Ron’s Rambles – May

Our universities
There was a time when there were only a few universities in the UK. They were fairly rich, as a result of philanthropic bequests from the wealthy, they were exclusive expensive establishments and their students came mainly from wealthy upper-class homes by way of expensive public schools. Very bright students from grammar schools might enter with the aid of scholarships and/or bursaries. The universities set high academic standards and pursued world class research, they enjoyed considerable respect. This was the situation in the early part of the twentieth century. Historically they had pursued studies in theology, history, literature, languages, mathematics, astronomy et al. Science was accepted rather reluctantly as an appropriate discipline when the great pioneers of the nineteenth century were pushing back the frontiers, especially in understanding electricity. Prior to that time the work of scientists like Isaac Newton was seen as part of mathematics. Graduates had always been Bachelors of Art, BA, there was a reluctance in some quarters to accept Bachelors of Science, BSc, and that may still be the situation in some places. There was a certain academic snobbishness, apart from astronomy, science was seen as not possessing an appropriate intellectual challenge. Apparently endeavouring to understand the nature of matter was not as intellectually challenging as reading historic documents and writing a new interpretation of their content.
When it came to engineering the same views persisted only much more strongly, engineering was for artisans and beneath the intellect and dignity of the upper-classes.
Attitudes have changed slowly, science became an acceptable academic discipline and was adopted by leading universities, somewhat reluctantly in some institutions, and, globally, scientific study has become the measure of a good university. A properly qualified scientist in the form of a physicist or chemist has some respect, although the standing of science has been undermined to some extent by some new pseudo sciences.
Engineering fared worse, it took a long time before mathematically modelling the stress distribution in complex structures, or the air flow around an aircraft, or the design of a steam turbine was seen as intellectually challenging. By the mid-twentieth century many universities had established engineering faculties, but there weren’t many students coming from the leading public schools, the artisan image of engineering persisted. There were technical colleges, but they were aimed at the skilled worker and the technician, and steered clear of the more demanding studies. The government recognised the importance of engineering studies, especially with regard to defence and weaponry, as well as industry in general, and saw that the provision by the universities was inadequate. They looked to technical colleges dealing with more advanced studies and designated them Colleges of Advanced Technology, in time it was recognised that these colleges were conducting studies and research of the same level as the university engineering courses, and the CATs were designated universities and received their own charters.
Technical colleges had run courses for National and Higher National Certificates, but it was considered that there was a need for some of these students to continue their studies to a higher level. A National Council for Technical Awards (NCTA) was created and they introduced a new award, a Diploma in Technology, the Dip. Tech. This was supposed to be up to degree standard but different. Some technical colleges seen as capable of offering the new course were designated Polytechnics. It wasn’t long before the difference became blurred and there was some grievance in the student body that the Dip. Tech. was not recognised as of the same standing as a degree. There was also a recognition that it wasn’t just in the field of technology that the nation needed better qualified people. The NCTA became the CNAA (Council for National Academic Awards) which became a degree awarding body. The CNAA was an organisation that approved courses run primarily by polytechnics, for degree awards, and monitored closely the operation of these courses ensuring that the standard of their degrees was equal to those offered by universities. This arrangement worked well with some inter-relationship between polytechnics and universities. Examiners were drawn from universities and polytechnics and examining boards were constituted with university and polytechnic staff. Polytechnics were providing courses in a variety of disciplines under the auspices of the CNAA.
It all changed, to some extent, in the late 80s when the government decided to designate all polytechnics as universities with their own charter. The overseeing role of the CNAA was lost as the new universities set their own degrees. It got worse when many other colleges that had never run courses of a degree standard also received their own charter and a degree lost its meaning as a standard. It can be argued, of course, that this is a good thing, it gets rid of the academic snobbery of the past and it increases the value of courses that previously would have been seen as courses of sub-degree level, and rightly so, many of these courses produce highly skilled graduates that are often more nearly geared to the requirements of industry and the workplace in general.
What ruined it was the manner in which the government allocated funds to the colleges which was based primarily on student numbers, the more students the more funds. College management found that science and engineering courses tended to be expensive to run because of the requirement for expensive equipment and, because of the developments in technology and the consequent requirement for continuously updating equipment. Whereas courses in social sciences, history, English and many others were relatively cheap, and many other new courses cheap to operate were introduced in disciplines never heard of before.
Matters got even worse when the government went one step further and, in effect, privatised the universities by requiring them to fund themselves by charging students a fee (an arrangement backed up by an appalling government loan scheme). Now more than ever the universities need to recruit more students and this has led to a lowering of the standard required for university entry. Many universities have been found to offer applicants a guaranteed place, regardless of their academic results, as long as they commit to come to that university.
Another rather worrying aspect of the current situation is the reduction in the standard and appropriateness of much research undertaken in our universities. One regularly comes across reports of research of very questionable value to the student or to society. Just one example recently was reported, it was triggered because a woman was unfortunately burned in a fire, her injuries were made worse because she used emoluments on her skin that were paraffin based and her nightclothes had become impregnated with the substance. The research was conducted to determine the effect that such impregnation could have on the fire. The conclusion was that clothes impregnated with paraffin burned more quickly and the consequent fire was hotter. Now there was a surprise.
Our universities all contain people that have had a fairly extensive period of education, some of them may be extremely bright, they are a national asset and if they are going to conduct research surely they could pursue research that is of some value to business and industry or in the furtherance of knowledge.
I remember Good Fridays
When I was a child in the 1930s I hated Good Friday. My siblings and I had to wear our best clothes, for me that meant a grey suit with short trousers, long socks and a tie. We were told not to get dirty and not to make a noise, we were not allowed to play outside, in effect we should not be doing anything where it appeared that we were enjoying ourselves, about the only thing we were permitted to do was to go for a walk. It wasn’t just us, nobody was allowed to be seen to enjoying themselves, cinemas, public sports events, public tennis courts, all forms of entertainment were closed. Public transport practically came to a standstill. I expect that there would have been church bells, but maybe not, I don’t remember them, outside it was uncannily quiet, There were three bus routes went past our house and on a normal day you would not have to wait many minutes before one came along going in one direction or the other, but on Good Friday a bus was a rare sight, there was the occasional car but even they appeared be afraid of making a noise. If you turned the wireless on you would most likely hear sombre religious music or a serious male voice reading a sermon. It was as though the whole nation was in mourning, perhaps that was the intention.
For an eight-year-old boy the day was boring and endless. Of course, the significance of the day had been drilled into me over and over again, but I still could not understand why we were not permitted to play.
It was odd, the Church was beginning to lose its grip on society at large, but still held great sway with the government, people did not want to be seen as irreligious, what would the neighbours think? There was, I think, just one group of people who were permitted to go about their usual business and make a noise if they wanted to, construction/building workers ignored Good Fridays and carried on as usual. It maybe that my memory is playing tricks on me, it does these days, but I think this odd behaviour by builders was a tradition. Why there should be such a tradition I have no idea.
This is my memory of Good Fridays, was it really like that? I would be interested to hear other peoples’ memories of Good Fridays before the war, and the builders’ tradition, if there was such a thing.

May Gardening

May is an eventful and exciting month in the garden, plants (and us) love the warmer weather and we can see daily changes as spring bulbs fade and herbaceous perennials unfurl from the ground and swiftly grow. Temperatures are rising but there can still be a last minute frost to catch us all out, so keep an eye on the local weather forecast and protect tender plants accordingly.
Last summer as part of the design I created for Brandon in Bloom’s ‘The Wedge’ I used a plant that’s grown purely for its foliage colours: ‘Coleus’ (also known as flame nettle). The variety I chose was ‘red head’ as the display was planted predominately using red flowers to represent ‘blood & bandages’ in remembrance of 100 years since the ending of WW1. Every day without fail someone came into the shop to ask me “what are the red plants in the wedge?”.
Coleus (Latin name: Solenostemon scutellarioides) is ridiculously cheerful and flamboyant, available in a multitude of clown-like colours in crazy reds, yellows, greens, purple-bronzes, dark pinks and browns. An ornamental member of the mint family, it originates in Indonesia and Malaysia and arrived in Europe in the mid-19th century.
Coleus grows best in bright, indirect light, as the foliage colour is often enhanced when they are grown in the shade. Pinch the center stems out when the plants are 4 to 6 inches tall to induce bushier growth, and be sure to pick off the flower spikes as they form. If the soil is allowed to dry out, the foliage will wilt, but normally will recover quickly when additional water is provided. Water your plants thoroughly at planting time, and then mulch the entire bed to conserve moisture. The mulch will also help to heat up, and retain the heat in the soil, thereby helping your plants to get established in their new home. Avoid using fertilisers that are high in nitrogen as this encourages soft growth and poorer quality foliage, instead choose a balanced fertiliser. Pests to look out for include mealy bugs, aphids and whitefly, as well as slugs and snails!
Whilst in the garden they are grown as annuals, but Coleus are actually tender perennials and kept at a minimum 15C (60F) over winter they make a pretty houseplant. Coleus can be propagated from seed, or from cuttings and there are 100’s of varieties to choose from. The choice for the wedge for 2019 planting is ‘Wizard Mix’.
Top Tips for May:
• When planting up hanging baskets use a good quality compost, and add slow release fertiliser and water retaining crystals
• Trim back spreading plants such as aubrieta, alyssum and candytuft after they have flowered to encourage fresh new growth and more flowers.
• Start to closely inspect your plants for pests and diseases – early prevention is easier than curing an infestation.
• Harden off and plant out young vegetable and bedding plants.
• Earth up potatoes, and promptly plant any still remaining
• Collect rainwater and investigate ways to recycle water for irrigation
• Open greenhouse vents and doors on warm days
Whatever May brings I hope you get a chance to step out into the sunshine and enjoy the season as you tackle this months gardening jobs.
Rachel Sobiechowski BSc (Hons) P&R Garden Supplies, Fengate Drove, Brandon 01842 814800



Last month, I extolled the virtues of my new razor, the Gillette Fusion Proglide Flexball Power Razor. When you turn it on, the head vibrates and it swings in a variety of directions, reminding me of some of my medical student friends after a good night out! To use the razor with maximum speed and comfort, shaving cream is necessary and I have been using Gillette Shave Gel which comes in a tall black pressurised container. When the top is pressed, a powerful get of green gel flies out, turning to white foam when it hits water on the face – Magic; I forgot to mention last time that the nozzle on the can is virtually invisible and, if extreme care is not used, the bathroom wall receives the foam instead of the face. As I am never at my best early in the morning, this is not unusual. However, all was going reasonably well until I bought some Right Guard underarm deodorant spray which carries a 48 hour guarantee, has a cool and invigorating fragrance (!) and comes in a tall black pressurised container. I can confirm that spraying the face with deodorant is no great problem but an armpit full of shaving foam is a different matter! PLAN – allow more time between waking up and abluting.
As we are heading off to our humble timeshare in a couple of days, I am writing this article on March 21st with Brexit chaos rampant. Heaven knows what the situation will be when this article is published. Those who are fed up with the behaviour of some MPs would have appreciated the joke I cannot use about the lorry drivers stuck in a massive traffic jam on the M4 who were told that the queue extended into Westminster where terrorists had taken control of the Houses of Parliament and taken all the MPs hostage, threatening to douse them with petrol and set fire to them. All the lorry drivers were asked to make a contribution to help find a solution to the problem and most offered a gallon or two. I am well aware that a great many MPs are honourable and as disgusted as we are with the behaviour of those dishonourable MPs who are messing about and, in deference to those who are behaving honourably, I have decided not to print the above suggested joke.

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Peat, sometimes known as turf, is an accumulation of decayed vegetation and is unique to natural areas known as peatlands, bogs, mires, mosses, moors or muskegs. It is acidic and forms in wetland conditions where water logging slows the rate of decomposition by obstructing the flow of oxygen from the atmosphere. Only specific plants can grow in these conditions and although many species of decayed plants can be found in peat, sphagnum moss is by far the most common. The development of peat is a very slow process taking a year to form one millimetre. Most modern peat bogs are thousands of years old and peat banks are often in excess of five feet deep and sometimes as much as twenty feet in parts of the Western Isles. There is evidence that peat was being used to make fire around 1,000BC. Bodies buried in peat bogs are well preserved by the tanning properties of the acidic water.
Us southerners are most familiar with peat either through using it in garden compost or when selecting a whisky of which there are scores of different brands, some tasting strongly of peat. On Islay there are nine distilleries, and another nearby on Jura. Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin in the south of Islay all have heavily peated flavours. It is not the water used that purveys this taste but the length of time the grains of barley are exposed to peat smoke during the 30 hour drying process. Laphroaig is exposed for 18.
In parts of Ireland and Scotland, particularly on the Islands, peat is still used very much for its traditional purpose as fuel for cooking and heating. In Ireland peat is used to partially run three power stations. Rights to cut peats from an allocated peat bank on the moor are traditionally attached to crofts and some older houses. Access is part of a crofters’ tenancy agreement, and generations have exercised this right. Although the fuel is free harvesting it is intensively physical, back breaking work and it is customary for families to help eachother out. Cutting peats begins in late spring. The top covering of plant growth is peeled back to reveal the thick layer of peat. A special type of long handled spade or peat iron is used to cut rectangular slabs, known as fads, about a foot long, six inches wide and three inches thick. Local blacksmiths often made these spades, known also as tairsgeirs, which have been handed down through generations. It is usually a two person job with one cutting and the other throwing the heavy wet peats up on top of the ground to one side. There it is left to dry for a few weeks. To dry further the peats are often stood on end and built into piles resembling houses of cards, known as rudhan, allowing air to circulate. When thoroughly dried the peats are transported back home and stacked close to the house in a large pile, often in the shape of an upturned boat.