With Geography Awareness Week coming up, 17-23 November, and with a programme of events planned by Departments and also by the Geographical Society of Ireland (including a photo competition), I thought it might be worth thinking a bit about our own Geography teachers. So, in the hope that it might encourage others to join in with reflections upon, and expressions of gratitude to, their own favourite Geography teacher, let me tell you about Gwyn Bennett, for decades the Head of Geography at Cardinal Newman School, Luton. Mr. Bennett (never Gwyn to us I am afraid) was a man with a passion for geomorphology.
We went on a field trip to Wales with him. Travelling from Luton [just north of London], across lowland England into the mountains of South Wales left me with three really strong impressions. First, under my feet were rocks, and bedding planes, and evidence of a restless and heaving earth. I became fascinated with orogeny and continental drift. Second, Gwyn drew great sketch maps of the towns through which we passed and I became fascinated with town plans as an aspect of history – how did this town start, how is it changing? Finally, Gwyn, with his Bobby Charlton comb-over and his squat rotundity was a great figure in the field. We would get up some hill and his hair would trail away from him like a wind-sock at an airport. He would temporarily attach it behind his ear. He would then wriggle into the waistband of his trousers – Michael Carrol in my class said it was like watching someone try to put an inflated balloon into a sock. Then, he would start pointing at things in the landscape and we would learn to read the landscape through his eyes. In the valleys of South Wales he shared his pride in the mining communities and gave us a hint of what it meant to be a boy from the valleys descending on the Babylon that was Aberystwyth to the university student.
He communicated to me a very powerful sense of place. Of course, when we discovered that his hometown of Tredegar was in Monmouth and that this county had been transferred from Wales to England under some local government reform or other, we were merciless – “Excuse me sir, is Tredegar an English town?” “Don’t be silly boy, can the English sing? Can the English play rugby?” He of course could do both but although he promised that one day he would treat us to his favourite rugby songs, we never seemed to be yet old enough. Now of course we are but alas Gwyn Bennett died a year or two ago and I never heard him in full voice, lubricated with a pint of his favourite.
Wonderful geographer, inspirational teacher, great man. Thank you Gwyn.