United Kingdom

Six Island Weeks in Britain

We have spent 6 weeks in Great Britain (not really that great), also called the United Kingdom (neither really a kingdom, and not united at all). For that period we have been splitting the time of our stay about equally into a hideaway period in Western Scotland and a very active one in London. In the latter, Feibai joined a Summer School at The London School of Economics (LSE) for qualitative research methods. It is very interesting and being a "number person" and seeing how artificially sometimes quantitative methods are applied to problems in social sciences and business. Good to learn more about better methods that make sense of data which does not mathematically add up. I spent most of my London time in the Royal Geographic Society (RGS) and worked in the reading room, or strolled around the University Campuses, where during the summer break I often had the library nearly for myself. In a lively and vibrant city like London, you need to know your islands of solitude. Otherwise it gets tiring. London is a great cultural place and one of my favorite cities. But we only like visiting it, and living not here.

St. Paul's from Tate Modern. Our first neighborhood in London.

St. Paul's from Tate Modern. Our first neighborhood in London.

We also spent 2 very remote weeks in Kilberry, in an old stone cottage called The Gables. It is located North of the Mull of Kintyre in West Scotland, and was part of the Kilberry Estate, which still has the remains of a castle. It is a wonderful place with a rough coast line. No no sand beach, few tourists, no mobile phone network, no internet. The next grocer is a 20 kilometer drive to the South. That's what I call being offline. But there are dolphins, seals, and even whales, in a beautiful and wild landscape. We enjoyed that a lot. It was nearly like a retreat. Also we spent a week in Glasgow, for ambulating on paths of memories when I did field work there in the Motherwell coal mine, about 25 years ago. The mine is closed. But Glasgow has still the same character of a broken city. When the retailers become the largest employers, that usually is the end. And that's what it is there: my true and only friend, the end. 

"The past is a foreign country"

Most journeys have the purpose of exploring something new. Not so my travels during the last few weeks, which brought me to the parts of the Europe in which I spent my earliest works aboard and learned my first foreign languages, namely English and French - as German is my mother tongue. I was surprised that my French still worked reasonably well after so many years. But more so, I was surprised that more and more French speak English now. 

 

DSC04207.jpg

Though the purpose of this journey was not just personal nostalgia, but also to get an impression of Universities, Colleges and Schools on the way. Specially in England the route went along such sites like London, Oxford, Bath, Bristol, Manchester and Cambridge. I was surprised about Bath, which has developed into quite a campus. But it had the handicap of a place which markets itself with student's satisfaction instead of academic merit - an understandable positioning in the "education business", but not hugely inspiring. All other places, and the small ones in between, were of nice character and some spirit living in the walls. I enjoyed a lot my visit of the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington Grove, which I am a fellow of, and seeing the places where the famous explorers of the world reported about their journeys. I will for sure spend some more time in London and make use of the Society's library for a month or two. In Oxford I was also reminded of my time lecturing there in the School of Geography in the mid 90s. It was one of the last things I did in that field, and it felt like the best place for a farewell to science. The German University and education system back then felt like a waste of time and I did not pursue an academic career, but went out and looked for a "proper job". Ultimately, a lot of this ended up being a waste of time too, but a lucrative one, which still opened me a lot of opportunities. By now, I understood, that "career" is just a way to integrate into society and explain to HR departments and the tax office that what you are doing actually makes sense. 

DSC04287.jpg

A nice little stop at a nearly unknown academic location was the one at Keele University in Staffordshire. It is a small University campus, just a bit North of Shakespeare's city Stratford-on-Avon and Birmingham, up the hill of Silverdale in the suburb of Newcastle-under-Lyme. This was the place where I gave my first academic talk at the School of Earth Sciences, while I was working at Wardell-Armstrong in Newcastle. I always liked the messy old office in one of the corners of Keel Hall, which is overlooking the park. No idea whose it is, and what is done there. But back then I though, if somebody gives me an office like this one day and a lot of time, I will be happy. 

DSC04301.jpg

Of course, I also dropped by the place where I lived at that time, which was not in Newcastle, but over the hill and just over the border to the neighboring city called Stoke-on-Trent, in Victoria Street. I am not sure whether my former landlady, Frances Griffith, still lives there. It is about 20 years ago. I have been still writing to her a few years after. But finally letters stayed unanswered. Lucy, the old lady living next door must have passed away. Her place looks abandoned. Frances and Lucy always shared their flower seeds and were growing them in their gardens towards the back alley. It was a recession in England. And then there was Pauline, the hippie, which lived next door of Lucy. I think she went to Australia. 

DSC04323.jpg

Stoke-on-Trent is a conglomerate of smaller places which once were the heart of the English pottery industry. It is the place of "Bone China" called the Potteries. Most of the old bottle kilns have been converted into museums. What also reminds of that time, are the canals which were a means of transportation for fragile goods and span over large parts of England. Today they are still operational and you can use them with longboats, also called arrow boats, for recreational purposes. From the marinas you see England not from the road side, which is always the more interesting perspective.  

DSC04332.jpg

A few miles North-East of the Potteries is the Peak District, and the landscape changes dramatically with steep rocks and moorlands. I often went there on the weekend to go hiking or caving in the karst caves. The caves inspired me in 1990 to try and model the development of them using a Monte-Carlo approach simulating the dissolving processes of the limestone. I discussed later with Tim Burt in Oxford on it. My simulated caves looked really beautiful, but the structures I calculated had nothing to do with reality. My idea to use the model and identify the age of the caves did not work out at all. In the end I scrapped the plan and changed my master thesis topic with Helga Besler at Cologne University to mathematical modeling of particle dispersion, which was related to my work and much easier. In the Peak District, just beside the National Park, is a nice little town called Buxton. It has some springs, and people came here for them in the past. There is still a pretty little opera house and a green house. It is a good base to explore the karst and the moorlands around. 

Stopping over in Manchester re-confirmed that most cities which are proud of their soccer club, have not much more to offer (Madrid and Sao Paulo are obvious exceptions).  

In Cambridge I met a friend and former colleague from Wardell Armstrong. It has been about 20 years and was nice to "catch up" in the way, as if the 20 years actually did not happen. We enjoyed it a lot over dinner in Midsummer House. I rarely mention restaurants, but this one is quite special and should not be missed when staying in town. The University of Cambridge is similar and different to Oxford. I never did anything academically in Cambridge, so I do not really have an insight. But from my impression Cambridge is more lively and connected than Oxford, without compromising on heritage and ability to focus. But this is really just an impression gathered in a few hours. 

DSC04358.jpg

Arriving Dover via Canterbury I had a surprise: there are no ferries taking foot passenger to Ostende leaving from here. Also the Hovercrafts are gone. The tunnel really changed the world here. Dover, not long ago the focus point of traffic between England and the continent, has become sleepy. The only ferry went the short way to Calais. On the French side, Syrians were camping and hoping for a chance to go over to the UK. Also Calais changed. It became sleepy too, but it is better not to gaze, but take care of fellows waiting for a chance to hit and run at least for your bag. Good reminder to put the pocket knife back in reach for quick reach and adequate response. The train to Bruxelles leaves every few hours from Calais. The one to Paris more frequently. This time going via Bruxelles was the train to take back "into the continent", as the English sometimes like to call it.