Sunday, 30 October 2016

Week 4: (24th to 30th October 2016) or 'Crustaceans, Cake and City Change'


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.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Week 3: (17th to 23rd October 2016) or 'Farewell, Leaves'

Three weeks ago, here at Lancaster University, sweet farewells were carolling around the campus. Eighteen years of steady, parental stewardship were now complete; the baton of life was being passed on. One final family embrace and then a long wave as teary eyed parents hesitantly withdrew from sight. And then, an energy conversion. Months of eagerness and anticipation, a thirst for 'a life as a fresher', were becoming realized. The campus sizzled with a froth of change; new people, fresh stories, future friendships and novel ideas.

Three weeks later, what was sizzling is now merely simmering. Students are settled into their novel lifestyles; routines have been fashioned, nicknames have been formed and rooms have been furnished with personal effects. And yet, the air sings of another farewell. Around the campus, in these lessening hours of sunlight, branches are waving adieu to their family of leaves. What was luscious green is now golden brown and one by one, these leaves relinquish their clasp with twig and stem. Whirling and twirling like golden snowflakes in the air, they resign to fate and make their first and final journey towards the ground. Autumnal hues dust the pavements like demerara dusts a loaf. Like any parents' home without their offspring, branches are bare and void of life.

Whilst a student's future is somewhat uncertain, our blankets of leaves are all on one journey. They are the hearty, nutritious meal in the annual soil banquet! Every autumn, our soil rejoices upon the arrival of these leaves. Like a waitor, the wind conveys them to the ground in generous portions and over the next month, soils feed on this traybake of decaying foliage.


Such is life at the moment, here in Lancashire. That is, of course, when I'm lucky enough to peer out the window or, indeed, be in the county altogether. These two essential conditions, however, have not prevailed as much as you might think, this week; my gaze has been otherwise 'occupied' with my relatively less-thrilling (yet developing) soil production review essay. Like the rate of soil production itself, progress is slow and steady. Having said this, I do now have a first draft which, as I write, is somewhere deep in the heart of my supervisor's office. Both John and I will discuss it further next week. In no regard is this the final version (even, when typed). It's merely a small dose of what, hopefully, will be my first published piece of academic discourse. 


That word. Dose. 

Narrating the tale of my inherent hatred for that word would take too long and be of very little comfort to those similarly sensitive around the topic. It shall, and will suffice to say that I have a deep-seated psychological rejection of any vaccination, which has sadly manifest from a bad childhood experience. For a career traversing over global soils, the future after that event didn't look particularly hopeful. However, I am now older, wiser (protruding wisdom teeth to prove it) and more ambitious than ever to travel, and thus, I have come to accept that the syringe will never be far away. This week, it was particularly close to me. 

It's 1:17am. The mugs from midnight cocoa are cool to the touch again. Under duvets, mystical lands are being conjured. The flight of the bat whisks the air; the hoot of an owl resonates down hushed country lanes. And for reasons that can only be rationally described by those in jobs purely to 'pay the bills', traversing across a country is a Megabus driver. His double decker coach, if such a machine has a brim, is full right to it. At the very back, squashed into contortion, is a young PhD student, travelling to Norfolk for a vaccination, yet via London. The detour had little to do with my displeasure at the thought of a jab; such a route does exist and whilst this was irritating, it did not frustrate me as much as my position on the coach. That was, sandwiched between a middle-aged lifeless Londoner (whose fetish for sleeping on shoulders was being thoroughly explored) and a young, energized individual who seemed to be commentating on a boxing match to anyone similarly inclined. At the time, I could not decide which one I'd share an island with, under duress. I still can't. 

Twilight gave rise to dawn and, as if by miracle, we arrived in London. My right shoulder, now liberated from dozy heads, was now free to join me in a second journey towards Norwich. I can't report much on this leg of the journey because I slept much of the way through it. 

   
There's nothing like the sweet familiarity of home to soothe the worrying mind. Disturbed though I was when musing on the wretched injection, the reality was much the opposite and I departed the doctors feeling slightly better about the prospect of any future innoculation. Slightly. The journey back to Lancaster on Thursday evening was slightly improved, too, but once again, only slightly.

***

Go, sit upon the lofty hill,
And turn your eyes around,
Where waving woods and waters wild
Do hymm an autumn sound

Elizabeth Barnett Browning, 'The Autumn Poem'


After two trips into the majestic Forest of Bowland, I awoke on Saturday morning with an appetite for a different aesthetic fragrance and thus I headed north. Still somewhat absorbed by fatigue from the week's travelling, I didn't quite have the tenacity to make footprints in the Lake District or re-visit the Yorkshire Dales. But nestled between these two majestic bodies of land stands a smaller, yet no less spirtual place: Holme Park Fell. 

Cycling to Lancaster, I approached the fell by means of a train to Kendal and then a short bus journey back south to a quaint speck of land belonging to Lupton. By depositing me here, I was some distance from the edge of Holme Park but I enjoyed ambling through a labyrinth of narrow country lanes and happening upon relics of a bygone age. There is something so timeless about these passages; these channels lined with hedge. There is nothing here to indicate the year, or even the century. For instance, read this: 

"To know what lies on the other side of the hill - this feeling inevitably draws you up the deep-carved lanes along which the summer flowers grow richer as the soil grows poorer and whiter, up to the rising wall of beeches and the eternal copper floor of leaves swept by dark yews. The depth of silence here on hot summer days, when there is no wind and the chalk is blinding on the eyes and the rock-roses are brilliant lemon in the sun, can be immense, the feeling of isolation splendid."

H. E. Bates wrote that in 1949 about Kent, and yet he could have wrote that yesterday, there in the 'deep-carved lanes' underneath Holme Park Fell. These lanes are the very stitches in this patchwork quilt of countryside; the arteries and veins which convey farmers and labourers about the land. 

I happened upon Holme Park Fell by accident, which is slightly curious seeings as I was headed for it. I was, however, expecting many more miles of country lane before such a gateway into the fell appeared. But there it was: a rust-speckled iron gate which required a good deal of coaxing before surrendering its clench. What I happened upon was something of a surprise. I had completed only minor research on the fell, which was evidently not enough to inform me that it's one of the most impressive areas of limestone habitats in the British Isles. 

Under the tred of my boot was rock formed before the dinosaurs, 350 million years ago. The grikes and runnels that are etched into these limestone pavements are signatures carved by many thousand of years of rainfall. Harbouring themselves in these time-worn grooves are the most hardy of flora: rigid buckler ferns, carline thistles and helleborine. I wandered with all the wildness portrayed by Brontë; hopping from boulder to boulder, absorbing the vista until finally I was ready to lunch. 



Having responded to a few rumblings, I headed on; further and deeper. It was refreshing, once again, not to gaze nor listen nor inhale the burdens of city life. Between my feet and the Yorkshire Dales to the east and the Lake District to the northwest was a green moat; a monochrome only addled ocassionally by the lacy dark hedgerows. I watched as the sun reflected off the roof of a cruising tractor and the back of a soaring raven. Ahead of me was one final ascent, known as Farleton Knott. Peaking at over 200m above sea level, there is almost too much to absorb here. In the background, indenting the horizon in large dollops, stand the skeletal arches of the Lake District. The M6, a road which employed some of the rock from this very fell, is there but its sense of presence is out-performed by the multi-checkered landscape behind it. I sheltered myself between two boulders, withdrew my binoculars, and fixated my gaze on some individual assets: a church spire, a farmyard gate, a sheep. And I marvelled at how small they were and how comparatively large a single lichen seemed to be.


I sat, as Elizabeth Barnett Browning suggested, "upon the lofty hill" and listened to the autumn hymm. The winds were, indeed, stirring the trees and I noted that some trees had already parted with many of their leaves. I opened this week's blog with the theme of farewells; the farewell between student and parent, between leaf and twig and as I retraced my steps back to Lupton, I too bid farewell with Holme Park Fell. But I shall return. As every parent knows - as my own parents found out this week - students find some reason to escape the hurly burly life of study and return home. And thus, although the leaves do fall, more will return next year. As Browning herself states:

Come autumn's scathe -- come winter's cold --
Come change -- and human fate!
Whatever prospect Heaven doth bound,
Can ne'er be desolate. 
 


Sunday, 16 October 2016

Week 2: (10th to 16th October 2016) or 'Coffee, Toffee, Trains'

A hand twirls under twilit skies. A meagre but loyal audience of twelve digits spectate it pirouetting around. Often, it awakes other hands from their slumber and ferries each one a short way before depositing them back down again. About a minute later, their vessel has arrived once more. Again, they are plucked from the ground by the grasp of this gyrating hand, only to find themselves, once more, cast aside and free again. Free to snooze for fifty-nine undisturbed seconds. Digits 3, 6, 9 and 12 are busy preparing their own performances: static, yet strident chimes. Any minute now, they will sense the unique stroke of a hand; their cue to begin a pulsating melody. The piece is called: 6:30am.

Reverberating down a hushed vacuous street, the tones muffle a chorus of robins, still half-asleep on their self-possessed twigs. They know the 6:30am melody very well, yet it still startles them. Asides from night-watchmen trotting home and taxi cabs cruising back towards their garages, a cyclist is the only item in transit. On his back is a small rucksack, stuffed with academic papers. Nestled in his pocket is a train ticket to Leeds. He wouldn't usually hear this particular rendition of the popular 6:30am melody, but it's inescapable this morning as he passes the tower from which it emanantes, on the way to the train station.

That cyclist was indeed myself. I was heading to Leeds to meet with Professor Steve Banwart, a distinguished and highly respected scholar within Soil Science. Life in Lancaster at half-past six, apart from the chimes, is a relatively peaceful affair and the commute to the train station was without incident. By the time I was settling down into the carriage, the Sun had only just shaken its duvet off. On this particular morning, it was required more than ever. Great Northern Trains have finite wisdom and, alas, functioning carriage heating is beyond such bounds. And so, my fellow commuters and I teetered and trembled for two hours.

My appointment with Steve transpired after I watched one of his talks at the BSSS (British Soil Science Society) conference last month. His expertise spotlights on what we often call 'critical zones'; the Earth's outer skin, in some senses, comprising everything between the tops of trees and the bottom of the underground water. Although this seems a lot to deal with on a daily basis, he is one of many hundreds of scholars who work for 'critical zone observatories' distributed around the world. My meeting this Tuesday morning would be a discussion of how some of the latest research into critical zones could facilitate my own PhD project.


By the time I arrived in Leeds, the city was very much awake and out of bed, but alas, having its morning shower. Unprepared for the deluge, I arrived in the School of Earth and Environment looking as if I had just stepped in one msyelf. If Steve passed judgement, it wasn't broadcasted. In fact, the meeting was extremely positive. We 'chewed over' various ways by which I might be able to assess the impact of cultivation on soil production rates. One interesting item from this package of ideas was to run a transect across two neighbouring sites; the first being uncultivated such as a school playing field, the second being a heavily tilled farmland soil. It's work in progress. My journey back to Lancaster was this time a much warmer experience. Gracing the vista was the fringe of the Peak District.



One of the first endeavours that an academic carries out before an investigation is a review of current research. Clearly, spending three years establishing something that is already published knowledge is a waste of time, money and comfort food that could otherwise be allocated to more needy individuals. But reviewing the literature is not just a speedy frisk through the database of knowledge; it's a process that paints a collage of what we know thus far, so as to highlight the voids in our understanding. It can take weeks, sometimes months, to collate such work but ever since my supervisor and I spoke on the phone a month or two ago, I've been hard at it; reading, note-taking, fact-checking and theme-spotting. This week I sat down to write my first draft. As I write now, at the end of the week, I've parked myself at the half-way house, so to speak. A sip of something spirituous, perhaps, and then I will hop aboard the word-wagon, once more, to continue cruising to that final full stop. This journey is a 'pop-to-the-shops' compared to when it comes to writing the main thesis.


Also, this week, I sat down with three other distinguished individuals based here at Lancaster University. The first is John Quinton, my supervisor. He sipped a flat white coffee opposite my co-supervisor, Dr Jess Davies. Her tea, infused with mint from a stall in Marrakech, sat next to another coffee belonging to Dr Ed Tipping. Ed is not a supervisor on my project as such but is very knowledgeable about some of its themes. It transpires that I will be applying for further funding to support some of the laboratory-based work taking place over the next couple of years and our meeting's purpose was to discuss various aspects of this application form. I have until next April to submit such a form, after which (hopefully) I will be granted funding and tasked with the first round of fieldwork. (To anyone who is perhaps more interested in the beverages than our very specific discussions, and has noticed that I have omitted my own drink of choice, it was a bucket of English Breakfast tea. Bucket, by the way, is no exaggeration).

The other meeting I had this week was without refreshment, but in its place, was a plate of cake. In a lobby, on the western border of the Lancaster Environment Centre, sat a tray of sponges and three STARS students, including myself. Also present was the recently recruited STARS Innovation and Policy Boost member, Rebecca Burns. Fortunately, the programme has been granted extra funding which will be spent on 'boosting' each student's non-academic profile. This could entail them attending training courses, work shadowing opportunities and company workshops. At the end of the day, it aims to solder academics with non-academic professionals, so our research can have an impact on the real world. I think anyone pursuing a career in academia should be eager to weave the web of knowledge around as much as life as possible.


On Thursday evening, the nib of my pen was granted a few hours leave as I donned a three-piece suit and journeyed north to Carnforth. Many who are reading this may not realize that when I'm not writing, researching and keeping Yorkshire Tea in business, I travel around the country visiting various Rotary Clubs. At each, I dine, converse and finally present a lecture on a scholarship I received from the Royal Geographical Society. About four years ago, I used the aforementioned scholarship to travel extensively around the United States, particularly around Alaska and the West Coast. Whilst the trip wasn't soily, it was equally remarkable in just about every other conceivable way. The Carnforth Rotary Club are the latest to have asked me to vocalise my 'footsteps beyond the pond' and after enjoying a fine Gammon Steak and Sticky Toffee Pudding, it was the very least I could do. I've edited what was a 45 minute lecture into a 16 minute highlights video, below. 




And so to Saturday again. Those hands seem to be spinning ever faster.

I awoke to a subtle patter of droplets, descending through a veil of morning mist. There was still a film of moisture on the ground by the time I emerged from the house at midday, but the skies had began to clear and atmospherically, the afternoon appeared to be good for another exploration around the Forest of Bowland. Last week, I traversed the moors that cover the western quadrant of this AONB site. This week, my aim was to inspect what the south-west had to offer. In hindsight, this was an over-zealous aim, given the fact that I had only six hours before duskfall.



Afresh from the morning downpour, the fields were a luxuriant green, mottled by white fluff, jigsawed by miles of dry-stone wall. I took the road south to Chipping, traversing streams and passing farms. There's something quintessentially English in these farm buildings. Tall, unpenetrable wooden barn doors are held shut by hefty, rusty padlocks, with stretches of thick, weathered rope draping the well-trod ground. The forces of time have exulted their curses on this barn and yet it, like the farmer, still stands. Structure and man, together, unrelinquishing even under the most threatening of seasons. 

Chipping emerged at the bottom of one of many descents along the ride. It's yet another rural idyll, among idylls. In many pockets of the country, you have to dig history up, search it out, pester the ear of its oldest inhabitant over an ale. Much ink is often devoted to pages of history books, prophetic to the inevitable modernisation. Chipping has no such requirement. Chipping looks exactly how it used to stand, over 1000 years ago. It is older than Turkey both in existence and in aesthetic. Many hooves have ambled through in its rich and proud narrative.



My wheel spokes revolved another thousand or so times before I parked up again, this time at Langden Brook. The landscape is grand. To visually engage with the beauty is difficult; there is so much to see, a mere blink would be a waste of precious time here. As a cool breeze injects the valley, birds soar over meandering streams and ducks cruise on the currents. Clouds flirt briefly with valley crests before continuing on their voyage. I parted from the path, briefly, and clambered over moss and grass to assume a more aerial position in which to read.


I peered down to my wrist; the hands of my own watch were suggesting departure. And so, back down I climbed; back to the path, back to my bike and back to my house. As I pedalled ever closer to Lancaster, I realized that I was not cycling in second or minute-terms, but was hurtling forwards through hundreds and thousands of years of history. Away from bygone villages and ancient gorges, towards motorways and microwaves; the pirouetting hands of time knit these worlds together for mankind - past, present and future - into the grandest of all performances: Life.   

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Week 1: (3rd to 9th October 2016) or 'Welcome to Lancaster'



My pen, as it stains this sheet of pulp fibres, refracts the final hours of afternoon sunshine. It journeys from margin to margin, dispensing its chemical on the page, the ink being fanned by a warm south-westerly breeze. It conveys in its current a melange of subtle aromas. Sometimes it is eddied by the swoop of the swallow and the commute of the worker bees. Occasionally, it is blocked altogether; then stirred and dispersed once more by the cumbersome load of a passing tractor. The Norfolk harvest is in full swing. Sonically, life even in this rural idyll is vivacious. An incessant, atonal splatter emanates from my pond as the water journeys around the system. There’s an opera too; a robin carolling from a leaf on the laurel. Tranquility. 

And as I do my final round with the watering can for this summer, the day's displays are packing up for yet another day. A. E. Housman's words beckon my thoughts.

When summer's end is nighing
And skies at evening cloud,
I muse on change and fortune
And all the feats I vowed
When I was young and proud. 

I, too, mused on the change and fortune that the next semester would bring. Certainly, this wasn't any semester. Soon I would be presented with a large feat: a three year PhD project and the lifestyle which accompanies those that channel down such unchartered territory. To settle any worries, however, is experience. I am, after all, very well trained in making new beginnings, re-settling and adapting to change. Whether fortune is on the cards or not, I'm sure I will keep an open mind and an open, thankful heart. 


It's interesting, once in a while, to physically pick up your life and feel how heavy it weighs. Such an opportunity was granted to me last Friday morning (the 30th September) as my Dad and I loaded a hire van with everything (in theory) that will allow me to preserve a decent, safe, happy lifestyle in Lancaster. Making their debut appearance in that lifestyle are various boxes of kitchen implements, for a student at PhD level really does need to know how to churn up a hearty meal once in a while. The heaviest suitcase was, as expected, a couple of wardrobe's worth of thick, woolen jumpers; essential to Lancashire's non-native populace if keeping warm is even the slightest of ambitions. All of these items, and many more, were about to be hauled across the country.


If you've ever had the blessed opportunity to live on a university campus, you would appreciate that arriving  in one is similar to those who fly into a new time-zone. I'm not referring to the international cohort, although it's obvious that many such students do have to attune their lifestyles to a time-piece in Greenwich. But for those that do not necessarily configure their watches, a university seems to be synchronised to a very different time-zone. For many students, 00:00 doesn't signal the beginning of a new day; it's an insignificant minute on a night out that started many hours previously and will end many hours ahead. 08:00 is not devoted to morning rush-hour traffic; for many, it's the start of at least another 50 minutes slumber, and a subsequent maddening dash to one's 09:00 lecture.

I'm happy those days are behind me, although in fairness, they weren't necessarily representative of my own experience at the Royal Holloway, University of London. Now, as I unpacked and settled into my new room in Lancaster, I hypothesized that the lifestyle of a PhD student would begin to become more analogous to the national average. Breakfast, luncheon and dinner would at last, happen regularly.  I even have a dining table! 


 To cure aching concerns, for I know many are interested to know whether I've even unwrapped my kitchen implements, I can confirm my first week's worth of cooking has largely been a resounding success. To report this, and not the more likely alternative (that is, to say, I've triggered my house's fire alarm) is a particular accomplishment. Week One's menu was admittedly basic, although it wasn't quite in the league of 'Baked Beans on Toast'. Rather, I enjoyed a series of curries, Gammon steak and Mackerel. 



"Welcome to your PhD journey" greeted me, and about 20 others, into the Lancaster Environment Centre's specialist training suite at the beginning of this week. It's a unique journey, in some senses, characterized by an unknown route, many unknown barriers and one very unknown destination. I liken it to learning to drive. In the passenger seat, is a supervisor; a learned colleague with experience, wisdom, someone you can trust. You begin by listening, fastidiously, to every single instructed detail until you reach a stage at which you're comfortable to drive without pointers and directions, but your supervisor is still there with a foot hovered over the pedal so that he or she can take the reigns if you start driving off course. Around you are your fellow PhD colleagues, also driving with their supervisors, towards scholarly excellence. At the end, after three years, you take the real test; a trip around your region of research with two very different passengers. It's called a PhD Viva and is an examined oral presentation of your work. There is, of course, one major flaw in this analogy. At the end of a PhD, it is often said that you're the world-leading expert in your research area. How many of today's drivers can confess to being world class? This week, I had an initial meeting with my own supervisor, Professor John Quinton, and we discussed what I suppose will be the first mile or two in a long, yet exciting voyage!

If a PhD is really like learning to drive, as I've suggested above, then I'm not quite in the car just yet. This week, in the Lancaster Environment Centre, has been about meeting my fellow drivers; the PhD researchers who are all on similar missions. I've been extremely lucky to meet so many of them. As is to be expected, we have all enjoyed very different lifestyles. Our upbringings have been infused with our own cultures so that, when we sit around a table and chew them over, the air is sweetened with the fragrance of diversity. 

Just before I set off on this PhD journey, this week I registered officially and received my Lancaster Environment Centre key card and College card. If this wasn't enough, I have a new key to add to the ring; a key to my shared PhD office. I am yet to set myself up in there, but I'm told that the office is often labelled the 'Fish Bowl' as one of the walls is partly glass, allowing passing studious traffic a chance to pause their endeavours and peer in. 



Friday was officially the final full day of the LEC's Welcome Week programme. (I make a conscious point of not using the term 'Freshers' Week'. I am now four years experienced on a university programme and do not feel fresh in the slightest). Those undertaking a Masters programme and my fellow PhD researchers were whisked away from the campus, on a meandering journey towards Arnside where collectively we would execute a five mile walk to Silverdale. This canter through the Cumbrian countryside was successfully designed to permit yet further discussions between our new colleagues with the added benefit that we would also acquaint ourselves with the surrounding area in the process. We parted Arnside with a brisk, purposeful stride along the estuary of the curiously named River Kent and then south through a series of woodlands. Turns out that another STARS student, Rosanne, not only knows this area well but is also familiar with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Despite the metrics, it's a small world. 

Our social saunter through a labyrinth of woodland paths, peppered with the seeds of next year's trees, reached an altitudinal climax at Eaves Wood. Here, we were afforded quaint vistas of Elmslack village. Fluffy white dots moved slowly over green polygons, but the remainder was inert. Life, or what passes for life in Elmslack, was comfortably still. What wasn't so comfortable was the threat and then the eventuality of impending rain. For half a mile, our gaze was framed by the panels of umbrellas and the hoods of our waterproofs. Alas, it is to be expected. 


Finally, we arrived in Silverdale and the Leighton Moss Nature Reserve, efficiently directed by the RSPB. Awaiting hungry eyes were trays of fresh homemade cakes and pots of well-brewed tea. We parked ourselves and tucked in to these sweet treats. There's nothing quite like a plate of cake and a nice brew to satisfy the ache in one's well-exercised feet after a good walk. If there was something similar, I imagine we'd take both. 


And then Saturday arrived. I had planned, for a while now, to have a set day where I would tear myself away from the hurly burly and enjoy a bite-size portion of the Lancashire countryside. Part of my overwhelming happiness at receiving this PhD opportunity is the very fact that it neighbours one of Nature's finest sanctuaries. I have harboured dreams of cycling and strolling over vast swathes of it for months and now was the chance to exercise the motions. 

I parted with my room early Saturday morning with the intention of cycling about 6 miles to a small car park on the fringes of the Forest of Bowland. The sky spoke of monotonous, persistent greyness, although even as I cycled the first leg, hues of blue were scouring their way through the cloud and opening up a void for afternoon sun-drenching. Quite early on into my journey, I was confronted not by path but by deep water. I restrained the urge to head back and hauled my bike (and myself) over what was technically a river by a line of well-polished stepping stones. By the second or third stone, I came to realize that this was not an anomaly and that I should expect similar (and more challenging) encounters. 


The Forest of Bowland AONB needn't be suffixed with an acronym to demonstrate outstanding natural beauty. It's all there; all 803 square kilometres of it are inviting and kind to the eye. Meditating within the heather moorland are loose-knit hamlets, unblemished by the mass-produced and mass-packaged lifestyle of the outside world. I made my entrance by way of a well-grazed path threaded from the western border and slowly introduced myself to its heart. Therapy slowly administered itself to my eyes by way of panoramic spectacles whilst the ears were similarly treated to audio purity: silence. Aside from the call of the Red Grouse, or the gentle trickle of an unknown stream, life was enveloped by a sublime peace. 


And then I paused. Perched on a hill, a granite pew beckoned me over and out my bag, I drew a book. I am currently reading H. E. Bates' The Country Heart. The text was put to ink in the 1940s; the literary images it conjures up in the mind were painted yesterday. How profoundly simple yet wonderful the endurance of the countryside is. A vantage point, such as that from where I was sitting, spoke not to my lips but to my heart, so that after a couple of chapters, I placed my text down and started listening to the landscape. The language has never been, nor will ever be completely translatable to modern tongue. It does exist, in various degrees, in the harmonies of Vaughn Williams, the brushwork of John Constable and the words of H. V. Morton.


As the light began to fade, I parted from my boulder and headed back over the moor, feeling truly welcomed into the bosom of this other Eden. Housman began to call again...

From hill and cloud and heaven
The hues of evening died;
Night welled through lane and hollow
And hushed the countryside,
But I had youth and pride. 


And I had a PhD journey to begin...