Heather Binney

Heather Binney trained as a geologist and environmental scientist, specialising in climate change, landscapes and the evolution of peat bogs. She is writing a memoir based upon her family history, incorporating her interests in natural history and geology.







June 1992

The rain had not stopped for three days. The relentless westerly winds were forced up over the Cairngorm mountains and the dark clouds dumped their load with relief. I looked up towards the col, just visible above me, and I tightened the cord of my hood. The weather was testing my new waterproofs. It was so wet that the map had drowned in my pocket, and the fine brown contour lines which hugged the hillside and sculpted the land had dissolved and disappeared. But I knew where I was going. I had studied the map carefully, read the depicted landscape and imagined the terrain, the dip where I would my first deep peat bog.

Over 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age, the glaciers started to retreat, shrinking and ablating, melting and stagnating. They left behind a bare landscape of hummocky moraine, where the meltwater collected in pools and the rain continued to fall. Nature abhors a barren landscape. The environmental vacuum left by the glaciers were quickly filled with pioneer plants and animals. Sphagnum mosses, the building blocks of peat, thrived on this new land and the reason was simple: rain and a lot of it.

Peat bogs are a record of life and death. The mosses that make up the bogs regenerate continuously, the young Sphagnum plants grow on top of their elders. Each year, another few millimetres of peat are formed, made up of dead mosses and sedge, which traps the pollen that drifts in the breeze from surrounding plants. Trees such as the silver birch, dwarf willow and Scots pine, established themselves on the drier ground adjacent to the bogs. As the bog grew, it spread outwards, blanketing the landscape and any trees that risked this marginal land.

As I headed up towards the col that wet day I was map reading from memory. I had the hope and enthusiasm of youth on my side. I was inexperienced and was yet to feel the disappointment of days in the field looking for that illusive sampling site. The one bog, at the ideal altitude, that would provide the evidence of the vegetation history of the entire valley from the last ice age to the present. I was confident I would find it that day, and with that confidence came success.

As I reached the col, the clouds descended, obscuring the bog, adding to the tension. I could see occasional hags looming out of the mist, the large overhangs of peat appeared to crowd in on me. But it was exciting, I felt alone, nobody knew where I was, I had no map and I couldn’t see beyond the col. The mountains rose up above me silently, their presence invisible. I walked towards one of the hags, and studied the eroded peat face which had been cut in to by the aggressive wind and rain.

I took a spade and dug back into the peat, creating a freshly exposed section, exposing the subsurface structure. The colours of newly dug peat disappear quickly. I sketched the section, noting the thickness of the alternating light and dark bands. The fresh peat looked like soggy tobacco, made up of sedge and Sphagnum. The darker peat, indicative of warmer conditions, formed when the structure of the bog vegetation broke down to an amorphous state. I noted, also, the presence and location of fossil tree stumps, swamped and buried by the bog thousands of years previously, beautifully preserved, the orange bark of the Scots pine still visible.

I dug down to the very base of the peat and as my spade scraped through the gravel I found a twig. I had seen such twigs before, but this was one was special. The papery silver bark was so fresh, as if it had just fallen from a nearby tree. But this twig, buried under three metres of peat, was almost 10,000 years old and I was the first person to see it. Peat bogs grow so slowly that my entire life was represented by less than one centimetre of peat. The death of my geography teacher, studying geology at Manchester, secretarial school, Africa and Central America and finally starting my PhD – all in a slice of peat less than the length of my finger nail. I felt honoured to be sampling this bog, nobody else had done it before me. The twig proved it.




September 1983

When I left school, the only person I knew who had gone to university was my stepmother. She had read something at Girton College, Cambridge, an academic achievement on a par with discovering a cure for cancer. Oxbridge, with its seventh term entrance exam, and an interview requiring an intelligent conversation excluded everyone at my school, it was a non-starter.

I knew what interested me though – landscapes and how they were formed. I was inspired by a brilliant geography teacher, Miss Tate, who brought the subject to life with tales of the mighty tectonic forces had shaped the British landscape, even Surrey. When I was fourteen, my inspirational teacher was killed by another force: gravity. She had taken a group of older students to Lulworth Cove in Dorset and was pointing out the finer details of the Hard Cockle Overhang when it collapsed, burying her and two students. It was a devastating accident, a cruel twist of geological fate, which drove me to study the subject with a renewed passion

When I told my stepfather that I wanted to study Geography at King’s College London, he seemed disappointed, almost angry. He told me that geographers end up with a career in town planning and advised I study geology instead. “It’s more solid and you can work in the oil sector,” he said. I pictured the black sticky oil which spilled from tankers and covered diving birds and pebble beaches. “And don’t stay in London,” he added “go north. Manchester is a fine city.” The alternative, apparently, was secretarial college.

It was a disappointing three years in Manchester. The grey weather contained the city, making escape difficult, despite the Pennine hills on the horizon. And the geology courses seemed detached from the landscapes that inspired me. Instead, we studied the chemistry of mineralogy, the physics of orogeny’s, and looked at triangular graphs of rock composition. It was an academic mystery. There was a compulsory unit of metallurgy, which we shared with some chemists from the floor below. There was an unnaturally large contingent of heavy rockers within the chemistry department, I don’t know what came first. The students wore dark, grimy jeans with beer branded towels sown onto their bottoms. It was difficult to concentrate on the atomic structure of a ferrous alloy with the towelled arse of a heavy metal fan on the laboratory bench in front of me.

There were aspects of the geology course I enjoyed. The softer sediments, like sandstone, which tended to escape the three-dimensional complexity of tectonic distortion. I also enjoyed the practicals in the palaeontology lab, where we chose a group of related fossils to draw and describe. It was a peaceful way to spend the afternoon and the form of a gastropod’s orifice was oddly engaging.

When I approached the end of my degree, however, I realised there was a problem. In the early 1980’s, the world of opportunities for geology graduates was restricted to the men. Women were not allowed underground or off-shore so a career in the oil sector was suddenly not an option. Discrimination was not a factor in the world of town planning, I noted. I returned to the family home in London, with a lower second class degree in a subject I felt I hadn’t really understood and which rejected me because of my sex, orifices and all.

One condition of moving back home after university was that I had to get a job. As I was female, and a career in geology was a non-starter, my parents suggested I go to secretarial college. As my sisters had done before me, but without the delay of university. They had money and boyfriends, I had neither.

“You will always be able to work as a secretary, Heather. They are crying out for them, you only have to look in The Times,” said my mother.

The clouds which had followed me to London pressed down a little harder. I could almost hear them creaking.

In September, after a summer of looking for acceptable alternatives, I finally enrolled at a smart secretarial school in Oxford Street. “Speedwriting College” ran a rolling series of courses for “young ladies” who wanted to become short-hand typists. Every Monday a new batch started and when you reached the magic threshold of taking dictation at 100 words per minute and typing at 60 miles an hour you were released into the real secretarial world. The emphasis was on speed – qualify quickly, get a job, meet a man, get married, leave the job and have children. Apparently, it was that simple, according to the glossy brochure.

As now, I cycled everywhere in London. My route to the school took me from Chelsea via Hyde Park and up to Oxford Street. Frustrated and angry at my situation, I peddled like fury, listening to U2 and The Pretenders at full volume on my Sony Walkman. I didn’t care if I got hit by a bus or run down by a car and I screamed along to the lyrics. I hated training for something I didn’t want to do and yet I was not strong enough to ask if there was an alternative.

Whatever the next stage might be, I wanted to leave secretarial school as soon as possible, so I worked hard. Writing at speed, typing at speed, enhanced by amphetamines my friend Lucy gave me. The naughty one, the friend who would eventually encourage me to go to Kenya. Speed, or ‘Poor Man’s Coke’ as we called it, was a poisonous powder usually cut with bleach. But it made the office tasks seem almost interesting and I enjoyed the fact that this illicit stimulant was helping me to be a better secretary. However, my shorthand was often illegible and I relied on memory about why the customer from Leicester would like to return the box of 100 ball point pens. In the school’s pretend tying pool, I adopted the acceptable secretarial form. I adjusted my chair to the correct height, pumping the handle under the seat, raising and lowering myself in a series of judders, to the point where my back was straight and my hands were level with the keys. I placed a sheet of flimsy carbon copy between two pieces of white ‘bond’ and fed them into the typewriter, snapping the ruled guide which trapped the pages together. I then rolled the barrel until the paper was an exact number of lines below the top edge. Precision was key, nobody likes to receive a letter that starts lower down than it should. The white space was important. The typewriter was then primed and ready, waiting for an address, a date and some text. And then I was off, transcribing my crazy short-hand scribbles, tapping away, my fingers dancing over the keyboard like the concert pianist I once dreamt of being (but changed my mind after one lesson). I enjoyed the pleasing ding at the end of each line reminding me to ‘carriage return’ and I pretended to believe that it was fun. I often made mistakes. My fingers jammed between the keys, producing a blurred mixture of letters on the paper. The white Tipex correction fluid smelt like it should be intoxicating and the chemical fumes seared my nostrils. It was good to make mistakes sometimes.

After six weeks, when I reached the required speeds, I was released into the world of unlimited employment opportunities that secretarial training could offer. I cannot remember anything about the choice of job selection, I was steered by my mother through the dense columns of The Times advertisements.

“How about this, Heather?” my mother said over breakfast one morning. She pushed the newspaper towards me, pointing at yet another advertisement. The first two words were in capital letters, “OFFICE SECRETARY” as if this was sufficient attraction.

“I DON’T WANT TO BE A SECRETARY,” I wanted to say, but did not dare. Life was about work, paying your way.

After breakfast, I sat in a cupboard which served as my mother’s office and typed up application letters. My selection was based on geography – I had to be able to cycle to work. I could not face the thought of commuting by the tube, being pressed up against strangers in suits and their blank stares.

I was surprised when The Architects’ Journal invited me for an interview. I hadn’t put much effort in the letter and mentioned no interests in buildings, but I went along to their office in Westminster at the appointed time. I was met by a woman wearing high heels, slim fitted black trousers and a white silk blouse that had little red lips printed all over it. As I followed her up the wide carpeted stairs, I felt dowdy, like I had crawled out a C&A catalogue.

It was a short interview; Personnel established that I could type and take short-hand but did not ask why I wanted the job. I had an even shorter meeting with a Mr Llewellyn, the office manager. He dressed like an architect (although he wasn’t one) and wore a tweed jacket, dark green corduroy trousers and large, round, tortoise shell glasses.

“So, Heather, I see you live in Chelsea? There are some lovely examples of Georgian houses in that area, fine proportions.”

I didn’t tell him I lived in a new apartment block. He read through my CV and the covering letter.

“Do you have any hobbies?” he asked, not looking up from the page.

“I quite like cycling.”

He paused, re-aligned an array of fountain pens on his desk, and looked up. “Splendid,” he said, “When can you start? Next week?” I nodded, it seemed rude not to. “See you on Monday then! Good, good, good. Miss Clark will show you out”.

On the following Monday, after a weekend of dread, I locked up my bicycle and made my way up the fossil-bearing steps (Portland Stone) to my new office. I introduced myself to the receptionist who responded by asking me whether it was my bicycle on the railings outside. ‘The railings are part of the façade, your bicycle is not,’ she said. I felt the noose tighten.

I was shown in to an open plan office full of people looking busy, holding phones to their heads, dictating into machines, scribbling notes and barking orders across the room. I despaired, it was only 9.30 in the morning, how did they manage to do this all day long? My previous jobs had involved tangible tasks, like serving food and washing up. But now I was secretary in an office full of adults doing things. This was it. I sat at my assigned desk and stared at the pale blue notice board in front of me. It had an array of abandoned drawing pins with little pieces of torn paper trapped beneath them – evidence that somebody had been there before me. Where had my predecessor gone? Secretarial heaven? Marriage and babies? As I removed the clammy rubberised cover from the electric typewriter Mr Llewellyn called me over to his office.

He sat down behind his heavy mahogany desk, leant back in his chair and placed his hands behind his head.

“Welcome to the AJ, Heather, it’s a fun place to work. We’re a friendly bunch and you’ll like the other girls. It gets very busy so you’ll need to learn the ropes fairly quickly.” Speed, speed, speed. “What else, oh yes, we all go to the basement at 11am for coffee. Well, having said that, you will need to stay up here and man the phones. Now, one of your most important jobs will be to make sure the glass on the photocopier is kept spotlessly clean at all times. So, I’ll let you get on. If you just could copy these for me,” he said as he handed over a pile of cuttings.

I spent the day photocopying, running errands, getting coffee, nipping back to the photocopier to check for any smears, and listening to one half of the telephone conversations that advanced the next edition of the Architect’s Journal towards publication. I discovered that I could sit on the lavatory for ten minutes at a time without anyone noticing my absence.

The day eventually ended, I was set free at 5.30pm and cycled home slowly. After one day, I was already exhausted, as if I had been there for months. The prospect of more of the same, every day, every week, year after year, weighed me down. The force of gravity felt stronger than usual, it was pulling me to the centre of the earth, slowing me towards inertia.

I let myself in the front door and hung my coat in the hall. I walked into the living room where my mother was knitting something long that was piling up at her feet. The dog lay next to her, her black fur indistinguishable from the wool. My mother’s needles paused their clicking and she and looked up at me.

“How did you get on darling? Have you made some nice new friends?”

“Not yet. I have to keep the photocopier clean. Can I have a sherry? Now that I go to work?”

“Oh. Just a small one then. Charmian’s upstairs getting ready to go out.”

I resented my younger sister’s slim body and long legs, and all the young men that phoned her and took her out in the evenings. I re-adjusted my plain brown office skirt, pulling at the elasticated waist band which seemed to want to cut me off at the middle. Like an articulated ant. I was an articulated secretary.

The next day I set off to work on my bicycle, wearing the same brown skirt tucked into my knickers so that it wouldn’t get caught in the back wheel. It took a lot of effort to pedal, as if the brakes were on. At the end of the road I slowed to a halt and rested my foot on the kerb. I hung my head and stared down into the gutter. It had rained heavily a few days before, and the high water was marked by a strand line of leaves and debris. The fine sand and silt had been washed away but the grit and gravel had been sorted into braided channels. Fluvial deposits in a man-made mini-river.

I was reminded of my sedimentology lecturer at university and his enthusiasm for all things deposited. And buried. Fossil plants and animals, both microscopic and visible, evidence of past lives and events.

The kerb under my foot felt reassuringly solid. A slab of granite with phenocrysts of feldspar and quartz. The slow cooling of the igneous magma at great depths in the earth’s core had encouraged the growth of these large crystals. Granite: coarse grained in nature and named after the Latin word ‘granum’, a grain. Kerbs are usually made from hard igneous rocks, they need to be tough and resistant to erosion. Pavements also need to be hard wearing but they have to be easily split into flags. The paving slabs in Chelsea were made from York Stone, a sandstone formed 300 million years ago during the late Carboniferous period. The sand grains indicated it was deposited in a moving water, a wide stream perhaps, or in a shallow sea.

I hadn’t realised that a gutter and pavement could be so interesting and that I knew so much. I looked up at the bits of blue sky between the slow-moving clouds.

All around me the commuters filed past, making their way to their offices, mimicking the relentless procession of clouds heading towards Scandinavia. Never questioning.

I hadn’t planned what I did next, it was a sudden subconscious impulse. I pushed down on the pedal and cycled towards the end of the road. At the junction, I held out my arm to indicate that I was turning right but instead I turned left. I crossed the King’s Road, went up Sloane Avenue, past my doctor’s surgery and on to South Kensington. I waited patiently at the traffic lights and when they turned green I started on the slight incline that marks the beginning of Exhibition Road. The ground steepened, as I knew it would; I was cycling up one of the old river terraces formed by the Thames during the Pleistocene. This terrace was composed of Taplow Gravels, the same gravels that were pulverised by the Anglian Ice Sheet. They were ground together and rounded by the glacial meltwaters and redeposited over 380,000 years ago. It was still cold then, even though the ice age had ended; it was a time when the proto-Thames river was starting out in life and was full of youthful enthusiasm, reworking the gravels, and depositing its flood terraces. The geological timescale seemed relatively short in comparison to one day in the office. I thought of the gutter I had just left.

I locked my bicycle to a lamp-post and walked up to the main entrance. For the first time, after many visits, I noticed the sign above the large wooden doors – “Geological Survey and Museum” and underneath, “AD 1933”. The same year my mother was born. I felt a flash of guilt.

There is something comforting about museums, especially during term time when the children are at school. That day I needed to be somewhere familiar, I wanted some order in the chaos that my uncharacteristic rebellious action had caused. I went upstairs to the palaeontology section. I enjoyed walking into the galleries and seeing the row upon row of brown wooden cabinets containing the fossils arranged in groups, in taxonomic order – class, family, genus and species. Each fossil was carefully labelled, assigned a binomial classification, and the location where it was found. Some fossils had a ‘T’ next to them, indicating they were Type specimens, the most important of the collection. Each of these Type fossils were the first to be identified as a new species and the one that the rest of the world would always refer to.

The first gallery I went in to that morning, Palaeontology II, contained fossil bivalves from the Cambrian, a period over 500 million years ago. This was a time of an explosion in evolution when there was a huge rise in the number of plant and animal species over a relatively short period. It must have been an exciting time to have been a bivalve.

I was disappointed to see that there were two other people in the gallery. They were walking at speed through the aisles, pausing briefly to look into the cabinets, and moving quickly on. The man looked over to his wife and said, “Oh, this is boring, it’s just stones!” and they walked out.

I had the room to myself and continued my slow browse. At one cabinet, I stopped and cleaned the glass with my sleeve and thought of the photocopier at the office. I wondered whether they’d noticed I wasn’t there yet?

I spent an hour just looking at the different shapes and sizes of the shells and enjoyed the familiarity of some of the names, saying them aloud to myself. I read the label next to one specimen, it was written in brown fading ink but still legible: “Carbonicola binneyi. Wright.”

Binneyi!” I said out loud.

I had become a fossil and part of the taxonomic hierarchy.

Phylum – mollusca

Class – bivalvia (Linné, 1758)

Family – anthracosiidae (Amalitsky, 1892)

Genus – carbonicola

Species – Carbonicola binneyi (Wright)

This fossil had been named after somebody called ‘Binney’. Taxonomic etiquette says it is bad form to name a species after yourself so somebody else must have named the fossil after this Binney. A coincidence, no doubt, there are a lot of Binneys, but surely worth finding out about, maybe we were related? That day was turning into a pleasant geological excursion, it felt like a reverie and I hardly thought about the office at all.

This Carbonicola binneyi, the label informed me, had been found in the Coal Measures from a mine near Bolton. It was from the Carboniferous Period, a time when Britain was covered by tropical rain forests and swamps. The fossil looked like a mussel. It was embedded in a rusty mudstone but the fine annual growth bands could be seen clearly on the convex shell. This freshwater bivalve had lived over 300 million years ago in the mud of a river long since erased by tectonic forces. This animal, barely 6cm long must have spent its life siphoning out the nutrients from the sediment, pushing its way through the mud in the vain hope of meeting another bivalve of the same species with which to reproduce. And it ended up in the Geology Museum in Exhibition Road and I was looking at it.

I spent the next three days in the Museum working my way along the aisles, in awe of the time and energy it must have taken to find the specimens. Some had been collected from distant parts of the world in the 19th Century by scientists and explorers who were away from home for years at a time. They had travelled into new territories, discovered new animals and plants, explored and interpreted geological landscapes and crammed earth’s history into a postdiluvian timescale. Of course, they were all men, the women were at home and I should have been in the office.

Each evening, when the museum closed, I returned home for a sherry and to report on the state of the photocopier. I felt guilty about the lies but not as bad as I had felt at the office. By Friday I had had time to think and had made a decision.

As I let myself through the front door I could hear my parents talking. I walked into the living room to say hello. This was my stepfather’s favourite time of the day; he had taken off his tie and had a large tumbler of whisky in his hand, relaxing after a week of moving vast quantities of money around the world.

This was their “quiet time” but I had to speak, to articulate my plans. I pulled at my skirt, twisting it round so that the seam was where it should be.

“Hello darling, are you tired after your first week?” asked my mother but with little interest.

I stood before them, flushing, I was hot after cycling home and aware of what I was about to say.

“Take your coat off,” said my mother. “And go and get yourself a —”.

“I left that job,” I interrupted, “I hated it and so I didn’t go back on Tuesday.” I said.

“What! You left, you can’t just walk out like that!” shouted my stepfather. His face was reddening and his neck thickening.

“Oh, how could you, Heather! After all that effort of getting you a job. Where have you been all week?”, said my mother.

I didn’t want to tell them, it was my secret.

“Look, I’m sure they’d take you back, I could have a word with them. I’ll explain that you’re not used to being in an office. Charmian has managed it and she has a boyfriend,” she reasoned.

“I’m not going back to that office and I don’t want to be a secretary. Not full time anyway,” I said. My stepfather went up another collar size. “I’ll do temp work.” I took a deep breath, “I want to travel, to see places. I’ll save up.” My sentences became shorter but it made sense. To me.

Nine months later I was on the back of a truck, bumping along Kenya’s rift valley. I was part of the landscape, near the origin of mankind, happy about the break-up of the African continental plate. And I had a boyfriend.