19 March 2014

Fieldwork in the Lakes District

When I had to lecture on British land ice, I asked our in-house glaciologist, Dave, if he had any topical pictures I could perhaps incorporate into the presentation. And he did! And when he then had to organise a fieldwork in the Lakes District, which makes the students contemplate the local ice cover, and have an attempt at reconstructing it, he knew where to find an extra pair of staff hands. He would ideally have five members of staff on this trip; he only had three. Would I perhaps be willing to join? Or in other words: would I be willing to, instead of spending my time in the lab or the office, be paid for scampering around a beautiful landscape with lovely people? And while at it, prepare for my new job? Now let me think...

There is no such thing as a free lunch, of course. There were drawbacks: one, it took two days out of my preparation to leave; two, it meant my sister, who would be visiting over the weekend, would have to spend the first few hours alone; and three, that I had to leave home at 5.30AM latest on the Thursday, as we would leave the campus at 6AM sharp. But all of that would be well worth it.

I biked to work in the thick mist. The other staff were already at the department, and so were many of the students. Without incident we got on our way. The only thing we were worrying about was the fog; if that would be omnipresent in the fieldwork area we wouldn't be able to see a thing, and we'd travelled for hours to do the whole exercise off the map! That would be a waste.

 What York looked like when I biked to work that day

The students setting off into the valley

We reached Langdale. And we walked along the river all the way to the valley head. And then headed up the hill to Langdale Combe, a sort of hanging valley close to the valley top. And while we did that the fog retreated, revealing amazing views of a classic U-shaped valley with nicely curvaceous moraines scattered about. A lovely place to contemplate ice!

 Heading up the side of the valley

The U-shaped valley appeared out of the mist

Once we were at Langdale Combe the students split into groups. They each devised a strategy for categorizing the moraines, which probably held the clue to in what way the valley had been glaciated, but which were too numerous to all scrutinize, and too irregular to be measured in an easy way. Once their pattern would be revealed, would they indicate an ice sheet, or valley glaciers?

 Langdale Combe. Notice the students which look like dots!

My group were very switched on, and set to work immediately. And also broke the tape measure immediately (it had been suspiciously cheap!). We had until 2PM to do our measurements. And the students didn't even stop for lunch. My job was easy; sometimes I questions some of their assumptions, or asked leading questions if they were about to measure something in a way that would dictate the outcome. But generally, I just pottered around in the sun and had a nice time. They could well look after themselves!

Some local vegetation

We even had a view on snowy hilltops

In good time we gathered again, and went back down the valley. We made sure we had plenty of time to get back to the bus; in case we would be early we would just have to resort to drinking a pint in the pub. Oh dear. Life is hard.

After the pint in question we went to the youth hostel we would stay in. There was a run on the showers and then dinner was served. Many of the students then went into Ambleside to try out the local pubs, but the staff, being old and tired, just had a few pints in the hostel bar and then called it a day. Two of us would have to share a room; Dave had one for himself as the module leader, and Debs, one of the lab techs, got one because she claimed to snore. That left me to share with Maria. I know I don't make sounds when I sleep, and she claims the same, so that sounded fine. Our room turned out to have a view over Windermere. All was well! Except that Maria had picked up a cold that day. And that makes her snore. Oh well. It was still later when that woke me up than I had had to get up the day before...

 The view from our hotel room

The second day started comfortably late. We would get back to the same valley, and there try to establish the thickness of the glacier over the entire length of the valley, or at least that part of it that had not been filled up with fluvial sediments afterwards. Again it was foggy, but again the fog lifted before it got too much in the way. I had the same group of students as the day before, and again they barely need me. Excellent!

We were going downstream. And the students worked like a well-oiled measuring machine, even while the weather deteriorated. Soon we saw the group that was coming our way; when we would meet, the job would be done. The other group did not only offer the the end of the working day, but also some entertainment: one of their girls misjudged her footing when jumping over a stream, and sank down to her thigh into the swampy gunk. It took a while to wiggle her loose, and then her shoe had to be dug out! Fortunately, not only the onlookers, but the girl herself as well, saw the humour of the situation. And when she was reunited with her shoe we went back to the pub, and from there to the bus. And back to university.

 Measuring with a tape that doesn't wind up anymore

I have never had so little to do on a day in the field. The students did their own stuff! Which is how it should be, but evidently not always how it really is. But with these switched-on students, the nice other staff, and the beautiful valley this is surely going down into the books as a very good fieldwork! I would love to say: next year again, but that of course is not topical. But only months from now I'll be taking Welsh students into the field! Let's hope they are as enthusiastic and independent as the York bunch...

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