From Tregaron to Tierra del Fuego – the global reach of Aberystwyth Geography and Earth Sciences

From Tregaron to Tierra del Fuego – the global reach of Aberystwyth Geography and Earth Sciences

One hundred years ago this summer, the then University College of Wales admitted the first students to its new degree scheme in Geography. The students were amongst the very first in Britain to study Geography as a degree, only Glasgow and Liverpool universities having offered the subject before Aberystwyth. Among their number was the poet Iorwerth Peate, whose
later involvement in establishing the St Fagan’s Folk Museum reflected the enduring influence of Aberystwyth’s founding Professor of Geography, H.J. Fleure, a polymath whose interests ranged across human and physical geography, anthropology, archaeology and zoology.

Over the subsequent century, Aberystwyth Geography grew to become one of the largest geography departments in Britain, moving as it expanded to properties in Alexandra Road and Marine Terrace and finally to the purpose-build Llandinam Building on the Penglais campus in 1965. As well as maintaining the balance between human geography and physical geography, the department forged new connections, merging with the equally distinguished Department of Geology (established in 1910) in 1988, and introducing new degrees in Environmental Science and Environmental Earth Science.

The influence of the department on geography teaching and research in both schools and universities can be found around the world. For several years in the 1920s it was the headquarters of the Geographical Association, marking a commitment to geography in schools that persists in current A-Level Enrichment Events delivered by our staff in schools around the country, and which has produced generations of geography teachers from our graduates.
Similarly, the department has been a noted training ground for academic geographers, and graduates can today be found working as lecturers and professors in universities from California to China, and from New South Wales to South Africa.

The global reach and influence of Aberystwyth Geography can also be traced in its research. Professor Fleure was one of many to appreciate that Aberystwyth sits in the midst of a first-rate geographical research field in Wales, pursuing his interest in the relationship between environment and culture in a now notorious study that involved measuring the skull sizes of residents of Tregaron in a somewhat misguided effort to investigate geographical differences in physical attributes. Fleure’s research may have been discredited, but the concern with regional cultures was continued by his successor, Darryl Forde, forming the world-renowned ‘Aberystwyth School’ of cultural geography. Later human geographers forged international reputations for historical geography and urban geography, whilst physical geography developed globally influential strengths in geomorphology and biogeography, with both groups extending out beyond Wales to fieldwork in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

By the start of the twenty-first century, research by Aberystwyth geographers was taking place on every continent of the Earth: glaciologists monitoring glaciers and ice sheets in sites from Greenland to Antarctica and the Himalaya to Tierra del Fuego; Quaternary scientists uncovering evidence of past environmental change in Ethiopian lake beds; geomorphologists and fluvial scientists studying rivers and drylands from Kazakhstan to the Kalahari; human geographers examining case studies as far flung as Brazil and China, New Zealand and Detroit. Back in Aberystwyth, the Luminescence Research Laboratory and the Earth Observation and Ecosystem Dynamics Laboratory are at the cutting-edge of analysis in their fields, equipped with the latest technology. 

This research is not only shaping scientific debates on topics from climate change to globalisation, it also has real practical impacts. Aberystwyth geographers produced the science behind the ‘Blue Flag’ awards for beach water quality and helped to make stunning BBC programmes such as Frozen Planet and Operation Iceberg. Nor have we forgotten our home area, and the special place that uni//prifysgol Aberystwyth Geography has occupied in the intellectual life of Wales. There are many in older generations who fondly remember Professor E.G. Bowen trundling around the country in his distinctive yellow Mini (which he never took out of second gear) to deliver public lectures on the cultural and historical geography of Wales. That commitment to local outreach is continued today, whether by applying our expertise in flooding and pollution to examine the effects of flash floods in northern Ceredigion in 2012 and future mitigation measures, or working with local organisations to promote behaviour change for sustainable living, or uncovering Wales’s rich coastal heritage, or studying the geography of the Welsh language, or contributing to planning for economic development in Mid Wales. 

The department has been celebrating the Centenary throughout the 2017-18 academic year, starting with the opening of our refurbished Centenary teaching laboratory, and culminating in a celebration weekend and alumni reunion at the end of June. As much as looking back, the Centenary have highlighted the current work of the department and its excellent teaching and student experience, setting the course for the next one hundred years of Geography and Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth.