Friday, 27 March 2009

A distinct lack of geographical knowledge

I've got to that stage in life that few things now surprise me but this morning I was taken aback ... It happened when I was having breakfast and, as is often the case, I was listening to BBC Radio Devon at the same time. During this programme the studio calls up HM Coastguard at Brixham to (a) get the inshore weather forecast for small boat users on our two coasts, and (b) find out if there have been any incidents that they have had to respond to. Naturally the staff there are on a rota so that one gets used to a variety of voices imparting the necessary information. Today it was the turn of a lady whose name I don't recall and the subject came up about whether she knew the names of the most southerly and northerly points in Devon (for the record they are Prawle Point and Foreland Point respectively). Bearing in mind her profession one might have expected an instant and correct response but no she was floundering all over the place. Having initially mentioned Rame Head as the most southerly and then realising it was in Cornwall (!) she I think eventually managed to get the right answer. As to the second question she again was all at sea (excuse the pun) but did venture Bude before again realising that that too was in Cornwall.

To add to the muddleheadedness of it all the voice from Radio Devon, the rather boyish and excitable Matt Woodley, then stated that the most northern extremity was Hartland Point! What?? After a later correction from a listener Matt blamed his blunder on what he had been told many years previously by former weatherman and master mariner Craig Rich. This was all getting too much for me I must say. All right Geography and History have always been very important subjects to me, ones I take some pride in having at least the basic knowledge but I was astonished that a coastguard didn't know something so fundamental on her patch, not that she should know the name of every single nook and cranny on the coast perhaps but this was really something I would have expected her to get right.

This reminds me about an incident a long time ago: a young lad sadly lost his life when he drowned at Raparee Cove, Ilfracombe. It was after the Hartland Point coastguard station closed and its responsibilities transferred to Swansea. The person making the emergency call when the youngster was still alive gave the position as "Raparee Cove" which might have meant something to a responder at Hartland but didn't mean anything to the person across the water in South Wales. The whole thing led to a lot of criticism from the public about over centralisation and lack of local knowledge when it was decided that coastguards would be concentrated on fewer centres but with increased technology at their command.

Now I have a theory about why many people today are so demonstrably lacking in geographical knowledge. It's down to our transport systems. The most extreme instances perhaps are when people go off on some foreign package holiday - lets take two weeks in Tenerife as an example. Courtesy of Sir Frank Whittle's invention of the jet engine it will take 4 hours from the south of the UK to get to that warm and sunny island. But this might be an interesting exercise: present a family who have just returned from there with a world atlas and see how long it takes them to find Tenerife. They may go there many times but its relevance in its geographical location might well pass them by. On a smaller scale if we confine ourselves to Britain the motorway system can give one a false impression of just how far apart certain locations can be and one can become somewhat oblivious of the changing scenery.

I have to say as someone who places great store in the individuality of places and the people who live in them I find my previous commentary in this post a bit depressing. Yes modern transport has shrunk the world and has vastly widened the opportunity for people to enjoy different experiences away from home but it's a shame to my mind that so much of this is in chunks with folk not seeing the connections in between.

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