All posts by Graham Snowdon

Human Happiness versus Urban Biodiversity? – Dr Helen Hoyle – 2nd November 2015

Dr Helen Hoyle gained her first degree, in geo­graphy, at Oxford University three dec­ades ago, even­tu­ally becom­ing head of geo­graphy at schools in London and Hertfordshire, but a career change brought her to our fair city where she gained an MA (Distinction) in Landscape Architecture at the University of Sheffield between 2009 and 2011.

This was where my real interest in eco­lo­gical plant­ing design was sparked,” she told us, and the title of her well illus­trated talk was also the sub­ject of her PhD Research Project: Human Happiness v urban diversity? Public per­cep­tion of designed urban plant­ing in a warm­ing cli­mate.

People have vary­ing ideas of what exactly land­scape archi­tec­ture is,” she admit­ted. “It is not about garden­ing, as some might believe, but about cre­at­ing useful public spaces for people to enjoy at all stages of their life.

But we also under­stand the import­ance of biod­iversity, and my work is trying to improve human exper­i­ence while at the same time look­ing at eco­lo­gical object­ives.

As a land­scape archi­tect I believe strongly in the import­ance of design for the ‘ordin­ary Joe or Joanne’ rather than for design elites, and for the need to recon­cile human aes­thetic pref­er­ences with the need for biod­iversity.”

Helen’s research work coin­cided nicely with the build-up to the 2012 London Olympics, and in 2010 she was invited to work on the wild­life mead­ows which became a much admired fea­ture of the land­scap­ing around the sites of the main Olympic sta­dium and velo­drome.

Her brief was to pro­duce a spec­tac­u­lar flower­ing dis­play which would be at its very best for the open­ing cere­mony of the Olympics on 27th July 2012, and early work towards this goal star­ted on an allot­ment in Walkley before moving to the Olympic Park itself.

Different types of ‘meadow mix’ of seeds were planted on nine sep­ar­ate plots around the Olympic Park, and these had to be mon­itored reg­u­larly from the summer of 2011 to see what was flower­ing and to what extent they were flower­ing. Helen trav­elled to London every Friday to carry out an on-site data col­lec­tion, giving flowers of each spe­cies a score and estab­lish­ing vari­ous cut­ting ‘regimes’ to suit the type of plant.

In December 2013, Helen was offered the oppor­tun­ity to become a research asso­ci­ate with the Urban BESS pro­ject – the ini­tials stand­ing for Biodiversity, Ecosystem Services and Sustainability – funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.

Her role was to over­see an urban exper­i­ment, involving day-to-day col­lab­or­a­tion with Bedford and Luton Borough Council Parks Departments. One aspect was to set up a ‘meadow manip­u­la­tion exper­i­ment,’ sowing areas of dif­fer­ent per­en­nial meadow mixes in the towns. These real world labor­at­or­ies would allow social sci­ent­ists to assess the human per­cep­tion of and pref­er­ence for spe­cific meadow mixes. Animal and plant sci­ent­ists would assess the soil and insect response to the same mixes. This would enable park depart­ments in the future to sow plant spe­cies which were attract­ive to the public, bene­fi­cial to wild­life, sus­tain­able and – import­antly in times of aus­ter­ity – cheaper to main­tain than amen­ity mown grass.

Reaction to the plant­ing by local res­id­ents was mixed. Some found the areas of meadow mixes attract­ive, while others described them as unsightly weeds.

As Helen her­self con­ceded: “There is some basis in the view that a weed is any plant which is grow­ing in the wrong place. Even a palm tree grow­ing in the wrong place might be regarded by some as a weed.”

I can’t speak for Bedford or Luton but, having seen the wild­flower mead­ows at the Olympic Park, I think a few weeds in the right places can be very attract­ive indeed. And if they help reverse the decline of bees and but­ter­flies, so much the better.

Vietnam: Journey of Unexpected Delights – Susan Rogers – 24th August 2015

Having vis­ited the same coun­try with my wife in February 2015, I could relate to Susan Rogers’s account of her jour­ney to Vietnam 11 years earlier. The main dif­fer­ences were the dir­ec­tion of travel (in our case, from North to South) and more import­antly the fact that, while we were on a pack­age hol­i­day, Susan trav­elled solo.

She didn’t choose to do so. “How many people will you have in the tour group?” she asked the guide who met her at the air­port in Ho Chi Minh City. “One,” he replied, “You.”

There were def­in­itely mixed feel­ings about being the only person,” she told us. “I knew that trav­el­ling by myself meant that I would have nobody to share the memor­ies of the hol­i­day after­wards, but I had expec­ted to have other people to talk to, other people to dine with and other people to share the hol­i­day exper­i­ence with.”

Her fears quickly proved to be ground­less, des­pite the fact that she arrived in Saigon on December 20 and had no trav­el­ling com­pan­ions to share the Christmas fest­iv­it­ies, with the accom­pa­ny­ing feasts of local cuisine.

I enjoyed myself so much in Vietnam that the fol­low­ing year I went to Brazil and Argentina by myself, and I have come to love trav­el­ling solo,” she explained.

Susan began her present­a­tion with some graphic foot­age of the Vietnam War – or, as the Vietnamese call it, the American War – which cul­min­ated in the North Vietnamese cap­tur­ing Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) on April 30 1975 to bring about the end of hos­til­it­ies as the last American heli­copter plucked staff from the roof of the US embassy.

She vis­ited the War Remnants Museum in Saigon where she was moved by images of gloat­ing American sol­diers hold­ing up the severed heads of Vietcong sol­diers. “I felt I wanted to ask the Vietnamese people how they could wel­come Americans back into their coun­try, but there have been two or three gen­er­a­tions since then and they seem determ­ined to look to the future rather than back.”

Susan vis­ited the pre­served Củ Chi Tunnels, a rabbit warren of under­ground com­mand posts, armour­ies, hos­pit­als, kit­chens and living quar­ters which were the Viet Cong’s oper­a­tional base for the Tết (New Year) Offensive of 1968. She showed us pho­to­graphic examples of the many dif­fer­ent types of anti-personnel traps which littered the area.

Susan learnt much about the North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, a man of simple tastes, and vis­ited the humble stilt house in the grounds of the Presidential Palace in Hanoi which were his pre­ferred living quar­ters.

Presidential Palace
The Presidential Palace — Courtesy of Graham Snowdon.
The Humble Stilt House — Courtesy of Graham Snowdon.







The more I read about him, the more I admired him,” she told us. “He was totally dif­fer­ent to many of the other com­mun­ist lead­ers, and the ideals which he tried to achieve for the ordin­ary Vietnamese people would not have looked out of place in the American con­sti­tu­tion. I came away with two main thoughts: that the Vietnam War should never have happened, and that I had a far greater respect for the Vietnamese people than I ever had before.”

The title of Susan’s talk is also that of a book she has writ­ten about her exper­i­ences.

Days of Sunshine and Rain – Ann Beedham – 8th June 2015

As a new­comer to Probus and an even newer member of the panel of blog­gers, it is coin­cid­ental — and for­tu­it­ous from my point of view — that the sub­ject matter for my maiden con­tri­bu­tion is some­thing with which I was already famil­iar.

The title of Ann Beedham’s very inter­est­ing talk is also the title of her fas­cin­at­ing book Days of Sunshine and Rain, pub­lished in 2011 as a col­lec­tion of words and pho­to­graphs from the life of George Willis Marshall. He was one of Sheffield’s pion­eer ram­blers who took part in the famous mass tres­pass on Kinder Scout on 24th April 1932, when walk­ers risked arrest and impris­on­ment for the right to roam in what is now the Peak District National Park.

This act of civil dis­obedi­ence was one of the most suc­cess­ful in British his­tory, and argu­ably led to the pas­sage of the National Parks legis­la­tion of 1949 and the estab­lish­ment of long-distance foot­paths such as the Pennine Way. Highly con­tro­ver­sial at the time, it has been described as the embod­i­ment of the work­ing class struggle for the right to roam versus the rights of the wealthy to have exclus­ive use of moor­lands to shoot grouse.

But Willis (as he was known to family and friends) Marshall was more than just one of the four or five hun­dred walk­ers from Sheffield and Manchester who took part in the tres­pass. As he grew up he developed a love not only of walk­ing but also of draw­ing and pho­to­graphy. He painstak­ingly wrote up journ­als of his walks with the Sheffield Clarion Ramblers, and these were illus­trated with sketches, maps and details of the route they took, as well as quotes from his favour­ite poems. He and his pals also took numer­ous pho­to­graphs which he care­fully placed in albums, and all the photos and sketches in Ann Beedham’s book are by Willis, or from his col­lec­tion.

He could easily, in fact, have become another Alfred Wainwright, the guide­book author and illus­trator, but appar­ently Willis had no ambi­tion for his journ­als to be seen beyond his own circle of friends.

Born in Sheffield in 1904, Willis lived from the age of eight with his family in Ranby Road, just off Endcliffe Park, and most of the walks he described star­ted from Hunters Bar or Banner Cross before head­ing out past places equally famil­iar to our mem­bers such as Forge Dam, Whiteley Woods, the Round House and Redmires.

I am myself a reg­u­lar walker and, because of my interest in the his­tory of the access struggle and the early days of ram­bling in gen­eral, I already had a copy of Ann’s book in my col­lec­tion. Her slideshow present­a­tion brought to life a world which has largely dis­ap­peared, when pipe-smoking ram­blers walked in tweed suits, col­lars and ties, with watches on chains. Her talk, like her book, was a won­der­fully evoc­at­ive piece of social his­tory.