Sixty nibs and sixty pads sat patiently. Sixty eyes were poised. Sixty minutes of Science were about to begin.
"Ladies and Gentleman, I'd like to introduce you to Daniel Evans. He is a PhD student in the Lancaster Environment Centre".
And then those sixty eyes panned sixty degrees towards me. I had sixty seconds.
I wasted at least four of those digesting what I had just heard. First, the tense: "He is a PhD student". And then just simply: "PhD". Nearly a month on, and the reality has yet to meet the surface of my consciousness, let alone sink in to it.
Why I was stood before sixty students in the Marcus Merriman Lecture Theatre on an autumnal Monday morning was not for this reality check, but to disseminate an important message. In fact, by the end of the week, I had delivered the same verbal consignment to almost every undergraduate class within the Science and Technology faculty. In short (although making the one minute announcement any shorter is difficult) a conservation programme known as 'Operation Wallacea' was visiting Lancaster University on Friday to encourgage undergraduates to join their research programme. My task, as their promotion officer, was to tempt as many students away from their standard luncheon routines as possible and inspire them to spend the best part of two hours with this national organisation. I do remember it sounding much more enthusiastic than that, though. Indeed, it was in my vested interests to kindle as much positive response as possible, given that I was being paid on commission. Principally, I do not endorse those who reduce students to just a number. On this occasion, an exception was permitted; a student was worth a pound and nothing more.
Somewhere in the sweaty heart of the Amazon Rainforest, an arresting gap has emerged within a boundless grove of kapok trees. The pulped, pressed and painted fibres of one such kapok that used to reside in this gap found themselves in the Royal Mail postage system last week, not on a journey towards the sky, but to my desk. Operation Wallacea had sent me quite a provision of visual aids (information postcards, posters, banners) in the hope that those who, for one reason or another, hadn't been stimulated by my audio campaign, would be invigorated instead by a photo of a crustacean's eye.
No sooner had I finished my circuit of undergraduate classes, it was Friday and I was making my way to the Lancaster Environment Centre's Training Room where a representative from Operation Wallacea was awaiting nothing less than a throng of zealous studious volunteers. Sadly, it wasn't a throng (the crustaceons simply hadn't risen to the challenge) but it wasn't a cataclysmic failure either. I asked at the end whether 32 faces represented a calamitous outcome or a sizeable audience. I was informed that it was 'average' for a midday slot and I departed feeling content that I had marketed the event as much as a busy PhD student could hope to.
And it has been a busy week. When I haven't been littering students' bags with images of various Madagascan fauna, I have spent the best part of the week furnishing my soil production review paper. I would estimate that the 'final pruning' should be complete by the time Jack Frost has arrived to nibble at our noses. He's certainly a significant distance from Lancaster at the moment; we've enjoyed some exceptionally mild evenings here.
Lancaster University received two eminent guests on Thursday; two distinguished gentlemen who, if by luck found themselves rubbing shoulders, would be even more distinguishable. However, I must submit that it would have to be luck and luck alone were these two shoulders to 'rub'. One shoulder usually dons a Ralph Lauren Harrington jacket, the other a red and white spotted apron. But for an hour or two on Thursday afternoon, both garments and their respective owners were within 300m of each other. Despite his national popularity, I didn't spot the first shoulder, but I am reliably informed that Jeremy Corbyn was indeed in Alexandra Square. The shoulder sporting the red and white spotted apron was the shoulder that I had journeyed to visit anyway. Known to many as 'Cake Man' (and alas, for the moment, known only to me as 'Cake Man'), this local culinary hero visits the campus every Thursday afternoon with a tongue-waggling selection of homemade cakes. His business, based near Grassington in North Yorkshire, has likely done more to settle the rumbling stomachs of students than any hot-pot or pot-noodle has. Every Thursday morning, as queues begin to form, he travels across the country knowing only too well that he will be travelling back that afternoon with a considerably lighter load.
Well, I opted modestly for a Banana and Chocolate Chip cake and happily relieved my wallet of three pounds for this pleasure. Guarding it from envious onlookers, I safely made it back to my house and relished every last crumb over the subsequent days. Or, were they hours?!
Saturday arrived and so did the rain. Swarming around in the air were millions of fine droplets, all of which had no immediate desire to acquaint themselves with the ground. In fact, their tenacity to simply linger mid-air was enough to discourage me against any walk or cycle ride and instead I spent the day catching up on letter writing. If there is a grand vista to behold, it shall be held next week in the dry. However, I did have something up my sleeve and it wasn't a crumb from any Banana and Chocolate cake.
As many millions turn their clocks back an hour this weekend, I've decided to turn mine back about a hundred years instead. I'm aware that over the last month I have perhaps neglected the city centre and consciously navigated as far away from it as possible. Thus, I had the idea this afternoon to conduct a tour of the more enduring aspects of the city; the architecture that has stubbonly defied the forces of modernity. Little did the Stagecoach driver realize that the return ticket he had dispensed at my request was a return to the early 20th century, but neither was I going to admit this, for fear of one of the heftiest fares in public transport history!
I alighted and sauntered towards the market place. The monochrome you see on the left captures the life on Market Street in 1946. The street had not yet been pedestrianized and it wouldn't be for nearly another thirty years. It's a shame, I think, not to see men in 2016 sporting the grandiose suit exhibited so elegantly seventy years ago. Even more of a shame, perhaps, is the vacant shop 'to let'. However, there is a building that has remarkably endured the vicissitude of the 21st century. The ornate structure facing the street is, in fact, the 'Old' Town Hall, which served the city from the 18th century. By the early 1900s, the city had outgrown the building and multi-millionaire Lord Ashton, an industrialist who inherited his father's oil cloth business, paid for a new municipal building. That new, and current, Town Hall stands grandly in Dalton Square, where I was heading next.
Although I was looking at the current town hall, the negative I was comparing it with was produced in the 1940s and, as certain as water flows downhill, I was sure that much had changed. I arrived and confirmed this. Aside from the skeletal structure of the background, the foregound has waged (and lost) a battle with its preservation. The road is carved into lanes, the cafe on the far right has made way for the Fortune Star (apparently a 'long-standing' Chinese restaurant) and the chic motorcar, charged with an unsalvageable vintage essence, is now a black SWB van belonging to a flower arrangement company. Personally, I fail to understand the necessity for a flower arranger to transport his designs in a van, but perhaps he or she specialises in the Rafflesia arnoldii- the largest bloom in the world, spanning three feet across?
I retraced my steps back towards Market Street, and back even further in time to the 1870s. The top photograph you see below is taken from that period and shows a corner of the square. A derelict building with boarded windows sits lonely in the street, whilst on the right, stands the Blue Anchor pub. Those with better eyesight will make out the word 'Crook' emblazoned just above an archway. (Joseph Crook was the landlord between 1864 and 1872). When I visited this area today, the centre building was similarly derelict, although clearly Greggs had attempted (and failed) to make a success of it. Crook's old establishment, which has been promoted to Grade 2 listed position, is now a Spanish Tapas restaurant called the '1725'. If Crook were to walk through that corner archway now, as I did this afternoon, he would be shocked back to death most probably. It's now a Vue cinema, and cinematic in size it is, indeed!
Before I travelled back to the 21st century, I decided to make way to the Lancaster Castle. If the city required any emblem of endurance, I considered this to be it. Sadly, the stout and sturdy foreboding castle wall I had imagined (pictured from c. 1860s below) was now hidden behind an unoccupied scaffolding rig. However, if there's any consolation, it is to be found in the very reason for such a mass of metal. I am reliably informed by one of the Castle information boards that it has been 40 years since any excavation has been conducted on the castle and this particular one promises to reveal some remarkable treasures. In particular, workers are hoping to re-open the trenches dug in the 1920s but what excites me is the possibility of finding evidence of a long-theorized Roman Fort. If found, it would represent the last in a succession of these forts, dating back between the 1st and 4th centuries. I departed, feeling my 1860s photograph was perhaps a tad 'contemporary' now.
And so, I hopped back on the bus and travelled back to the present. Back to a world of crustacean postcards, the Cake Man and the beginning of my second month as a PhD student.