Frances Ashcroft, the physiologist and author of "The Spark of Life", chooses her seven wonders...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2012
As a professor of physiology, she has an academic interest in discovering the limits to human endeavour. As a keen traveller, she has a personal one. When researching a previous book, “Life at the Extremes”, she travelled the globe, climbed mountains and dived in oceans. Frances Ashcroft is now the European Laureate of the L’Oréal-UNESCO Awards for Women in Science.
BEACH Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand
I visited this beach and fell in love with it immediately. It doesn’t have a name, and very few people go there. We stayed with a friend, who has a house in an olive grove on a hill overlooking the beach. It has blinding white sand and a sparkling blue sea. Behind the beach, there is a wild forest of tree ferns and white and blue agapanthus, and at its edge a small rocky island. It was utterly peaceful; days passed and we saw no one. It was warm and windy, and we went sea kayaking and I kept getting tumbled out.
I’m not a city person but I love Oxford—the spires, the bells and the warm golden stone. It’s at the same time tranquil and exhilarating, filled (like any university city) both with flocks of bright young people and ghosts of the past. And it’s great for science: people tend to think of Cambridge as the place for science and Oxford for humanities, but Oxford has wonderful science too, and as a place to work—for me, anyway—it’s unsurpassed. Every day I wonder at how I come to be here and think how lucky I am. I also get enormous pleasure from my college, Trinity, which is small, friendly and has magnificent gardens.
HOTEL A Ryokan in Japan
To be honest, I much prefer my own bed! But if I have to choose a hotel my favourite would be a Japanese ryokan. Staying in one is such a different experience. It starts with a Japanese bath, which is small, deep and very hot—sitting in it, you feel your cares melt away. Then an exquisite lady in a beautiful dress comes and serves you delicious sushi and morsels of vegetarian food in your room. By the time you go to bed, you are feeling perfectly relaxed. I was once taken to stay in an old Japanese home in Shirakawa-go by a Japanese colleague. It’s like a Japanese version of Switzerland with Toblerone houses—triangular, brown and thatched. It was deep snow outside and there was no heating. We slept under mounds of quilts warmed by a hollow brick filled with hot coals.
BUILDING Pantheon, Rome
It is extraordinary to think that almost 2,000 years ago the Romans engineered and built the Pantheon, which is still, I believe, the world’s biggest unreinforced concrete dome. Standing in the shaft of sunlight coming in through the oculus is like being bathed in a celestial spotlight. But I love bridges, too, and my favourite is the Oresund Bridge that connects Sweden and Denmark. I’ve been across it many times to visit friends in Lund. It’s beautiful, and I like the symbolism of the way it bridges two countries that were once at war and the romance of how, when it was finished, the Prince of Denmark and the Princess of Sweden met in the middle to celebrate.
WORK OF ART A Pot by Lucie Rie
If I could have my own museum, it would be Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, which is a work of art in itself. When I was a student, you were allowed to go there and borrow a painting to hang in your room. I chose a wonderful David Jones watercolour called “Vexilla Regis”; it reminded me of that Kipling poem: “They shut the way through the woods. Seventy years ago…” If I had to choose a piece of art to live with, it would be one of Lucie Rie’s marvellous pots – the thin, fine, exquisite ones. I have had a passion for pots since I was a child, perhaps because my father taught art and ceramics and made lovely pots that remind me of Lucie’s. She said her pots should be used, and I had a friend who knew Lucie in her youth and had many of her magical pots, and she did just that: when I visited her we used one of them as a salad bowl.
JOURNEY Sailing around the Inner Hebrides
The islands are the loveliest places on Earth when the sun shines—which, fortunately, it doesn’t too often, so they’re still unspoilt. Visiting them in your own boat allows you to get close to them in a way that you never could if you arrived by ferry. Each has its own distinct character: Canna has white sand, purple seaweed and turquoise sea; the Treshnish islands can only be visited when the sea is calm—they are covered in sea pinks and unafraid puffins and shags. We crashed into a rock when we arrived at Iona, but the grey stone monastery was simple and majestic; Eigg has squeaking sands and choppy anchorage; and Rum, red deer and underwater forests of kelp. The weather, even in mid-summer, is unpredictable—occasionally hot and sunny, but more usually wild, windy and with big waves, which makes for sometimes hairy sailing.
VIEW Earth from Space
For me, this is the most wondrous view, because it has transformed the way we think of our planet. It looks so beautiful and so fragile; it makes you realise we have to take care of it. I would love to be able to see it for myself. When I was a child it was my dream to be an astronaut and I wrote to NASA, asking what A-levels to take and whether it would be a good idea to do botany, so that I could study lichens on Mars. They never wrote back, so I’ve had to make do with photographs. I particularlylove that wonderful picture of the Earth rising over the moon, like a tiny blue ball hanging in the void.
Frances Ashcroft’s latest book is “The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body” (Allen Lane)