My best teacher

7th February 2003 at 00:00
"Miss Molyneux made geography fun, and opened my eyes to the fact that it was about more than the economy of East Anglia and drawing rivers on a map"

I went to Rokeby primary school in Rugby, then to Rugby high school for girls, both of which were within walking distance of home. There were five girls in my family, and we all went to both schools - the Reynolds girls were considered a bit of a phenomenon.

I think I've been a geographer since I was born, but the high school was where I was formally taught it for the first time. My parents were great enthusiasts for walking and visiting wonderful parts of the country, so from an early age I was dragged up mountains and through churches, and it was my father who taught me to read a map. He was a Methodist lay preacher and used to go round the villages on a Sunday evening. He would make me map-read to find where we were going.

There were two geography teachers at school, Mrs Lewis and Miss Molyneux.

Mrs Lewis was a traditional teacher. We copied maps out of books and wrote about the economies of East Anglia or western Africa, so she gave me a formal notion of geography. Miss Molyneux was much younger, from a different generation, and it was because of her that I sat for Cambridge in geography.

Miss Molyneux made geography fun, and opened my eyes to the fact that it was about more than the economy of East Anglia and drawing rivers on a map.

She made me realise that it was about people and politics, and about systems - whether they were physical, political, or economic - and about the inter-relationships between things. I am a passionate geographer, because geography teaches you about life, and how people live together, or don't live together, and how things work. In that sense it's an important real-life discipline.

This was the traditional grammar school education where, if you work hard and learn what you've been taught, you do well in exams. I left in 1976 and went to Cambridge. There, my inspirational teacher was my director of studies at Newnham, Lucy Adrian. The great privilege of this kind of education is that you're taught in groups of two. You have lectures and field trips, and all the things the department lays on, but the big thing is this very individual tuition in your study groups in your college.

I was taught with a fellow exhibitioner - they have such quaint terms at Cambridge - and was horrified because this other girl knew everything and was much more sophisticated than I was. I was completely thrown by this much more self-reliant method of learning, and by this fellow student, but Lucy was brilliant. She not only inspired me in my subject, but encouraged me to think that I, too, had a mind I could explore.

I can remember sitting with an Ordnance Survey map in her study and talking about how you could read the landscape through maps - she was a historical geographer - from early medieval settlements through to the present day, and it was a light bulb moment. I knew that was me - that this was what I wanted to study.

In fact, I later switched from studying geography to land economy, and Lucy was horrified, but we've stayed in touch. She was a unique and inspirational teacher. And she's continued to be a mentor. If I go to see her, it's not a social call. We get straight down to the nitty-gritty.

Geography has been such a strong thread in my life that I feel passionate about the things we do in the National Trust to introduce children to historic houses, and to the coast and countryside. Around 600,000 pupils visit our properties every year, and we have just launched a programme linking urban and rural schools to their local NT property, and giving children the chance to work on activities in workshops and other sessions.

Sixteen partnerships are being set up this year, with more to follow.

Fiona Reynolds, director-general of the National Trust, was talking to Hilary Wilce


1958 Born in Cumbria

1979 Gains degree in geography and land economy at Cambridge

1981-87 Secretary, Council for National Parks

1984-93 Regional committee, National Trust's Thames and Chilterns

1987-92 Assistant director (policy), Council for the Protection of Rural England

1992-98 Director, Council for the Protection of Rural England

1995-98 Elected member of the National Trust council

1998 Awarded CBEfor services to agro-environment and conservation

1998-2000 Director, women's unit, Cabinet Office

2001 Director-general, National Trust

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