No longer Queen of the Skies

Yesterday, I was sorting through some old 35 mm slides and came across this one taken at Istanbul’s Yeşilköy Airport, in April 1972. There, on the tarmac, are a Turkish Airlines DC-9 and Boeing 707 and, on the left, a Sabena Sud Aviation Caravelle (last flown by any airline in 2005). I’ve flown that aircraft, but I can’t remember when or where. I first flew the 707 in April 1972 on Turkish Airlines from London to Istanbul. Then next, in January 1973, on the B.O.A.C. (that’s British Airways today) route to Lima, Peru via Antigua in the Caribbean, Caracas (Venezuela), and Bogotá (Colombia).

One aircraft that I have since flown countless times is the iconic Boeing 747, in at least five of its configurations: 200, 300, 400, 400-Combi, and SR. So the news that United Airlines had retired its 747 fleet caught my eye a few days ago.

On 7 November, United Airlines flew its last 747 flight. Ever! Flight UA747 between San Francisco (SFO) and Honolulu (HNL) recreated the first ever 747 flight on the same route, on 23 July 1970.

The Boeing 747 flew for the very first time on 9 February 1969, and its launch airline was Pan American World Airways, on 22 January 1970.

The Boeing 747, being displayed to the public for the first time, on 30 September 1968.

Just 50 years since it made its maiden flight, and the 747 is on its way out. Not only has it been retired from United’s fleet, by the end of this year no US airline will operate this beautiful aircraft, the Queen of the Skies, at least as a passenger aircraft. Cathay Pacific had already retired its last passenger jumbo 747-400 in 2016, as did Air France. Singapore Airlines retired its 747 fleet as long ago as 2012. British Airways still has the largest fleet, and Lufthansa and KLM operate significant fleets. But for how much longer? I guess that before long the 747’s recognisable bubble will no longer be seen at airports around the world.

Fifty years ago, the 747 was a game-changer, making intercontinental travel accessible and affordable to the masses.

When did you last fly a 747? It must be a decade ago that Steph and I flew to Minnesota for Christmas on Northwest Airlines. I think our first 747 flight was from Miami to London Heathrow on British Airways, in November 1978. But I’m not sure.

For a decade, when we lived in the Philippines, we regularly flew back to Europe on homeleave on KLM’s 747 (often Combi aircraft) service via Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur to Amsterdam’s Schipol. Many work trips to Europe were enjoyed on Lufthansa, or to the US on Northwest Airlines, and subsequently Delta. Some of the more exciting landings on an aircraft of this size were into Hong Kong’s former Kai Tak airport, as this Malaysian Airlines 747 shows.

I’ve flown in all three classes on the 747, mostly in Business Class. Whenever possible on Lufthansa, I upgraded to First Class using airmiles. It was on one of these flights from Frankfurt to Manila via Bangkok (and a colleague of mine and I were the only passengers in First Class out of Bangkok) that I had the opportunity of sitting in the jump seat on the flight deck for the landing at Manila. Magical! Those were, of course, pre-9/11 days.

At its launch, and for several decades afterwards, aircraft flying over oceans were required to have four engines. That’s no longer the case, and most long-distance flights now operate on twin-engined aircraft, since engines have become much more reliable. Today, most airlines operate twin-engined Boeing 777s or Airbus A330s (although they are also on their way out), and now the ‘new’ Boeing 787 Dreamliner and its competitor Airbus A350. The days of the four engine behemoths are past, it seems. Almost.

The Airbus A380 came on to the scene just a decade ago. It made its maiden flight in April 2005, and went into service, with Singapore Airlines two and a half years later. Just 10 years later however (reported yesterday in fact), Singapore Airlines has ‘mothballed’ the first of its A380s.

Sales of the A380 have flagged, and Airbus is now making just a handful a year. Emirates Airlines operates the world’s largest fleet of this aircraft (many times more than any other airline), has just taken delivery of its 100th A380, and waits delivery of a further 45. But the airline is also staking its future also on the new generation 777s, with 150 on order, and has also just announced an order for 40 Dreamliners (much to the disappointment of Airbus that had hoped to woo Emirates with the A350).

I have flown the A380 on three occasions. In October 2010, I flew from Dubai to Bangkok, and was upgraded from Business Class to First since another passenger ‘claimed’ my seat. Then in November 2014, I flew in Business Class from Dubai to Bangkok in Business Class and used airmiles to upgrade to First for the return leg. Then a year ago, I flew Business Class from Birmingham (BHX) via Dubai (DXB) to Melbourne (MEL), Australia, with the DXB-MEL-DXB-BHX sectors on the A380. It’s a beautiful aircraft that I have waxed lyrical about before.

However, I think there’s one aircraft, sadly no longer operational, that’s even more iconic than the 747. The Anglo-French Concorde! With her distinctive shape and profile, Concorde turned heads wherever she flew around the world.

The last ever flight of any Concorde, 26th November 2003.

I got up close and personal with Concorde on one occasion. In June 1970, I’d just finished my final exams at the University of Southampton, and travelled to Fairford in Gloucestershire to spend a long weekend with my eldest brother Martin and his wife Pauline; also young Alex, just two years old. Martin was an engineer on the Concorde flight test program based at RAF Fairford, and took me to see the sleek bird. I remember walking around the aircraft, but whether we went on board or not is no longer clear to me.

Then in the 1980s I saw Concorde twice in the air. During the summer months, it’s not unusual for aircraft heading to Birmingham International (about 15 miles due east from Bromsgrove) to be placed in a holding pattern overhead. One weekend, I heard an approaching aircraft whose engines sounded very different from the usual suspects. Looking up, I saw Concorde banking towards Birmingham, at perhaps no more than 5000 feet. What a spectacular sight. Then, one holiday in Pembrokeshire in South Wales with Steph, Hannah, and Philippa, I heard a loud ‘bang’. I saw a white dot at high altitude streaking westwards across the sky to the south of where we were sitting on the beach. With my binoculars I confirmed it was a British Airways Concorde, heading for New York or Washington. The ‘bang’ must have been its sonic boom.

Concorde 001 flew for the first time from Toulouse on 2 March 1969, just a month after the 747 took to the skies. A month later still, on 9 April, Concorde 002, built in the UK by the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) took off from Filton north of Bristol and flew the short distance to RAF Fairford. During the flight test program, Martin went with Concorde around the world, where it was tested under different landing and take-off conditions. I’m not sure if he ever flew the aircraft.

Only ever operated by British Airways and Air France, Concorde’s supersonic service was launched on 21 January 1976. Just 14 of the 20 Concorde’s built were flown commercially.

Concorde’s fate was sealed however by a small piece of debris on the runway at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris on 20 July 2000, which flew up and punctured one of the fuel tanks on AF4590, a charter flight from Paris to New York. Catching fire, Concorde plunged to the ground just minutes after take-off, killing all on board. Three years later, and also citing dwindling revenues, both airlines retired Concorde from their fleets. The supersonic era was over almost before it had begun.

And now I’ll never have that chance. But my mother did!

My brother was one of the lucky ones whose name ‘was pulled from the hat’ to enjoy a special flight on a British Airways Concorde from Filton. Instead, Martin and Pauline gave the seat to my Mum, and she took to the air on BA9082C on 14 July 1984, seat 16B. She was 76 years of age.

I guess the flight must have been a spin around the Bay of Biscay to the north coast of Spain and back to Filton, around two to three hours, and going supersonic for part of the flight. It was always one of Mum’s brightest memories.

 

On 13 July 1985, the Live Aid concert opened at Wembley Stadium in London at noon, then at the US venue in Philadelphia just under two hours later. Phil Collins (formerly of Genesis) performed his set in Wembley, took a helicopter to Heathrow and by flying on Concorde to the US, was able to join Eric Clapton on stage in Philadelphia a few hours later.

While the supersonic age has passed me by, and almost certain not to return in my lifetime, there are still many new aviation adventures to explore. I look forward to my first flights—whenever they may be—on the Dreamliner and the A350.

 

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 16. Crossing the glittering mountains of Canada

In July 1979, Steph, Hannah (aged 15 months) and I enjoyed a couple of days or so in San Francisco, and then headed up to Vancouver on Canada’s west coast. I was to attend the annual meeting of the Potato Association of America. Arriving in Vancouver we headed to conference venue, the beautiful campus of the University of British Columbia, sited on the western end of a peninsula jutting out into the Strait of Georgia opposite Vancouver Island.

It was a bit of a scrum, to say the least, when we arrived to the hall of residence where we had reserved a room. I say ‘room’, because the conference organizers wanted to put the three of us in separate rooms, not appropriate for a family of three. After discussing this vigorously with the staff behind the reception desk for almost an hour, a two-room suite was miraculously found, with its own bathroom. We made up a bed for Hannah with blankets and the like on the floor. It must have been fine since she slept soundly, and hasn’t mentioned it or complained about it since!

Well, having taken a few days out on the way north from home in Costa Rica, after the conference we planned to hire a car and drive across the Canadian Rockies, to meet my elder brother Ed and his wife Linda in Banff, Alberta, before driving on together to their home in Edmonton. Ed was a professor in the Department of Geography in Edmonton.

From Edmonton, our itinerary would take us by air to Madison, Wisconsin where I’d would spend a couple of days with plant bacteriologists Profs. Luis Sequeira and Arthur Kelman in the university’s Department of Plant Pathology (both had links with my employer, the International Potato Center). Luis was also an adviser to one of my potato research projects in Costa Rica. We also planned a side trip to the USDA’s Potato Introduction Station and its genebank at Sturgeon Bay in Door County on the shores of Lake Michigan in the northeast of the state. And from Madison, we would fly home to Costa Rica with transit stops in Chicago and Miami. Quite an adventure for a 15 month old toddler.

The conference sessions lasted four days. On the penultimate evening we enjoyed, along with all the other delegates and their families, a wonderful Northwest Pacific salmon barbecue on the campus lawns. It was an idyllic evening, no need for warm clothing.

But while I was stuck indoors during the conference, Steph took advantage of several tours to get out and about around Vancouver, at Stanley Park, crossing Lion’s Gate Bridge, and taking the cable car up to Grouse Mountain for spectacular views over the city.

At many of these conferences, it is customary to offer several day excursions from which you can choose. While most of those at the Vancouver meeting looked at many different aspects of the potato industry in British Columbia, the one I chose (as most appropriate for the family) was a day trip by steam train, the Royal Hudson, from Vancouver along Howe Sound north to the small community of Squamish. Imagine my surprise on arriving at the station to find a large number of delegates waiting for the train, many of whom I’d expected to take the more ‘technical’ excursions.

The Royal Hudson 2850 was the locomotive that, in May 1939, pulled the train carrying HM King George VI and Queen Elizabeth across Canada, during the first visit to Canada by a reigning British monarch. Our locomotive was 2860. I’m pretty certain that it was oil-fired rather than coal. Anyway, it was a delightful way to spend a day, see the mountains along Howe Sound, and the spectacular mountains that are a backdrop to Squamish itself.

I believe the conference finished on the Thursday lunchtime, and that gave us plenty of time to set off on the road trip eastwards up the Fraser River valley to Kamloops, some 225 miles, where we’d booked a room for the night.

To Banff the following day would be another 300 miles, and take all day. We met Ed and Linda in Banff, and the next day made a side trip into the Athabasca icefield at the southern tip of Jasper National Park, just north of Banff. Needless to say the drive through the Rockies was breath-taking, and there were ample opportunities to stop, and stretch our legs, especially important for an active toddler. It’s remarkable looking back on this trip what ‘risks’ we took. Steph sat in the backseat with Hannah on her lap. I’m not sure if Steph had a seat-belt. Hannah did not have a child seat. Wouldn’t be allowed today, and we wouldn’t even consider travelling under those circumstances.

Leaving Banff, it was downhill all the way, skirting Calgary, before heading north to Edmonton, a distance of just under 260 miles. We spent a few days in Edmonton before it was time to move on, and continue our trip in Madison.

I’ve seen various parts of the Rockies over the years, in Colorado, around the edges of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming (including the Teton Range). Magnificent as they are, they don’t really hold a candle to the Rockies further north in Canada, and I’m pleased that we were able to enjoy them almost 40 years ago.

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Since that trip to Canada in 1979, I’ve been back just once, to Ottawa, Ontario in April 2002. I had arranged meetings with my contact at the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), both of which supported IRRI’s budget.

Arriving for my early morning appointment at CIDA on the opposite side of the Ottawa River in Quebec, I found the building closed because of a water leak the previous day. There was only a skeleton staff on duty – but not my contact, who’d not had the courtesy to inform me (before I even flew up to Ottawa) about the problem, or cancel or reschedule our meeting. I was left to twiddle my thumbs for a few hours before I could head off to IDRC, so took advantage of the fine weather to look at the Ottawa River, a canal that connects the Ottawa River with the Rideau River, and Canada’s beautiful Gothic Revival parliament building on Parliament Hill. I spent two nights at the Fairmont Château Laurier, just to the east of Parliament Hill.

 

 

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 15. In my father’s footsteps

Almost 50 years after my father visited Brazil, I made my first trip there in early 1979, when I attended a meeting of the Latin American Potato Association, ALAP. Its meeting that year was held in Poços de Caldas, in southwest Minas Gerais State, about 280 km north of São Paulo.

I was living in Costa Rica, and to fly to South America it was necessary to transit via Panama City. The itinerary took us from Panama to Bogotá in Colombia, then a Varig flight to Rio de Janeiro with an intermediate stop in Manaus on the Amazon in central northern Brazil. From Manaus, we flew south for hours to land in Rio in the early hours. It was that flight that made me appreciate just what a huge country Brazil is.

In Panama I’d joined up with other delegates to the same meeting, from Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama. Our flight to Rio didn’t leave until the late evening so we had almost a whole day for some sight-seeing around Bogotá. One of the places we visited was an emerald dealer, where I couldn’t resist the temptation and bought a nice stone for my wife¹.

Colombian emeralds in Bogota

A Varig 727 on the tarmac at Rio de Janeiro. Varig ceased operations in 2006.

We arrived in Rio in the early morning, in time for the first air shuttle (Ponte Aérea or air bridge) flight from Rio de Janeiro’s Santos Dumont airport to São Paulo’s Congonhas airport, a journey of a little over an hour, affording some spectacular views of the coastline south of Rio. Then it was a four or five hour road trip from São Paulo to Poços de Caldas.

Poços de Caldas nestles in a valley in the surrounding rolling landscape. Very agricultural, and obviously an important potato growing area.

Heading back to Rio de Janeiro a week later, several of us decided to stop over there for about three nights, and explore this vibrant city.

The Sugar Loaf from Corcovado

Whether it was such a violent city then (or even when my father visited) as it is today, I have no recollection. We moved around the city seemingly oblivious to any such threats, spent an afternoon and evening on Copacabana beach, taking in all the ‘sights’: tangas to the left, tangas to the right!

But we also made the mandatory excursion to the top of the Sugarloaf, from where there were magnificent views north and south over the city and its beaches.

Also we made the climb by taxis to Corcovado, where the statue of Christ the Redeemer stands, on a 2328 ft granite peak, looking out to sea.

These next photos were taken by my father (who was a professional photographer) in Rio all those decades ago. How that city has grown in the intervening years, and even how much more since I first visited in 1979 as we saw during all the TV broadcasts from the 2016 Olympic Games.

There’s no doubt about it, Rio de Janeiro is one of the world’s iconic cities.

I’ve been back to Brazil just one other time. In 1997 I attended a CGIAR workshop on Ethics and Equity in Plant Genetic Resources², held in Foz do Iguaçu, close by the magnificent Iguaçu Falls. I then flew on to Brasilia, to negotiate participation of Brazilian institutes in a major rice biodiversity project there and in Goiânia, transiting through Rio de Janeiro on leaving the country.

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¹ It wasn’t until about 2005 or 2006 that this stone was finally made into a ring, flanked by a couple of diamonds that I’d picked up in Israel in 1982.

² (CGIAR) Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. 1997. Ethics and Equity in Plant Genetic Resources. Proceedings of a workshop to develop guidelines for the CGIAR, 21–25 April, Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil. IPGRI, Rome.

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 14. On opposite coasts

Steph and I first visited San Francisco in July 1979, en route from Costa Rica (where I was working for the International Potato Center, CIP) to a potato conference in Vancouver, Canada. Then, less than two years later, in March 1981, we were in New York for just a couple of nights. We had passed through JFK in 1975, but not stopped over.

On the west coast
Yes, a potato conference in Vancouver. The 63rd annual meeting of the Potato Association of America where I was to present some of my research on the control of a bacterial disease of potatoes¹. We were taking advantage of CIP’s spouse travel policy for Steph to accompany me, as did our 15 month old daughter, Hannah.

In 1979 there were no direct flights to San Francisco from Costa Rica; that still appears to be the situation today. The most direct routing was via Guatemala City to Los Angeles on Pan Am, and then a ‘local’ connection on to San Francisco. Pan Am used Guatemala City as their Central America regional hub in the 1970s.

As we lived in Turrialba, about 86 km west of San José’s Juan Santamaria Airport, we must have left for the airport in the early hours to catch the morning flight.  It was a bit of a hassle in Los Angeles, going through immigration and customs, and transferring terminals. Thankfully, Hannah was mostly a good flier and, as I recall, we had an uneventful journey.

I’d made a hotel reservation in the center of San Francisco, but had wanted to stay at another, the Hotel Beresford on Sutter Street close by Union Square. In those days there was no online booking, of course. So, it wasn’t until we arrived in San Francisco that we discovered the Beresford was just a couple of blocks away, and so transferred the next day. My parents had stayed there when they visited San Francisco on their once-in-a-lifetime post-retirement trip to the USA in 1976.

Mum at the Golden Gate in summer 1976

I think my elder brother Ed had also stayed at the Beresford when he was doing part of  his PhD research in the San Francisco area. It came highly recommended, and we certainly felt more comfortable there than our first hotel.

So. You’re in San Francisco for the first time. What do you do, remembering, of course, that anything we planned had to take into account the eating and sleeping needs of a small child? Wandering around the Union Square district we opted for a Gray Line bus tour of the city, taking in a crossing of the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County among other sights.

Otherwise, we wandered around on foot, or took a taxi to specific places we thought would be interesting. And of course there was the requisite tour of the bay around Alcatraz Island and its former penitentiary, a wander around Fisherman’s Wharf, and dinner on Pier 39.

Too soon, our short visit to SF was over and we headed north to Vancouver, the next leg of a journey that would take us also on a road trip from Vancouver to Edmonton, Alberta, a flight to Madison, Wisconsin and a side-trip to the USDA’s potato station in the northeast of Wisconsin at Sturgeon Bay, before returning to Costa Rica via Chicago O’Hare and Miami International.

The Big Apple
In March 1981 I resigned from CIP having accepted a lectureship at The University of Birmingham. Although we could have flown directly back to the UK, we planned to travel via New York. We held a bank account with Citibank in New York, and wanted to close that account, withdrawing our savings for transfer to the UK. That meant visiting the bank, completing all the necessary paperwork, then walking out of the bank with a bank draft.

It’s remarkable how smoothly everything went. I’d obviously advised the branch president (manager) of my visit. In those days it was still possible to have personal contact with someone in the bank, and she told me to ask for her when I arrived at the branch. I headed off to the bank first thing in the morning, and was waiting for. She had the forms ready for me to sign, and while she personally transacted the paperwork through the system, gave me several cups of coffee while I waited. After about 45 minutes, I guess, she came back with the cheque, and I went away several thousands of dollars to the better.

That left the rest of the morning and afternoon for sight-seeing, fulfilling two ambitions: a trip to the top of the Empire State Building and a walk round Macy’s. Sight-seeing with Hannah was easier than two years earlier. She was now almost three and seemed to take everything in her stride.

I’m not sure how we came to choose our hotel, on Park Avenue or close by. Maybe the travel office at CIP in Lima had made the booking for us. The name ‘Loew’s Drake’ comes to mind. But from what I can find through a Google search, that hotel ‘The Drake’ would have been beyond my means. Who knows?

We arrived late to New York on a Lufthansa DC-10 flight from Peru, and went straight to bed. The second night we decided to dine in-house. You can imagine my consternation when I sat down and the maitre d’ placed a jacket on the back of my chair. I hadn’t complied with an implicit (but not obvious) dress code, by not wearing a jacket of my own or a tie.

Deaorting for the UK, we took a British Airways flight from JFK to London Heathrow, occupying a row of three seats (window, middle and aisle), with Hannah in between Steph and me. We must have been about 20 minutes into the flight when I heard a British gentleman in the row in front mutter, rather loudly, to his wife that he hoped the little girl behind wouldn’t bother him throughout the flight. I hadn’t noticed until then that Hannah was sitting with her legs out straight, pushing against the back of this man’s seat. I told her to stop immediately, and she didn’t do it again for the rest of the flight. Anyway, I got out of my seat (I was on the aisle) and moved round to face this man, and explained that I hadn’t noticed what Hannah was up to, it would stop henceforth, and I apologised profusely for the inconvenience. You can imagine how gobsmacked I was when he refused my apology. So I just returned to my seat, somewhat nonplussed. One of the cabin crew had seen this unfold, and as she passed, discreetly encouraged Hannah to continue pushing the seat. We had a good laugh at that.

I’ve been back to New York on at least one more occasion since, in the early noughties. It’s a city I’d like to return to and explore more, maybe arriving there on the Queen Mary 2, sailing under the Verrazon-Narrows Bridge, past the Statue of Liberty, and taking in the iconic Manhattan skyline, just as my father did in the 1930s as a ship’s photographer for the Cunard White Star Line. My mother trained as an orthopedic nurse in New Jersey across the river from New York, and watched the Empire State Building being erected in 1930/31. Stories about New York were part of my childhood years.

New York skyline in the early 1930s

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¹ Jackson, M.T. & L.C. González, 1979. Persistence of Pseudomonas solanacearum in an inceptisol in Costa Rica. Am. Potato J. 56, 467 (abst.). Paper presented at the 63rd Annual meeting of the Potato Association of America, Vancouver, British Columbia, July 22-27, 1979.

Elgar’s county – a land of hope and glory?

WORCESTERSHIRE

The county’s flag and coat of arms

Where Worcestershire Sauce was first concocted. But Worcestershire is also the birthplace (just outside Worcester) in 1857 of Sir Edward Elgar, one of the nation’s most renowned composers.

While reading this post, why not listen to celebrated contralto Clara Butt sing, in this 1911 recording, one of Elgar’s most famous compositions, Land of Hope and Glory (written in 1902, with words by AC Benson). 

Bounded on the north by the West Midlands and Staffordshire, to the northwest by Shropshire, Herefordshire to the west, Gloucestershire to the south, and Shakespeare’s county, Warwickshire to the east, Worcestershire is a mainly rural county in the English Midlands. It has an area of 672 square miles, and is 38th out of 48 counties in size. Click on the map below to explore further. The estimated population (in 2016) was a little under 600,000. Ethnically it’s mostly white British (>91%).

Setting up home
Worcestershire is my home, but I’m not a native. I was born and raised in Cheshire and Staffordshire, some 70 miles to the north. My wife hails from Essex, east of London. We chose Worcestershire—Bromsgrove in the northeast of the county to be specific (shown by the blue star on the map above)—more by chance than design. Let me explain.

In March 1981, Steph, Hannah (almost three), and I returned to the UK after living more than eight years in Peru and Costa Rica. I’d just been appointed to a lectureship at The University of Birmingham, in the Department of Plant Biology, School of Biological Sciences. Until we found somewhere to live permanently, Steph and Hannah stayed with her parents in Southend-on-Sea, while I settled into lecturing life at Birmingham. And launch ourselves into the housing market.

Before we left Peru, we had asked Steph’s parents to contact on our behalf as many estate agents (realtors) as they could identify from locations in a wide arc from the west of Birmingham, south into Worcestershire, and southeast towards the Solihull area. We already had decided that we didn’t want to live in Birmingham itself.

Arriving back in the UK we encountered a very large pile of house specs waiting for us at Steph’s parents, and began to work our way through these, rejecting immediately any that did not meet our expected needs. We quickly whittled around 500 down to a handful of fewer than fifty or so.

It must have been the Wednesday of my first week at the university in April, a slack period with no lectures or practical classes scheduled. So I decided to take the afternoon off and go house viewing. But in which direction to strike out?

Bromsgrove is just 13 miles south of the university, connected by the A38, a route that crosses the city right by the university in Edgbaston. We had selected a couple of properties in Bromsgrove that seemed promising, and the drive there was likely to be the easiest of any of the other locations on our list. So I made appointments that same afternoon to view these two properties. And the first house I saw was the one we actually ended up buying. It just ticked all the boxes. Later that evening I phoned Steph to tell her what I’d been up to, and that she should schedule to come up to Birmingham on the train as soon as possible to take a look for herself. Within a week we’d made an offer for the house, and started to sort out a mortgage—at 16¾% interest in the first year or so!

Our younger daughter, Philippa, was born in Bromsgrove in 1982. New house, new baby!

In July 1991, I accepted a position at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, and we stayed there until April 2010, almost 19 years. All the while we kept our home in Bromsgrove, fully furnished, but unoccupied, and available for us to return to whenever we came home on annual leave, and to take up residence once again on retirement.

Worcestershire is a lovely county, dotted with picturesque villages, rolling hills in the north and west, magnificent river valleys slicing through the landscape, and fertile agricultural land to the southeast. We’ve never regretted making the choice to move here. Being located in the middle of England, it’s not too far from anywhere. Our younger daughter lives in Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast, a smidgen under 250 miles away. And during their lifetime, visiting Steph’s parents in Essex, just 160 miles away, was an (mostly) easy trip. Over the past seven years of retirement, we are enjoying getting out and about to explore not only our ‘home’ county, but also places within a 80-100 mile radius for day trips.

Administration, political life, and towns
Worcestershire has few urban areas. The City of Worcester lies in the center of the county, just 16 miles south of Bromsgrove. It’s the seat of the county council, and also of the Diocese of Worcester and its magnificent cathedral.

There are six local government authorities: 1. Worcester; 2. Malvern Hills; 3. Wyre Forest; 4. Bromsgrove; 5. Redditch; and 6. Wychavon.

There are seven parliamentary constituencies, all held by Conservative politicians. That says a lot about the county. The Member of Parliament for the Bromsgrove constituency is Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, a member of the Cabinet, and once considered as a high flyer and Tory Party leadership contender. His star has waned somewhat.

Bromsgrove is famous for its 17th century nail-making industry, and the iron gates of Buckingham Palace¹ made by the Bromsgove Guild of Applied Arts. Carpet-making Kidderminster is nine miles to the west of Bromsgrove.

Redditch, nine miles to the east, was home from the 18th century to a needle-making industry, and Droitwich Spa, founded on extensive salt and brine deposits, lies about six miles south. In the far south of the county, market town Evesham serves the agricultural community in the fertile Vale of Evesham.

Landscape
Geographically, Worcestershire has some important features. England’s longest river, the Severn, enters the county northwest of Kidderminster (south of Bridgnorth), and flows for some 45 miles south before reaching the Severn Estuary in Gloucestershire and beyond. The River Avon (Shakespeare’s Avon) meanders east to west across the southern part of the county, round Evesham and to the north of Bredon Hill, before joining the Severn at Tewksbury in Gloucestershire.

In the north of the county, to the north and west of Bromsgrove, the Lickey Hills (between Bromsgrove and Birmingham) and Clent Hills rise to 978 and 1037 feet, respectively. On a clear day, the view from the top of Clent can be spectacular, as far as the Black Mountains of South Wales.

The view south towards the Malvern Hills (on the right), the Severn Estuary, and the Cotswolds (on the left).

Looking further west towards Abberley Hill, beyond Great Witley.

Straddling the county border between Worcestershire and Herefordshire, the Malvern Hills are an easily recognisable north-south spine, rising to over 1300 feet, and offering an unsurpassed panorama over the Severn Valley to the east, and the Cotswolds further southeast.

The Malverns (R) looking south to Bredon Hill (center) and the Cotswolds, and the Vale of Evesham, from just south of Great Witley.

This is a view, to the west, of the northern section of the Malverns and the Severn Valley from the Panorama Tower (designed by James Wyatt in 1801) at Croome.

In the south of the county, Bredon Hill (at 981 feet) is a Jurassic limestone outlier of the Cotswolds, affording views north and east over the Vale of Evesham, and south to the steep north-facing escarpment of the Cotswolds proper.

This is the view from Broadway Hill, looking north over the Vale of Evesham, with Bredon Hill on the left.

Horticulturally, the Vale of Evesham is one of the most important areas in the country, famous for its extensive orchards of apples, pears, and plums, vegetables (especially asparagus), and hop gardens, among others. Worcestershire is also ‘home’ to The Archers, an every day story of country folk, based on villages close to Bromsgrove.

In the northwest of the county, and spreading into Shropshire, the Wyre Forest is an important semi-natural woodland, and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It covers an area of about 10 square miles.

Transport
Summer visitors to Worcestershire must be very high indeed, but perhaps for just an hour at most as they cross the county. That’s because the M5 motorway is a 32 mile corridor ferrying holidaymakers south to the West Country or north to Lancashire, the Lake District, and Scotland.

Worcestershire has two other motorways. A section of the M42 (the southern orbital around Birmingham) passes north of Bromsgrove, and joins the M5 there. The M50, in the southwest of the county, branches off the M5 and takes traffic west into Herefordshire and south to South Wales.

Worcestershire has two particular transport claims to fame. Running north-south, just over a mile east of Bromsgrove town center, the main-line railway (connecting Birmingham with Bristol and the southwest) traverses the Lickey Incline (currently being electrified as far as Bromsgrove), the steepest sustained main-line incline in Great Britain, for a little over two miles, at 2.65%.

The Incline was first surveyed, but then abandoned, by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1832 as a route for the Birmingham & Gloucester Railway.

Just a little further east, the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, completed in 1815, connects the River Severn at Worcester with Canal Basin in the heart of Birmingham, a distance of 29 miles. The 30 lock Tardebigge Flight, close to Bromsgrove, is the longest flight of locks in the UK. I have written about both the Lickey Incline and the canal here.

Tardebigge Top Lock

Part of the Tardebigge Flight

The view from Tardebigge church (above Tardebigge Top Lock) over Bromsgrove to the Malverns (in the southwest on the left) and to Clee Hill (due west, in Shropshire) in the distance.

Another canal, the 46 mile long Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal (completed in 1771) branches from the River Severn at Stourport on Severn, crosses the northwest part of the county through Kidderminster, eventually joining the Trent and Mersey Canal at Great Haywood in Staffordshire. This was a vital link for 18th century industry.

Famous sons and daughters of Worcestershire
Earlier I mentioned Sir Edward Elgar. He is perhaps the most famous son of Worcestershire. He was appointed the first professor of Music at The University of Birmingham in 1905. The Elgar Concert Hall at the university, opened in 2012, is named after him. It is one of the venues in The Bramall that sits alongside the university’s Great Hall, an extension of the Aston Webb building, completing the red-brick semi-circle vision of Sir Joseph Chamberlain, which has been at the heart of the University since 1909.

In addition to his Pomp and Circumstance Marches, Elgar is also renowned for his Enigma Variations, composed in 1898/99 (0f which the evocative Nimrod must be the most loved). But I think his tour de force must be his Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 played in this video by Jacqueline du Pré, one of the 20th century’s most talented musicians.

AE Housman

Classical scholar and poet Alfred Edward Housman was born in Fockbury, just outside Bromsgrove in 1859. His most famous cycle of poems is A Shropshire Lad, first published in 1896. His statue stands proudly over the High Street in Bromsgrove.

Conservative politician and Prime Minister at the time of the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936, Stanley Baldwin was born in Bewdley in 1857. Roland Hill, credited with the concept of a modern postal service, and the postage stamp, was born in Kidderminster in 1795. William Morris, later Lord Nuffield, and motor magnate and philanthropist, was born in Worcester in 1877.

Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant was born in Kidderminster in 1948, actor Charles Dance  (born 1946) hails from Redditch, and Sting’s wife Trudie Styler was born in Bromsgrove in 1956.

Heritage
Historically, Worcestershire has much to offer. Two major—and pivotal—battles were fought in the county. In August 1265, the forces of Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester were defeated at the Battle of Evesham by the army of King Henry III led by his son Edward, later Edward I. Almost 400 years later, in the final battle of the English Civil Wars, the forces of King Charles II (who wasn’t restored to the crown until 1660) were defeated at Worcester in 1651 by Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian New Model Army.

Today, the Monarch’s Way is a long distance footpath (>600 miles) that traces the route of Charles II’s escape after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester. Earlier this year we visited Boscobel House in Shropshire (the furthest north Charles fled) where he hid in an oak tree.

The Monarch’s Way crosses the Worcester & Birmingham Canal in places, and passes through Pepper Wood, just west of Bromsgrove.

Standing proudly above the River Severn in the center of Worcester, the cathedral is the final resting place of King John (of Magna Carta fame).

The tomb of King John in Worcester Cathedral.

The cathedral was built between 1084 and 1504, combining different architectural styles from Norman to Perpendicular Gothic. There are many other abbeys and religious buildings throughout the county, most destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII in the sixteenth century.

There are two outstanding medieval threshing barns standing in the south of the county, near Bredon, and at Littleton near Evesham, as well as good examples of dovecotes at Hawford and Wichenford (both owned by the National Trust).

The medieval barn at Bredon.

The roof of Littleton barn.

Hawford dovecote on the left, and Wichenford on the right.

One of the oldest public schools (i.e. private school) in the country, Bromsgrove School, was founded as a chantry school in 1476, and re-founded in 1553. It takes pupils from all over the world, but despite occupying a large chunk of real estate in the town, seems to have very little connection with the community (even though it’s quite often featured in the local weekly newspapers).

The National Trust also owns two large estates in Worcestershire at Hanbury Hall (just seven miles southwest of Bromsgrove), and Croome Court, southeast of Worcester. Both are impressive 18th century houses. Greyfriars is a medieval merchant’s house and walled garden in the center of Worcester.

Hanbury Hall, built in 1701.

Croome Court, home of the 6th Earl of Coventry, and the first park designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.

Looking south along Friar Street in Worcester. Greyfriars is the double gabled building on the left.

At Great Whitley, some 16 miles west of Bromsgrove, stand the ruins of Witley Court, owned by English Heritage, destroyed by a catastrophic fire in 1937. It has become a favorite place for us to visit, since the early 1980s when we moved to the county.

We have yet to visit the only other English Heritage property in Worcestershire, Leigh Court Barn.

The heritage, standard gauge Severn Valley Railway, formed in 1965, runs 16 miles from Kidderminster to Bridgnorth, beside the River Severn, with intermediate stops at several picturesque stations. It’s a delightful way to spend the day, with the opportunity for a good walk around Bridgnorth before returning to Kidderminster.

Worcestershire has such a lot to offer, and to some extent we have just scratched the surface. We look forward to many more years of getting to know this corner of England we call home.

Land of hope and glory? Much of Worcestershire is glorious. Hope? Well, while this Conservative government remains in power, and facing Brexit, there’s little optimism for hope, especially with all Worcestershire MPs being members of the Conservative Party.

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¹ In February 2012, I attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace and received an OBE from HRH The Prince of Wales. In this post-investiture photo in front of the gates at Buckingham Palace, I’m wearing the OBE medal, which is made by Worcestershire Medal Service based in Bromsgrove.

With Steph on 29 February 2012 outside Buckingham Palace after the OBE investiture.

No laughing matter

Have you ever been surprised walking through an 18th century landscape? Ha-ha!

Well, you’ve probably come across numerous ha-has without stopping to think what or why?

A ha-ha is a recessed landscape design element that creates a vertical barrier while preserving an uninterrupted view of the landscape beyond. They became very popular in the 18th century, as landscape architects like Capability Brown developed their visions of an open landscape connecting house and surrounding land.

In some ways, they are like a dry moat, built for protection—not against human marauders, but animals. Grazing animals were excluded from the lawns and gardens immediately adjacent to a house. But, with a ha-ha separating this area from the ‘wild’ grazing outside, there was a continuity, a oneness with the surrounding landscape in which a house sat. (Think of an infinity pool as a modern equivalent having the same visual effect).

I first saw a ha-ha when I was a young boy growing up in Leek in North Staffordshire. There’s a good example on one side of the pitch at Leek Cricket Club where my Mum and Dad often took me on a Saturday evening in the summer.

Ha-has are more common than you might think. During our visits to National Trust properties over the past six years, we’ve seen some very good examples. Standing at the entrance of a stately home, gazing out over the landscape, your mind is easily transported back 250 years or so. Magnificent today, what must have been the wonder at these new landscapes in their heyday, and the unlimited vistas that the addition of a ha-ha opened up?

At Hanbury Hall, the National Trust property closest to our home in northeast Worcestershire, from the ha-ha just west of the formal garden and parterre, there is an open view to the northwest, across what must have once been a deer park.

In Herefordshire, a ha-ha separates the lawn in front of the main entrance from the meadows beyond at Berrington Hall.

The ha-ha at Berrington Hall encircles the main entrance to the house, and encloses a lawn and gravel drive.

Croome Court is southeast of Worcester, about 20 miles from home. The park at Croome was the first landscape designed by Capability Brown. However, the ha-ha does not separate the land immediately surrounding the house itself, but an area to the west of the house, around the Croome River, about half a mile from the house, where an orangery, a temple and a grotto were built. From the ha-ha there is an uninterrupted view back to the house.

The view from the edge of the ha-ha in front of the Orangery at Croome, looking towards the house

We just returned from Northern Ireland, where we visited eleven National Trust properties in eight days! In Co. Fermanagh, Florence Court sits comfortably in its landscape. It’s the National Trust’s furthest west property. The ha-ha is particularly impressive.

In these two photos, looking across the lawn in front of the house, the edge of the ha-ha can be easily discerned as a slight change in colour of the grass.

Belton House, near Grantham in Lincolnshire, and 100 miles east from home, is a magnificent property. We visited last August. On the east-southeast side of the house, there is a tree-lined avenue and vista to Belmont Tower, about 1 mile away.

Belmont Tower from inside the house. The ha-ha is just beyond the people in between the trees.

Looking back to Belton House from the ha-ha that is about half way to the Belmont Tower.

Just under half way from the house, a curved ha-ha separates the gardens from the park beyond.

Aerial view of the ha-ha at Belton House (from Google Maps)

Steph standing on the edge of the ha-ha.

I expect there will be many more to find and photograph in the coming years.

Beets, ‘beans’, and Canaries

Lying off the Atlantic coast of northwest Africa by less than 600 miles, the Canary Islands archipelago comprises seven large islands, and a small group of islets off the north coast of Lanzarote, the island that lies furthest east and north. Volcanic in origin, and arid for the most part, their flora comprises many interesting endemic species found only on the Atlantic islands of MacaronesiaI’ve visited the Canaries twice, both in the 1980s, to collect plant germplasm (and also take a family holiday). Both expeditions were funded by the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR, now Bioversity International, based in Rome, Italy). So, as someone who studied potatoes and rice (and some legumes) most of my career, how did I become involved with collecting germplasm in the Canaries?

Brian Ford-Lloyd

Searching for beets
After leaving the International Potato Center in March 1981, I arrived at The University of Birmingham to begin my decade-long teaching career as Lecturer in Plant Biology from 1 April. Almost immediately, my colleague and fellow lecturer, Brian Ford-Lloyd (who retired a few years back as Emeritus Professor of Plant Conservation Genetics) invited me to join him on a collecting trip to the Canaries to look for wild relatives of beets (Beta spp.) that would contribute to an IPBGR global initiative on beet germplasm.

Now while I had my own experiences of germplasm collecting of cultivated (and some wild) potatoes in the Andes of South America between 1973 and 1976, I had no experience of beets whatsoever. Brian was keen to have me along on the trip because I did have one very important skill: I spoke (quite) fluent Spanish, and he expected that our Canarian counterparts would speak little English (which turned out to be more or less correct). So, not only would I be an experienced pair of germplasm hands, I could also be interpreter-in-chief.

Fortunately the dates for the trip coincided with my personal timetable then. Having arrived back in the UK at the end of March, my wife Steph (and daughter Hannah) stayed with her parents in Essex while I settled into my new job at the university, and while we house hunted. By the time Brian and I headed off to the Canaries in June, we’d bought our house, but moving in was not scheduled until the first or second weeks of July. So this was a great opportunity for me to join Brian.

Trevor Williams

Brian completed his PhD in 1973 under the supervision of Trevor Williams, submitting a thesis on the biosystematics of the genus Beta. As part of that research he made a collecting trip throughout Turkey in the early 1970s; and subsequently he maintained his research interest and activity in beets. Collecting in the Canaries was part of an IBPGR global initiative on beets.

Our particular interest there was a group of three beet species of Beta Sect. Patellares (I’m not sure if, or how, the taxonomy of Beta has changed in the intervening years) native to the archipelago, little represented at that time in different germplasm collections. Beets were reported from a range of localities throughout the islands, most often around the coasts or in ruderal habitats, but rarely inland (except in Fuerteventura) where the terrain is too high. In any case, this beet germplasm was considered under threat of genetic erosion, and had to be collected before habitats were lost through expansion of tourist resorts and holiday homes. Brian tells me he has been back to some of the sites where we collected and they have indeed been lost in this way.

Arnoldo Santos-Guerra

Travelling to the Canaries from Elmdon Airport (now Birmingham Airport) via London and Madrid, our first stop was Gran Canaria, staying for a couple of nights at the Jardín Botánico Canario Viera y Clavijo, where British botanist Dr David Bramwell was the director (and his wife Zoë, an acclaimed botanical artist). Those first days were essentially to find our feet, take some advice from David on where best to collect, before heading off to the island of Fuerteventura, the next island east from Gran Canaria, where we would meet our local expert and collaborator, Dr Arnoldo Santos-Guerra of the Centro Regional de Investigación y Tecnología Agrarias, Tenerife. For the collections in Tenerife, La Palma, and La Gomera we were joined by Arnoldo’s colleague, Lic. Manuel Fernández-Galván.

L-R: Brian, Arnoldo, Manuel, and me

In all, we collected 93 samples of beets from 52 locations on five islands: Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura, Tenerife, La Palma, and La Gomera.  Afterwards we published a trip report¹ in the FAO/IBPGR Plant Genetic Resources Newsletter.

On Tenerife, La Palma, and particularly La Gomera, there are precipitous inclines from the main roads down to the ocean’s edge. Deeply dissected landscapes ensure that wild beet populations are isolated from one another, even over relatively short distances as the cliff coastlines project into the ocean, with coves and beaches in between, where beets were often found. Therefore our ability to collect beet samples was quite often dependent entirely upon accessibility to the beach. The photos below were taken in Fuerteventura, Tenerife, and La Gomera. In some of them you can see the level of urbanization, almost 40 years ago, in many localities that were suitable environments for wild beets. The housing and tourist developments must be many times greater today.

But the actual process of collecting was not difficult at all, and seeds were often sampled from most if not all plants in some populations. Wild beets have a prostrate habit, and the ‘seeds’ were often found, in abundance, underneath the living plants. It was then just a question of scooping up handfuls of the seeds into a collecting bag, and annotating the collecting information appropriately.

Beta webbiana (left) and B. procumbens (right) from the Canary Islands

I say ‘seeds’, but the morphology of beets is a little more complex than that. Actually what we collected were small fruits with a hard pericarp, with several joined together to form multigerm seedballs. Modern sugar beet varieties are monogerm, a trait discovered in a wild beet species, in the former Soviet Union (Ukraine, in fact) during the 1930s . Because of their impermeability to moisture, and also due to the arid environments in which these beets species grew, we were confident that we were collecting viable seeds. In fact, as Brian explained to me, beet seeds are quite difficult to germinate.

Morphology of a beet inflorescence, seedballs, and a sugar beet (from: Wikipedia)

On our return to Birmingham, the seeds were added to the Birmingham Beta Collection that Brian curated, and other collections that are part of the World Beta Network. One recipient was Lothar Frese in Germany, now at the Julius Kühn-Institut in Quedlinburg. This germplasm has been used in a variety of studies looking at disease resistance such as Cercospora leaf spot resistance in B. procumbens in particular, and there has been much work since in terms of genetic mapping for resistance. After Brian retired, his beet collection was passed to the Genetic Resources Unit at the Warwick Crop Centre for safe storage.

A beet -‘bean’ linkage
In addition to beets, we collected 11 samples of other crops, among which was just one sample of a shrub or tree fodder legume, tagasaste, from La Palma, classified botanically as Chamaecytisus palmensis, and cultivated by many farmers. In our trip report, referred to above, we commented that the species did seem to be quite variable and, given its wider potential as a fodder legume, we suggested that it would warrant further study.

Javier Francisco-Ortega

And that was the last I thought about tagasaste until six years later when a young Spanish student from Tenerife, Javier Francisco-Ortega, enrolled on the genetic resources MSc course at Birmingham. Thirty years ago this month! I supervised Javier’s MSc dissertation on chromosome variation in Lathyrus pratensis, one of around 150 species in a genus that also contains the commonly-grown garden sweetpea, L. odoratus, and the edible grasspea L. sativus that was one of my research interests during the 1980s.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, Javier was an outstanding student, and began a PhD project with me in October 1988 on the ecogeography of the tagasaste complex, now classified taxonomically as C. proliferus. Only the forms from La Palma are popularly known as tagasaste (the ‘C. palmensis‘ we’d seen in La Palma in 1981), whereas those from the rest of the archipelago are commonly called escobón.

Morphological variants of tagasaste and escobón, Chamaecytisus proliferus

Tagasaste is the only form which is broadly cultivated in the Canary Islands and, since the late 19th century, also in New Zealand and Australia (particularly as fodder for sheep and goats). It has also become naturalized in Australia (South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania), Java, the Hawaiian Islands, California, Portugal, North Africa, Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa.

When I resigned from the university in June 1991 to join the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, supervision of Javier’s PhD passed to Brian.

In Spring and Summer 1989, and with funding from IBPGR, Javier began a systematic survey of 184 tagasaste and escobón populations throughout the archipelago (all islands except Fuerteventura and Lanzarote which are too dry), taking herbarium samples from each for morphological study, and revisited later to collect seeds. I joined Javier in July to assist with the collection of seeds from the Tenerife populations. Our trip report² was published in Plant Genetic Resources Newsletter in 1990. Arnoldo Santos-Guerra and Manuel Fernández-Galván were also contributors to this work.

Escobón populations are found commonly growing in gullies among pine forests, and appear to thrive here where there is the ever-present expectation (and danger) of forest fires. Indeed periodic burning appears to support the maintenance of escobón populations. These photos show the habitats of escobón populations in Tenerife, and Javier and myself making collections.

While more common in La Palma, farmers in Tenerife grow a few bushes of tagasaste in their terraces (seen on the right edge of the field in the picture below) on the north-facing slopes of the Teide volcano sloping down to the Atlantic.

We deposited duplicate seed samples in the Spanish national genebank in Madrid, and also in Tenerife. Javier took seeds back to Birmingham for further study, especially for analysis of molecular variation. Besides his PhD thesis, submitted successfully in 1992, his research led to several other scientific papers on morphological variation, phytogeography, ecogeographical characterization, genetic diversity, and the history of origin and distribution.

After he completed his PhD at Birmingham, Javier took postdoctoral fellowships at Ohio State University and the University of Texas at Austin before returning to Tenerife for a couple of years. In 1999 he was appointed Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Florida International University in Miami. He became Full Professor in 2012. He also has a joint appointment at the Fairchild Tropical Garden just south of Miami, as head of the Fairchild Plant Molecular Systematics Laboratory, with a special interest in cycads and palms, as well as an abiding interest in island floras. He has maintained his links with Arnoldo Santos-Guerra and David Bramwell.

In this video, Javier talks about his interests and the impact of his botanical research.

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¹ Ford-Lloyd, B.V., M.T. Jackson & A. Santos Guerra, 1982. Beet germplasm in the Canary Islands. Plant Genetic Resources Newsletter 50, 24-27.

² Francisco-Ortega, F.J., M.T. Jackson, A. Santos-Guerra & M. Fernández-Galván, 1990. Genetic resources of the fodder legumes tagasaste and escobón (Chamaecytisus proliferus (L. fil.) Link sensu lato) in the Canary Islands. Plant Genetic Resources Newsletter 81/82, 27-32.