While I am rewinding mental images of the trip in my mind, my thoughts keep coming back to the film “Into the wild”. Don’t get me wrong; this was by no means that kind of trip. But as we were leaving the mass of urban concrete and approaching the north of England and famous lakes of Cumbria, I remember I was thinking that there is so much peacefulness in green fields and snow-covered hills embracing us from both sides of the road; and how much I needed all that to reset my mind after months of exhausting long working hours. Turning around to look at 19 young faces on the coach, I was only hoping that they might feel the same. This is a story of four days on the road with my PhD student Jimmy O’Keeffe, our driver Maurice and MSc Hydrology students on our study tour to Lake District.
This is not a story about all the things we saw. Though we did see loads of interesting stuff. We wandered around Oxford with David Macdonald who told us a story on the mechanism for groundwater flooding in urban areas. We visited Eden Demonstration Test Catchment where Nick Barber and Will Cleasby showed us the water quality monitoring station at the catchment outlet where they measure all the relevant parameters to monitor the impact of diffuse pollution on river water quality. We met Tony who was kind enough to show us around his farm, and who is working closely with the people on the project to implement some of the measures for pollution mitigation, such as small-scale dams and retention ponds.
We visited Cockermouth to look at the flood defense scheme Environment Agency (EA) implemented after devastating floods in 2009. We’ve seen the fancy glass panels, floodgates and world’s unique automatic self-rising flood barriers. EA staff was too busy to show us around, but as we were passing by one of the private houses, the owner kindly invited us in and explained us all the measures that were undertaken at his property, finishing his small session with showing us the album with photos from the 2009 flood, when water came up to 1.5m into his back garden.
We spent a lovely morning at The Blencathra Centre for environmental education with Tim Foster, who showed us their newly installed HEP scheme that enables the centre to be completely self-sufficient in electricity production and reduced their carbon emissions by 80%. Finally, we visited British Geological Survey offices in Keyworth where we were flown over the UK in their 3D visualization room and went to The National Geological Repository where millions of borehole core and specimen samples are stored.
But what I really want to talk about is our last afternoon in Cumbria, when few of us decided to make the most of our stay there and go for a walk up the hills, then down to lakes and back to our base in Keswick. The plan was for Maurice to leave us as close as possible to the beginning of the ascent, from where it should take us approximately four hours of walking to get back. Probably most of coach drivers would just say one big NO when they would see the narrow road he should have taken us through – but not Maurice. With his usual smile and few comments on how there’s no way he’s picking us up anywhere if we get lost, he bravely managed to navigate the bus few hundred meters away from our starting point and left us there. It was 2pm.
A short walk by the lake afterwards, and we were by the starting point of our climb. Just to put things in perspective, I am quite a sporty person. But the view in front of me was not promising – few hundred meters of a very steep climb, completely off road. But there was no way back. So I found a branch that was my best friend during next couple of hours and started climbing. By the time we got to the top of that first hill, my heart was beating like it will jump out of my chest, and my breath was so short that I couldn’t say a word. But I couldn’t stop smiling. Because what followed was one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen. And in that middle of nowhere where the only sounds you can hear are the sounds of the howling wind and your pounding heart, you know that all that matters in life are those small moments of happiness that you have to make happen, that hills you have to climb no matter how steep they are; and people who will climb with you, who will follow you and support you, and tell you – come on, you can make it. Who will catch you if you stumble. And you make it. Up the hill, through first project proposal, first lecture with undergrads, first bad decision, first student paper published… you make it through everything.
The descent was just a little less difficult, with all the slippery rocks and grass. But the prospect of walking along a flat path kept the pace of our small group, and eventually we ended up in the valley, passing the beautiful lakes. The rest of the walk, which lasted a bit longer than we anticipated, passed in the casual chatting and trying to reach Keswick before the rain and dark. We failed to achieve both, but when we entered our hostel at 7:30pm awfully tired, muddy, sweaty and hungry, the only thing you could see on our faces was a huge grin.
The film ends with a famous quote that happiness (or I would argue any feeling) is not real unless shared. And I couldn’t agree more. As I am writing these closing lines sitting in my study back in London I feel so privileged to be a part of the scientific community that is trying to make a difference in this crazy world; I feel proud of common people like Tony willing to listen and help that community because without their input and support none of our work would make sense; I feel excessively proud of my PhD students that cope with me come rain or shine and do amazing work. Finally, I feel completely elated for two reasons: in those young people traveling with us I saw the yearning for knowledge and appreciation of nature that hopefully will never cease; and I saw the bonding that hopefully will last them for a lifetime. And I share this with you with “a just-in-case mentality” of that happiness’ middle name is maybe and maybe you can feel this too.
I would like to express my deepest gratitude to all those who have devoted their time to us on this trip: David Macdonald, Bruce Napier, Mike Howe and Chris Jackson from British Geological Survey; Nick Barber from Durham University, Will Cleasby from Eden Rivers Trust and Tony the farmer; friendly Cockermouth resident; and Tim Foster from The Blencathra Centre. Thanks to Wouter Buytaert, Adrian Butler, Deborah Bellaby (University of Lancaster), Judith and Angela for helping me organise this trip; to my MSc students for being such a lovely bunch of people and making the job of taking care of them so easy for me and Jimmy. Special thanks to our driver Maurice who kept us laughing and took us safely through all the narrow roads of Cumbria. And last, but never ever the least, huge thanks to Jimmy for being my huge help and support (especially up those hills!).