Back in the early seventies I was studying Geography at the University of London. There was much excitement at Easter as we had a field trip organised to Scotland. Images of self, striding across the rocks and heather, stopping only to partake in a wee dram in some Highland inn, all in the company of some of the more attractive female geography students. Sadly it didn't quite work out like that.
After travelling up by the overnight train from Euston, watching dawn break over the Southern Uplands from the train window, we met up with Ron Johnson, the lecturer who was in charge of the trip. "Tomorrow - urban survey. You'll be dropped off in pairs. You'll note down land use, date of buildings (estimated), any history you can discover. You'll be given a map. You'll fill it in. I'll meet up with you during the day. Any questions? No? Good."
Next morning was greyer, wetter and colder than anything ever experienced south of Hadrian's Wall. Phil and I sat at the back of the coach as each pair were turned out into the freezing Airdrie rain. We were the last pair to be evicted. We stood shivering beneath a bus shelter. The windows in the shelter were all broken allowing the wind and the rain to unleash its full fury on us. "We can do the survey from here," enthused Phillip, "Date of buildings - old. Land use - derelict. Interesting historical background - deserted by Picts in 8th century!" Eventually we took the map out from the plastic bag, thoughtfully provided to keep our work dry, and wrote down a few sparse details, estimating the date of the pub opposite as about 1850 and noting down some of the shops we could see through the veil of rain without getting ourselves drowned.
A terrible coughing sound came from the pub door and was closely followed by a grey-faced man unlocking the doors for the morning. "We could always..." I said to no one in particular: Phil was already half way across the road. We bought a pint each and sat at a corner table. Three men came inand stood at the bar. Number One: a huge, brawny man with a face like an over-mature Stilton cheese. Number Two: a tall, angular man with greasy hair and a scar. Number Three: a small man of advanced years with an even more experienced cloth cap. "Ye don't come from roond here" stated Cheesehead in a menacing tone. We explained we were from London. "Why would ye come here then?" asked Scarface. We tried to explain about the survey, field trip, geography, maps, that sort of thing. "Show me" demanded The Cap. So we did.
Our new friends looked up as we entered. They'd never been to university, but I bet they'd bunked off school a time or two and with an instant grasp of the situation they turned back to their drinks without a word. Our mentor never said anything to suggest that he'd suspected anything amiss either. "It's supposed to brighten up this afternoon," he remarked, "if you'd like to explore the area further....." We remembered that a football match, Airdrieonians v. Berwick Rangers, had been mentioned in the course of our morning researches, the afternoon suddenly looked a little more promising.
In a tutorial a year later, when another student was discussing some of the difficulties of doing surveys, Ron turned towards me and winked, "More than one way of doing surveys though, isn't there, John."