Peasant, Travel Writer, autobiographer, literary critic and historian.
‘Accomplished lecturer and public speaker’
Where do I begin? (apart from the obvious, where we all do.) What do I do? Well, I teach, lecture, write books, grow organic food – your vegetables taste better if you have had soil under your fingernails – and look after the little house in the country that has been home for so many years. I hope I have been a good steward of the good earth other people, whose broken tools I sometimes dig up, have worked before me. When I can I travel: in Europe mainly in the winter as the English summer and Autumn can be too lovely to miss and I do not like being hot, and in summer when I get the chance to high latitudes north or south. I have been fortunate enough to be invited to lecture on cruise boats in places as far apart as Antarctica, Tierra del Fuego and Spitsbergen, and under my own steam I have travelled through Greenland, Spitsbergen, and most of the north Atlantic Islands. But if you want to see what my recent lectures have been – excluding those academic ones on mediaeval and early modern literature given in Cambridge and elsewhere – here is a list:
1. Atlantic and Northern Waters
Monks, Marvels and Monsters: The Voyage of St Brendan
St Kilda, the loneliest isle
‘Unpathed waters, undreamed shores’: The Haven Finding Art, or How the Vikings (and others) found their way
The Battle of Stiklestad and the Christianisation of Norway
The fury of the Northmen (An account, sometimes lurid, of the Viking voyages, travel and invasions, and why they matter NOW)
Crossing Spitsbergen (a personal account of a dramatic sledge journey)
A Summer in the North (a personal account of s summer spent in research in Spitsbergen
On not running way to sea, or, Getting fish in your gumboots
Plants and environments of the high Arctic
The Vikings in Greenland, Iceland and America
Farmers Behaving Badly: the settlement of Iceland
Last man alive: the end of the Greenland Viking Colonies
The Norse Diaspora
The Elizabethans’ America
The Cold Coast: Early Dutch and English whaling expeditions to the north
The Spanish Armadas
The Battle of Trafalgar and what it was really about
The Norse Sagas and what they tell us
2. The Baltic
The Iron Cross: The Teutonic Knights, the forgotten crusaders
The Hanseatic League
Herrings and politics
The Vikings at Jomsborg
‘I see no ships’: Nelson, Admiral Hyde Parker and the Battle of Copenhagen
A masque of Muscovites: England’s first contacts with Russia
Peter the Great in England
A Myth for the Darkness: the Finnish Kalevala
Arthur Ransome’s First Voyage
Mediaeval Feminism: Margery Kempe and her travels
Felix Fabri goes to the Holy Land
Admiral Thomas Cochrane (Thomas Cochrane, a glamorous naval hero of the Napoleonic Wars, was the inspiration for Forester’s Hornblower and Marryat’s Captain Savage and O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey)
The dilemma of Jemmy Button: a moral tragedy
Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwin’s Grandfather, once considered a major poet and certainly an important scientist was a great influence on the more famous Charles)
Charles Darwin in Chile
Representing the South (2 lectures)
Small Earthquake in Chile
The Falklands: a Brief History
5. Literature and Art History
Mediaeval architecture: the international style
Landscape, gardens and politics
Shakespearean topics – too many to mention, but especial interest in the material and political context of Elizabethan drama
Cosmic models and encyclopaedias: a fresh way of looking at Gothic churches
‘Once she did keep the gorgeous East in fee’: the ascendancy of Venice. – and many, many topics on literature, theatre and poetry
6. General (Geographical and Historical)
Early navigational techniques
Early maps and charts
Samuel Pepys and the Admiralty
Winds, trade and strategy – from the Norman invasion to the Protestant Wind of 1688
The Travels of John Mandeville
The world of a mediaeval traveller
Why did Columbus sail west?
The Four Horsemen: the unexpected Apocalypse
For many years I have taught mediaeval and renaissance literature in the University of Cambridge and I have written a lot of books and articles about it, which some people read. But for a long time I was also a smallholder, growing or hunting a good deal of the family’s food when the children were small and money was very tight. (It still is, but less so, and I still am.) For over twenty years I was a beekeeper and can tell many (not always self-flattering) stories about my experiences with those determined ladies.
I also worked several summers as a bus conductor in rural Lancashire (when buses had conductors), as a trawler deckhand, hired out deckchairs on Blackpool Prom for Blackpool Corporation, and did a stint as a night porter in one of the best hotels in the town. (That was highly educative…) I wrote affectionately about a lot of this in Between the Tides
My first boat, Boston Seafoam
Later I trained as a printer (and had my own small private press). I have travelled widely: I was part of a party sledgehauling across the Spitsbergen icecap, I have stopped people treading on penguins in the Antarctic, ridden a cutting-out pony in Georgia, USA, and dined sumptuously on an asado in Argentina after walking down a glacier and through the Southern Beech (nothofagus) forest. Once I rounded Cape Horn, but it was in a big boat and it was disappointingly calm.
A lot of this experience has found its way into several of my more personal books: A Field Full of Folk (originally written as a growing-up-and-leaving-home present for my son and daughter) was republished as Out of Reach, and one critic called it ‘a little classic’ of local history; my Between the Tides: A Lancashire Youthwas highly praised; and the book which most expressed my love for and interest in the environment and history of Iceland, Norway and the Arctic, Latitude North was a joy to write and many found it a joy to read.
My book of memories of Cambridge town, University and countryside, my own and others’, Coming to Terms: Cambridge In and Outgets me lots of dinner invitations. I am currently working on a long and much darker, very personal, book, part memoir, part history, part protest, which I think will be called A Book of Murmurations. But even there, comedy keeps breaking in.
I was born in 1941 in Manchester, during the Blitz. I have few memories of either event. My mother was from a clerical family; my father’s roots were in the farming and mining villages of Staffordshire and Cheshire linked by the canal network.
My great grandfather had a boatyard here
My father’s war service abroad in Gibraltar meant that my mother and I moved to rooms in Blackpool, where she worked as a School Secretary and later for long and happy years as a College lecturer in Hotel Management. She and my father also ran a guest house. I grew up, an only child, within sound of the sea pounding on the flat beach at Rossall, running fairly wild and mostly happy in the windy fields where the geese came in winter and the hares boxed in Spring. This is the time when I became blasé about cows and their habit of creeping up and blowing down your neck when you are quietly fishing.
Arnold School, Blackpool
I attended Beach Road County Primary School, the debt to whose wonderful teachers I acknowledge almost daily, and then I went to Arnold School, Blackpool, where I hated Rugby, failed to catch cricket balls, achieved no rank in the CCF, but loved shooting, Latin, French, English and Geography. I became in time very friendly with its redoubtable Headmaster, whose memory I honour and for whose support of an awkward, wayward youth I am ever grateful. An Open Award to Queens’ College took me to Cambridge, where I read English to a very acceptable degree.
My first job after graduating was with Cambridge University Press Printing House, then as Arts (later Senior) Editor with University Tutorial Press, and at this time I began my lifelong University teaching, and my doctoral research into the Travels of Sir John Mandeville. The then newish University of East Anglia gave me my PhD. And I have not stopped writing about that clever, witty, fascinating book since.
A move to The Leys School in 1973 meant happy years teaching English and Classics. Then I was invited to be College Lecturer in English at Magdalene College, Cambridge, Director of Studies in English (and later Fellow) of Wolfson College, and finally Senior Tutor and Director of Studies in English at Hughes Hall, Cambridge.
The Leys School, Cambridge
Magdelene College, Cambridge
Wolfson College, Cambridge
Hughes Hall, Cambridge
For years I was an Affiliated Lecturer in the Faculty of English, and Programme Director for Cambridge University’s Summer Schools in English Literature and in Shakespeare. I am also Editor of the Literature Insights list of Humanities-ebooks.co.uk. Take a look: it is a good list.
In 1962 I married Jennifer Mary Williamson, whom I had admired (initially from afar) for several years, and we had two children: and then a yellow Labrador. The move to a rundown cottage in Reach, then a run down village on the edge of the Fens led to a certain expertise for us both in building work, growing things, and poaching. (I also, in due course, wrote a short history of the village: you can find it on the village website, though it has also been published in hard copy.) The children survived to become very solid citizens: a headmistress and a senior manager in Air Traffic Control.
Reach, Cambridgeshire c.1900
Jennifer died, rather suddenly, deeply mourned, in 2009. After years of solitary, hard-working silence, accompanied by Hector my black Labrador, I met Rosanna Price, and we married in 2017 to Hector’s delight.
Hector, looking delighted
We share a startling array of enthusiasms, most of which are probably of no interest whatsoever to anyone but ourselves, though we are always happy to talk about them.
Oh, and my hobbies and interests…well, hillwalking, fishing, shooting, growing things, church architecture and history, mediaeval and early modern literature, reading the landscape, archaeology, ecology. I write books.
And I try to leave the smallest possible damaging footprint on this wonderful planet of ours. I am not good with computers or mobile phones. I don’t do Facebook.
If you would like to get in touch with me please use the contact form on the page titled Contact.