On Our Doorstep: Environments and their Legacies

by David Herbert 

From Cwmparc to Swansea


My own journey at Swansea University began in the Autumn of 1956 when I arrived as an undergraduate student. It was a journey that was to occupy the major part of my life, at first as a student and then as an academic member of staff. When I took that train from Treorchy in the Rhondda Valley it was very much a journey into the unknown, as up to that time I had never been to Swansea and knew little about it. I had much to think about as the train travelled up the Rhondda Valley through the long tunnel and out into the Afan Valley that led down to Aberavon and Swansea Bay. My school days were a distant memory: I had left school after a few months in the Sixth Form when my family, of necessity, decided it was time for me to earn a living. I was employed by the Rhondda Council as a clerk in the Water Department before being called up for National Service. Whilst in the RAF I enrolled in a one-year A level course at Gloucester Technical College with two evening sessions and one on our ‘sports afternoon’. I learnt in August 1956 that I had been successful and by a rapid process was offered a place in Geography at Swansea. I knew next to nothing about the department or the university, but my learning process was about to begin. It was in many ways a good time to arrive; the Department of Geography had recently been established with its first Chair and the purpose-built Natural Sciences Building was newly opened.

An inviting environment

Swansea, as a place and in its setting, was ideal for the development of Natural Sciences. It is located on the coast looking out on the expanse of Swansea Bay and beyond that to the Bristol Channel or what Welsh speakers call Mor Hafren, the Severn Sea. Beyond that again is the open reach to the Atlantic Ocean. It is bounded to the west by the expanse of the Gower Peninsula, designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty, and further west to rural Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire with its National Coastal Park. To the north and east are the hills and valleys of the South Wales coalfield and the mountains of the Brecon Beacons, with its own National Park. For the academic disciplines of Biology, Geography and Geology that comprise the natural sciences, these facts are of prime importance because they are all disciplines centrally concerned with the study of environments. They are all field-work subjects whose staff and students  seek to research, analyse and understand the environments in which they live. All three of the major disciplines have a magnificent field laboratory on their doorsteps with which to advance their understanding of the environment in all its manifestations.  Students can be taught a range of techniques central to their disciplines by themselves engaging in projects and being given directed field studies. The Gower Peninsula was a foreign country when I arrived but after many visits involving struggling with theodolites and plane tables, clambering across limestone pavements and searching out megaliths, burial chambers and the relict open field systems, it became very familiar ground indeed.

Places to live and study

On my arrival day my first port of call was not the Natural Sciences Building but the Clyne Halls of Residence where I had been allocated a place among the very first intake of students. It was an impressive building set in parkland and with all the attributes of a stately home. There was a modern annex, but my room was on the top floor of the old ‘castle’. I shared with another student from the Rhondda who was a complete stranger and had a casual attitude to study which meant that he did not survive much beyond the early new year. But the place at Clyne was a real bonus, as I made friends with kindred spirits that survive to this present day at our re-unions. On Singleton campus the Natural Sciences building offered an impressive facade with motifs representing the four resident disciplines. Choosing two other Part One subjects was the first issue; History had been my second A level so that was easy enough. I was very attracted to English Literature but decided a safer option was a subject most people were starting from scratch and Economics it was. That exposed me to the interesting phenomenon of Professor E. Victor Morgan, who read things by holding them one inch from his nose (he had a form of albinism). That module was not difficult because his own book ‘A First Approach to Economics’[1] led you through on a weekly basis. He used to confound students with his apparent very short-sightedness by occasionally reprimanding an individual spotted at the very back of the large lecture room.

Meeting the Geographers and others

The Geography staff were mainly interested in aspects of Physical Geography and Cartography. This had some logic as the department was part of a natural sciences group and the much older department at Aberystwyth had a strong focus on Human Geography. The Professor and Head of Department was WGV Balchin (known to students as Billy). He had a very respectable record in geomorphology [2] and taught that subject along with the British Isles. He came across at that time as a reserved and rather remote figure not easily approachable by students. His inner circle comprised John Oliver, a climatologist, Gillian Groom, also a geomorphologist and Derek Maling who had spent time on the Antarctic Survey, was the cartographer. John Oliver, an exceptionally nice man, was to batter us with endless ways of classifying climate. Various offerings by Koppen and Thornthwaite and others were laid out before us. Derek Maling gave us lectures on map projections with a style that involved facing the blackboard and covering it with mathematical proofs that we dutifully copied down but never understood and never needed to use. All we really needed were the qualities of different projections, which gave accurate areas, which gave accurate distances. Gillian Groom was a careful and well organised teacher; her lectures on physical land forms were clear and stimulating. Both she and John Oliver had preceded Bill Balchin in the department.

There was a Human Geographer in the shape of Frank Emery, but he left after one term for a post in Oxford. His lectures seemed to be mostly about trees and the clearing of woodlands by successive waves of colonists, mainly Anglo-Saxon. He was a remote and seemingly humourless man. On one occasion as the class waited in the NSB theatre for his arrival, someone decided to turn off all the lights so we sat in darkness. Mr. Emery opened the door took one extended look at our expectant faces and promptly turned on his heel and abandoned that day’s lecture. He was replaced by a young historical geographer Stuart Cousens already in post as a tutor, who was a scholarly academic with particular interests in Ireland[3]. With a Part One composed of Geography, History and Economics, contact with Biology and Geology was limited. The stand out figures in Geology were the then Head of Department, Professor F.H.T. Rhodes and T.R. (Dickie) Owen. Rhodes was a distinguished and impressive figure who always appeared civil and approachable to students, he went on to become President of Cornell University.

T.R. Owen had a reputation as an extremely good teacher and communicator whose knowledge of the geology of South Wales was legendary[4]. Several in the Geography group had opted for the Part One combination of Geography, Geology and Biology but as all these subjects ran laboratory classes, the time demands were large. Biology along with Geology had been established at the foundation of the University College but a new Department of Zoology was opened at the same time as Geography. The Botany Department was the earlier component. As Truman had been an early distinguished geologist, so Florence Mockridge had filled that role in Botany and Ivor Isaac was also a distinguished presence [5]. As Geology was on the same floor or level as Geography there was a good deal of interaction. The biologists, scurrying around in their white coats in the first and basement floors, were less evident. We were always aware of their presence, notably through their smells and sounds of fume cupboards pounding away and there was of course a Natural Sciences Library that we all shared on the second floor. This added to the integrity and separateness of the Natural Sciences.

Campus life

Elsewhere on the campus key places were the old Arts Hall where many lectures were held and Singleton Abbey at the far end of the campus. The Abbey was as always the ‘seat of power’ but its Orangery at that time also served as a student refectory. With only about 1000 students at the College this was manageable. There were many temporary buildings perhaps best described as Nissan Huts and their life was to be extended for some time to come until the building plans came to fruition. Life at the new Clyne Halls was comfortable and convenient. The Mumbles train had a station in Blackpill that provided us with easy transport to Singleton Park. Many things were very formal at Clyne.  There were occasions when gowns would be worn, formal dinners with a high table and a formidable Warden in the form of T. Huw Bevan of the Welsh Department. He was overly keen on discipline with set times to be back in the Hall and great constraints on female visitors. This was to lead to friction especially with the mature students joining engineering courses from HND type backgrounds. He had the habit on patrolling the perimeter of the grounds at 11.00pm on Saturdays and immediately gave chase when he detected a late arrival. Many were caught out by his speed of foot. His was an early example of a ‘zero tolerance’ policy. He obviously marked our cards, as at the end of the academic year very few were given the option to stay. There was a Students’ Union building up on Sketty Road in the Uplands and the Arts Hall was the venue for Saturday night dances or hops. Also in the Uplands was the Beck Hall of residence for women students. Student debates were an attraction. The one I remember was by a postgraduate in Philosophy, Dewi Z. Phillips, in which he dissembled a popular song “Love is a many splendored thing”. There were similar events in the academic curriculum as staff from many departments gave general lectures on a range of current issues including I recall one on the rise of Italian Fascism by a mathematics lecturer. To back these up we had a tutorial programme with a Mr Thorlby in Clyne (a lecturer in German) and on one occasion with the Principal himself, John Fulton, in his room in the Abbey.

At the end of Part One I had safely completed my three subjects and Professor Balchin called in for individual interviews applicants for the Honours scheme in Geography. He glanced through a copy of results and said words to the effect, “I think we can let you in”. Years later when I happened to look at the archives, I observed that I was top student in the year, though I would never have guessed from that interview. Bill Balchin was a warm and caring person when I had the chance to know him better; he even turned up from his home in Yorkshire at my retirement dinner when he was in his 90s. The Honours class in Geography that year numbered only 14 and there was a separate group enrolled for General degrees who could only achieve a Pass degree level. Also, the cull of students, who left the College at the end of Part One, was significant. A number of my Clyne Hall friends fell by the way-side and I suspect the bar was set higher at that time. A good friend who eventually achieved a very good result in Biology and made his mark in that discipline was held back for a year because he slipped up in a Chemistry course in Part One.

Sport was always on the agenda. I turned out at the Fresher trials and played a few games of rugby for College teams and that was the start of a long association that ended much later with the role of President of Swansea University Rugby Club that I relinquished in 2018!  The great games in my student days were always those against other colleges in the University of Wales, especially Cardiff and Aberystwyth. When the University of Wales eisteddfod came to Swansea, we won thanks to the careful management of my good friend Arwel Edwards who ensured that we had entrants in every obscure category of competition. One of the features of the Geography course was field-work. Apart from scouring the Gower and adjacent areas, we went off once a year to distant field-week locations. One year it was Devon and Cornwall, based in Exeter, another it was Ireland, based in Dublin. Memorable from the former were a long, seemingly endless trek across Dartmoor looking for tors. Each time our leader, John Oliver stopped at one, Derek Maling would say “Call that a tor” and on we went until he was satisfied. All of this would have been more tolerable if it had not been pouring with rain the whole time. In Ireland, we viewed numerous overflow channels and there was a typical Balchin moment. We stopped in an abandoned rural area, walled empty fields and broken down buildings and Professor Balchin asked for comments. As I had been to lectures by Stuart Cousens on the famine and its consequences, I waxed lyrical about the impact on landscape of poverty, starvation and migration. Professor Balchin listened and then said, “That is all very well, but what are the walls made of?”  Granite was really the answer he wanted; the course was still mainly seen through the lens of physical geography!

Leaving and returning

I was away from the Department of Geography for six years during which time I completed a PhD at Birmingham University and had my first academic appointment at Keele University. During the early summer of 1965 a post of Lecturer in Human Geography was advertised at Swansea and it was suggested that I should apply. This I did successfully and after a semester at Toronto University I returned to Swansea in the Autumn of 1965. My former teachers were still there but there had been new arrivals, most notably Graham Humphrys, the first South Wales-based staff member. His interests were in Economic Geography focused on South Wales and often his concept of the Swansea Bay City [6]. My own appointment was prompted by a new initiative, the Faculty of Economic and Social Studies and a B.Sc. Econ. degree scheme. This was one factor, allied with other appointments, that redressed the balance within the Department between Physical and Human Geography. The other Natural Sciences were to diversify in similar ways. There were new staff appointments and sub-disciplines such as biochemistry, microbiology and genetics appeared alongside the more traditional broad divisions of botany and zoology. These were to become key factors in later years when the moves to establish a School of Medicine gathered pace and the essential back-up from Biological Sciences was needed. The Department of Geology had also expanded and had added Oceanography to its portfolio.

Geology and its changing fortunes

For a while Geology was a combined department but Oceanography was given a separate identity with Fred Banner as its first Head. A boat was acquired in the form of the Ocean Crest, a converted Lowestoft trawler. In later years this was more commonly known as the Ocean Pest because of its demands on repairs and maintenance. By 1968, Frank Rhodes had left and Derek Ager was installed as the new Head of Geology. The Natural Sciences had diversified and were in good order: also significant was the fact that the Natural Sciences building had added two new ‘wings’ to accommodate the expansion. This was still insufficient space and both Geology and Geography had overflows into adjacent buildings and took over some of the remaining ‘huts’ that were still being pressed into use.A major project in the early 1960s, The Lower Swansea Valley Project, had provided the natural sciences with the opportunity to collaborate and contribute to a local initiative aimed at analysing the impact of Swansea’s former non-ferrous metals industry on the landscape and to provide measures of restoration and regeneration. The report, edited by Kenneth Hilton, stands as a landmark of Community and University collaboration [7].

Derek Ager brought a different dynamic into the Natural Sciences. Distinguished and well-liked by his colleagues in Geology, he could be abrasive and this often did not go down well with other occupants of the building. He was very dismissive of human geography though his knowledge of its content was probably minimal. There were, however, good examples of research collaboration between geologists such as Pete Styles and physical geographers. A central figure in Biology was Ivor Isaac, a botanist of distinction who was himself a Swansea graduate. When John Beardmore arrived to head up genetics, he provided another dimension. [8] Both these biologists progressed to be Vice Principals and were influential at a wider university level. During the 1980s significant problems arose for the Departments of Geology and Oceanography. The UK University Grants Committee pursued a policy of rationalising these disciplines into a smaller number of centres within the United Kingdom. Swansea was a significant loser as, firstly Oceanography merged back into Geology and then the Department of Geology was closed. The Oceanography staff were transferred elsewhere, mainly to Southampton, and the majority of geologists were moved to the enlarged department at Cardiff University. This was a major blow for the Natural Sciences at Swansea and all that remained of the long tradition of Geology was a Part One course run from the Department of Geography. Derek Ager, understandingly, reacted to this decision with considerable anger. The change was helped by the fact that Rob Kidd had taken over as Head of Geology and he was a much easier person to work with. He had marine geology interests and had strong empathy with Mike Collins in Oceanography.


Moving forwards

Around the mid-1970s my own Swansea career took on a new dimension. I had just published my first book [9] and had been promoted: a phone call came one evening from Professor Alun Davies, historian and then Dean of the Faculty of Economic and Social Studies, with a request that I became Sub Dean of that faculty. I was pleased to accept and that set me off on a movement into university management with steps through Dean, Head of Department, Vice Principal and Senior Pro Vice Chancellor. It was in the last post that I was to end my career after eleven years in that role. As Sub Dean, I was responsible for admissions in a faculty in full growth. I had many contacts with the Registry staff including the redoubtable Harold Smale and Peter White. The growing numbers meant new appointments and new disciplines. The BSc. Econ. scheme became significant in the Geography as a form of Combined Honours alongside the BSc. and BAs. During the late1970s however the Faculty was already showing signs of decline. One key factor was the the Head of Economics, Ted Nevin, who saw his department much more in alliance with Business Studies and Management Science. A telling example of his beliefs is one statement in Senate where someone had put forward an argument with which he strongly disagreed. “Listening to that contribution”, he said, “I knew that with Grecian inevitability it was coming from a sociologist”. He was of course right. By this time though Human Geography had a strong presence in the department and both Physical and Human Geography were on an upward growth curve.

Changes in Geography

When a new Professor was advertised in Geography in 1966, the assumption was that this would be a Human Geographer to provide balance of leadership. In the event the appointment was internal, and the new professor was John Oliver, already a staff member, who specialised in climatology. There was some thought that this was an opportunity lost but little or no animus as John was a popular and worthy figure. About this time, it was decided to move the new staff arrivals in Geography, lecturers and tutors, into one of the ‘temporary’ hut type buildings that still survived in the centre of the campus. It was testimony to John Oliver’s character that he joined us, vacating his nice modern office for the end room in the hut. Conditions were adequate but not great as the floors had reached the end of their lives. My immediate neighbour, Don Harding, the hydrologist, was carefully watching his filing cabinet slowly subsiding downwards into the cellar below. There was a lot of coming and going with staff. The tutors were all on short term contracts but Gerald Manners, who had arrived at the end of my student days, moved to a post at University College, London and Wayne Davies who had arrived from Southampton went to Calgary. John Oliver did not stay long in his new role but moved to Townsville in Australia where he had a successful career until his retirement. His replacement as a Professor was a Human Geographer, Dick Greenwood, a Cambridge contemporary of Bill Balchin, who arrived from Brisbane. There had been much speculation amongst younger staff and indeed a ‘sweepstake’ to predict the successful candidate, but no-one won. Dick took up the hut room but his initial task was to plan our space in the new extension to the Natural Sciences Building, and we moved there in 1977 after some delays because of funding difficulties. There was a bridge link with the main building and a new natural sciences library with far more space. The upper floors were occupied by biologists including the growing number of geneticists. This was to be the disposition of the natural science departments until the end of the 1980s when Geography took over the whole first floor of the main building as the geologists moved out with closure of their department. By 1986, Rob Kidd had taken over as Head of Geology and was a much more benign and positive presence. He moved to Cardiff with his colleagues but sadly suffered ill health throughout the rest of his short career there.

New challenges in higher education

By the end of the 1980s, the natural sciences at Swansea had been reduced to Biological Sciences and Geography. Both were strong in terms of recruitment and student numbers but there was limited scope for cross-disciplinary collaboration. When the new regime of the Research Assessment Exercise arrived, both were set in the modest 3A category, this was not helpful in terms of research funding. By 1996, Geography had moved up to a good grade 4 but Biology remained stalled in the 3A category. When the first RAE results were announced, it was not good news for Swansea. I was Vice Principal at the time and when I walked into the Principal’s office for a meeting with Brian Clarkson, he was the most despondent I had seen him. Brian was normally a ‘chirpy’ and resilient person but now he had to cope with his university being placed in the lowest group on research performance. The RAE had a dramatic impact on universities. Now we had to focus on research and staff became much more aware of the need to publish; teaching was definitely pushed down the list of priorities. We saw that many staff were ‘research inactive’ and had not published for some time. Years later I was part of a conversation with Martin Harris, then Vice Chancellor at Manchester and one of the original authors of RAE. He admitted that they had sought to stimulate research at UK universities but had not fully anticipated some of the knock-on effects. There were of course other University level issues arising at that time, not least those emanating from the Department of Philosophy. These were not new. They had impacted immediately on Robert Steel when he became Principal. Robert was a geographer and I had known him before he came to Swansea. He once confided to me that he had been happily contemplating ending his career as John Rankin Professor of Geography at Liverpool before being tempted with the Swansea post. Certainly his early experience with the Swansea philosophers did not convince him that he had made the right choice. He settled well though with help from his successive Vice Principals, T.J. Morgan, Ivor Isaac and David Pritchard.


The Natural Sciences without a Geology presence were still big departments in terms of student numbers. Geography had always recruited well and Biology had a range of sub-disciplines to attract students. In Geography, we made a move to introduce the growing area of Remote Sensing and Satellite Imagery. Paul Curran was appointed as a professor in the area and we built up a team around him. Paul did an excellent job and when he moved on to Southampton (and eventually to be Vice Chancellor at City University), Mike Barnsley came from UCL and was an excellent successor to take us forward. Mike replaced me as Head of Department but tragically passed away from cancer in his 40s. It was a major loss for the department and the university. We made other appointments that went on to higher things. Paul Boyle came to us as a Lecturer in Human Geography, before moving to the University of Leicester and has now returned to Swansea as Vice Chancellor. In Biological Sciences, genetics was becoming high profile. John Beardmore ran a major project with tilapia fish and both Jim Parry and Ray Waters were developing insights into cancer research. There was a small compound in the adjacent Botanic Gardens where a research project on adders was being conducted by the zoologists. When the project ended, the adders disappeared and interviewed by local press and radio, a zoologist said they had been released into the Gower. This caused some consternation, though in fact they were just being returned to where they came from. In latter years the establishment of a graduate Medical School had major impact on some of the biological sub-disciplines such as genetics and biochemistry. It was a long road to achieve the Medical School through many meetings initially for a post-graduate school to a final agreement with interested parties, not least the Cardiff medical school, which was not overjoyed with the idea of a rival in Wales, to move a step further. Its success and allied Life Sciences facilities have had positive repercussions on the natural sciences.

When Professor Balchin returned for my own retirement function, he pointed out that as student and staff member, I was the individual with the longest association with Geography at Swansea. This was not something that had occurred to me, but it is of course true as my overall ‘tenure’ exceeded forty years. For some time after my retirement this association went on. I had the position of Emeritus Professor and University Fellow and the department gave me some office space to write and research for several more years. Much has changed over those years, but the department was always a good place to work as was the University. In the department we built up strong bonds helped in part by the time we spent together on field work and field trips whether in the rich environments of Swansea itself, tramping the streets of Paris, trekking up to glaciers in the Austrian Alps or putting a toe into the Sahara Desert from Tunisia. The university has grown at a dazzling pace from just over a thousand in my student days to over twenty thousand now. Huts are long gone, and the built environment has been transformed. Swansea University gave me an education and a career and for both I can look back in pride as a place to which, hopefully, I also gave something back. 


[1] Morgan, E.V. (1967) A First Approach to Economics, Pitman.

[2] Balchin, W.G.V. (1981) Concern for Geography, Department of Geography Swansea. This collection was compiled after his retirement.

[3] Cousens, S.H. (1964) The regional variations in population change in Ireland 1861 to 1881, Economic History Review, 301-321.

[4] Owen, T.R. (1974) The Upper Palaeozoic Rocks of Wales, University of Wales Press, Cardiff. Dickie Owen was much admired as a teacher, writer and field worker.

[5] Isaac, I. (1956) Some soil factors affecting verticillium wilt of antirrhinum, Annals of Applied Biology, 44, 105-112. This is one citation but Ivor was a frequent publisher in the Annals of Applied Biology.

[6] Humphrys, G. (1972) South Wales: An Industrial Geography, David and Charles, Newton Abbot.

[7] Hilton, K.J. editor (1967) The Lower Swansea Valley Project, Swansea.

[8] Beardmore, J.A. with others (2005) Population structure of the Atlantic salmon, Journal of Fish Biology, 67, 3-54.

[9] Herbert, D.T. (1972) Urban Geography: A Social Perspective, David and Charles, Newton Abbot.

David Herbert is Emeritus Professor of Geography and Pro Vice Chancellor at Swansea University. A graduate of the university, he studied for Ph.D at Birmingham University, was awarded a D.Litt in 1994 and made a Fellow of the Learned Society of Wales in 2015. A native of the Rhondda Valley, he held an academic post at Keele University before coming to Swansea in 1965. His interests are in social geography and he has held visiting posts in several Canadian and American universities.