All posts by John Abel

The lost fens — Prof. Ian Rotherham — 8 January 2018

Ian Rotherham is Professor of Ecology and Geography at Sheffield Hallam University.  He is an author­ity on cul­tural and his­tor­ical aspects of land­scapes, espe­cially peat bogs and fen­lands.  He writes and broad­casts on envir­on­mental issues.  He has many books to his name and is an excel­lent speaker.

His talk centered around the wet­lands of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire that before being drained, dwarfed the area of the present Cambridgeshire fens.  Ian star­ted by remind­ing us that Hereward the Wake lead the last sig­ni­fic­ant res­ist­ance to the Norman inva­sion and sought refuge in Ely Cathedral that was situ­ated on an island totally sur­roun­ded by wet­lands.  Access was by float­ing reed pon­toons between the beds of high reeds.  Similar wet­lands stretched up beyond York. The land along the M18 cor­ridor remained wet until the 1600’s.

In 1466 the feast to mark the enthrone­ment of Geoge Neville as Archbiship of York, over 2000 guests con­sumed: 2,000 suck­ling pigs, 204 bit­terns, 2,000 geese, 12 por­poises and seals, and 3,000 cold cus­tards, all washed down with 500,000 pints of ale and 168,000 pints of wine.  The wet­lands were pretty pro­duct­ive places.  Eels were so plen­ti­ful on occa­sions they blocked the rota­tion of water­wheels and wild birds were killed and shipped to London in 100,000’s.  The English “turkey” was the great bus­tard that thrived in the wet­lands.  Bustard Farm near Great Driffield is a reminder of this food source .  Fish, reeds, rushes, peat, willow and brush­wood all came from the carrs.

In 1609 an under­ground earth­quake in south­ern Ireland prob­ably caused cata­strophic flood­ing along the east coast.  In 1600 under Elizabeth I an Act includ­ing the drain­ing dry of marshes, fens, bogs and moors was passed.  The mood developed in the ruling class to dis­like wet­lands and to favour land fit for till­age and pas­tur­age.  In 1626 Cornelius Vermuyden brought in Dutch and Flemish money and work­ers to drain large areas of wet­land at the behest of Charles I.  People flee­ing per­se­cu­tion like the Huguenots were also attrac­ted.  Few people at this time could swim, marsh mal­aria was always a prob­lem espe­cially for those not living in but vis­it­ing the swamps and these areas when drained dra­mat­ic­ally increased in value when drained.  Those drain­ing the land and the land owners could make large for­tunes.

In 1809, Gilpin was very fash­ion­able for design­ing pic­tur­esque land­scapes and he hated fen land and thought the Peak District was the work of the Devil.  By 1900 these wet­lands had largely dis­ap­peared.  By using the latest air­borne light detec­tion and ran­ging meth­ods Ian and his team are uncov­er­ing some of the drain­age work­ings includ­ing around Doncaster and Thorne moors.

Ian is very know­ledge­able and gave a really fas­cin­at­ing talk about the land­scape on our door­steps that most new little or noth­ing about.


Hull City of Culture 2017 — James McGuire — 23th October 2017

City of Culture” is an event held every four years high­light­ing one loc­a­tion in the UK and pro­mot­ing arts and cul­ture as a means of cel­eb­ra­tion and regen­er­a­tion.  In 2013 Kingston upon Hull was one of sev­eral cities to submit a bid for the event  Their sub­mis­sion was suc­cess­ful based on the pro­posed use of thou­sands of volun­teers and a budget of £12m.  They man­aged to recruit Martin Green as the CEO and Director of a new inde­pend­ent com­pany and char­it­able trust named “Hull UK City of Culture 2017”.  He has exper­i­ence of organ­ising large events includ­ing parts of the London Olympic Games.  He at an early stage set the budget for the event at £18m and set about rais­ing the money.  In the event over £30m was raised.

James McGuire was born and edu­cated in Hull and is employed for 2017 by the new Company as the Audience Engagement Manager.

He explained how the City was extens­ively bombed during WW2 to be fol­lowed by the loss of its fish­ing industry to Iceland.  The main long stand­ing indus­tries include Smith & Nephew, Armco, BP and pre­fab­ric­ated build­ings and cara­vans.  Despite its well regarded uni­ver­sity and its motor­way con­nec­tion, there was a feel­ing in 2013 of a com­munity in decline.  A local joke at the time was “you’ll find more cul­ture in a yogurt pot than in the whole of Hull”.  The present Hull is very dif­fer­ent.  It has a grow­ing off shore wind tur­bine industry, its tour­ism industry is expand­ing with a new hotel in the city center and a pro­posed pas­sen­ger liner ter­minal planned to aug­ment the ferry ter­minal.  By attract­ing 2,500 local volun­teers and refur­bish­ing city center build­ings there is a wel­com­ing buzz and a belief in the future of the city.

Although the city of cul­ture is a 12 month event, the impetus gained will con­tinue into the years ahead.  In 2017 the activ­it­ies were centered on four sea­sons. The 1st (January to March) was “Made in Hull” and chal­lenged pre­con­cep­tions and showed what Hull is really made of.  The 2nd (April to June) was “Roots and routes” and explored Hull’s place in a con­stantly chan­ging world.  The 3rd (July to September) was “Freedom” where it cel­eb­rated its rebel­li­ous streak and its free­dom of thought, unboun­ded by con­ven­tion.  The 4th (October to December) will look to the future and “Tell the world”.  It will look at how Hull is rede­fin­ing itself as a key city within the North.

The talk was a wake up call to embrace a city on Sheffield’s door­step that has been ignored for too long.  Useful addresses for Hull City of Culture are listed below:

Turner Prize 2017 (Ferens Art Gallery, on until Sunday 7 January 2018)

Walking Tours (Hull’s Old Town)

Hull New Theatre and Hull City Hall

Hull Truck Theatre

The Death Of The Common Attorney.- Jerry Pearlman — 14 August 2017

Born in Redcar and art­icled in Leeds in 1950’s, Jerry Pearlman prac­ticed as a soli­citor in Leeds for nearly sixty years.  As well as the enorm­ous range of work one might expect in a gen­eral legal prac­tice,  Jerry has par­tic­u­lar expert­ise in rights of way.  His ram­bling and access talk how­ever is for another occa­sion.

Whilst look­ing at many aspects of a legal gen­eral prac­tice, his theme was to com­pare the legal pro­fes­sion of yes­ter­day with the legal industry of today and to ques­tion if the public is now really better served.

When Jerry qual­i­fied the use of Latin phrases was common place and helped to dis­tin­guish the legal pro­fes­sion.  An aver­age house cost £500 as did a motor car and the con­vey­an­cing fees for house pur­chases were often the main stay of a soli­cit­ors prac­tice.  Today the cost of con­vey­an­cing has come down but so has the secur­ity of the trans­ac­tions. Traditionally the con­vey­ance date was on a Friday.  This is now called Bad Friday and is when fraud­sters target soli­cit­ors offices on line to inter­cept money trans­ac­tions and redir­ect funds into their bogus bank accounts.  The intro­duc­tion of licensed con­vey­an­cers over the past 45 years has brought down costs for the public but Jerry argued that the busi­ness is less secure.

On the sub­ject of pre­par­ing one’s will, it used to be the sole province of a soli­citor and the value of a soli­cit­ors prac­tice was often based on the number of wills kept in the office safe.  Then account­ants and Banks offered the ser­vice and now there is even a Society of Will Writers.  The latter is com­pletely unreg­u­lated.  Jerry asked if this is really in the best interests of the public?

Liquor licens­ing is another area where Jerry wondered if the relax­ing of having to prove public need is a good thing.  Today alco­hol can be bought at most super­mar­kets and even at petrol sta­tions.  He blamed this for an increase of binge drink­ing and alco­hol con­sump­tion gen­er­ally.

Divorce is another area that was the province of the soli­citor who might be able to temper the situ­ation.  Now with legal aid more dif­fi­cult to obtain, divorce can be some­thing where much is done on line.  Law stu­dents now help couples through divorce.

The Police  now have a power to cau­tion and fewer minor cases  come to court.  This means that there is less oppor­tun­ity to train young law­yers in court pro­ced­ures and this has lead to a lower­ing in the stand­ard of the law­yers’ per­form­ance in court.

This was a  pro­vok­ing talk on mat­ters that most people are aware of but have not given thought to.  There was great poten­tial for dis­cus­sion during and after the talk which was well received.

Making people laugh — Gerry Kersey — 26th June 2017


Many will have heard Gerry Kersey as a d.j. and inter­viewer on vari­ous radio pro­grammes.  He was born in Shiregreen in Sheffield before WW2.  At 18 he was called up for National Service and was draf­ted into the RAF as a tele­phon­ist.  This was good train­ing for a future in radio.  Gerry can be heard on Radio Sheffield at 4.00pm on Sunday after­noons in his pro­gramme “Musical nos­tal­gia and chat”.

He has always been inter­ested in people and loves a chat.  He is a tal­en­ted ama­teur artist as well as a keen ama­teur dra­matic actor and singer.

His storey for his talk about comedy star­ted in 1966 when he was work­ing in the p.r. sec­tion of Cintride Ltd and was organ­ising an exhib­i­tion stand at Olympia in London.  On this stand he met a number of celebrit­ies of the time includ­ing Stirling Moss and Robert Beatty.  At the time Ken Dodd was a rising star with his tick­ling stick.  Gerry had the idea of making a tick­ling stick out of carbide tipped product and pink feath­ers.  He then put the word out and attrac­ted Ken Dodd to the stand.  Gerry was rewar­ded with a ticket to see him in his show “Doddy’s here”.  He ended up drink­ing in the no. 1 dress­ing room with Ken and others and became hooked on the comedy side of show busi­ness.

Gerry quite fan­cied becom­ing a stand-up comic.  His chance came when he was offered the first slot for the Christmas Show at the Highcliffe Club in Sheffield.  He bombed and real­ised that he really didn’t want to spend his life like that but he was still fas­cin­ated in the mech­an­ics of making people laugh.  During his radio career he inter­viewed many famous comics and they built up his know­ledge of the sub­ject.  There are no books about the sub­ject, it can only really be tested on stage.

Gerry defined at least ten dif­fer­ent types of laughter.  As people get older they tend to develop a recog­nis­able laugh and you can some­times recog­nise the laugh of some­body behind you.  In the 1950’s quite often people were planted in audi­ences to encour­age laughter.  When listen­ing to record­ings of these shows one can often recog­nise the same dis­tinct­ive laughter from one show to another.

In war­time there seemed to be a great need for joke telling and Gerry was aware of the dark side of comedy, he men­tioned Tony Hancock and Kenneth Williams deaths.  On the bright side every­body remem­bers a host of comics from the past with affec­tion.  Gerry’s favour­ite was prob­ably Tommy Cooper and he noted that sev­eral comics he inter­viewed all held Tommy as their model.  A comic he came to admire was Bob Monkhouse who stud­ied and had vast know­ledge about making people laugh.

Gerry noted that there is a dif­fer­ence between appear­ing before a live audi­ence where you receive applause at the end of the per­form­ance and many tv shows and films where recog­ni­tion comes later.  For Gerry he loves to dwell in the past as it can’t get any worse and can’t do more harm.

He examined ten or more dif­fer­ent types of comedy giving examples of each.  His talk was littered with jokes and was thor­oughly enjoyed by his audi­ence who left with smiles on their faces.


A journey into inner space by Professor Bob Cywinski -3rd April 2017

Bob Cywinski has already given three other talks over the years to the Club.  He is now retired and spends much time abroad and feels that this may be his last public talk.

Bob star­ted his talk by very briefly cov­er­ing the basic phys­ics of neut­rons. 

Atoms have a tiny cent­ral nuc­leus with elec­trons whizz­ing around out­side it. The elec­trons are fun­da­mental particles. However, the nuc­leus is made from col­lec­tions of two smal­ler particles: pro­tons and neut­rons.  They have very sim­ilar masses, but the proton has a pos­it­ive charge whereas the neut­ron is not charged (hence the name neut­ron – neut­ral). The neut­ron helps keep the nuc­leus together.  They were first dis­covered by James Chadwick in 1932 fol­low­ing obser­va­tion by Bothe on bom­bard­ing beryl­lium with alpha particles.

Bob men­tioned the DeBroglie wavelength expres­sion for neut­ron waves much to the mys­ti­fic­a­tion of much of his audi­ence; in order to show how neut­rons can be used to jostle particles.  Neutron dif­frac­tion or elastic neut­ron scat­ter­ing is the applic­a­tion of neut­ron scat­ter­ing to the determ­in­a­tion of the atomic and/or mag­netic struc­ture of a mater­ial. A sample to be examined is placed in a beam of thermal or cold neut­rons to obtain a dif­frac­tion pat­tern that provides inform­a­tion of the struc­ture of the mater­ial. The tech­nique is sim­ilar to X-ray dif­frac­tion but due to their dif­fer­ent scat­ter­ing prop­er­ties, neut­rons and X-rays provide com­ple­ment­ary inform­a­tion: X-Rays are suited for super­fi­cial ana­lysis, strong x-rays from syn­chro­tron radi­ation are suited for shal­low depths or thin spe­ci­mens, while neut­rons having high pen­et­ra­tion depth are suited for bulk samples.

This means that steel cast­ings can be examined to “see” their atomic struc­ture and Bob had been involved with examin­ing rail­way lines after a recent Reading rail crash as well as car­riage wheels that proved to have been incor­rectly designed.

From its start in 1940’s neut­ron radio­graphy has been used increas­ingly in dif­fer­ent areas of “sci­ence”.  In the 1950’s it was phys­i­cist that used it; in 1960’s chem­ists became inter­ested; in 1970’s bio­lo­gists and engin­eers were using it and since 1990’s all branches of sci­ence are using it and it has tre­mend­ous social implic­a­tions.

This radio­graphy required a source of neut­rons and these came from nuc­lear react­ors.  In 1990’s there was a fear of a “neut­ron drought” as react­ors were closed down.  Today spal­la­tion sources are used.  Bob was much involved in trying to have such a facil­ity con­struc­ted at Burn near Selby.  It would have brought much research and jobs to the region for dec­ades to come.  The cost was about the same as sta­ging an Olympic Games. Guess which one got the money?

Whilst the talk required con­cen­tra­tion by the audi­ence, it was lav­ishly illus­trated by superb and won­der­fully col­our­ful illus­tra­tions and gave an insight into a major area of sci­ence that the writer of this blog was very ignor­ant of.  As a Club, we are very lucky to have had Bob edu­cate us in such a pleas­ing way.

Railways in the Cornish landscape — Stephen Gay — 13th February 2017

It is prob­ably a record for this Club that a speaker should be giving his 17th talk.  Stephen Gay has been giving talks to our Club for about twenty years and has not exhausted his list yet.

Perhaps most Probus Clubs con­tain a cadre of rail­way enthu­si­asts, our Club cer­tainly has its group who obvi­ously hold Stephen to be “The Master”.  His know­ledge is encyc­lo­paedic and this coupled with a nat­ural story telling abil­ity make his talks both enter­tain­ing and leaves one with a desire to go and retrace his steps.

Age has caught up with Rory his trusty dog who aged over 14 years is no longer to be fea­tured in many of Stephen’s photos.  The format of his talks remains unchanged with digital pho­to­graphy and car own­er­ship fer­vently res­isted.  His illus­trated talk takes us by rail (mostly) from Bude down to Truro.

London Penzance ser­vice cross­ing ‘The Royal Albert Bridge’.

Stephen pho­to­graphed the the Penzance — London express return­ing to London, cross­ing ‘The Royal Albert Bridge’ over the river Tamar.

As the line to Bude was closed in 1966,  the Plymouth Launceston bus was taken for a two hour jour­ney to reach the start­ing point which was the only hand oper­ated lock gates in the coun­try to con­nect the Holsworthy Launceston canal (1863) to the sea.  Also to be seen are the remains of a narrow gauge rail­way that trans­por­ted beach sand with its iron salts inland for agri­cul­tural pur­poses.

Next was Merlin’s Cave at Tintagel.  Stephen found the exact view that Ken Steel used for one of his famous rail­way posters in the 1950s.  Robert men­tioned this as he believes that Ken came from the west­ern side of Sheffield.

Next was a bus jour­ney inter­rup­ted by passing a modern road sign that still refers to Camelford Station.  He got off the bus to pho­to­graph this sign that refers to a sta­tion that closed 50 years ago and then walked sev­eral miles into Camelford itself.  That’s real rail­way enthu­si­asm.  His talk covered Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s work in the region and why the via­ducts have stone piers capped with brick arches above.  Originally the arches were of timber but as loads became heav­ier and speeds faster, the timber struc­tures were no longer strong enough.

It’s only pos­sible to touch on a small sample of the talk but suf­fice it to say has been booked to give us another talk next year.