Reflections on Geography at Bedford College (and then Royal Holloway) in the 1980s

The Geography Department at Royal Holloway, University of London, is hosting an alumni event focusing on the 1980s to be held on 16th July.  As one of the last ‘surviving’ members of staff to have worked at Bedford College, I was asked by Klaus Dodds to write a few words about my recollections, so that they could be included on a poster in the Department.  Just thought that it might be interesting also to post them here, together with some imagery from 20-30 years ago!

The Department 30 years ago was so much smaller than today – fewer staff, fewer undergraduates, and fewer postgraduates.  It was a world largely without computers.  No e-mails!  One could think, and write, and teach students who were genuinely interested in learning.  It was brilliant!

I distinctly remember being appointed, and joining in 1981.  There were but a handful of jobs advertised in human geography that year.  I had been interviewed for a job at Exeter, but couldn’t hear properly what the panel chair was mumbling!  Needless to say I did not get that job!  My girlfriend was working in London, while I was still living in Durham and working at the Geography Department there.  Then this job came up at Bedford – amazingly the College where my mother had studied mathematics many years previously!  I remember being asked at the interview what it would mean for my personal life if I got the job, and responding that of course it would mean that Pam and I could get married. Imagine being asked such a thing in interviews today!

I was appointed to teach historical geography – and loved it!  I diligently used to write out my lecture notes in full – and read them to my students!!  Scarcely something that new lecturers would do now, in a world of PowerPoint!  But I did use slides on the old projector. I was very little older than the students were, and they forgave me for my nervousness.  I think my enthusiasm must have made up for a lot – medieval taxation documents, field systems, and prehistoric monuments!

One highlight was when the new electronic typewriter with a memory arrived; the precursor for word processors and personal computers.  One day, I was using it when the Departmental Secretary came in and threw me off, saying that she had something important to write.  Suppressing my fury, I left the dark room where it lived, and hit the wall outside with my fist.  My hand crumpled….  I then spent all afternoon running “The Green Revolution Game” with my students; my hand bent in pain.  Only in the early evening did I go to St Thomas’s – and of course they diagnosed a broken hand!

Then there were the great students doing the Master’s course in Third World development.  The course was led by Alan Mountjoy, and attracted bright people from all over the world – some of my favourite teaching ever; if only I was still in touch with some of them – particularly the Egyptian journalist who gave me a photograph of Jürgen Habermas.

And there was the IRA bombing in 1982.  I heard the first blast in Hyde Park whilst I was working at the RGS, and then got back to Bedford to see the debris remaining from the other blast that had taken place at the bandstand just nearby in Regent’s Park.  A sad day.

But the early 1980s was the time of mergers across London.  I became deeply involved in planning for the merger with King’s, and remember being saddened when it was announced that this had fallen through.  Going to Egham did, though, have one advantage in that we did not have to negotiate with another Geography Department already there; we could instead build our own identity from within.  On a personal level, we also decided to move from our rented flat in Kennington out to a newly built house in Englefield Green, on the Larksfield estate.  I remember this being a huge risk, since I had not been made permanent and we bought before it had definitely been confirmed that the merger would go through.

The move meant that we could reorganise our courses, and I recall working with Chris Green and others on a new teaching structure that would mean that our third year courses would become much more research oriented and also applied.  This provided the opportunity for me to launch my new course on the historical geography of viticulture and the wine trade.  At first, this was rejected by the University Geography board as being far too esoteric – but I resubmitted it again pointing out that if there was a course at SOAS on the geography of oil, surely we could teach about viticulture and wine.  After all, the wine trade has been in existence for millennia.  This course also provided an opportunity to work more closely with those in the wine trade, and highlights definitely included the wine tastings and the field trips to Burgundy and Champagne.  Imagine being allowed today to ‘race’ in minibuses across France from vineyard to vineyard and campsite to campsite.  How generous were the winemakers who shared their time and their wines with us!!

But I recall other field trips too: the day excursions to Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire for my second year students, exploring field systems and deserted medieval villages, more often than not in the snow; and then the second year trip to Portugal, again with generous hospitality from friends in the port wine trade.

There were great characters in the Department: Ron Halfhide, who became Departmental Superintendent, and was always the life and soul of the party, helping to arrange wonderful Geographical Society events; David Hilling, the ‘uncle’ figure, who cared for students (and rugby) in ways that we are no longer permitted to do; John Thornes, who as Head of Department told me that I should really make myself the specialist in one area of the discipline, such as the geography of Portugal.  John certainly taught me some lessons!  On his recommendation, I drafted two chapters of ‘the’ book on Portugal, and sent them to a publisher.  The academic referees liked them, but the publisher said that there was no market for a book on agricultural innovation in Portugal.  Never again have I written anything for a book publisher without a contract!

Above all, I remember those days as ones of amazing freedom – when we could craft new knowledge in the innocent ways we believed were right, when we could treat students as friends and not numbers, when collegiality rather than individual selfish career progression mattered.  They were good times”.


Filed under Geography, Higher Education, Universities

18 responses to “Reflections on Geography at Bedford College (and then Royal Holloway) in the 1980s

  1. Mrs Kathryn Peneycad

    I very much enjoyed reading your reflections on Geography at Bedford College in the 1980’s. It reminded me of my childhood and teenage years and hearing my late father, Professor Tony Chandler, ( Physical Geography: 1960’s UCL and 1970’s Manchester,including the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution ) talking about his Geography teaching and the departments in general. I can fully relate to your final comment about the freedom of those days and how good they were! I remember my father coming home at Manchester having secured one of the first hand-held calculators for the Department (at great cost!) and how amazed my brother and I were with using it!
    Our daughter, Elizabeth, has just completed her first year studying BSc Physical Geography and Geology at Royal Holloway and coincidentally, you stopped to speak to us at the recent. Results Day. Lizzy has very much enjoyed her first year, particularly the Field Trip to Spain.
    Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

    Mrs Kathryn Peneycad

    • unwin

      Dear Kathryn – thanks so much for these reflections – what a small world! Very glad that Lizzy has enjoyed her first year with us! Best wishes, Tim

  2. Saeid

    Great story!
    It was very nice (and useful) to read something about the past days of the place that is new for me in all aspects.
    Thank you,

  3. Jamie

    Tim the last paragraph very much reflects how i have felt during my time studying geography at RHUL and it is the reason i have had a fantastic time and learnt a great deal. I have not felt a number in the last few years and that was the great thing compared to other geography departments. You have been an important part in that regard, many of the ideas and values that you describe above are reflected in the way you taught and interacted with us. Whether these relationships will stay the same after the increase in fees is another matter though. I can understand where you are coming from in regard to students just focusing on individual career progression, but there are still some of us who are studying geography for its academic value.

  4. Theresa Sainsbury

    Hi Tim

    So interesting to read your comments on the Bedford/Royal Holloway merger. My year (which graduated in 1986) moved to Holloway in our third year and although many of us were apprehensive about moving out to the “country” after the bright lights of Regents Park, we had a fabulous final year. I remember you well (probably because you were indeed only a few years older than us, but also because you were an amazing lecturer). I can identify so much with what you say in your article; the department at that time was small, friendly and amazingly supportive. David Hilling was such a popular figure, and I particularly remember Duncan Mc Gregor as he was my tutor in my first year and such a great personality, The social events were legendary; all my friends doing languages were always desperate to come to the Geog Soc events. I also have fond memories of Stuart Corbridge, a great lecturer too.
    I didn’t use my degree in the real sense until a couple of years ago ( I now work at Hampton Boys school in SW London) but Geography is such a tremendous subject to study because it gives you so much more than just a degree at the end of it. I learnt so much in those three years and have so much to thank Bedford/Royal Holloway for. I hope you enjoy many more years inspiring young people in the subject.

    • unwin

      Hi Theresa
      Amazing – how long have you been at Hampton? My son went there, and has now just finished his second year at Cambridge reading History!
      You should come down for one of our alumni days! Just had one a week or so ago, and it was great to see long lost friends!

  5. Theresa Sainsbury

    I was so sorry to miss the event – I wasn’t on the mailing list but have remedied that now. It is such a small world – if your son left Hampton 2 years ago I am guessing he was in Morgan Browne’s year – does that name ring a bell? (He and I are friends on facebook so I’ll check). And history, so he must at some point have been taught by the legendary Jon Cook/Andy Lawrence/ Richard Worrallo? I’ve been there 5 years, mainly working with dyslexics across the entire curriculum at both GCSE and A level. They keep threatening to haul me into the Geog dept to do some teaching but it hasn’t happened yet…. I’ve mailed Duncan a couple of photos from those times and I shall try and hunt out a few more out….. enjoy your summer and maybe we can catch up at a future event.

  6. Lynette Enevoldsen

    How fascinating to find this site, looking for memories of Bedford College. I graduated in 1959! so should consider myself part of the archaeology of the college. Prof Manley was head of the dept and Dr Smee and Dr(?)Vollans were my Hist Geog lecturers. Dr Embleton did the Geomorphology etc… I have been in Canada since 1962 so am quite out of touch. I remember a certain Alan Mountjoy lecturing on Cartography and Africa, esp. Egypt.
    Since coming here, to southern Québec, I have seen the gradual establishment of vineyards and a wine industry which was inexistent at my arrival, presumably made possible by the warming of our climate.


      I was a MSc Geography student, 1984.Dr David Hilling was my Transport Geography lecturer.I remember you also my lecturer.(Kandiah Kanagasingam).

  7. Jan CARUTH, nee Edworthy

    Thanks Lynette and Unwin for including some familiar names. I was there 1970–3 and was also taught by Edith Vollens, Alan Mountjoy, David Hilling and Duncan Mcgregor! There were others too including Mike Eden& Dr Jolliffe, Funny how ideas come and go. We learned Christaller’s settlement theories, only to subsequently teach them at both A and GCSE levels later, and now ..out of vogue I believe. Other exciting areas were containerisation, which Dave Hilling thought would revolutionise West africa, and the newly emerging plate tectonics..or maybe that came later!
    There is now a newly formed facebook group which i would encourage folk to join called the Bedford Society,.

  8. Christine Spain

    Hi Tim, I have just come across this article (a little late!!) and have to say it made me smile. I started at Bedford in 1981 and was in fact in one of your original tutorial groups. Unfortunately I spent field trips in snow and rain (I am in fact one of the students skulking at the back of your ‘snowy’ photo) and missed out on the sunny vineyard slopes. I remember you raising the idea of a History of Viticulture unit and would have been one of the first to sign up (Hic!) if the chance had arisen. This article has brought back some great memories. Thank you. I wish you all the best for the future. Christine Spain (nee Frazer)

    • Tim Unwin

      Hi Christine. How lovely to hear from you. Those days were a long time ago – but I think I still have all my tutorial group records in my filing cabinet! What did you go on to do? Best wishes, Tim


      I am an ex Bedford MSc Geography (1984).Dr David Hilling was my thesis supervisor.Sad to hear that he has passed away .
      Like to know how to join the Bedford Goegraphy Society

  9. Christine Spain

    Tim, lovely to hear back. I left Geography behind (which is a shame really) and worked in the City for 16 years before leaving to bring up my children – both of whom are now out of university too! How the years fly. I see you have kept yourself very busy and have done so well – not surprising as you had such a way of inspiring others. Christine

  10. Christine Spain

    Not too far out. Sometimes pop down to Virginia Water – not far from Egham. Will let you know when passing!

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