Sunday, 9 October 2016

Week 1: (3rd to 9th October 2016) or 'Welcome to Lancaster'

My pen, as it stains this sheet of pulp fibres, refracts the final hours of afternoon sunshine. It journeys from margin to margin, dispensing its chemical on the page, the ink being fanned by a warm south-westerly breeze. It conveys in its current a melange of subtle aromas. Sometimes it is eddied by the swoop of the swallow and the commute of the worker bees. Occasionally, it is blocked altogether; then stirred and dispersed once more by the cumbersome load of a passing tractor. The Norfolk harvest is in full swing. Sonically, life even in this rural idyll is vivacious. An incessant, atonal splatter emanates from my pond as the water journeys around the system. There’s an opera too; a robin carolling from a leaf on the laurel. Tranquility. 

And as I do my final round with the watering can for this summer, the day's displays are packing up for yet another day. A. E. Housman's words beckon my thoughts.

When summer's end is nighing
And skies at evening cloud,
I muse on change and fortune
And all the feats I vowed
When I was young and proud. 

I, too, mused on the change and fortune that the next semester would bring. Certainly, this wasn't any semester. Soon I would be presented with a large feat: a three year PhD project and the lifestyle which accompanies those that channel down such unchartered territory. To settle any worries, however, is experience. I am, after all, very well trained in making new beginnings, re-settling and adapting to change. Whether fortune is on the cards or not, I'm sure I will keep an open mind and an open, thankful heart. 

It's interesting, once in a while, to physically pick up your life and feel how heavy it weighs. Such an opportunity was granted to me last Friday morning (the 30th September) as my Dad and I loaded a hire van with everything (in theory) that will allow me to preserve a decent, safe, happy lifestyle in Lancaster. Making their debut appearance in that lifestyle are various boxes of kitchen implements, for a student at PhD level really does need to know how to churn up a hearty meal once in a while. The heaviest suitcase was, as expected, a couple of wardrobe's worth of thick, woolen jumpers; essential to Lancashire's non-native populace if keeping warm is even the slightest of ambitions. All of these items, and many more, were about to be hauled across the country.

If you've ever had the blessed opportunity to live on a university campus, you would appreciate that arriving  in one is similar to those who fly into a new time-zone. I'm not referring to the international cohort, although it's obvious that many such students do have to attune their lifestyles to a time-piece in Greenwich. But for those that do not necessarily configure their watches, a university seems to be synchronised to a very different time-zone. For many students, 00:00 doesn't signal the beginning of a new day; it's an insignificant minute on a night out that started many hours previously and will end many hours ahead. 08:00 is not devoted to morning rush-hour traffic; for many, it's the start of at least another 50 minutes slumber, and a subsequent maddening dash to one's 09:00 lecture.

I'm happy those days are behind me, although in fairness, they weren't necessarily representative of my own experience at the Royal Holloway, University of London. Now, as I unpacked and settled into my new room in Lancaster, I hypothesized that the lifestyle of a PhD student would begin to become more analogous to the national average. Breakfast, luncheon and dinner would at last, happen regularly.  I even have a dining table! 

 To cure aching concerns, for I know many are interested to know whether I've even unwrapped my kitchen implements, I can confirm my first week's worth of cooking has largely been a resounding success. To report this, and not the more likely alternative (that is, to say, I've triggered my house's fire alarm) is a particular accomplishment. Week One's menu was admittedly basic, although it wasn't quite in the league of 'Baked Beans on Toast'. Rather, I enjoyed a series of curries, Gammon steak and Mackerel. 

"Welcome to your PhD journey" greeted me, and about 20 others, into the Lancaster Environment Centre's specialist training suite at the beginning of this week. It's a unique journey, in some senses, characterized by an unknown route, many unknown barriers and one very unknown destination. I liken it to learning to drive. In the passenger seat, is a supervisor; a learned colleague with experience, wisdom, someone you can trust. You begin by listening, fastidiously, to every single instructed detail until you reach a stage at which you're comfortable to drive without pointers and directions, but your supervisor is still there with a foot hovered over the pedal so that he or she can take the reigns if you start driving off course. Around you are your fellow PhD colleagues, also driving with their supervisors, towards scholarly excellence. At the end, after three years, you take the real test; a trip around your region of research with two very different passengers. It's called a PhD Viva and is an examined oral presentation of your work. There is, of course, one major flaw in this analogy. At the end of a PhD, it is often said that you're the world-leading expert in your research area. How many of today's drivers can confess to being world class? This week, I had an initial meeting with my own supervisor, Professor John Quinton, and we discussed what I suppose will be the first mile or two in a long, yet exciting voyage!

If a PhD is really like learning to drive, as I've suggested above, then I'm not quite in the car just yet. This week, in the Lancaster Environment Centre, has been about meeting my fellow drivers; the PhD researchers who are all on similar missions. I've been extremely lucky to meet so many of them. As is to be expected, we have all enjoyed very different lifestyles. Our upbringings have been infused with our own cultures so that, when we sit around a table and chew them over, the air is sweetened with the fragrance of diversity. 

Just before I set off on this PhD journey, this week I registered officially and received my Lancaster Environment Centre key card and College card. If this wasn't enough, I have a new key to add to the ring; a key to my shared PhD office. I am yet to set myself up in there, but I'm told that the office is often labelled the 'Fish Bowl' as one of the walls is partly glass, allowing passing studious traffic a chance to pause their endeavours and peer in. 

Friday was officially the final full day of the LEC's Welcome Week programme. (I make a conscious point of not using the term 'Freshers' Week'. I am now four years experienced on a university programme and do not feel fresh in the slightest). Those undertaking a Masters programme and my fellow PhD researchers were whisked away from the campus, on a meandering journey towards Arnside where collectively we would execute a five mile walk to Silverdale. This canter through the Cumbrian countryside was successfully designed to permit yet further discussions between our new colleagues with the added benefit that we would also acquaint ourselves with the surrounding area in the process. We parted Arnside with a brisk, purposeful stride along the estuary of the curiously named River Kent and then south through a series of woodlands. Turns out that another STARS student, Rosanne, not only knows this area well but is also familiar with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Despite the metrics, it's a small world. 

Our social saunter through a labyrinth of woodland paths, peppered with the seeds of next year's trees, reached an altitudinal climax at Eaves Wood. Here, we were afforded quaint vistas of Elmslack village. Fluffy white dots moved slowly over green polygons, but the remainder was inert. Life, or what passes for life in Elmslack, was comfortably still. What wasn't so comfortable was the threat and then the eventuality of impending rain. For half a mile, our gaze was framed by the panels of umbrellas and the hoods of our waterproofs. Alas, it is to be expected. 

Finally, we arrived in Silverdale and the Leighton Moss Nature Reserve, efficiently directed by the RSPB. Awaiting hungry eyes were trays of fresh homemade cakes and pots of well-brewed tea. We parked ourselves and tucked in to these sweet treats. There's nothing quite like a plate of cake and a nice brew to satisfy the ache in one's well-exercised feet after a good walk. If there was something similar, I imagine we'd take both. 

And then Saturday arrived. I had planned, for a while now, to have a set day where I would tear myself away from the hurly burly and enjoy a bite-size portion of the Lancashire countryside. Part of my overwhelming happiness at receiving this PhD opportunity is the very fact that it neighbours one of Nature's finest sanctuaries. I have harboured dreams of cycling and strolling over vast swathes of it for months and now was the chance to exercise the motions. 

I parted with my room early Saturday morning with the intention of cycling about 6 miles to a small car park on the fringes of the Forest of Bowland. The sky spoke of monotonous, persistent greyness, although even as I cycled the first leg, hues of blue were scouring their way through the cloud and opening up a void for afternoon sun-drenching. Quite early on into my journey, I was confronted not by path but by deep water. I restrained the urge to head back and hauled my bike (and myself) over what was technically a river by a line of well-polished stepping stones. By the second or third stone, I came to realize that this was not an anomaly and that I should expect similar (and more challenging) encounters. 

The Forest of Bowland AONB needn't be suffixed with an acronym to demonstrate outstanding natural beauty. It's all there; all 803 square kilometres of it are inviting and kind to the eye. Meditating within the heather moorland are loose-knit hamlets, unblemished by the mass-produced and mass-packaged lifestyle of the outside world. I made my entrance by way of a well-grazed path threaded from the western border and slowly introduced myself to its heart. Therapy slowly administered itself to my eyes by way of panoramic spectacles whilst the ears were similarly treated to audio purity: silence. Aside from the call of the Red Grouse, or the gentle trickle of an unknown stream, life was enveloped by a sublime peace. 

And then I paused. Perched on a hill, a granite pew beckoned me over and out my bag, I drew a book. I am currently reading H. E. Bates' The Country Heart. The text was put to ink in the 1940s; the literary images it conjures up in the mind were painted yesterday. How profoundly simple yet wonderful the endurance of the countryside is. A vantage point, such as that from where I was sitting, spoke not to my lips but to my heart, so that after a couple of chapters, I placed my text down and started listening to the landscape. The language has never been, nor will ever be completely translatable to modern tongue. It does exist, in various degrees, in the harmonies of Vaughn Williams, the brushwork of John Constable and the words of H. V. Morton.

As the light began to fade, I parted from my boulder and headed back over the moor, feeling truly welcomed into the bosom of this other Eden. Housman began to call again...

From hill and cloud and heaven
The hues of evening died;
Night welled through lane and hollow
And hushed the countryside,
But I had youth and pride. 

And I had a PhD journey to begin...  


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