, for a brief but formative week in the summer of 1979, a temporary home for me whilst I made my first tentative forays into the world of ecology.

This experience came at the end of a year of frankly lacklustre biology teaching during my lower sixth year that had done little to rekindle the adolescent enthusiasms that I wrote about in my previous post.   That the school had chosen an A level curriculum that did not involve a practical examination speaks reams about their genuine interest in our education over easing us smoothly through the bureaucratic hassle of an examination and out of their responsibility.

This first experience of field ecology was no Damascene conversion to the joys of ecology.   If anything, I remember being underwhelmed.   At home, my reading had progressed from Arthur Ransome’s adventures set amidst the hills of the Lake District to Chris Bonnington’s accounts of mountaineering in the Himalayas.   Earlier in the year, David Attenborough’s ground-breaking Life on Earth had been screened on the television.   Somehow, the Essex landscape did not seem to match up with these more glamorous settings.   In retrospect, however, I think Flatford was less an anteclimax and more of an antidote to the drama of high mountains, tropical locations and exotic wildlife.   Flatford taught me that ecology did not need a plane ticket and a huge budget. It could be studied in a saltmarsh in Essex, just as easily as on the Serengeti plains.


Flatford Mill Field Studies Centre, December 2015.

Our group of 20 or so teenagers from east London were part of a varied crowd at Flatford Mill that week, alongside older, and rather more sedate, clientele signed up for classes on watercolour painting and church architecture.   There was, I remember, a scrummage after breakfast when the ingredients for packed lunches were laid out.   It was survival of the fittest – another early but important lesson for a nascent ecologist – albeit with pensioners taking the role of top predators whilst the school groups were left to scavenge on the left-overs.

Evening meals, on the other hand, were rather more sedate affairs, presided over by the warden, Jim Bingley, who adopted the airs of Lord of the Manor.   Once again, our group were the ones left behind as the gong sounded and the sharp-elbowed old ladies rushed in to the dining hall to get the best seats.   Strangely, I cannot remember much about the food itself during that week, only about the behaviour of my elders and betters.

One evening, after our classes had finished, I remember standing in the library with my friend, Stuart, pulling books off the shelf and laughing at the idea that anyone could write an entire book about a subject as obscure as butterflies or earthworms.   We were reprimanded by our teacher for our flippant attitude and I can only smile wryly at this memory.   This disrespectful schoolboy ended up writing one of the Field Studies Council’s identification guides and, I am guessing, a new generation of school children are even now pulling it off the shelves of Field Centre libraries and wondering how anyone can get quite so obsessed by nature …


The cover of my now rather dated booklet, written for the Field Studies Council.

How to make an ecologist #1


Looking back at approximately 177000 words that I have written on this blog over the past three years, mostly about the unprepossessing end of biodiversity, I do sometimes wonder to myself how I got here. Or, perhaps to put it in words that may be flying around my reader’s heads, why didn’t I get a proper job like most other people?   So I took the opportunity of a New Year visit to my childhood home to try to answer that question.

The starting point is a semi-detached house in Harold Wood, on the eastern edge of London.  It is almost literally on the edge because at the far end of Redden Court Road, when I was a child, there were fields, whilst at the other end there was the start of the urban sprawl, extending unbroken (more or less) all the way to Heathrow Airport where the mix of housing, shops, light industry and offices peters out and is replaced by fields again.

There were hedgerows lining footpaths and country lanes just a couple of kilometres away from my house that were ideal for brambling in the late summer and autumn. It was a family chore that I tolerated rather than enjoyed, knowing that the outcome was blackberry and apple jam or hot crumbles to eat with Sunday lunch, both of which I loved.   On those days, we reverted to a primitive hunter-gatherer state as we filled our plastic bags with juicy ripe berries and, subconsciously, learnt about the habitats where we might expect to find blackberries. It was not just hedgerows; brambles seemed to spring up on patches of wasteland but also in woodlands, particularly at the edges and in clearings where a little more light was able to break through the canopy. Later, when I was studying ecology at university, I learnt more about ecology of brambles, learnt that they were plants of forest margins and that hedgerows were, in essence, artificial, elongated forest margins. The bramble thrived, in other words, in places that were neither field nor forest.

And, later still, I wondered if ecologists, too, were nurtured in these marginal environments, whether we were creatures neither of town nor country.   I have no statistics to support this hypothesis but I can, off the cuff, list half a dozen ecologists and botanists, two of some eminence, who come from the same London suburb as me, and this prompted a train of thought. On the one hand, a person from the middle of a city is too isolated, too distant from the countryside and too focussed, perhaps, on urban living to have any profound interest in nature. On the other hand, a truly rural person – an increasingly rare breed in Britain – is surrounded by nature, probably making a living from the land in some form. So nature for these people is simultaneously something that is familiar and which must be tamed or conquered in order that they can survive.   Between these two extremes are people like me, close enough to the countryside for it to pique our interest, and for it to be possible to hop onto a bicycle and get to it, yet not so immersed in it that we took it for granted. My hypothesis is complicated because so many people these days live in the country yet have essentially suburban lifestyles, commuting by car to work, reliant on supermarkets for most of their food, watching TV in the evenings and generally insulated from the harsher realities of country living.

The turning point for me came on my twelfth Christmas when my parents bought me a microscope. It came packed in a large polystyrene carton with neat slots for slides, samples, pipettes, forceps, dissecting needles (which I still have in my dissecting kit) and even a scalpel, albeit rather blunt. A few years ago, whilst tidying out a cupboard, my mother found it inside a wooden box that I had made for it during a woodwork class at school. She had brought it up to Durham where it sat, for a while, on my desk, dwarfed by my current microscope. It looked laughingly cheap and plastic by comparison, and I struggled to get it into focus when I tried to use it.   The magnification, theoretically, went up to 900x: I remember that this was written in big letters on the side of the box, though you were lucky to see much at magnifications greater than about 100x.   But, if its deficiencies were all too apparent thirty years on, there was enough here to open my eyes to other, hidden and mysterious worlds.


A Thomas Salter microscope, similar to mine.  

I was twelve years old. I was approaching adolescence, realising that I lacked the aptitude to get into the school football team, let alone play alongside Bobby Moore (who I often saw practising on West Ham’s training ground, alongside our school playing field).   I hadn’t really settled into the local scout group, I had lost interest in Top of the Pops, still two years away from the invigorating effects of punk rock, and I was not yet interested in girls. Instead, I retreated into my own worlds, catalysed by books. I had acquired, over the years, a long row of Ladybird books and it was the stories of explorers which really grabbed my attention. Captain Cook and David Livingstone were my heroes, but there were others too, and my row of books was later supplemented by accounts of Chris Bonnington’s ascents of Himalayan peaks and Thor Heydrehl’s stories of crossing oceans on primitive craft.

My own boundaries were not drawn so broadly.   The Ingrebourne, the unprepossessing muddy stream which flowed through our local park, was the limit of my world in primary school years but, as I grew up I was able to use my bicycle to make longer explorations.   However, a more profound journey was taking place inside my head. It did not involve distance but scale. There was a very basic scientific textbook that we used in my first year at secondary school which described, alongside the life-cycles of frogs and other staples of introductory biology, simple microscopic life forms such as Amoebae and Hydra. And, with a jam jar wedged into the bottle carrier on my bicycle, I set off on summer afternoons during the school holidays, to explore the new, exotic worlds where these might be found.

In retrospect, my sampling method of dipping this jam jar into the water was hopelessly optimistic and my memories are more of disappointment than excitement, but I do remember once finding a Hydra wriggling about in a sample from the Ingrebourne. This is a tiny relative of sea anemones and jellyfish, with a fine pencil-thin body to which were attached a cluster of fine tentacles, which it extended in order to trap yet smaller prey with stinging cells. And, in a sample from a local park where I sometimes fished with school friends, I found an Amoeba: the simplest of all animals, so my school textbook told me. It consisted of no more than a microscopic blob of protoplasm which crept along by changing its shape to extend jelly-like “pseudopodia” in the direction it wanted to travel.

Perhaps a benefit accrues from not being spoon-fed experiences, from the struggles and disappointments of doing rather than reading or watching natural history on television?   I would like to think so but the reality is that, over time, other interests took over from my early dabbles in microscopy.   I discovered an interest in girls and older friends introduced me to Neil Young and Bob Dylan.   My horizons shifted again, this time in a more urban direction as I started to make trips to London, to the Marquee Club and Hammersmith Odeon to see bands playing live. The interest in the natural world was, however, kindled and biology was one of the subjects that I chose at O-level, and the only science that I studied at A level (my maths not being good enough for me to be comfortable with either physics or chemistry). When I had to choose a university course, I hovered between Geography and Biology, eventually selecting the middle route of Environmental Science and, in October 1980, packed my bags and headed around the North Circular road to Westfield College in north London.

Postscript: I have only recently discovered that my early years in Redden Court Road coincided with the musician Mike Oldfield’s residence further along the road.   His family moved here in the mid-sixties, a couple of years before us, and he went to a local grammar school, achieving a single O-level (in music).   His album, Tubular Bells, a massive seller in the early 1970s, was partly written whilst he lived here.   He wrote about Harold Wood in his memoir, Changeling (Virgin Books, 2008): “The new house was on Redden Court Road, number 8. It was all right and I do remember it had a wonderful dawn chorus.”   Ornithology’s loss was music’s gain?


No. 8 Redden Court Road, Harold Wood, childhood home of Mike Oldfield, who composed part of Tubular Bells whilst living here.