There is no red carpet, no statuette and no large cash prize for Geography. There is, however, a Gold Founders Medal. Just one is awarded each year and last year, Professor Heather Viles, former head of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment, won it. It is a seriously big deal.
Given since 1832, originally as a gift by William IV, it is approved by the Monarch for geographical science and discovery. Past recipients have included dozens of military men and gentlemen explorers as well as luminaries such as David Livingstone and Gertrude Bell. Eighteen months ago, Oxford’s Professor Viles, was surprised by a call to say she had been awarded the Medal for 2020 - for establishing the field of biogeomorphology (of which more later).
The list is extremely short of women who have received the award, for this formerly male-dominated discipline. The first, in 1860, was given to Lady Franklin, for efforts to establish the fate of her husband. It was 58 years before another woman received the medal (Ms Bell).
Professor Viles is only the seventh woman in 189 years to join this very short, elite list [of Gold Medal winners], having devoted a working lifetime to Geography...The seven include Robert Falcon Scott’s widow, who did not actually receive a medal, but got an inscribed casket
Professor Viles is only the seventh woman in 189 years to join this very short, elite list, having devoted a working lifetime to Geography, established a new field and advised governments and institutions on conservation. (The seven include Robert Falcon Scott’s widow, who did not actually receive one, but got an inscribed casket).
Since the award was made during lockdown, there has been no glittering ceremony and Professor Viles has not actually received her Medal, although she has been told her name is ‘up in gold’ in the Royal Geographical Society in London.
She admits to being thrilled by the honour, although she laughs at her subsequent realisation that her husband, also an academic, received the Founders Medal nearly 30 years ago. Geographers are a modest bunch, however, and she brushes aside with more laughter the very notion that they are Geography’s power couple.
But, although the awards ceremony is still to come, the prize has been accompanied by some glitz, on 22 May last year, Professor Viles was interviewed on Woman’s Hour by Jenni Murray.
‘It was really terrifying,’ she laughs again. ‘Particularly because it was the Jenni Murray.’
In the event, listeners found, the Jenni Murray extremely impressed by the Heather Viles and she used the interview (21 minutes in) to find out, among other things, what biogeomorphology is.
‘Biogeomorphology looks at how plants and animals make a difference to landscapes. It’s very exciting really...all I’ve really done is bring it all together,’ Professor Viles modestly told Ms Murray. Others had been working in the area, but she came up with the words, she says.
As well as detailing her other work around the world and on erosion of historic buildings, such as cathedrals, she talked about the Seychelles and China, and Professor Viles explained how some plants can help protect ruins and historic buildings. She also said some deserts can help us understand Mars - although it is much colder. And she admitted being bitten by a spider in Namibia. In the event, it was Jenni Murray who was impressed.
It was so nearly very different, though. Essex schoolgirl Heather had not known what to do. She liked all subjects at her comprehensive and, initially, hedged her bets by applying to take Law at university and Art at Art School. But her parents had been at Cambridge and her mother had taken Geography. No pressure, then. And in the event, her results were very good, so to her school’s chagrin, she decided to apply seventh term to Cambridge. (You needed to take an Oxbridge exam. You could do this when you were still at school in the first term of the upper sixth, or post-qualifications, in the autumn after leaving).
‘The school wasn’t happy,’ she smiles. ‘Until I got a place.’
She enjoyed Cambridge and Geography, but had hopes of being a radio journalist on leaving, although there was some talk of a job with the MoD.
‘I did not want to work for the MoD,’ she says emphatically. Happily, for Geography, she did so well in her undergraduate exams that her tutor telephoned to give her the results.
‘I didn’t believe it,’ she says, not revealing the marks. ‘So my very sweet father drove to Cambridge, unbeknown to me, to take a picture of the results and he brought it back to show me.’
After Cambridge, Professor Viles got funding to do a doctorate at Oxford and decided to make it something of a holiday – plumping for a field trip to the Seychelles...It was unbelievably exotic for someone who had previously holidayed in Frinton
On the basis of this, she decided to do a doctorate. She got funding to come to Oxford and, she smiles as she admits, she decided to make it something of a holiday – plumping for a field trip to the Seychelles to look at the weathering of limestone. It was unbelievably exotic for someone who had previously holidayed in Frinton. Limestone was to become a major feature in her life, but going to the Indian Ocean was not the experience she expected.
‘I fancied going to the tropics,’ she says. ‘I had been sailing in the Blackwater estuary, with the school, so I thought I could take a boat from the Seychelles to the atoll [where she was going to study the limestone].
‘It was five days across the Indian Ocean from the Seychelles. I was seasick for four and a half of them.’
She spent three months on the island, setting up experiments, to see what was happening to the limestone. There were only about 10 people, all scientists, there. She is highly amused, ‘In the 1970s, you had to be a married woman to go there – married to one of the scientists.’
I had no idea what I was doing...but it really opened my eyes to conservation
The then postgrad was on her own, with little other than a weekly radio communication with the other islands.
‘I had no idea what I was doing...but it really opened my eyes to conservation,’ she says.
Her work with limestone erosion was to help secure her first postgrad job – looking at the impact of acid rain on historic cathedrals, a huge topic of national interest in the 1980s.
‘It was fascinating,’ she laughs. ‘But I made a great career mistake...I got married [three years after her doctorate] and had two children, so people thought I was ‘just a housewife’.’
Now living in Oxford, where her husband worked, with a small grant the then Dr Viles started to do what research she could, while looking after small children. She found a subject all around her: the historic colleges. And she plunged into investigations into Oxford’s ancient constituents. Between 1987 and 1993, she undertook part-time teaching for colleges, then a teaching fellowship at St Catherine’s. Finally, she won a University lecturership and then, in 1996, a Tutorial Fellowship at Worcester College
In those years of early research, though, she coined the phrase, biogeomorphology, in a book she edited in 1988.
‘It set the agenda,’ she says. ‘But it was not only me doing this work...it was a useful focal point for people.
‘Geomorphology explains landscape development, but once you put plants and animals in the mixture, it becomes biogeomorphology.’
She continues, ‘I am interested in what plants and animals do to change landscapes and how landscapes affect animals [this includes buildings]....you can look at flood risk and work with sediment and plants...now flood schemes include plants.’
You can also look at how plants can undermine, or protect, buildings which are built from limestone, for instance.
Conservation and bio-diversity have been part of her work for decades. Professor Viles explains, ‘Rewilding schemes are much more successful if you have thought about the physical landscape – what is successful in the landscape in nature. If it hasn’t worked in nature, it won’t work in rewilding.’
Conservation and bio-diversity have been part of Professor Viles's work for decades...Rewilding schemes are much more successful if you have thought about the physical landscape...If it hasn’t worked in nature, it won’t work in rewilding, she says
Professor Viles’s work increasingly focused on how to protect historic buildings from plants, but she underwent a Pauline moment in 2000. After delivering a talk on how plants damage building materials, an English Heritage researcher told her she was quite wrong: plants can help save buildings.
‘I thought he was completely mad,’ she says. ‘But we set up experiments to see if he was right and whether his mad cap idea of soft capping [where plants are grown on top of historic ruined walls] worked.’
Professor Viles admits, ‘I was completely wrong. He was right. You don’t get as much water inside ruined walls, if they have soft capping...it works really well.’
However, she says, ‘All conservation work only works up to a point, age comes to us all in the end.’
She now runs a research group which specialises in ancient sites, (OxRBL) known as OxRubble – and is delighted that her acronym raises a laugh.
It is very much a multi-disciplinary undertaking, for the girl interested in everything. It includes all those subjects she wanted to study, working with historians, chemists, biologists and physicists. OxRubble researchers collaborate with colleagues all over the world to advise on protecting ancient landscapes and buildings, from silk road sites in China to Ethiopian rock-hewn churches and, closer to home, Worcester College.
There is only so much conservators can do, though, adding that the House of Commons is a travesty – built from magnesium limestone
‘As a material, it has what we call inherent vice. Nothing to do with politicians. It was just a very bad choice of material'
There is only so much conservators can do, though, adding confidentially that the House of Commons is a travesty – built from magnesium limestone. Is that bad?
‘About as bad as it could be,’ she says. ‘That’s why it’s having to be completely redone. It responds really badly to pollution. As a material, it has what we call inherent vice. Nothing to do with politicians. It was just a very bad choice of material.’
Does climate change have an effect on her work?
‘It has a big impact directly and indirectly,’ she admits. ‘Global heating means there is less frost [which is good for old buildings] but the sea level is rising.’
It is now 40 years since the professor came to Oxford and, she worries that the TV programme, Endeavour, currently featuring the 1970s city, will soon start filming her times. Oxford has changed a lot, she says, but some of the issues for women are still the same: childcare, pregnancy, fitting life around work. But, Professor Viles says, there is more sympathy than there used to be, particularly from other women. She recalls quite the opposite from her young days. And it is more flexible.
‘There’s part time work now,’ she says, astonished.
She is wary about being a ‘token’ woman on committees, although she has been a post holder both in the division and the department. Professor Viles declares her time in Oxford has been ‘fantastic’ so far. Although she likes to take work home with her, living amid one of the great limestone landscapes of the south coast. She has no regrets about studying Geography.
Geography, she says, is the ‘foundation of everything’. She has had the opportunity to use her interest in architecture and art, in plants and landscapes.
She has no regrets about studying Geography.
Geography, says Professor Viles, is the ‘foundation of everything’
And during the pandemic, she has given talks all around the world – by Zoom – and indulged her love of painting again. She will even get her Medal soon, laughs Professor Viles, a ceremony is planned. Maybe her husband will be called Heather Viles’s husband, for once, she says, highly entertained at the thought.