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Assistant Lecturer at Exeter

1 October 1953

1 August 1953 – November 1956

In the absence of any existing diaries, here we use extracts from Mary’s various writings and photographs to tell what we can of her time as an Assistant lecturer at Exeter University and her holidays at home and abroad.

Mary writes: At Exeter University, at the beginning of each term, we paraded through town in our gowns, me in my scarlet and gold Welsh science doctorate and mortar board. This seems archaic now and has died out in Britain….

At Exeter, Mary worked at the Hatherly Biological Laboratories. The laboratories, newly opened on 23 April 1953, housed the University College of the South West of England’s departments of Botany, Geology and Zoology. During her years at the labs, Mary was researching the plant Plantago coronopus (Buck’s-horn plantain), apparently, in preparation for a paper on the germinating capacity of this plant under different conditions, using seed sourced from the islands of Skokholm, Grassholm and Lundy. The archive contains her research into previous scientific publications, the measurements from her own propagation efforts, as well as correspondence with botanists at other British universities. She was also researching and experimenting with diverse species of coastal plant species sourced from such locations as Dawlish Warren.

4 – 22 September 1954
From Mary’s 2007 publication A Naturalist on Lundy: 

My first posting in the early 1950s was in the Botany Department at the University of Exeter in South Devon so my island allegiance immediately turned to Lundy. Thus it was that I found myself on the slow north-bound train from Exeter, island bound, on 4th September 1954 ...

Myxomatosis had just made its first appearance among Britain’s rabbits and had reached the spreading sand dunes of Braunton Burrows on the adjacent mainland. There should be some spectacular changes in the plant life if the great army currently finding a living there was to be wiped out. I wanted to be in at the beginning to record changes so needed to leave the train at Barnstaple, trysting place of Lundy’s erstwhile swashbucklers and mariners, to arrange lodgings for where I came off Lundy in due course ...

The little craft I climbed into [a little two-seater Auster plane, at the Civil airport] was like an oven, the sun beating on the Perspex roof and walls of the fuselage. I was sandwiched between the door and the pilot …

Lundy was only twenty two miles away as the crow flies, but we were not flying as the crow. Little Austers were not licensed to carry passengers over wide expanses of ocean in case they came down … Our forty mile journey was achieved at an average cruising speed of a hundred mph and a height of one to two thousand feet.

It was a novel experience for me. Land Army days in the Home Counties had been a matter of watching the laden German bombers and nippier British fighters dicing with death overhead as I brought in the dairy herd for milking, with neither the desire nor the opportunity to get airborne myself …

During the approach flight and the reconnaissance over a possie of startled ponies, I saw more of Lundy in one fulsome gulp than I was to experience during the next fifteen days afoot. We passed over the cliff edge, heaving giddily in the turbulence. “It’ll be a rough landing. Get ready to hold tight.”

We circled over the sea again and the four hundred foot cliff face loomed directly ahead, so that it seemed impossible to miss it, but we zipped up in the rising air stream at the last minute and touched down quite near the edge. The explanation that followed – that we would have missed the island altogether if we’d come in at ground level and got blown right across – would have been more reassuring if it had come earlier.

During this visit Mary apparently ‘made an interesting comparison of the floras of slate (the Gates) and granite (Brazen Ward) shores; these records are cited from an unpublished manuscript, a copy of which is held in the Plymouth Marine Laboratory.…’

During these years, Mary also had a number of interesting holidays, venturing to the Sussex coast in April 1954, to west Wales in July 1954 and then, the following month to Spain.










1 to 15 August 1954 Holiday in Spain with Jeanne

Mary ventured by train through France to Barcelona and then on, by plane and ferry around the Balearic and Pithyusae Isles, with her long-time friend Jeanne Batchelor (Mary’s map below shows their route).

The holiday was not without its travel issues as Mary writes:
We were to learn to our cost more of the Spanish laxity and belief in the maxim of there being ‘another day tomorrow’ or, more probably, the day after, but we failed to accept their attitude with equanimity.

From the Barcelona travel agency denying any knowledge of the steamer tickets Mary and Jeanne had booked four months to getting on the wrong tour bus on Mallorca, it was a holiday with many frustrations.

But the women took these hiccups in their stride and made the best of their two weeks, exploring historic buildings, enjoying the delicious variety of local produce, paddling and swimming in the warm Mediterranean waters, marvelling at the stunning island landscapes, admiring the traditional arts and crafts, and, as both women had been Land Girls in the Second World War and studied agriculture at university, exploring aspects of local rural life.

These are some of Mary’s trip photos:

In Barcelona Jeanne and Mary stayed at the Hotel Internacional
The hotel was situated on the main promenade or Rambla des Flores where the better part of the city aired itself between the plane trees and flower stalls which lined the broad central boulevard. The photo above shows Mary outside the hotel.

Here we have Jeanne Batchelor watching:
Woman (with many skirts) planting potatoes; men opening furrows 2 at a time to let in irrigation waters. Sweet potatoes, maize and orange trees in background, prickly pear left. San Antonio village.

This is Mary standing:
On a threshing floor where grain is separated from straw by the treading of blindfolded mules, Ibiza.

25 February 1956
Mary presented a ‘Popular island lecture’ to the University Field Club, discussing the islands of south Pembrokeshire and their plants.

Whit Tuesday 1956
Mary gave a lecture at the Maynard School for Girls in Exeter on island life (including such topics as grazing, treading, burrowing, manuring and seed distribution by gulls).

We don’t know much about Mary’s decision to leave Britain at the end of 1956 and head south to the Antipodes, where she spent the following five years, working in and exploring New Zealand, Australia and parts of Africa. But we do have her diaries and many photographs from those years so head to the next stage of our Timeline to read more about her amazing adventures …