‘I was a bit stunned, frankly, and enormously flattered. For my entire life I’ve taken on challenges, and my experience is that the most rewarding challenges are the ones that take you into unknown zones, into the no man’s land beyond previous experience. This definitely qualifies.’
Nicholas Crane, best known as the face of innumerable BBC geography series such as Map Man, Great British Journeys, Town and the currently-running Coast, is remembering how it felt to be named the new President of the RGS-IBG. Regular viewers of his programmes are well-used to seeing the passion and enthusiasm that exudes from Crane when talking about geographical matters on-screen, and it’s somewhat reassuring to discover that away from the cameras, in the quiet, refined Members’ Rooms at the Society’s Kensington headquarters, that passion burns just as brightly.
In truth, there’s no reason to have suspected otherwise. Geography has been a cornerstone of Crane’s life; after graduating in 1975 with a BA (Hons) degree in Geography, he’s been writing and broadcasting about the subject in one form or another ever since.
‘We all know that the minute you walk out of your front door, you’re looking at geography,’ he tells me when asked about the appeal of the discipline. ‘Whether it’s the transport infrastructure, the bus or the train coming by; whether it’s the economy of the local village, town or city, the biodiversity in the park or woodland where you walk your dog, or whether it’s the shape of the local river valley – they’re all geographical topics. We’re all living in a geographical world.’
Crane’s approach to the subject is to look for what he feels are geographical stories in everyday landscapes. ‘You don’t have to go to the Gobi Desert or a glacier to find geography. You can be an explorer in your own neighbourhood,’ he says, laughing.
Crane is a popular choice for the new RGS-IBG President and it’s not a role he’s apt to take lightly. ‘We’re at a critical time in the evolution of geography as a discipline and I think the RGS-IBG is playing a key role,’ he says, with a sudden seriousness that brings to mind a skilled lecturer whose winning charm has successfully drawn you in before he slams home a key point.
‘Pressure on the planet has never been as great as it is now and geography as a discipline that explores people, places and environments – and the RGS-IBG as an institution that furthers geographical science – they’re both in the right place at the right time to tackle what are really, really pressing issues. Geography helps us understand the world. It gives us the science, the data, the insights to plan for the future. It’s an incredibly exciting subject.’
Of course, the RGS-IBG is hardly a dictatorship, a one-man band with the President free to do whatever he or she sees fit. For one thing, it’s a time-limited position. ‘Three years is a very short period of time,’ he acknowledges, ‘and I’m following some highly-esteemed footsteps. The last President was the distinguished academic geographer Dame Judith Rees, and before that the RGS-IBG President was none other than Michael Palin, the world’s most appealing practitioner of geographical curiosity. They’re inspiring acts to follow. I have a fair bit of experience in promoting geography in the wider world through TV, books, journalism. radio documentaries and so on, and I’ve turned my hand to some challenging research projects and undertaken some fairly extreme expeditions.’
Which might on the face of it sound as though it’s something of a figurehead position, but in truth Crane’s new responsibilities run far deeper than just being a public face. He sees his job more as working closely with the Society’s Director, Dr Rita Gardner and her team, and to have an influence wherever possible in key areas. ‘The RGS-IBG has recently launched an exciting new field research programme, Migrants in the Margins, and I’m very keen to contribute to the current surge of candidates taking geography at GCSE – up 20 per cent in two years.’ One of the most pressing challenges is to increase the membership. ‘The RGS-IBG has a membership of some 15,000 or so – a tiny proportion of the population of the UK – and yet there’s nobody in the country unaffected by geographical issues. Membership provides the funds for a lot of the core strategic objectives within the Society, and we need more support. It’s the solid foundation from which everything else springs.’
Naturally enough, for a man in the public eye, part of that does come through making appearances, using Crane’s popular public appeal to raise awareness of the Society and what it has to offer. And that means throughout the entire country. ‘Geography graduates tend to spin off into the ether on a wide variety of fascinating careers and it would be great to recruit them as Fellows, whether they’re undertaking research in the wilds or teaching in the Home Counties. It would be great to get a more even spread of membership throughout the country. This is something I’ve been finding out about for the past six months, prior to becoming President. I’ve visited every one of the RGS-IBG regions in the UK, both to meet the people running them and also to give my own lectures in those areas.’
What about beyond the UK? How vital does he see a strong global membership being for the Society? ‘The more the better!’ he exclaims enthusiastically. ‘Geography is a universal discipline. It’s a subject that matters to everybody and one of the things I have been working on already, throughout my working life, is to get everybody excited about geography. That’s something I’ll be continuing to do here.’
Away from membership drives, the role of President brings a host of other duties, from introducing the Monday night lectures when the season kicks off again in the autumn, to chairing the three council meetings each year (Crane was previously a sitting member of the council from 2004 to 2007), and attending committee meetings to gain a fuller understanding of what is happening within the Society.
And then there are the more ‘public-facing’ projects. ‘I’m contributing to Discovering Britain,’ he says happily. ‘I’m a small player but very excited to be asked to join in on that as we design geographical walks and viewpoints that members of the public can enjoy.’ Crane will be providing audio commentaries to help people appreciate what the landscape is telling them.
So how much does heading up an organisation such as the RGS-IBG leave Crane for external projects? Certainly he won’t be giving up TV work any time soon. Coast continues to chug along happily in the ratings and is currently enjoying its tenth anniversary series. But the RGS-IBG is where Crane feels his ‘second home’ is.
‘The RGS-IBG is very much the priority,’ he assures, ‘and will get everything I can give. It’s obviously an unpaid role but it matters to me enormously. I work on a lot of other projects but they will all fit around my RGS-IBG duties.’
One of his biggest in-progress works is a forthcoming book on the historical geography of Britain. ‘This is my life work, really,’ he says. ‘As a geography undergraduate, back in the day, we all had to know Hoskins’ The Making of the English Landscape virtually by heart.’ Like many students of his era, Crane spent a couple of years studying historical geography as part of his degree and Hoskins was then seen as the ‘guru of the landscape’.
‘I’ve often thought in the intervening decades that I’d like to tackle the subject of the history of the landscape,’ Crane continues, ‘but while Hoskins just looked at England, I’ll be looking at Scotland and Wales as well. Hoskins started pretty much with the Anglo-Saxons, while I’m going back to the end of the Younger Dryas – the last ice age – all the way to the Shard today.’
It’s effectively a 12,000-year narrative looking at how landscapes in Britain have evolved over time – ‘the history of Britain without the kings, queens and churchmen,’ he half-jokes. Crane admits it’s an ambitious project, and having taken seven years to write and research to date, he feels it’s probably the most complicated and difficult book he’s ever tackled.
‘We live on this island, it’s a finite amount of space and has an extraordinary amount of geological and topographical variety,’ he says, slipping into passionate lecturer mode once more. ‘We have everything from sheer 3,000-foot peaks in the north to teeming wetlands in the south and a latitudinal span that covers many different bio-geographical zones. It’s a very diverse and also very crowded island that’s always been an appealing place to settle. You find, right back in the Mesolithic, when the land bridge existed between East Anglia and Denmark, people were coming across here almost as the tundra was thawing out and they weren’t holding back. It’s always been a good habitat and it’s never been this crowded, which makes it more interesting to write about.
A burning, lifelong passion for the subject, an engaging and driven personality, and a focus on the areas needed to raise the Society to greater heights. It’s little wonder Crane was the most popular choice for the role of President. As he himself says: ‘There’s nothing I’d rather be doing with my time right now than being President of the RGS-IBG. It’s a fantastic opportunity to throw my weight into an organisation I care about more than any other.’