Friday, 13 April 2018

Tempus fugit

More than 45 years ago, I spent two summers at the Moor House Field Station. It was a remote place, only accessible by a track from Garrigill near Alston in Cumbria: an idea of how remote is provided by the videoclip below [1]. Originally, the building was a hunting lodge, but a succession of outbuildings was then added and a laboratory (the large square structure shown clearly at 3.04 in the video) constructed for those working on the  IBP (International Biological Programme) in the 1960s and 1970s. In addition to research on the biology of vegetation and grouse, the laboratory was an outstation of the FBA (Freshwater Biological Association), with scientists investigating the effects of building Cow Green Reservoir on local rivers. Most of the “permanent” members of the Field Station came in by Land Rover each day, but there were also residents, including a cook/housekeeper in the summer months to cater for visitors, staying for days to months, from Universities and other establishments.

I first visited Moor House as a research student of the University of Durham from 1970-1973 but returned during the time of my first academic post at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. In the summer of 1972, I lived at Moor House during the week and walked to the local streams that I was studying, as well as driving to sites in Upper Teesdale in a Land Rover. My interest was in the distribution and biology of blackfly larvae in moorland streams (it was usual at that time to have an interest in one group of animals or plants) and compare the effects of altitude on distribution and production. All the collections needed to be processed and this work was carried out in the laboratory at Moor House (see the photograph below, taken by Patrick Armitage of the FBA).

All the hours of work resulted in a PhD thesis and some research papers, although my contribution to science was at that time minimal. By the time of my second summer, in 1974, my interests were broadening into studies of feeding in freshwater invertebrates and, serendipitously, these led to a paper in Nature [2], regarded as something of a “holy grail” for scientists starting out on their careers. It was from this work that I became a little more widely known and I then began a collaboration with the Rheo-Group in Lund in Sweden that provided both a jumping off point for my studies on particulate and dissolved organic matter in water bodies and for many research visits to Sweden and Finland. I never went back to Moor House.

So, what became of the Moor House Field Station? Sadly, it was regarded as being of limited use to the research community after the 1980s, except for those who continued to make day visits, and “permanent” staff left for other posts. The buildings began to decay and were then demolished, the rubble being used to reinforce the track – providing an odd memorial to the achievements of many who stayed, or worked, at Moor House (see below for how the site looks now [3]). My study streams remain – they were there long before the House, of course – and there will otherwise be no record of my research other than a few pieces of paper in journals. Of course, my memories are strong and there are many happy times to recall. These included playing Layla (Derek and the Dominoes) and All the Young Dudes (Mott the Hoople) at full volume on some evenings and, more reflectively, listening to Bruch’s Scottish Fantasia so often that it almost became a theme for the place. Then there was the excellent food cooked by Mrs Dunn in the large AGA in the kitchen and the pleasure to taking a bath at the end of a long day – once one became used to the peat-stained water.

Like I say, just memories and little else, yet it all seemed so important at the time.

[2] R.S.Wotton (1976) Evidence that blackfly larvae can collect particles of colloidal size. Nature 261:697.

[3] John Adamson (2009) Moor House Memories. (access through

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