Alumni Stories: Stephen Trudgill, Emeritus Fellow of Robinson College, Cambridge

By Stephen Trudgill, PhD 1972, Bristol 1968

My study of Geography began in Bristol in the years 1965 – 1968, with Geology subsidiary in the first year and Sociology subsidiary in the second year (I had wanted to do subsidiary Botany but the timetable would not let me). We had field classes in Bude in the first year along with a Geology mapping trip in the Forest of Dean, alongside Swansea in the second year and Western Ireland in the third.

A turning point came for me at the end of my first year when two postgrads, Colin High and Frank Nicholson put up a note asking for helpers to come and do field work in the Burren, Co Clare, Western Ireland and I signed up. We spent some very happy weeks in McCarthy’s Cottage at Lisdoonvarna. Here I was introduced to the wonders of karst landscape and caving and found that Colin and Frank were pioneering, along with an engineer Keith Hanna, a method of measuring rock erosion using a micro-erosion meter. I spent many an hour crouched in water helping to install reference studs, the height of which relative to the eroding rock floor could be re-measured over time. 

Co Clare Field Course 1968: taking wind measurements // Photo courtesy of Stephen Trudgill

For some reason I really rather enjoyed the inspiring combination of the physicality and companionship of caving and the cerebral appeal of coming away with measurements to 6 decimal places. My devotion to field work was firmly instilled in me, leading to many years of dogged measurement in all sorts of conditions. I readily joined the University of Bristol Speleological Society when back in Bristol and discovered the joys of caving and being able to get away from Hiatt Baker Hall, nice and good as that was, to the spelio hut on the Mendips, with log fires, stews, cider and storytelling. I found that Professor Tratman and Oliver Lloyd took groups of cavers over to Ireland at Easter and in the summer and I happily joined in. A group of us readily went to Co Clare for our dissertations – with myself studying surface karst landforms and others on cave microclimate and cave meanders. 

I moved with friends to 8 Dover Place (now Meridian Place) for my third year from where I remember producing the GeogSoc Newsletter on a Gestetner skin using my manual typewriter. The Refectory (now Browns) was where everything was planned. I remember the first issue of Brycgstowe came out around then and I contributed to it, writing up our dissertations, but I can’t remember if I actually edited an edition, but I was on the GeogSoc Committee at the time. 

“For some reason I really rather enjoyed the inspiring combination of the physicality and companionship of caving and the cerebral appeal of coming away with measurements to 6 decimal places.”

GeogSoc was really important. We organised weekend field trips to places like the Dorset coast, booking a coach and Youth Hostel for the Saturday night. Some of us who came from the area told the others about the local geology, history and other interesting features – especially where the best pubs were for the Saturday night. We also did sketches and reviews at the GeogSoc Dinner Dance and invited visiting speakers from other Geography Departments round the country to speak at the dinner and at lectures during the year. When I left Bristol I wondered if I would ever come back to give a talk – and indeed some years later, I was invited to talk at the Dinner Dance, though some of my more scurrilous, and somewhat invented, anecdotes did not perhaps receive universal acclaim (e.g. “I see you have replaced the Departmental Land Rover with a horse but did not know how to dispose of the ‘products’ in the stables, but Professor ‘X’ has volunteered to publish it”). 

I landed a lovely summer job after graduation visiting all the limestone sites I could find in the north of England for the Nature Conservancy Reserve Review – ‘were all the best sites protected?’ was the question I had to answer, involving botanical surveys and limestone pavement types. I wanted to carry on my field work interests and was all set to do my PhD on limestone erosion on the Mendips and Co Clare with Dingle Smith who had secured a NERC studentship for me. However Dingle went to a geomorphology conference where David Stoddart from Cambridge had asked for a postgraduate to help the study of Aldabra Atoll, Indian Ocean. Dingle asked if I wanted to go on an expedition and I said ‘Yes. Where is it?’ and so I spent 4 months on the combined expedition of geologists and biologists and later went back to visit the Research Station. I still remain the world expert on limestone erosion rates on raised coral atolls in the Western Indian Ocean….and that in conjunction with Heather Viles at Oxford who went back some 13 years later to re-measure my sites. 

On Aldabra Atoll // Photo courtesy of Stephen Trudgill

My first lecturing post was at the University of Strathclyde where I focussed on soils and geomorphology and greatly relished finishing lecturing by Friday lunch time and being camped on the Isle of Skye that evening. Trips to the Durness limestone at Inchnadamph also featured, along with trips to Jamaica doing karst water tracing and the International Speleological Conference at Olomouc in Czechoslovakia. 

My second lecturing post was at Sheffield Geography Department where I stayed 20 years, enjoying Study Leaves in India (Ladakh Ecological Development Group), Ethiopia (Action Aid), Australia (Visiting Fellowship at ANU), New Zealand (Auckland and Canterbury Geography Departments) and the USA (Coweeta Watershed). Even though I had written books on limestone geomorphology and soils it gradually dawned on me that to do further research one had to get funding but karst was not necessarily an area that attracted the money. I therefore used what I had learned from karst research and applied it to work on water quality, especially nitrate leaching – which was very topical and fundable. 

“Dingle asked if I wanted to go on an expedition and I said ‘Yes. Where is it?’ … I still remain the world expert on limestone erosion rates on raised coral atolls in the Western Indian Ocean.”

I teamed up with Tim Burt – also a former Bristol postgrad and then at Huddersfield before he went to Oxford and Durham. We focussed our research at Slapton Field Centre where Tim sent his placement students and which I also knew as I had become a member of the Executive Committee of the Field Studies Council which ran the Field Centre there. I was teaching geomorphology and soils but gradually extending my scope into the more applied areas – along with Dave Briggs, also a former Bristol Geography postgrad who lectured at Sheffield. I began using my own personal interests in bird watching and nature to lecture on agriculture and wildlife. I grew up in Norfolk surrounded by natural historians and my father published in natural history – the North Norfolk Coast was in many ways my natural habitat and, on my mother’s side, our ancestral home.

PhD graduation 1972 and Director of Studies Robinson College Cambridge 2013 // Photos courtesy of Stephen Trudgill

It was indeed on a visit to study the geomorphology of Scolt Head Island that I learned of a lecturing post at Cambridge Geography Department and some 25 years ago, much as I enjoyed ‘The North’ and the limestone, I rather leapt at the chance to come back full circle to East Anglia. Here, I began lecturing not only in physical geography but also a lot more in environmental geography. I then realised the value of the subsidiary sociology which I had somewhat resented having to do in my second year at Bristol. I found I understood a lot of the useful sociological concepts and could ‘speak the language’, as it were. 

“I feel that the way I have wanted to look after students has been inspired by how the Bristol Geography staff looked after us, helping to nurture me and my interests so well.”

I started to contribute to a course on Environmental Management looking at not only biological and physical aspects but also social and cultural aspects of the environment. This course covered nature conservation which I greatly enjoyed and this ended up with me lecturing on The Social Engagement with Nature course on the way in which people view/perceive/construct nature. I had been kick-started on this trajectory some years earlier at a public meeting in Slapton, presenting our nitrate research. The rather legendary local farmer, who we used to work and teach with: ‘Jimmy The Farmer’, listened to my irrefutable scientific evidence and flatly denied it. I soon realised that different people could construct the same information in different ways. This is perhaps now axiomatic in teaching, but it had taken me some time to get there. 

Cambridge Branch of Bristol Alumni dinner with John Bailey 2018 // Photo courtesy of Stephen Trudgill

I have recently completed a book for Cambridge University Press: ‘Why Conserve Nature? Perspectives on meanings and motivations’ (due out October 2021). This focuses on the different narratives which people rehearse about nature and explores where these narratives might lead us. I also am happy as an Emeritus Fellow of Robinson College, Cambridge where I chair the Visual Arts and Gardens Committee and where I was Director of Studies in Geography. In my career, I have found it so worthwhile endeavouring to look after students. Now, while I am remembering Dingle Smith, Keith Crabtree, Len Curtis, Mike Morgan, David Harvey, Henry Osmaston, Ron Peel, Peter Haggett, Mike Kirkby, John Bailey, Mike Chisholm, Alan Frey, Frank Walker, Arthur Graves and Eric Barrett, I feel that the way I have wanted to look after students has been inspired by how the Bristol Geography staff looked after us, helping to nurture me and my interests so well. I greatly value how the experience has guided me in a lifetime of interest in, and engagement with, the world about us.

Dr Stephen Trudgill is Emeritus Fellow of Geography at Robinson College, Cambridge. 

https://www.robinson.cam.ac.uk/people/dr-stephen-trudgill

https://twitter.com/stevetrudgill?s=20

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