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.