Fallow Deer Buck, preparing for the rut. Bolderwood, New Forest.

Yesterday morning I set off early to the New Forest hoping to see deer stags in their annual rut. Plan A was to visit Burley Manor hotel where Red Deer are known to be present. I arrived there shortly after 730am on a very misty morning, walked in the public parts of the hotel grounds but could see none. So, I went with Plan B and headed over to Bolderwood Deer Sanctuary where Fallow Deer are present with a viewing platform, arriving around 815am.

Rather than take more equipment than necessary I thought I’d scout around with my Canon 70D and Sigma 150-600mm Sport lens as I expected any activity to be some distance away, probably in the open, and so the reach of that lens would probably be needed.

I walked to the viewing platform and there were no deer in the main enclosure, so I walked down the hill for a few hundred yards and could see some fallow deer does in a field behind a fence. It was pretty misty and they ran off after I fired a couple of (poor) test shots. At that point I heard some noise behind me in the public woodland, that sounded like a digger being operated. I walked towards it and then saw in the woodland a large fallow deer buck (a male fallow deer is a buck, not a stag) with large antlers. The lighting was poor and it was close enough that I wish I’d brought my (new) Canon 70-200mm f2.8 lens, as I had to increase the ISO considerably to get a fast enough shutter speed. I took a photograph of the buck facing towards me, and it was nicely framed by trees and other woodland features. I’m pleased with the results. I headed back to the car to get my Canon lens but the buck had in the meantime headed off and by the sounds of it, was involved in rutting with another buck.

Unfortunately I could only hear the rut, not see it. It seemed to be coming from an area of (private) farmland that I couldn’t access. Walking around the perimeter I could hear them, but not see them, for about 40 minutes. Then the noise stopped, rut (presumably with a victor) over. I waited around in case the buck or bucks reappeared, but no luck. I then went back to Burley Manor where a herd of red deer does had appeared in an area of (private) parkland by the hotel, but no stags. I’ll need to make another visit!


Winning the Mammals of the UK entry in Mammal Photographer of the Year 2018

In April 2018 I learned that my photograph, “Common Dolphin in Flight”, had won the Mammals of the UK category of the Mammal Society’s Mammal Photographer of the Year Award 2018. www.mammal.org.uk/2018/04/the-mammal-photographer-of-the-…

I knew this particular photograph was special just after I took in on September 18th 2018 on a Sea Life Surveys Whalewatch Explorer trip from Tobermory, Mull.

It was taken near the Cairns of Coll on a 6.5 hour Whalewatch Explorer trip with Sealife Surveys based on Tobermory, Mull, Scotland. This was my fourth trip with Sea Life Surveys on their boat Sula Beag in five years. On one in 2014 we saw a huge pod of common dolphins and it was relatively easy to capture some good shots of dolphins leaping from the water as one could just shoot bursts and some photos had dolphins in the air or in motion. Below are a couple of such shots that, at the time, I was very pleased with.

This time we saw several small groups of dolphins but they moved so fast and towards us, by the time I could see them in flight it was too late to compose an image, focus and shoot – most photos ended up with splashes in the water. However, as we moved further out (we were north east of Coll and could make out the outer Hebrides in the distance), several dolphins swam playfully alongside the boat.

I was on the upper deck and had a great view on one side of the boat and could see one close to as it swam below the sea, surfaced and leaped into the air.


I could just about keep it in the frame on the camera and shot several photos as it surfaced. The sea was very calm and like a mirror. As I examined the shots afterwards, I could see not only a sharp photograph of the dolphin but also its reflection in the water, revealing a beautiful creature in motion with tremendous power and grace. The reflection adds a different dimension to the shot, bringing out details that a shot from above couldn’t have done by itself.

This was the winning shot:


The camera was a Canon 5D Mark III with a Canon 100-400mm IS L Mark II lens. The focal length was 164mm, f/10, 1/800s at ISO 1000.

As well as taking this shot, the whole day was a great experience: we saw Minke Whales, harbour porpoises, seals as well as many common dolphins. Birds were active: gannets diving, kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, Manx shearwaters, a great skua. It was a very special day.

I’m delighted and honoured to have won the competition.

This photograph was also selected for Flickr Explore shortly after posting.

The BBC used this shot in an article on its Blue Planet II series www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/natureuk/entries/a0be6f55-b342-4fc4-b…

2017 Total Solar Eclipse

I’ll add to this blog very soon but I just had a great time viewing the Total Solar Eclipse in Idaho.

I was part of a tour organised by Omega Holidays to Idaho. I was on Coach 3 with some great people:


Coach Three at the Craters of the Moon National Park

On the day of the eclipse we set off at 615 am to the Menan Buttes about 20 miles from our base in Idaho Falls. We arrived before 7am but the car parks were already full. We disembarked and found suitable spots on the North Butte to watch or film the eclipse whilst our coaches went to the area reserved for them.

I set up two cameras. One, the Canon 5DMk3 was set up with its 24-70mm lens (on the LHS of the photo below) to photograph the wide angle sequence above. It was set at ISO 200, f/11 and 1/60s exposures at 5 minute intervals (using an intervalometer) and had a Thousand Oaks solar filter during the partial phase. At totality the filter was removed an 7 bracketed exposures taken and one selected for totality. After totality the filter was put back and exposures taken every 5 minutes again. Frames from each 5 minute interval plus one from totality were stacked using the StarStax software.


For the closeup photographs (below) the Canon 70D was used with a Canon 100-400mm Mk II lens and 1.4x extender (560mm focal length on a 1.6x cropped frame APSC camera). A filter made of Baader Planetarium Astrosolar film was used during the partial phase that fitted a 100mm Lee Filter. During partial phase 3 bracketed shots were taken roughly every 5 minutes (1/1600, 1/800, 1/400s at ISO 200, f/8). Just before totality the filter was removed and I switched to 7 bracketed shots (1/8000s via 1 stops to 1/125s) to capture the Diamond Ring (missed at 2nd contact), Baily’s beads, and various other phenomena. During totality I also took shots from 1/60s through to 1 second. Most of these showed camera shake (probably due to wind and/or mirror shake).

Just before end of totality I set up again to capture the diamond ring (success!) and then for third contact put on the filter for the second partial phase. A selection of frames are below and at the bottom is a composite sequence from start of the partial phase through to end of the eclipse.

The following shows a composite sequence of the eclipse from partial phase just after first contact through to just before fourth contact. At totality various phenomena are visible: Baily’s Beads; Solar prominences; Corona with streamers; and the Diamond Ring. These were obtained by various exposre settings from 1/8000s through to 1/125s.

EJWWest 21082017 Solar Eclipse 0001

The photo below is a sequence of Baily’s Beads shots taken during a four second period between the first diamond ring and second contact.

Baily's Beads v2

More photos are in my Flickr Album:
Total Solar Eclipse 2017


Photographing the Solar Eclipse

Photographing the Solar Eclipse

Outer corona JW

These photos show the beauty of eclipses – read how they were taken from Earth.

I shall be viewing the August 21st 2017 Total Solar Eclipse at Idaho Falls in the USA and hoping to capture some great eclipse photos, improving on those I obtained in 2008 in China. I thought I would share some of the 2008 photos and explain the techniques involved.

Unless otherwise stated all photographs taken here were with a Canon 40D (cropped frame DSLR) with a Canon 100-400mm Mk1 lens and 1.4x extender. The camera was set up to record RAW images, was set to manual, and I used exposure bracketing to record sequences of three images at plus and minus 1 stop shutter speed. I had removed the UV filter (as in the 2006 eclipse with a cheap 300mm lens I had a lot of internal reflections).

During the partial phase there was a Thousand Oaks eclipse filter screwed onto the lens. It was removed just before totality and replaced just after. It is essential filters such as this are used to photograph the Sun unless it is at totality. It is also essential to use eye filters for viewing the sun at any time apart from the totality phase of a total eclipse. 

Outer corona JW

I took all of these images from Earth in China, by the Gobi Desert, during a total solar eclipse in August 1 2008.

I used a Canon EOS 40D with an aperture of ƒ/8.0, a 560mm lens (a 100-400mm zoom with a 1.4x extender), a shutter speed of 1/4 and an ISO speed of 200.

Baileys Bead JW

This photo shows what appears to be beads of light around the eclipse. These effect is caused by light from the sun shining through lunar mountains and valleys but only last seconds.The photo was taken in China in 2008.

It was taken with a Canon 40D camera with a Canon 100-400mm IS Lens with a 1.4x extender, effective focal length of 560mm and aperture f/8. The camera and lens were mounted on a tripod. The exposure time was 1/2000s at ISO 200.

During the partial phase of the eclipse it’s essential to use a filter to prevent damage to the eye and the camera. I used a Thousand Oaks black plastic filter to remove 99.999% of the sun’s energy. Once the Diamond Ring effect was about to happen it is safe to remove the filter and capture Baily’s beads – although it is not safe to see them with the naked eye – and the total eclipse itself.  The above image was cropped to bring out the Baily’s Beads and the prominences on the limb of the sun.

Inner Corona plus prominences JW

Another shot from China, by the Gobi Desert, from 2008. The photo was taken using a Canon EOS 40D with an aperture of ƒ/8.0, a 560mm lens, a shutter speed of 1/45 and an ISO speed of 200.

First Diamond Ring JW

As it says, this image shows what has been called the diamond ring effect. It was taken in the Gobi Desert in 2008, again using the same camera set-up, except with a shutter speed of 1/1500.

A composite sequence is shown below:


Lunar Eclipses

Lunar Eclipse JW

This was taken in Hampshire, UK, by me midway through a lunar eclipse in March 2007. I used a Canon EOS 300D camera with an aperture of ƒ/11.0, a 760mm lens with a 20-second exposure at ISO 400. Lunar eclipses are perfectly safe to view without eye protection.

In terms of solar eclipses, I cannot stress enough it’s safety first – including the partial eclipse.

For the eclipse, I would refer anyone to sites such as Stargazing Live, Astronomy Now and other reputable sites that explain what you can and can’t do in viewing an eclipse. No-one should look directly at the Sun with or without a camera or telescope unless it has reputable and approved high standard safety filters.

Photographs of the 2008 Solar Eclipse in China are here.

Ones from the 2006 eclipse in Turkey are here.

Lunar Eclipse photos from the March 2007 eclipse are here.

Lunar eclipse photos from the September 2015 eclipse are here.

Photographing Kingfishers

One bird that I’ve wanted to get closeup to to photograph but is notoriously difficult is the kingfisher. On walks in the Test Valley I have seen the odd flash of blue, but never close enough to get a decent photograph, even if I happen to have the right equipment with me (which isn’t often). At Titchfield Haven near Fareham, kingfishers are regular sightings but rarely close to one of the hides. In September 2015, I was fortunate to see one from the Meon bridge by the Visitor Centre where it had been seen fishing for much of the day, but the location was in shadows and even with Photoshopping it was hard to get great colour balanced, well exposed, and sharp, images.

One example:
Look what I caught!

Another example was taken at Arundel Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in April 2016 where, from one of the hides, we saw a blue flash followed by it landing some way away:

But this was too far for a decent set of images.

Fortunately, David Plummer, with whom I have been on a photography tour to Skomer, in Wales, has hides available for hire at Knepp Safaris in Sussex to photograph kingfishers. So, I booked a day with David in April 2016 but it had to get cancelled as the birds stopped visiting the hides he had set up. A rescheduled date in June also got cancelled due to mink invading the nests. Due to David’d photography tours and my holidays, we finally settled on mid September 2016 when we were both available and the kingfishers visiting the hides.

Getting up at 5am to drive to near Horsham for a 7am start, I was set up at the hide by about 730am. David had me at one hide with two perches at different distances and with a supply of live fish located below the perches. Despite taking both my DSLRs along, both 100-400mm lenses and two tripods, David reckoned I had brought too much stuff and should keep it simple.

Hence, I set up my Canon 5D Mk 3 with the 100-400 Mk 2 Lens on my Manfrotto tripod with geared head. I trained the camera on the nearest perch and waited. And waited. I could see activities from moorhen, coots, great crested grebes and other waterfowl. In fact, I saw a great sight of a grebe passing a fish to one of its young – but couldn’t train the camera in time to get a sharp photograph. David later said they would have been too far anyway!

By 1000am no sign of a kingfisher, but then suddenly one appeared on the other perch. By the time I had adjusted the camera to get it in the field and focused, the kingfisher had flown away. David had asked me to text him with progress and I did, but Vodafone reception this close to Gatwick was poor! The odd message did get through. By 1pm, there had been no new sightings, so David offered to move me to another hide where another client and he had seen two sightings already.

I agreed, and he came to pick me up. On our way his other client reported a third sighting of several minutes. So, things were looking optimistic. David had had clients recently where they had taken 1200 frames by midday! This did not look likely for me and by this time was looking for a few frames that were better than either above.

I sat in the second hide quietly with Mike, David’s other client. He gave some tips on exposure and ISO based on his experience so far (go for fast shutter speed and hence trade off against a high ISO which the 5D Mk3 should be able to handle). By about 240pm, we saw a kingfisher circle the pond twice but not land on the perch. Mike reckoned it would land in “a few minutes”. It didn’t.

At 315pm, though, I looked up and saw the unmistakable blue of a kingfisher sitting on the perch a few feet away. I nudged Mike and we quietly adjusted out cameras to get it in view and start shooting. David had advised us not to move quickly but to take our time as it was more likely to stay on the perch. We managed to get a few shots in when it dived into the water below and returned to the perch with a fish and turned around to face us:
Landing its catch
This was perfect. The lighting was good, the composure was good and we could shoot away. The kingfisher whacked the fish onto the wooden perch to stun it:

Battered fish for dinner
Battered fish for dinner

and then proceeded to rotate it 90 degrees in its beak to swallow it:

Hard to swallow
before letting its dinner settle:

Kingfisher digesting its lunch

Most of the above are taken with ISO 1000, f7.1 (to get a bit of depth of field for the bird and the fish), 1/1250s. The bottom is at f/9 and 1/800s.

For a few more minutes, the kingfisher posed on the perch and we shot away. I had my 1.4x extender with me and wondered if I had time to add that so as to get a better magnification so I added that between the camera and lens.

This gave me a reasonable number of shots at the higher magnification. The bird turned around a few times allowing us to photograph the beautiful colours of its back:

Kingfisher on the lookout

Scanning for fish

And then it turned around to face us before flying away:

Kingfisher on the lookout

The above are 560mm focal length, f9, ISO 1000 and 1/800s or f11 and 1/640s.

In the 5 minutes or so it was with us, I captured 170 frames. Not 1200 nor (as David reported a week or so later) a record breaking 3000 shots. But the vast majority were considerably better than  any previous shot (see the first two above) for their colour balance, exposure, sharpness, detail. These photos needed very little doing in Lightroom apart from white balance and a few tweaks on clarity/vibrance/saturation plus sharpening. The ones here are the very best but I’ll go back through from time to time to select a few more.

Had I had the privilege of several visits, then I’d have had the opportunity to change camera settings, composition, etc and probably get some even better ones. Mike obviously had many more shots to choose from. David has tweeted shots from some of his more recent clients and some are brilliant.

This was a great day out, even though I was up at 5am and didn’t return until 6pm for 5 minutes with a (female) kingfisher. Many thanks to David for the opportunity to use his hides and the help in setting up. It was a great day out.

I’ll add more photos to this collection on Flickr over coming weeks:

Kingfishers at Knepp

I failed the 11+

Today the subject of re-instituting Grammar Schools appears to be creeping in as government policy, with the vocal support of the usual right wing media pandering to the whims of their readership. What no-one mentions is that for every Grammar School opened there must be three secondary modern schools (or equivalents). I don’t hear any of the politicians, readers of the press, or journalists supporting Grammar Schools being enthusiastic about sending children, especially their own children, to Secondary Modern Schools, yet that is where 75%-80% of school children will go in a selective system. Despite assurances that selection now won’t mean what it did 50 years ago, no-one has understood that the majority of children, deliberately or unintentionally, will be classed as “failures”. Indeed, many commentators applaud the separation of children into “sheep” and “goats” as a vital lesson all children need to learn as early as possible.

Let me explain my story. I actually have experience of selection at 11: I failed the 11+ and went to a secondary modern school. Yet at 17 I had passed the Oxford Entrance exam, at 18 gained 4 Grade As at A level, took up my place in Physics and on graduation took a PhD at Imperial College. After my PhD I had a long and successful career at IBM. Some might argue that one example shouldn’t be used to determine opinions on policy but, why not? After all everyone else is using their own personal experience of the education system they were exposed to, to determine their own opinions.

Whilst everyone will draw whatever conclusion from my experience that supports their world view, what I believe is that every child is entitled to an education that enables them to achieve their potential, irrespective of ability; that 11 is far too early to separate children by ability using simplistic tests that don’t assess true potential; that life isn’t a set of “filters” that arbitrarily impose some crude “survival of the fittest” (the real world really does enable multiple second chances); and that help from parents is by far the greatest determinant of educational success. If you have potential and have a supportive home environment, it really doesn’t matter whether you go to private school, a grammar school or state comprehensive: you are very likely to do well. Grammars schools simply reinforce this, whilst leaving those who need most help languishing.

I was born in 1955. Neither of my parents were from wealthy backgrounds but they did value education. My mother was from a working class family in Wakefield and gained a “scholarship” (pre-cursor to 11+) to attend Wakefield Girl’s Grammar School, taking “School Cert” at 16 in 1939 just as Adolph Hitler rudely interfered with everyones’ plans. My father was brought up in a poor area of Salford by his postmaster/postmistress  parents, becoming 18 just as WW2 started. Both became officers in the armed forces in the war and after the war became an English teacher and industrial chemist.

I had an elder sister and younger brother and our parents had high expectations of us to pass the 11+ and attend grammar schools in Leeds or Bradford. In 1964 my sister passed the 11+ and went to St Joseph’s Grammar School in Bradford. When my turn came in 1966, I was expected to go to St Bede’s Grammar School in Bradford. On the day of the 11+, I thought I’d done OK in English, but didn’t complete the Maths (actually Arithmetic!) test, and thought I’d conveyed my great interest – and ability – in science to the panel. Unfortunately it was not to be and I failed, being “selected” for the new St Mary’s Secondary Modern School in nearby Menston. I think my parents were more gutted than I was and they claim to have seriously considered moving me to a private school: they were not wealthy so this really wasn’t an option and (as we shall see) was quite unnecessary. In the following year, my brother passed the 11+ and went to Prince Henry’s Grammar School in Otley.

Back at my primary school, my best friend passed the 11+ and went to St Michael’s in Leeds (his parents were pretty rich and showered gifts such as a new bike and Action Man on him!). However, my relationship with him and the 3 girls who were selected for Grammar School was never the same again. The 11+ had marked them out as successes and me, plus many others at the school, as failures.

In September 1966 I, and the rest of the “failures” at primary school began at St Mary’s together with kids from surrounding towns. St Mary’s had been open a couple of years so was quite an unknown quantity. However, its head and deputy and some other teachers were known to my mother (now Head of English at nearly Guiseley Secondary Modern) and this gave her confidence I’d be well supported. The head, Mr Dalton, was a strict disciplinarian and had high ambitions for the school. The curriculum was broad but academically limited (eg no Latin/Greek, only General Science) with CSEs then as the expected qualification.

Fairly quickly on, though, I was viewed as a very able pupil. After the first parent’s evening my father came back with glowing reports, particularly in Science and maths. In the first set of school exams in 1967 I came top of the year (and repeated that in every set of exams until I left in 1971). Science was my strength but was also strong in history and geography. My parents hoped that at age 13 I would be able to take a 13+ process to move to one of the grammar schools. However, by that time (1968) St Mary’s had embarked on a strategy of offering GCE O levels for its most able pupils. My mother was convinced that it would be preferable to leave me in a school where I was excelling and could offer academic qualifications, than disrupt my education and move me to a grammar school where I would be in the middle (at best). So I stayed at St Mary’s.

What St Mary’s did not offer at the time were multiple sciences: it just offered General Science. Fortunately by the time I came to do O levels the school was able to offer Physics and Biology (but not Chemistry – where my father could help) as alternatives (guess what: boys did Physics; girls did Biology). In my home environment I was supported in my studies of Physics (I was very into astronomy, and I would read my sister’s Physics O level, and later A level, text books). This gave me a great advantage.

In 1971 I took my O Levels and gained grade 1s (I guess equivalent to today’s A*) in Maths, Physics, History and Geography, grade 2 (A) in English Literature, Grade 3 in English Language, Grade 4 in Engineering Drawing, and Grade 5 (I guess a C) in French – my French teacher was very disappointed, expecting much better. Based on expectations, I already had a place at St Bede’s Grammar School Sixth Form in Bradford. At this time, St Bede’s was well on its way to converting to a Comprehensive School but the 6th form still had largely 11+ successes from m  its Grammar intake.

The problem was what subjects should I take. I wanted to study sciences and had a natural inclination towards Physics. That clearly meant I’d take Physics and Maths at A level. But what should my third subject be? Having not taken O level Chemistry, the school felt Further Maths would be the logical step. My parents did not think (possibly with good reason) that Further Maths would be right – probably too demanding – and my father thought he could support me in Chemistry A Level (only up to a point as it turned out). We convinced the school to let me take Chemistry A level. The Chemistry master felt it should be possible, especially as those who’d taken O level Chemistry there had done the “Nuffield Curriculum”.

As it happens and for many reasons, that turned out to be a good choice. I got on well with the lads in my groups at 6th Form – most doing Maths, Physics and Chemistry, some doing Maths, Further Maths and Physics. We all did General Studies, mixed in with lads doing many other subjects. Pretty quickly I was showing strong performance in Maths and Physics. What was surprising was I was also excelling in Chemistry (though a lot of the course was Atomic Physics!). In the mid-year exams, I wasn’t top as I had been at St Mary’s (which was neither surprising nor expected, as there were some very bright boys at St Bede’s). But I was in the top 3-5 in those subjects. My Chemistry teacher was actually very impressed with me and was quite early on suggesting I consider Oxbridge in my university choices. However, the exams at that point didn’t quite convince the Head of 6th Form or Headteacher. My likely destination was somewhere like Imperial or Manchester (both with excellent reputations in Physics or Chemistry).

Over the Summer holidays I took part in an “International Astronomical Youth Camp” near Zurich in Switzerland. I organised all the travel myself (though my mother paid) and had a great time, making contacts and building confidence, as well as learning a lot of physics and astronomy.

At the start of the upper sixth, we all had interviews with the head of 6th form about our university choices. I said I wanted to study Physics and mentioned the universities such as Imperial, Manchester etc I was considering. As an aside, I said I would like to be considered for Oxbridge entrance and I realised this meant a lot of work and likely disappointment but was up for it. As chance would happen the Headteacher had been at a meeting at St John’s Oxford over the Summer and St John’s was keen to expand its intake from good state schools. The Head was also ambitious about getting more of his pupils to Oxford. The school agreed to put me forward for St John’s. My parents were somewhat worried, as they were concerned that a rejection would set me back, but we decided to go for it.

I duly completed my UCCA (as it was known then) form and the separate Oxford application and submitted them for October 15th 1972. I had (in order) Imperial, Manchester, Birmingham, and Newcastle as my other choices. There were several other boys put forward for both Oxford and Cambridge: a few of us at the 4th term entrance (ie pre- A level) which was unusual in those days; others for the more usual 7th term entry (ie post A level). The school put on extra lessons for us and practice interviews to help prepare us for the entrance exams due to take place in late November. They also suggested extra reading in both the science and maths exams, but also for the General paper.I ordered some of these from the local library.

In late November, we took the exams over (I think) a couple of days. The science papers were fine; the maths less so (based on a complete as many as you can approach), and the General Paper was hard to gauge. They were not a doddle by any stretch and were not looking for typical A level answers.

The next step was the interview. Based on how one achieved in the entrance exams one got declined for interview. The instructions were that if a telegram had NOT been received by a particular date you should go to Oxford and await interview. On the morning of that day, I awaited for a telegram that never came. Just to be sure, my father rang the post office to see if one was on its way. Having been reassured there wasn’t, I headed to Leeds to get a train to Oxford. This involved changing trains at Birmingham (and as it happens, Banbury). At Banbury the platform was full of 6th formers waiting to get the next train to Oxford to attend interview. At this point, chatting to them on the train, most were from public or prestigious grammar schools.

On arrival at St John’s, I indeed discovered that I was expected and the telegram hadn’t been lost, and was given keys to a room in a College annex that I would be staying in for the next couple of days. I found the room I had been allocated and then went to see what the other interviewees were doing after dinner. Several of us went out for some beers and talked about the process. In my room was a set of instructions on the interview process and what was expected. I had one 20 minute interview arranged with the St John’s Physics  tutors. There was an option that other colleges might want to interview me and I had to remain until this either happened or confirmed I was not needed.

The interview with Prof Roger Elliot and Prof Bill Hayes was a grueling 20 minutes. I wasn’t sure how I’d done but do recall a somewhat patronising put-down after waffling an answer to one Physics question. I think there were 6 of us in total being interviewed.

I stayed another night, waiting to see if I was needed for other interviews but was not. During the waiting time, I took a trip round central Oxford and was amazed at the Colleges, mostly ancient ones, and discovered what looked like a quaint bookshop on Broad Street called Blackwells. Inside, I went down some stairs and saw this vast room of books: the Norrington Room. I felt this was a place I wanted to come to and hoped that would come true.

I knew nothing would be known until after Christmas, so ensured I enjoyed myself. My parents were especially concerned that having been inspired by my time in Oxford, I’d get a rejection and be severely disappointed. On the day after Boxing Day, the post came around mid-morning. In it was a letter from St John’s. In trepidation I opened it and inside the letter said I had been offered a place subject to meeting Oxford’s matriculation requirements. My parents and I were gobsmacked and immediately my father was on the phone to friends, relatives, former school teachers (including those who didn’t think I’d go far after failing the 11+, but also the Head and Deputy Head of St Mary’s who deserved some recognition for my success).

That evening my parents took me out for a celebratory meal and for weeks afterward was really elated. The School was delighted (most of the others who applied to Oxford were not successful, though one later got an unconditional offer from Cambridge when his A level results were known). I could also relax to some extent. The offer really meant that all I had to achieve as 2 grade Es at A level in order to satisfy the entrance requirements. I shudder to think what might have happened if I’d done that, but I did have considerable margin for error. In fact I had that anyway, since most of the other universities I applied to gave quite generous offers to Oxbridge applicants (2 Cs at Imperial; 2 Ds at Manchester; 2 Es at Newcastle – Imperial and Manchester now have standard offers of around A*A*A).

Over the next 6 months, I prepared to take my A levels.  In January I sat Pure and Applied Maths early and received an A Grade. One down, one left to go. In the Summer I sat Physics, Chemistry and General Studies and got A grades in those. I easily met the matriculation requirements and prepared to go up to Oxford in early October. As an aside, had I been a year or two older, I could not have met the Oxford matriculation requirements as they demanded Latin or Greek at O Level, something I had not achieved and was not an option available to me at St Mary’s.

I won’t bore anyone with the details of my life at Oxford, except to say that it was a life changing experience and something no-one should be put off doing if they are capable of getting a place. No-one should be putting off talented sixth formers on the basis they “might not fit in” or “it’s full of public school students”. My experience is that Oxford was, at least then (and I have no reason to believe this isn’t also true now), a welcoming environment. Sure, some “toffs” are prominent (eg I encountered Tony Blair) but in the main, most students are talented, hard working, and want to meet new people, whatever their background.

On graduation I took up a PhD place at Imperial, spent 5 years there (including a 2 year post-doc) and then applied to IBM who hired me in August 1981. Having failed the 11+ I achieved a lot academically and in my career. No-one should have to put up with b eing told at age 11 that they were not going to make it. Life is full of second chances and everyone should have the chance to take them. Equally, the experience of many who went to Grammar Schools is that they are not an automatic ticket to success – many had rigid streaming where it was not possible to “move up” once streamed. My objection to the reintroduction of Gammar Schools is that once again, the education system institutionalises the separation of children by an arbitrary test at a young age, before full potential can be seen.

Shortly after I had my place at Oxford confirmed, in January 1973 my parents were at a social event for senior teachers in the locality. One of those present was the Head of Prince Henry’s Grammar School (where my brother was a pupil). He had been the chair of the 11+ Panel that rejected me for grammar school. My father couldn’t resist telling him that he’d rejected me but I’d now been offered a place at Oxford. His response was “It shows the system works then”. Maybe, for me. But what about the many hundreds of thousands who get classed as failures at 11 and don’t have the supportive environment that I had? Selecting a few and giving them special treatment in a grammar school, does not solve it for the vast majority. More importantly the barriers to mobility are the entrenched privileges of the privileged and access to (for example) work experience, internships etc that are required to get university places and jobs for many professions.

Finally, over the coming decades, St Mary’s Menston gained a good reputation. It converted to a Comprehensive as soon as it could in the 1970s and I regularly see it in lists of high achieving state schools. A friend from Oxford who lived in Bradford sent her sons there in preference to the closer St Bedes (though this probably says more about how schools in leafy suburbs and inner city schools now compare).

A letter from the grandchildren on Leave Voters

A letter from the future to those claiming to vote leave on behalf of their grandchildren, too young to vote.
Dear Grandad,

I know you claim you meant well when you said you voted to leave on my behalf, as someone unable to vote, but I really wish you hadn’t done so.

All that scaremongering about an EU superstate, EU army, Turkey etc was really hyperbole and you know we have vetoes on those. Anyway, those are issues best left to my generation and if we don’t like the answer we could always choose to leave then. Now we have no way back, at least on the terms we had.

It’s quite charming you are outraged at the EU’s imposition of rules on matters like oven glove safety, vacuum cleaner power and efficiency, and rules on importing ferrets, riding roughshod over our sovereignty and democracy, but I am much more concerned with the legacy your generation left me which is almost exclusively down to governments you elected to Westminster. This clearly demonstrates Westminster lawmaking has far greater practical impact than anything the EU does.

You had free university education, or the opportunity of it. You have now saddled me and my generation with the highest university fees in the EU, and all the debt that entails, whilst now removing my right to university education anywhere in the EU.

You have had final salary pension schemes and lucrative early retirement packages, yet you have raised retirement ages for my generation which are likely to rise further. You have been guaranteed a “triple lock” on your pensions whilst we can expect  zero hours contracts.

You owned your own home on attractive mortgage terms at a young age, yet I’ll be unable to afford a home of my own for a long time. This is made worse by you and your generation spending your retirement lump sum on buy to let properties, increasing prices and making property unavailable to buy.
You bought a holiday home in the EU and some retired there. Yet you now deny me the freedom of movement that made this possible.

You have known for 30 years that your activities were impacting the climate yet you have done eff all about it, many Leave advocates denying the problem exists of course (what do experts know!). You’ve taken full advantage of cheap flights to holiday in exotic places, exacerbating the problem. Yet it will be my generation and those of my children and grandchildren that will suffer the consequences. And now you’ve removed Britain from one organisation where concerted international action and influence was possible, and starting to work.

You knowingly took the risk of the breakup of the U.K. Itself. The country you “wanted back” that you actually got back is the one prior to 1707 that you never ever knew.

I could go on, but I’d just like you to know that no, I’m not thanking you for voting to leave the EU and let’s be honest. You did it for your own self interest, not mine. You’ll need those immigrants to care for you into old age, wiping bodily excretions from you because trust me, I won’t be doing it.

Your concerned grandchild