Beyond island of dreams;Briefing;People

2nd April 1999 at 01:00
The Geographical Association's first chief executive has swapped the wide open spaces of nature reserves for the confinesof an office, reports Sarah Cassidy

The view from Martin Curry's new office window is not a patch on his old one. On his wall hangs a photo showing the glorious scenery he has given up to become the first chief executive of the Geographical Association. With fishing boats bobbing on sun-drenched water, it looks like the Caribbean.

In fact, it is the view Mr Curry enjoyed on the island of Rum, a nature reserve in the Inner Hebrides, where until October he was manager.

On Rum there is no cinema, theatre or pub for the island's 21 inhabitants, only a cluster of tiny cottages and a village shop.

Yet Mr Curry, 47, looks astonished when asked if he missed the entertainments of the mainland. "I'm not the sort of person who ever really valued those sorts of things. My wife is the same," he says thoughtfully, as if considering the question for the first time. "I'm afraid I associate going to the cinema with being very bored. I would be a bit worried if I started going now."

Mr Curry gave up the tranquil life he loved and one of the world's most glorious panoramas for a 15-mile drive to work and a view of Sheffield's smoking chimneys. It seems a strange choice for someone who admits he hates city life.

But Mr Curry, tall, jovial and frank, sees his new job as the ideal position from which to promote and support the teaching of geography in schools. Not that he knows that much about the mechanics of school-teaching, he admits cheerfully, as he has never had to do it himself.

Geography was not even his first choice of career; he originally trained as a solicitor, but found he could not stand the tedium of day-to-day legal work.

His father was a geography teacher and Mr Curry credits his family with fostering his love of landscape, which he maintains is central to any geographer.

At 25 he took the plunge and left his job as an articled clerk in Cheshire to become an unpaid volunteer at a Yorkshire nature reserve - from conveyancing and sitting behind a desk to washing the dishes and sweeping the stairs.

From there he moved to Lincolnshire, but found it a difficult transition. "When I first arrived I hated it," he said. "I was terribly depressed for about six months and just couldn't cope being surrounded by all that flat land. It was totally alien to me because I was used to the rolling Cheshire hills.

"But it was also a turning point because it not only made me realise how important the landscape is to my inner self, but also taught me to look for its hidden attributes. After all, I was working for a conservation organisation so there had to be something there worth conserving. I just had to get out and look for it" It was a skill that would stand him in good stead for a career in environmental management which would take him to many corners of Britain.

Martin Curry was born in Bollington, east Cheshire, in 1952. Educated at King Edward VI Grammar School in Macclesfield, he studied law at London University before spending three years as an articled clerk, culminating in his Law Society finals in 1976.

It was his legal training which got him his first paid environmental job as administrative officer for the Lincolnshire and South Humberside Trust.

But his big break came in 1982 when he became manager of Gibraltar Point nature reserve, south of Skegness. It was a good induction to the life of a reserve manager, combining solitude with total immersion in the local community. He also met his future wife Mary, known as Midge, who had replaced him at the Lincolnshire and South Humberside Trust.

The pair moved to Yorkshire in 1987, where Mr Curry became head of information services at North York Moors National Park, responsible for visitors' centres and school services.

From there they moved to the Scottish Deer Centre in Fife, to what was practically a joint appointment for the couple with Mr Curry as general manager and his wife as his assistant in the privately-owned park.

They moved to Rum in 1992 to take up what Mr Curry describes as "a dream job, something I had held as my ultimate ambition for 20 years". He has fond memories of the island, but decided to leave after Scottish Natural Heritage said it wanted to develop a sustainable community on Rum.

He said: "It was a hard decision and not one I came to quickly. I believe we should be trying to achieve sustainable socio-economic development everywhere, but I was uncomfortable with the idea of focusing on a nature reserve which is a prime national asset."

His appointment is a new departure for the Geographical Association, which has existed since 1893 without a chief executive. But recent expansion meant the association, which holds its annual conference next week, felt it needed a full-time manager to review its structures and monitor its finances.

Mr Curry outshone more than 100 applicants for the job including headteachers, educationists and high-powered managers, say GA insiders.

Senior association members, mainly geography teachers themselves, say it was Mr Curry's business background, legal training and years in outdoor education that impressed them. One said: "He is very sharp and has quickly absorbed the issues as they affect geography in schools. He is very direct and will bring a very sound financial sense to the association."

Geographical Association president Roger Carter added: "He may not have a background of teaching in schools, but he is clearly in tune with what is important to the GA in terms of his commitment to outdoor education, environment and sustainability."

Recognising that city life is not for them, the Currys have bought a cottage in the Derbyshire Dales and are gradually readjusting to life on the mainland.

Mr Curry said: "I believe in geography as one of the key subjects for the development of awareness about our world. It is about understanding the ground which we all stand on.

"My new environment may be far removed from the shores of Rum, but my new job is not that different. I will be managing this enterprise and developing its resources in the same way as I did on Rum."

The Geographical Association's conference is at UMIST in Manchester from April 7-9.

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