Author Archives: Eann Patterson

Worrying about ecology on the fells

Let me take you fell-walking.  Don’t worrying if you have never been fell-walking.  I am familiar with the fells where we are going so we won’t get lost, I move quite slowly these days so you will be able to keep up, and I was taught mountain leadership by the Royal Marines so you are in safe hands.  It is a bright morning though still chilly as we set off through the village.  The village car park, at the foot of the path onto the fell, is packed with vehicles belonging to a film crew who are setting up for a scene in a remake of a James Herriot TV series.  The little car he drives from his veterinary practice over the fells to visit farms is sat waiting for the actor. Perhaps by now the music from the original TV series is echoing in your head and you have a mental image of the Yorkshire Dales where we are walking.  We leave the film crew behind as we climb up the steep path out of the valley towards the upper slopes.  Initially, the path is rock and gravel so it is reasonably solid underfoot but, as we breakout onto the first of a series of high broad terraces, the ground becomes waterlogged and we tread carefully trying to avoid sinking into the squelchy turf.  A herd of Galloway cattle, small black cows with white waistbands, are grazing across the path and barely give us a glance as we walk around them.  Their calmness is infectious.  There is no one else in sight and there are long views across the valley to the fells beyond.  There are white fluffy clouds scattered across the blue sky and a smudge of off-white on the horizon, perhaps a shower of rain or a pall of smoke – it is difficult to tell.  We walk diagonally and slightly upwards across the broad terrace, through a gate, and then the path heads up another steep incline before breaking out onto a higher terrace.  Here, the path snakes across the terrace around sink holes before heading steeply upwards again.  This pattern repeats itself with the view getting bigger, the wind stronger and the temperature colder with each repetition until, after about an hour’s climbing, we suddenly arrive at the summit which is hidden from view until the last moment by the convex curvature of the fell.  Actually, its not really a summit because it is a vast flat-topped fell with a trig point creating rather than marking the highest point.  Nevertheless, the view is spectacular with a blue sky and occasional high clouds.  After a summit photo we set off northwards on a paved path alongside a drystone wall marking the boundary between two parishes.  It is amazing that someone has gone to the trouble of transporting huge slabs of stone, typically 1 sq.m., 700 m up a mountain to lay a footpath for walkers.  Actually, the drystone wall is pretty amazing too, because its about 1.5 m high, in good condition, and part of more than 5000 miles of wall in the Yorkshire Dales that were built without any of today’s civil engineering equipment, some of them 600 years ago.  Eventually, after walking about a kilometre, the summit ends and we start to walk down hill, cross the wall on a ladder stile and then cross back through a gate and turn west.  We stop for lunch sheltering behind the wall from the wind with the sun in our faces and a magnificent view down a valley formed by a beck heading towards the dale from which we started this morning.  All food tastes infinitely better sitting on a hill that you have just climbed and the singing of skylarks and curlews adds to our feeling of well-being.  Our picnic spot is still quite high and we can see line upon line of fells disappearing into the distance.  Some have smudges of off-white above them and we realise, when one drifts towards us from the fell directly across the valley from us, that it is smoke from heather being burned to encourage new growth and improve conditions for gamebirds.  Recent research has shown that unmanaged heather lands absorb more carbon than those managed by burning or mowing; while research published in 2014 showed that burning of moorland has significant negative impacts on peat hydrology, chemistry and physical properties, as well as river water chemistry and river ecology.  So it is disappointing to find that a negative contribution to achieving net zero by 2050 is being made so that a tiny proportion of the population can enjoy shooting birds for sport.  These thoughts and the smoke drifting towards us rather spoil our otherwise idyllic lunch and we head off down the hill in the sunshine planning this post.  But this blemish on an otherwise perfect day on the fells is almost forgotten by the time we have descended into the dale and followed the river upstream to our starting point next to the village pub where we enjoy a couple of pints of real ale.

If you want to follow this walk for real then the details are here:

Reasons I became an engineer: #1

Photograph of aircraft carrier in heavy seas for decorative purposes onlyThis is the first in a series of posts in which I am going to reflect on my route to becoming an engineer.  These events happened around forty years ago so inevitably my recollections probably have more in common with folklore than reliable history.  Nevertheless, I hope they might be of interest.

I was good at mathematics at school but also geography and when required to specialise at the age of sixteen would have preferred to study mathematics, geography and perhaps economics.  However, my parents and my school, had other ideas and decided that partnering chemistry and physics with mathematics would give me more opportunities in terms of university courses and careers.  Physics was manageable but Chemistry was a complete mystery to me.  I left school shortly before my eighteenth birthday and joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman.  I went to Dartmouth Naval College where, as part of my training to become a seaman officer, I was taught to march, navigate, fight fires, sail yachts, drive motor launches and fly helicopters as well as spending time with the Royal Marines.  After my basic naval training, which included time at sea on HMS Hermes, I went to University sponsored by the Royal Navy with a free choice of subject to study.  So, I chose Mechanical Engineering because I thought as an officer on the bridge of a ship, perhaps eventually in command of a ship, it would be useful to understand what the engineers were talking about when they asked for a change in operations due to technical difficulties.  At that stage in my life, I had no intention of becoming an engineer, but with hindsight it was my first step in that direction.

The Earth is only about 20 years old

Recently I have been writing a research proposal with two collaborators who live in two different time zones which has made arranging on-line meetings challenging.  There was a brief period last month when the USA had shifted to summer time or daylight saving time a couple of weeks ahead of the UK which made life even more complicated.  Our time zones are based on the sun crossing the local meridian at noon, or in summer moving an hour of daylight from the morning to the evening (a meridian is a great circle joining the celestial poles).  Actually, our whole time system is heliocentric with one day being the period of time between instants when the sun passes over the local meridian and an Earth year being the period of orbit of the Earth around the sun.  A galactic year is the time period the sun takes to orbit the black hole at the centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way, which is 230 million Earth years.  On this basis, the Earth is only about 20 years old, that’s galactic years and based on current estimates of the age of the Earth as 4.5 billion Earth years. In Swahili culture, time has two dimensions, Sasa and Zamini.  Zamini might be measured in galactic years because it refers to the far and immeasurable past whereas Sasa describes the present and recent past.  Sasa is about the period that people can remember so when someone dies they remain in Sasa until the last person who can remember them also dies and then they move to Zamini.  Just as the Western concept of time is experienced differently by individuals [see ‘We inhabit time as fish live in water‘ on July 24th, 2019 and ‘Slowing down to think (about strain energy)‘ on March 8th, 2017], so are Sasa and Zamini since in my perception my paternal grandmother is in Sasa time but for my children, who never met her, she is in Zamini time.


Thomas Halliday, Otherlands: A world in the making, London: Allen Lane, 2022.

Enuma Okoro, Ways of seeing, ways of knowing, FT Weekend, Saturday 11 March/Sunday 12 March 2023.

Mind-wandering on the hills

It is the Easter vacation for our undergraduate students and I am taking a week’s leave to wander the hills, digitally detox and return with my consciousness revived by sensory experiences.  So just two sentences and a picture this week though if you want to read more then follow these links: ‘Walking the hills‘ on April 13th, 2022; ‘Digital detox with a deep vacation‘ on August 10th, 2016; and ‘Feed your consciousness with sensory experiences‘ on May 22nd, 2019.The author stood next to a trig point on top of hill