A nose for the past

It’s often said that dogs live in the moment… that they don’t tend to bear a grudge, that the last thing they did is their focus. However, I’m beginning to think that it’s human beings who are so focused on the “latest thing” that they completely forget about what happened in the past – even the recent past. Ever since it was brought to my attention (by Terry Pratchett, in fact) that dogs can detect the history of a location because, unlike sight, smell can last for days, I have been intrigued about the idea. In the blink of an eye, our perception of a place or an incident is replaced by a new one, so it is all too easy for us to dismiss past experience because of the overwriting of it by our present perception. Not so if you are a dog. With smell as a much more important sense, life must be lived in a world of past and present – always being aware of incidents that have gone by, but have left their signature and evidence in the olfactory world.

Spaniels’ noses are very important to them

I’d love to be able to see the past…. for example when I pick up a discarded piece of crochet, realise that I removed the hook for another project and then wonder exactly which size it was. If I could just see the project in an earlier stage, I’d know exactly what hook to use to make progress. What a lot of time that would save

But can you imagine what this sort of overlaying of events from different times would do to our interpretation of the world? No longer would politicians be able to dismiss an incident with words, if we could still see a shadow of it for days or weeks or months to come. Our memories distort the past and unscrupulous, or even well-meaning, people can seek to take advantage. History, as they say, is written – or photographed, or painted, or sculpted – by the winners. What a different world we might live in could we see more than those inevitably biased descriptions. Just a thought.

I want to tell you a story

Recently, there has been a fashion on social media to ask friends to post pictures without words… usually something along the lines of

“I have been challenged to post one picture of every day for seven days of my *** – no words, no explanations, just pictures. Now I challenge Friend X to do the same”.

Where *** is life/favourite books/pets/influential LPs/black and white photos/most awesome cheese or whatever.

Now, I know that they say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but I disagree. Pictures are great – I always include at least one in my blog posts because they catch the attention and can get across a quick message or illustrate something that’s difficult to describe. But they don’t necessarily get to the heart of the matter. If you post a picture of an influential LP, I always wonder why – was it a particular song? the fact that it represents the sound track to an important era in your life? that you love the artwork on the cover? that you know the musician? And, honestly, I find what you have to say about it much more meaningful than simply seeing a picture.


A story-telling snail… but unless I explain, you won’t know why

Stories are important. Humans have been telling each other stories for thousands of years – long before we wrote things down. By listening to stories we learn, we develop empathy, we are moved… and we remember. It’s much easier to recall a story than a list of dry facts – and the story may contain all those facts, as well as presenting them in a context that enables understanding. When I was teaching, I often embedded the information I wanted to get across in stories… indeed the Snail of Happiness was born to assist with story-telling in a teaching context.

Our history – personal and on a wider scale – is a series of stories… the word is embedded right there. We can all tell the story of an event and every single person will tell it slightly differently. Your truth is not my truth, and that’s why it is important to listen to each other. And that’s why one person’s hero can be another person’s villain – and generally it’s the winners who get to write the story of what happened (and erect the statues). I think it’s very important to remember this and to understand that the truth depends very much on the story-teller. This link is really worth following for a sensible perspective on the truth of history.

So, next time someone suggests that you post a picture without an explanation – resist! Yes, post the picture, but tell your friends why. Share your history, because unless you do, someone else might write it for you.


I was inspired to write this post by my friend Chiqui – thank you Chiqui, I enjoyed your pictures with explanations so much more than all those without context.


Three Things Thursday: 27 April 2017

*three things that make me smile: an exercise in gratitude – feel free to steal this idea with wild abandon and fill your blog [or Twitter account or Facebook page or diary or life in general] with the happy*

Inspired by Emily of Nerd in the Brain here are my Three Things Thursday.

This week I could list three hundred things that have made me happy, but here are just three.

First, lizards. We were delighted to spot some lizards in the rainforest biome at The Eden Project. They are there as pest controllers. Here is my best photograph:

An anole lizard

Second, asking the experts. We visited the Telegraph Museum in Porthcurno the other day, deliberately timing our visit to coincide with the day that the former workers come in to volunteer each week. This allowed Mr Snail the opportunity to ask lots and lots of technical questions…

Third, industrial history. Ever since I spent two and a half years surveying the old metal mines of mid-Wales I have been fascinated by the history of extractive industries. I had a great time, therefore, visiting Wheal Martyn, a museum dedicated to the china clay industry in Cornwall. They have lots of great exhibits but my favourite was the working water wheel:

So, those are three things making me smile and for which I am grateful. What has made you happy this week?

Off on holiday… the places (1)

On my list of “places that I really want to visit” were two in Cornwall: The Lost Gardens of Heligan and The Eden Project. In fact they are within a few miles of each other. Thus, we decided that a week in Cornwall would allow us to visit both and to do a few other things too. However, when you set off from west Wales, you want to pack in as much as possible, so we decided to bolt on a visit to another place on my list – Chedwoth Roman Villa. Thus, the plan involved two nights in Cirencester prior to heading down to Cornwall.

I hated history at school – it never seemed relevant to me, it didn’t capture my imagination and it was appallingly badly taught at my high school. It has been quite a revelation to me in adulthood, therefore, to  discover the joys of the subject, including visiting historical sites. A trip to Chedworth as an adult was long overdue. The villa is still being excavated a little each year so that the story of the place is constantly being added to.  In 2011 a building was constructed to provide protection for the mosaic floors and other features of one of the ranges of buildings, and these allow visitors to see some of what has been excavated without doing any damage.

Cirencester is a Roman town but its site has remained fixed. This means that most of the Roman features have been obscured by more recent building. However, the site of the amphitheatre remains, although all the structure is covered in earth and grass now. It’s hard to get an idea of the scale from a photo, so I stayed up on the top of the ‘stands’ and sent Mr Snail down into the arena:


Hello Cirencester!

I should also mention that Cirencester has some great places to eat – we particularly liked Jesse’s Bistro – try it if you are ever visiting. It even had atmosphere when we first arrived and we were the only two customers!!


Three Acres and a Cow

History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again. (Maya Angelou)

Despite the tedium of history lessons at school, I have come to love real history, particularly when presented in an accessible way. Even so I was not sure that I wanted to spend a recent Sunday evening learning about the history of land rights in England (mostly)…. how wrong I was!

The evening entertainment on 13 September at the International Permaculture Convergence was Three Acres and a Cow, which is described on their website as

Part TED talk, part history lecture, part folk club sing-a-long, part poetry slam, part storytelling session

Now, I have to confess, that a ‘folk club sing-along’ is not high on my list of things I want to do, BUT I had heard good things about this performance and so, wrapped up well (but not quite well enough) against the cold (it was being held in a big top) I decided to give it a go…

A cow!

A cow!

I don’t think I can really do justice to the performance of Robin Grey, Rachel Rose Reid and Naomi Wilkins. They ran through the history of  land rights and protest with humour and insight in a couple of hours, starting with the Norman Conquest (it seems that we have William the Conqueror to blame for taking the land away from the people in the first place), to the land enclosures between 1285 and 1640 (blame the sheep), via the English Civil War (1642-1651) including the Diggers who employed direct action to occupy land, the 1700-1850 Parliamentary Enclosures and the Industrial Revolution, progressing to the 1915 Glasgow rent strikes and the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932 (which inspired Ewan Maccoll’s song The Manchester Rambler).

I would not have believed that a history lesson could get a standing ovation, but it did… plus we all learned a lot. If you want to know more, I highly recommend the Three Acres and a Cow website along with their associated Wiki. From this you can learn about the history of land rights in England, but if you get I chance, go and see the group performing live. Sadly there isn’t a film of the performance, but you can hear a few of the songs on the relevant page of their website, including the title song Three Acres and a Cow. If you live in the UK you may also be interested to discover, on the songs page, the anthem of the Liberal Party (more details here).

And the title? Well, well, according to Wikipedia:

Three acres and a cow was a slogan used by British land reform campaigners of the 1880s… It refers to an ideal land holding for every citizen

All this has rather piqued my interest and I think I’m going to do some more reading around the subject… and, possibly, demand my three acres and a cow, it seems only fair.

A rosy view

I think that we all have the capacity to regard the past with nostalgia. It is all too easy to think that ‘things were better when…’ to long for some sort of historic utopia that probably never existed.

Looks natural, but it isn't: planted trees and a canal

Looks natural, but it isn’t: planted trees and a canal

As an ecologist working on habitat restoration, this is something I know all too well. Human beings yearn for the native vegetation of their countryside… for a time when the whole of Britain looked like a Constable painting or a Capability Brown landscape: rolling hills, artistically placed trees and agricultural labourers, meandering rivers. And it can be quite a disappointment to realise that this rural idyll never existed; that the countryside is a dynamic place, which has been used, changed and manipulated by man for a long time; that Capability Brown ‘designed’ his landscapes based on a romantic notion of the countryside; that unless we put a great deal of energy into it, our countryside will naturally change into whatever vegetation is best suited to the prevailing conditions. As conservationists, we need to exert a significant amount of effort to maintain, for example, species-rich meadows or ponds suitable for dragonflies.

And it’s the same with human society – the past where everyone had a job, could sustain themselves and lived in a village with a shop, a post office, a pub and a fully functional community is simply not real. It is a story that we tell ourselves, it gives us comfort. This post is probably coming across as very cynical; it has all come about because of a song called The Liverpool Lullaby. Do you know it? If not you can listen to a version of it here and read the lyrics here.

Well, I was reminded of it the other day because of a chance remark by a friend on Facebook. I always found the song upsetting as a child and decided to listen to it as an adult in order to explore these feelings. As it turns out, I still find it upsetting, but am haunted by it and by some of the imagery of life in working-class Britain in the 1950s and 60s. One thing in particular that struck me (child abuse aside) was the reference to The Lune, which as a child I had misheard as ‘the loom’ (you can tell I grew up in the heart of wool-producing country where big mills were part of our history).

What, I wondered, was The Lune – my initial thought was that it was a pub, after all the song refers to the boozer and dad drinking all the money away, but a quick search on the internet revealed that The Lune was a “laundry and dry cleaning works”… and not just any laundry, but a vast place. Householders sent their laundry there, as did hotels. I was astounded when browsing the memorabilia on the Lune website to see endorsements written in the 1930s from as far afield as The Gleneagles Hotel (Scotland), Somerset and Hove in Sussex. I had no idea that 70 years ago anyone would have dreamed of sending their linen on a 540-mile round trip simply to be laundered. In my head I have an image of small, local laundries for those who could afford them at that time, but it turns out The Lune was huge, and it was not the only one of its kind.

The Lune Laundry (from the Wavertree Society Newsletter: http://www.liverpool.ndo.co.uk/wavsoc/news08/page7.html)

It was founded in 1905, but I can find no record of when it closed, just that the building was demolished in 1987 and that the company has now been dissolved.

And so, on reflection I acknowledge that much of our past –  in the lifetime of those of us who might be reading this – is less than rosy. Whilst there were communities who supported each other, there were also terrible working conditions, abject poverty, abused children, and affluent people who could afford to have their linen shipped half way across the country simply to be washed. Let us not forget that, whilst there are real problems in the modern world, many of them are not new and some of the old ones have disappeared. Let’s not wallow in nostalgia, wishing for a return to a world that never existed, but work towards a more equitable and sustainable world with a modern vision.

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