04 April 2016

Wherever I turn, there’s Mary

Dr Mary Gillham was an extraordinary naturalist. When she died in 2013, at the grand age of 91, she left her massive archive of biological sightings and information, slides and diaries to SEWBReC, the South East Wales Biodiversity Records Centre. With the help of a two-year Heritage Lottery grant, SEWBReC has begun the ‘Dedicated Naturalist’ Project to decipher, digitise and record Mary’s material, and to ensure her incredible achievements are known and recognised.

Since I first heard about Mary Gillham at a SEWBReC biological recorders’ training course on 15 February 2016, she seems to pop up wherever I go.

That's Al in the centre of this photo, wearing the black beanie
The Thursday after the course I went and chatted to Al Reeve, the project officer, about volunteering on the project, and I started my first day’s volunteer work on the 23rd. But, even before I got started, Mary began appearing in my life. I mentioned the voluntary work in an email to a friend and he replied:

Dr.Mary was a lovely character, amazingly knowledgeable. When I first started working at Forest Farm, she gave me a lot of advice about the area around the farmhouse; and about what species were rare in the general area (so what we might want to plant/seed "out and about"). Would pop in and chat to volunteers from time to time about matters wildlifery. Top woman, ever so helpful.

On my first day I was reading Mary’s diary of her time in New Zealand and almost immediately came across the name of an author I had worked with during my publishing career in Auckland. I contacted her to see what she could remember of Mary and this was her response:

… I do remember she did pretty well out of Massey and New Zealand. She got herself appointed warden (Matron we said then) at Moginie – free board and lodging – but she didn’t mean to be there too much – she was away on the Cook St islands as much as possible researching the effects of seabirds on coastal vegetation or something.

Coltsfoot re-wilding the paths at Cardiff Bay

When I’m out walking I seem to find myself involuntarily walking in Mary’s footsteps. On a glorious spring day in mid March I went for a wander around Cardiff Bay and found myself thinking Mary would be delighted to see that wildflowers are re-wilding the man-made paths of gravels and concrete where her records show wildflowers once grew in abundance. On Good Friday I was walking the Taff Trail, the section from the Castle Street bridge down to the bay, and couldn’t help but check if the plants I had been transcribing from Mary’s records the previous Tuesday were still growing there. (They weren’t.)

Danish scurvygrass dominates the Taff embankment - not one Mary recorded
Last Saturday I went on a foray with my friends from the Glamorgan Fungi Club and there she was again. One of the women is a member of the Cardiff Naturalists Club (as was Mary) and was involved in sorting out all the unsold copies of Mary’s numerous publications after she passed away.

Mary Gillham in her later years
Our fungi club leader also told me that his mate Brian had been telling him stories about Mary recently over a pint or two at their local pub. It seems Brian had sometimes acted as Mary’s scribe when they were out walking and frequently got told off for not paying attention or not writing quickly enough.

And just yesterday I got this email from a local friend:

Mary Gillham is a name from the past!

When we moved to Cardiff I took courses at what was then the extra-mural department of the university, particularly picking out those with field courses. It seemed a good way to get to know the area - and it was. Geology was the best, led by John Perkins, who was also head of department. His field trips were in the summer, but he also led an informal group of walkers (the Hummocky Drifters) in the winter "so that they could get fit for the formal summer trips" ... and the winter rambles were free!

I can't claim to have known Mary, but she did come on some of John's field trips, because they often went to locations where the botany was good, too. I remember one occasion when John chided Mary, when the botany talks took up precious time meant for geology. But it was all good natured, as everyone enjoyed a wide range of interests and the social atmosphere was as important as the subject.

Mary, if you’re listening, I think this is just the beginning of a long journey together!

You can follow our progress with this project on Facebook and on Twitter. A website will follow soon.

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