Friday, 14 December 2012

STEMinists: your country needs you!

Picture: Birmingham Mail
Just before leaving the office for a conference, I glance at the Daily Telegraph and notice a letter from Sir James Dyson highlighting (not for the first time) the critical need for more engineers and bemoaning the fact that he has struggled to fill the 200 jobs on offer in his company this year.

Moments later,  EngineeringUK's 2013 report The state of engineering arrives, hot off the press.  It has the same message. Engineering companies are projected to have 2.74 million job openings between now and 2020, of which 1.86 million will need engineering skills. Satisfying this demand means, in rough figures, a doubling of recruits to the sector. The report also points out that the average starting salary of £25,762 for engineering and technology graduates is nearly 16 per cent higher than the average for all graduates.

All very timely, as I am off to deliver the keynote speech at Engineer your future, the first STEMinism event for women engineering students, hosted at the Shell Centre in London. At least I won't be castigated for advising them to go into a dead end career,  remembering the time I was speaking at a construction conference in the late nineties. One delegate was vociferous in his disapproval of efforts to encourage women into the building trades "because they'll all lose their jobs when the inevitable downturn comes." 
Warming up at Engineer your future
The Shell Centre is humming when I arrive. More than one hundred young women, selected from the 600 who applied to attend, have made the journey from around the UK, overcoming floods, cancelled trains and stringent Shell security. All are studying engineering in various disciplines, all are bright-eyed, articulate and keen to make the most of the day. Organised by Targetjobs, the event is sponsored by EDF Energy, Shell, TFL, TubeLines, Microsoft, Cisco, Caterpillar, National Grid and MBDA.

My speech Motivation, innovation and self-preservation seems to go down well and over lunch a stream of students come up to talk, with questions ranging from the work/life juggle (balancing the demands of a two year old son and a career) to concerns about a new course combining engineering with architecture (will I be employable or should I plump for straightforward civil engineering) to the best ways of helping mid-career women engineers to progress.

Sitting round a table with a workshop group, one young woman describes how she is studying engineering for all the reasons that I have highlighted - the excitement, the wonder and the sense of achievement - but says that the teaching at her top rank university has sucked all that out of her. She has decided to go into management consultancy. In striking contrast another waxes eloquent about her course. "It’s brilliant," she says. "Really interesting and we work on real projects and I can’t wait for my year in industry.”

Tomorrow's engineeers
Three others talk about how inspirational their maths and physics teachers were at school, but many say that they had little support and encouragement to take up an engineering career. This underlines some of the dispiriting findings of EngineeringUK’s  report. Whilst 87% of teachers agree that providing careers guidance is part of their role, eight out of ten base that guidance on their own knowledge and experience. Even worse,  21% of STEM teachers think a career in engineering is undesirable. And on top of all this,  49% of state co-educational schools in England did not send any girls to study physics at A level in 2011.

There is good news, however. EngineeringUK’s two main programmes, The Big Bang Science and Engineering Fair and Tomorrow’s Engineers, are producing encouraging results.  Impact evaluation reveals that the proportion of 12 – 16 year olds expressing knowledge of what people in engineering do has almost doubled, from 11% to 19.8% this year. Moreover the likelihood of this group seeing a career in engineering as desirable has risen year-on-year from 29% to 38%. Even more importantly, of the 56,000 young people and their teachers attending the Big Bang Fair this year, 54% were female. 
Delivering the keynote: Motivation, innovation and self-preservation
As a non-executive director of EngineeringUK I have direct experience of the Big Bang Fair and the extraordinary buzz it creates with all ages. The event includes the finals of the National Science & Engineering Competition, with its impressive and determined young contenders.
Jessica Jones, electronics inventor
For the first time, the winner at this year’s event in March was a woman student.  Jessica Jones and her co-winner Wasim Miah, both 17 and from St David's Catholic College, Cardiff, devised an Optical Foetal Monitor that indicates to pregnant women when they are about to go into labour. 

Jessica is now studying Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Cardiff University. She is also in the process of patenting a form of fibre optic sensing technology and setting up a limited company to market this product. Recognising this youthful talent, on 6 December at the IET’s Young Women Engineer awards, Jessica was announced winner of the 2012 Intel Inspirational Award for Entrepreneurship.

Back to the need for engineers. Sir James Dyson thinks that more students should be encouraged to come to the UK to study engineering and then stay here. EngineeringUK believes that we should be growing our own, encouraging more young people - particularly girls -  in the UK to stick with the maths and physics to go on to take up careers in engineering.

One of the slides I show when promoting women in engineering is a photo collage of the women who have recently become presidents of professional engineering institutions.  I highlight the fact that they all run their own businesses and also point out that we have yet to see a woman president of an electrical engineering professional body. Looking at Jessica and the other finalists at the IET, it will surely not be too long before that gap is filled.


Friday, 9 November 2012

Flight of fancy

Gertrude Bacon on Waterbird
The last weekend of October is spent in the Lake District, combining a reunion dinner with a couple of days hiking in the hills. As we check into the Windermere Hydro hotel at Bowness, a clutch of sepia tinted photographs catch my eye. One shows a woman in Edwardian dress, with high neck and leg of mutton sleeves. She is Gertrude Bacon, the first British woman to fly as a passenger in an aeroplane, and is seated behind pilot Herbert Stanley Adams in Waterbird, Britain’s first successful seaplane that made its historic maiden flight on Lake Windermere in 1911.

The picture to the right of the doughty pair shows an aerial photograph of the town of Bowness, taken by Gertrude in July of the following year.  In her book Memories Of Land and Sky, published in 1928, Gertrude wrote, “Windermere held no secrets from us that afternoon: fishers, bathers, lovers in secluded corners, all were revealed. Somehow, the word had got around of our intended flight and everywhere were waving handkerchiefs and friendly greetings.”

Intrigued, I sit in front of the log fire in the hotel lounge with my laptop and set about finding out more. The daughter of a clergyman who gave up his ministry to concentrate on his scientific interests, Gertrude was educated at home, and clearly relished helping her father with his experiments – particularly ballooning and astronomy. In 1899, the 25 year old Gertrude took off with her father and experienced aeronaut Stanley Spencer in a hydrogen balloon, from Newbury in Berkshire, to view a predicted spectacular meteor shower.

After several hours of enjoyable flight in the darkness, the trio discovered that the balloon showed no signs of descending as planned. Moreover, because of a decision to dispense with the usual butterfly valve, relying instead on natural leakage, there was no way of letting off the gas. The balloon reached 9,000 ft and the trio found themselves over the Bristol Channel. Concerned that when day came, the sun would add to the problems by causing the balloon to rise even higher, they came to the conclusion that they were doomed to a fatal end in the Atlantic or a crash landing by using the ripping cord to puncture the balloon. 

Reverend Bacon seems to have taken a rather philosophical approach, his main concern being the composition of his message to the flight’s sponsors, The Times newspaper. Gertrude and Stanley Spencer made rather more practical use of his copious supply of telegram forms. “We wrote and posted over the side three dozen or so neatly folded notes, labelled Important, and bearing the following message within.  ‘Large balloon from Newbury overhead, above clouds. Cannot descend. Telegraph to sea coast (coastguards) to be ready to rescue.’” 

Eventually, after ten hours of flight, the balloon began to descend of its own accord, tossed by gale force winds, crashing into an oak tree and then finally coming to rest in a barbed wire fence in a field in Neath, Wales. Gertrude suffered a broken arm and her father a lacerated leg.

Undeterred by this hair-raising flight, Gertrude Bacon went on to become a highly regarded balloonist and aeronautical engineer, permitted to accompany the British Astronomical Association on various expeditions to India, the USA and Lapland. She was noted for her speaking abilities, with one newspaper full of praise for a lecture which “was illustrated with lantern slides, experiments and – as far as the possibilities of the Parish Rooms would admit – of working models, including a non-rigid type of dirigible balloon, which floated successfully over the heads of those present”.

Gertrude was not only intrepid, but a talented photographer and author with a precise yet witty writing style. Her account of the hair-raising balloon flight is a joy to read.  (The Record of an Aeronaut, her biography of her father, published in 1907). Yet despite being a pioneering and confident woman, one of her best selling titles was How men fly.

Golden October on Lake Windermere
Back to the present. The next day dawns bright and clear and we are promised that rare event in the Lake District, a dry day. After a wonderful four-hour walk, wearing my new Salomon boots that replaced the venerable Italian pair that so spectacularly parted company with their soles in the Arizona Rim Country (see The Great Arizona road trip) we take the ferry back to  Bowness across Lake Windermere, with glorious golden sunlight burnishing the brilliant crimson, copper and yellow trees along the shoreline. 

Woman at the helm
In charge of the wooden ferry is a young woman, with a ready smile and a sure hand on the wheel.  She has worked for the company for eight years, she tells me, promoted to driving the boats three years ago. She loves the work.

We return to the hotel to find headlines announcing the departure of Cynthia Carroll from Anglo American, after six years as Chief Executive. A geologist by training, US born Cynthia Carroll was the first woman and the first non-South African to be appointed to the role when she was given the top job in 2007.

Earlier in the month Dame Marjorie Scardino (Canadian) announced her decision to step down from publishing giant Pearson after 16 years.

That leaves just two women at the top of FTSE 100 companies in the UK, of whom only one is British - accountant Alison Cooper who has been Chief Executive of Imperial Tobacco since 2010. The other is Angela Ahrends (American), who restored the upmarket credibility of Burberry from the excesses of WAG over-exposure.

The news has resurrected the calls for quotas in boardrooms and the arguments that this will result in a flood of mediocre appointments and the blight of tokenism. “We just need more women in the pipeline, not special treatment,” goes the cry, “and then it will all happen naturally."

And while we are talking about special treatment, Cherie Blair reminded us at the Women beyond leadership 2012 event held this week in London that the Davies Report revealed that only 5 per cent of Non Executive Directors appointed to company boards go through due process.

Meanwhile an engineering friend reports yet another example of the Catch 22 facing senior women in construction. She was told by a headhunter just last week that FTSE board appointments will only be a reality for her if she can demonstrate FTSE experience. 
On a more positive note, it is good news that women are driving boats, trains and planes in peacetime, and some are venturing higher. A century after Gertrude Bacon made her pioneering flight, the first  Chinese woman astronaut, Liu Yang, joined two others aboard the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft that lifted off from the Gobi Desert for a 13 day mission in July this year. Liu is a 33 year old fighter pilot, one of the cohort that completed their training in 2009 and were rewarded with special Anti-G flight suits for women that took 15 months to develop.

A far cry from the outfit devised by another redoubtable woman, Edith Berg, who was so captivated by seeing Wilbur Wright demonstrating his flying machine in France in 1908 that she persuaded him to take her up for a ride. As she set off, she tied a rope around her skirt to stop it blowing in the wind during the flight, becoming not only the first American woman to fly as a passenger in an aeroplane but also the originator of the fashionable ‘hobble skirt.’

Today’s astronaut Liu, from the poor and populous central province of Henan, has been praised in state media for her nerves of steel after safely landing her fighter jet after a bird strike that left the cockpit glass covered with blood. Speaking to the official Xinhua new agency Liu said she "yearns to experience the wondrous, weightless environment of space, see the Earth and gaze upon the motherland".  

Sentiments rather similar to Gertrude Bacon’s introduction to her book All about flying, published in 1915, in which she says, “Who in this world of ours has not envied the birds their wings, and longed like them to soar their way through the free pure vault of heaven!”

China's first female pilots in new flight suits, Tangshan, August 2009

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Social engineering or natural selection?

Leading surveyor: Louise Brooke-Smith
Welcome news that the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) is catching up with some of its fellow professional institutions in the construction, property and engineering world. This year Louise Brooke-Smith was elected as its first ever female Senior Vice President – whether she will become its first-ever female President remains to be seen.

Meanwhile the similarity in career profiles of women reaching the top of these august bodies continues to fascinate. Louise Brooke-Smith has run her own business since 1994 – an independent businesswoman just like Jean Venables (first woman President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Ruth Reid and Angela Brady, first women Presidents of the RIBA, Pam Liversidge, first woman President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and so on ……) See Women rulers.

Just the entrepreneurial spirit, as well as academic and professional excellence, that government wants to encourage.  Moreover, the pipeline of female potential appears to be filling fast, with 984,000 female undergraduates studying for degrees, compared to 713,000 male across UK universities. The gap is expected to widen in future years as new government rules make it easier for universities to recruit students with A-level grades of AAB or better, more of whom are female.

TV role model? Vet Trude Mostue
But there are voices of caution. The Chief Executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, Mary Curnock Cook, describes the gap between male and female performance at school and university as very worrying and ‘which will lead to fundamental shifts in society’.

One institution particularly concerned about female domination of its profession is the Royal Veterinary College, where 75% of newly qualified vets are female, predicted to rise to 90% by 2015. The RVC is now classifying white males as a minority group in its latest recruitment campaign.

 So in this increasingly female profession who and where are the women at the top? The first woman president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) was Dame Olga Uvarov an orphaned, malnourished seven year-old rescued from the Russian Revolution and brought to London by her uncle in 1917. She qualified as a vet in 1934 and formed her own practice before being elected President of the RCVS in 1976.  Another entrepreneur who originated outside Britain (see Must women have to leave home to be successful), amongst her many achievements is a research medal in her honour and a bequest to provide education and travel scholarships for young people. 

Dame Olga Uvarov: survived to achieve
 It has been difficult to find out just how many women presidents of the RCVS there have been since Dame Olga– I believe there have been three – as the data is incomplete and thin. But there were rather more women movers and shakers in the British Veterinary Association (BVA), than the Royal College.  Nine years before the Royal College elected Dame Olga Uvarov, the British Veterinary Association elected its first woman president, the extraordinarily able and inspirational Mary Brancker. She was a leading light in the Society of Women Veterinary Surgeons, formed in 1941 by Joan Joshua and Margaret Bentley as a division of the BVA. Its foundation was sparked by the difficulties women veterinary surgeons faced at the beginning of WWII. During the war, Veterinary Surgery was a ‘reserved profession’; male vets didn’t have to join the fighting and could keep their jobs. It was a different story for female vets however, as they were immediately redirected to essential war work. Joan Joshua challenged the Ministry of Labour in person and, within ten days of her complaint being lodged, the situation was rectified.

Throughout its existence of almost fifty years the Society pledged to keep a ‘watching brief’ over issues which would affect women in the profession. It offered women support, organised lectures on topics such as exotic animal care, arranged educational visits and in 1969 set up a Trust which gave grants for professional development.

By 1989, female graduating veterinary surgeons were in the majority; with 54% of new members added to the Register of Veterinary Surgeons that year being women. So members of the SWVS decided that it had achieved its purpose and, just shy of its Golden Jubilee in 1990, dissolved the Society. However it is interesting to note that it took nearly 40 years for the second woman, Dr Freda Scott-Park from Dunbartonshire, to be elected president of the BVA in 2005.

So the hoppers of talented women in the workplace are filling up, even in engineering where the percentage of girls seeing it as a desirable career has risen from 21% in 2011 to 25% in 2012. (Figures from EngineeringUK's brand monitor.) London 2012 has also inspired women to embark on careers in construction and engineering, with 500 apprenticeships being given against a target of 350 and nearly 1,000 women in the construction workforce.

But some pipelines still seem to be leaking, evidenced in architecture for example where far more women study than practice, and there remain issues about women’s inclination or opportunity to reach the top in some sectors.   

As Diane Houston, a psychology professor and graduate school dean at Kent University, commented this week, whilst boys may be disadvantaged at school, women still faced a glass ceiling in the workplace. As she comments, “I’m not sure that at this point we should be screaming about percentage differences in attainment given the way in which women’s careers atrophy through their reproductive lives. There may be more women training to be solicitors, but the judges are men.”

What is the solution, I wonder?  As well as declaring white men a minority in universities, applying a limit to the number of women going on to further education?  Applying a marking handicap to girls, to give boys the edge, like they did in the 11 plus examinations back in the 1950s? (I was one of these handicapped girls, but still got my place at grammar school.) Outlawing women’s groups and societies? Or should we resist any thoughts of social engineering and simply leave it to natural selection?

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Here we go again

Merry-go-round a never-ending cycle of activities and events (especially when they seem to have little purpose)

It is depressing, albeit unsurprising, that Balfour Beatty has failed in its search to find a woman senior civil engineer with FTSE 250 experience to appoint to its Board of Directors.   After all, there are only three construction companies, including Balfour Beatty, in the FTSE 250, so the pool is rather limited.  Balfour Beatty was also seeking someone with strong commercial experience in Asia. It might have been possible for a woman civil engineer to have acquired that by working for one of the 11 mining companies or the one electricity company in the FTSE 250 – but unlikely.  
So Balfour Beatty has succumbed to the default position for choosing women directors. The company has chosen a lawyer, working in a non construction sector and from the other side of the Atlantic. As I commented in May, more women from outside the UK get to the top of UK companies. For evidence take a look at my story on the Cranfield Report, Milestone, millstone or the same old grindstone.

When it comes to constructive women in FTSE boardrooms, the odds will remain stacked against them until companies and their headhunters recognise the Catch 22 and take a more realistic approach to selection criteria.  Until then, the field will be left to women from the US, Australia or Canada, many with non technical experience, unless more home-grown constructive women take a leaf out of one female architect's book  - she  retrained as an accountant to get on to the company board.

A dispiriting thought for those women clambering on the interminable merry-go-round of recruitment and selection panels. But hang on a moment.  In the US, a merry-go-round spins anti-clockwise. In the UK, a merry-go-round spins in a clockwise direction.  In today's climate, I know which way I would prefer to travel. Headhunters and board directors take note.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Telling tales in and out of school

Women construction workers during WWII
As the unseasonably chill May wind sends leaves and dust whirling around the southern approaches to Waterloo Bridge, our little group of volunteers from the Association of Women in Property (WiP) gathers in the welcome warmth of the National Theatre coffee shop. We are awaiting the arrival of the other half of the team, which is walking from Lilian Baylis Technology School in Vauxhall with 125 students aged 11 and 12. By popular demand, we are repeating The Ladies Bridge, the roadshow with a difference.

The idea grew from discovering a documentary film made by historian Dr Christine Wall and film-maker Karen Livesey telling the story of Waterloo Bridge being rebuilt during World War II by a workforce that was 70 per cent female. The fact was written out of official history but well enough known to Thames Riverboat men that they still refer to it today as The Ladies Bridge. Two years ago, WiP Director Fiona Alfred and I decided that we could use the story as the basis to give school students an insight into the wonders of construction and engineering. Our instinct ( plus experience) told us that it might be easier to engage teachers and students with an intriguing story linked to the history curriculum than trying to sell a construction and property careers presentation.

Raising hands for silence at The Ladies Bridge

Our instinct proved correct.The response was so positive, that the school has asked us to repeat the event - with twice as many students. So here we are again at Waterloo Bridge,with the temperature not much warmer in late May 2012 than it was in early December 2010. Nevertheless, the students appear to engage with the explanations of how to construct a bridge across a fast flowing river, with particular interest in the concept of expansion joints to allow the deck to flex in varying temperatures. 

After brain food, the picture quiz
On return to the school, students' momentary dismay at the requirement to complete a picture quiz about the elements of a bridge is quickly dispelled on discovering that chocolate croissants are included in the roadshow programme. So we have a lecture theatre of 11 and 12 year olds relatively still and quiet after an hour's walking and fortified with a bakery treat - or brain food, as Fiona puts it.

Lisa Jane Risk tells the audience something about her job as  Property Director at Bizspace, the UK's largest provider of managed workspaces, before giving them a slideshow featuring famous bridges around the world. We play a specially edited version of The Ladies Bridge film and then Cathy Stewart talks about her work as an architect and shows them plans and pictures of her projects. I follow up with telling them how structural engineer Jane Wernick devised how to make the London Eye stand up and keep turning. The questions flow until we have to stop for lunch. We learn that teachers have organised an afternoon of bridge building using drinking straws and other materials to keep the theme running.

Into the theatre for the movie

We receive an enthusiastic letter from the Head Teacher, reporting that he has been stopped several times by girl students telling him about the event and that the WiP work is a highlight of the school year. The Assistant Head Teacher thanks us  for arranging and funding the roadshow, describing it as educational, enjoyable and thought provoking. He goes on, "The follow up work students did this afternoon showed they listened and learned a lot about bridge construction, the vast majority attempting something a little more adventurous than merely a beam bridge. Some teams actually modelled something that looked as though it could work and certainly took the weight of a heavy model truck."

A few days later, I receive the feedback forms from the students themselves, which make interesting reading particularly compared with the analysis of the event just 18 months ago. A significant group (38%)  enjoyed visiting Waterloo Bridge itself - a sobering fact discovered during the event was how few students had ever walked along the river or looked at the bridges. Unlike 2010, there were no complaints about the walk and a significant number positively enjoyed it. The number of students who say they know someone working in construction and engineering has risen and several commented that the reason there were more women working in the sector today was because of equality laws.

But perhaps the most telling finding was how many of this year's students (37%) said how much they enjoyed the film and the presentation because they liked  ‘facts’ and learning about the different bridges and how they were built. Following the toe-curling coverage of the Jubilee Flotilla by celebrities rather than experts, it is worth remembering that people - and especially young people - are hungry for information about our world. Buildings and bridges, and the people who design, construct and use them, have great stories to tell through the lens of history.  BBC please take note!

The flotilla marking the opening of old Waterloo Bridge in 1817

Friday, 8 June 2012

The great Arizona road trip - 6

From rosy sunset to white dawn

A State of extremes
We wake at 6.00am in a room bathed in a cool eerie light. Looking through the window our view has become monochrome, the trees covered in snow with more falling from the pewter grey sky. Closer inspection shows our dark grey car is transformed into a white model. The weather forecast indicating a 70 per cent chance of snow was a conservative one.

As my trusty Italian hiking boots had parted company with their soles on our mountain hike in the Ponderosa we had planned to pick up replacements or at least some rubber boots in the Yavapai General Store in order to make the most of the day. But seeing the deepening snow, and conscious of our lack of clothing, not to mention our flight back to the UK on Monday morning, we decide to leave a day early.

I put on two pairs of thick socks, the emasculated hiking boots and tie plastic bags on each foot as temporary protection.  We clear the 10 cms of snow and ice off the car with the plastic plates out of the picnic box - very effective - and carefully make our way out of the Park, driving in the tracks of others who are making the same decision. The temperature is 28 degrees and snow continues to fall. 
We reach Williams, passing a number of snowploughs which are focusing on the local airfield, and get on to Interstate 40 (the good old Route 66). The conditions are still pretty grim, but at least we are on a highway. Then, after just 20 miles, we see a police car facing us on the hard shoulder with warning lights flashing. We slow down and then come to a complete stop behind a long line of cars, pickups and huge American trucks. We tune into various radio stations but there is no traffic news. There is no network coverage on our phones. Nothing moves.

Route 66: Nothing moving ahead...
After half an hour Rod gets out to stretch his legs and chats to the driver of the car in front, who is doing the same. He tells Rod that there are three separate truck crashes on the way to Flagstaff, and that we are likely to be stuck here for two to three hours. The information has been obtained by telephoning his son, who went online to get the info. He offers us water. This is the last thing on my mind, as although Rod has managed a comfort break by one of the sparse trees on the roadside, the bleak and open Arizona  topography offers no opportunity of discrete cover for me.

...and plenty backed up behind.
The snow continues to fall. Two paramedic vehicles pass by sounding their sirens. Rod tunes into a local radio station called Calm, which provides unexpected entertainment as we try to guess the origin of each incredibly laid back, lushly orchestrated number. We find a small bag of peanut M & Ms and share them out.

Then as forecast, after 2 hours 28 minutes, there is movement. Driving carefully on the snowy highway, we pass the three accident sites, each close to an intersection, where tow trucks are manipulating the crashed lorries. We pass another accident scene. The snow starts falling more thickly and the temperature drops to 24 degrees. It seems extraordinary that only three days earlier and 150 miles away we had been seeking shade in the 94 degree heat of Phoenix. 

As we approach Flagstaff, conditions worsen and each slip road and exit presents a challenge. Snow falls thickly and swirls of mist obscure traffic and signs. We negotiate on to the highway going south and at last, as the elevation starts to fall below 4,500 feet, the temperature begins to rise and the snow is replaced by squalls of sleety rain.

Stormy skies in  Red Rock Country

We see the familiar rosy mountains of Red Rock Country, glowing against dark clouds, and the welcome signs for Sedona and Oak Creek Village. We pull into the Canyon Villa B & B, stretch our legs and retrieve our suitcase. Sadly there are no rooms free that evening, so we decide to fill up the petrol tank and make a run for Tucson. I change into my new Navajo socks and dry trainers. We call Cathy and Steve, tell them we are arriving back a day early and ask them to reserve a table for us all at a local restaurant for dinner.

The landscape changes to the familiar pale ochre desert dotted with the welcoming arms of saguaro cactus reaching cheerily up to the clear blue sky and as we sweep into the driveway lined with palm trees the temperature has risen 40 degrees to a balmy 64. After a shower, shampoo and change of clothes we set off to enjoy margueritas,  Mexican food and a Mariachi band – and marvel at the contrasts of Arizona.

Back to sunny Tucson
Photographs by Rod and Sandi Rhys Jones.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The great Arizona road trip - 5

The tortuous road through Oak Creek Canyon

Friday the Thirteenth - the Grand Canyon
The wind rises and sky darkens as we take the scenic route out of Sedona through Oak Creek Canyon up into the mountains. The Garmin valiantly tries to show the hairpin bends of the road but eventually gives up and the car icon simply spins round and around on the screen. We reach the peak and pull into the national park viewing area. It is also an approved trading post for native American Indians to sell their handmade arts and crafts. A cluster of stalls filled with jewellery, pottery and feathered dream catchers are ranged in line. The Navajo Indians huddled under hoods and umbrellas against the biting wind are cheerful, charming and informative. We buy intricately woven bracelets for the grandchildren, each with a sheet explaining the various images.

We walk to the viewing point. The view is spectacular. Huge ravens soar and dip above our heads. Excitable Japanese and Italian tourists arrive, crying out "Bald eagles, bald eagles!" Their jocular and patient guide does his best to convince them otherwise, but in the end decides to opt for the possibility that they are turkey vultures. This seems to satisfy them and after various combinations of photo opportunity all move back to their minibus.

We too retreat to the warmth of our vehicle and continue down the scenic route to Flagstaff. After a rather challenging negotiation around the town we find the road west to Los Angeles and then strike off due north to our destination, the Grand Canyon. Skies to the west have encouraging stripes of blue. Skies to the east are distinctly grey.
First view of the Grand Canyon

The Ranger issuing our pass at the entrance to the Grand Canyon National Park tells us that there is a 70 per cent chance of precipitation, between 2 and 5 inches. Precipitation means snow. But shouldn't be a problem, she smiles. Rod looks thoughtful.

We check into Yavapai Lodge, where a tall chap with wire-rimmed glasses, whispy beard and prominent Adam's apple welcomes us cheerily. He too assures us that even if there is snow, it shouldn't be a problem, although he would advise against taking the tortuous scenic road back Flagstaff if the weather does change.

Our room on the second floor is large, comfortable, nicely furnished and very warm, with a wall of windows overlooking the pines that creates the feeling of being in a tree house. We go back to the car and open the boot to get out our suitcase. It is not there.

I stare in disbelief. How come someone managed to steal it without setting off the alarm? Was it the two grubby hippies munching burgers in a battered station wagon parked next to us when we stopped at the art gallery in Sedona? I sit down on a rock on the pathway, thinking of my computer and my jewellery roll. I also remember jokingly telling friends that as we were visiting the Grand Canyon on Friday 13 I would stay away from the edge. The jinx has clearly taken a different form.
Rod quietly says, "I left the suitcase in Sedona."

I remember him carrying it down the stairs from the room. "In the car park?" I ask.

"No, in the corner of the registration office," he replies. Relief that it has not been stolen or left in a car park overrides panic at the loss of a computer. Even lack of fresh underwear, contact lenses and make-up are minor issues. A call to the Canyon Inn, Sedona confirms that they have our case and have even sent us an email, not yet received due to intermittent reception.

Extraordinary glow at sunset

Dedicated snapper
There is only one thing to do - go and take a good look at the reason for making the journey. And it is worth making. Like other extraordinary sights of the world, photograph and film do not do justice to the sheer vastness, grandeur and colour of the Grand Canyon. We walk a stretch of the Rim Trail, visit the geological museum and take lots of photographs, despite knowing that many of them will look like rosy porridge.

We call into the General Store, which proves to be impressively large, well stocked with fresh food, household goods, clothing, crampons and hiking gear. Toothbrushes are purchased, together with milk and muffins for breakfast, humous, crackers and red wine for a restorative appetiser. As we return to the lodge, a mule deer strolls nonchalantly along the edge of the car park, nibbling the grass.

Reading the park newspaper reveals a wide range of activities, including a talk this evening entitled Gold, Glory and discovering the Grand Canyon. We set off, wearing all the clothes available from our limited stock, topped with our windproof macs. The auditorium fills with a mixture of mature, serious types, young hikers and multiple generation campers with offspring ranging from babies to teenagers, including a collection of what turns out to be Noisy and Unmanageable Toddlers.

The young, bearded Ranger lecturer strides energetically around, interspersing rapid fire questions to the audience (What make the Grand Canyon grand? What did you learn today?) with a galloping ideosyncratic and entertaining history of Spanish kings, errant daughters and conquistadors who wandered the desert like ancient mariners searching for Cibola and the seven cities of gold.They didn't find the gold, but they did discover the Grand Canyon.

The Noisy and Unmanageable Toddlers cause mayhem, impervious to the shushes and increasingly disgruntled comments from the main audience and a plea from the Ranger. Eventually relegated to the lobby by their spookily silent mothers in floaty skirts and wool beanies, they continue to run amok. Nobody bothers to shut the doors but eventually the volume dies down. At the end of the lecture the Ranger tells us to leave the site quickly as street lighting is kept to the minimum in the park in order to reduce light pollution. We head off for dinner at Bright Angel Lodge, the historic place we would have liked to stay but which, like El Tovar, is booked a year in advance. 

Warm welcome at Bright Angel Lodge

Bright Angel Lodge is warm, welcoming and stylish. Designed by the innovative architect Mary Jane Colter in 1935, it is built of wood and stone, with a blazing fire in a magnificent fireplace to greet us as we walk through the lobby door. Above the fireplace hangs a large carving of the thunderbird, the Bright Angel of the canyon and namesake of the lodge. Sadly the history room is closed, so we cannot admire at first hand the fireplace which Mary Jane Coulter had constructed of rocks to match the geological formation of the canyon itself.

Regarded as the best-known unknown architect in the national parks, Mary Jane Colter's philosophy was that a building should grow out of its setting. Her style of architecture became known as National Park Service Rustic. “It should belong to its environment as though indigenous to that spot,” according to her biographer Virginia Grattan.

Colter became interested in building and design whilst working as an apprentice architect to help fund her art studies. She spent 15 years as an art teacher but in 1902 she found a summer job with the Fred Harvey Company which specialized in railway stations and hotels. After doing interior decoration for the Indian Building adjacent to the new Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque, Colter was commissioned to design the Hopi House at the Grand Canyon.

Mary Jane Colter
Although these projects were successful, it was another eight years before she was offered a permanent position at the Fred Harvey Company. But she remained there as architect and designer for 46 years and was responsible for 21 projects, including La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, La Posada in Winslow and the Union Stations in Kansas City, St. Louis and Los Angeles.
Despite her regular commissions and the magnificence of her designs, success did not come easily in a male-dominated profession. She was not listed as architect on many of her buildings and her name did not achieve the recognition of many of her peers such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Irving Gill. 

Today all six of her public structures within the park are included in the Mary Jane Colter National Landmark District or have National Landmark Properties status.  More people tour a Mary Jane Colter creation in a single busy weekend than visit some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous sites in a year. A satisfying thought.

Endless vista
We go to the large dining room, combining rustic wooden panels with ornate light fittings, intimate alcoves and tables to accommodate a dozen or more people. We eat excellent steak with fries and salad and share a rainbow sorbet, at a very reasonable price. I note how our fellow diners wrap up in multiple layers as they leave, discussing how cold the weather has become. I buy a pair of bright Navajo patterned socks from the excellent shop (the closest I get to taking home Indian weaving).

We find the car and start to find our way back in the intense darkness to Yavapai Lodge. Our Garmin lady descends into a semi-hysterical babble, trying to guide us on to non-existent roads, one way streets and dead ends. As she tries to persuade us to turn right onto the railroad track, I consign her to the glove compartment and just as we think we shall have to resort to navigating by the stars, we spot signs that relate to the rather vague map and triumphantly locate the lodge. After a warming glass of red wine, to compensate for lack of night attire, we go to bed.

All photographs by Sandi Rhys Jones, except for portrait of Mary Jane Colter, from the National Parks Archive.