I was thrilled to participate in a very special event yesterday - the naming ceremony for the Francis Wall Oliver Research Centre on Blakeney Point.
Blakeney Point is a dynamic spit of shingle and sand dunes on the North Norfolk coast. The National Trust has been involved here for over a hundred years. The Point was acquired for the Trust in 1912, using funding from Charles Rothschild, and at the behest of Professor Francis Wall Oliver of University College London.
Yesterday’s event was a naming ceremony for the building that UCL continues to maintain on the end of Blakeney Point, adjacent to the Trust’s distinctive Lifeboat House. UCL continue to use the building as a field studies research outpost, accommodating students keen to record nature on the BlakeneyPoint National Nature Reserve, just as Professor Oliver did a century ago.
The event was therefore a celebration involving three groups of people in particular: research staff from UCL’s Centre for Biodiversity andEnvironment Research; National Trust staff; and members of the Oliver family, including two of his grandsons, two of his great grandsons, and a great great grandson.
It was a particular treat to see two pictures that were brought along for the occasion: one, an interior painting of the UCL building that was donated to UCL, the other a watercolour by Thomas Matthews Rooke of the National Trust Executive Committee meeting on 15 April 1912 at which the acquisition of Blakeney Point by the Trust was agreed. Shown as present at this meeting were Octavia Hill (though, in fact, she was not there, as she was close to death by this point), and Sir Robert Hunter, Chairman of the National Trust and a UCL graduate himself (he studied logic and moral philosophy there from 1861 to 1865).
It was wonderful hearing recollections of boyhood stays on Blakeney Point from Professor Oliver’s grandsons. It was also illuminating to hear that Professor Oliver moved to Egypt later in his life, and lived near El Alamein throughout the Second World War, continuing to live there even as the famous battle raged around him. He later published one of the first scientific papers on the impact of modern combat on the natural world, analysing the effect of tank treads on the desert landscape. This paper was apparently long neglected, but was much consulted in the aftermath of the first Gulf War.
According to his ODNB entry, Professor Oliver’s sense of humour was “reflected in his Who's Who entry, where he listed his recreations as ‘once mountaineering, now washing up’.”. There was much washing up to be done after yesterday's afternoon tea - thanks to the UCL team for organising such a wonderful event.