Doing it all

Simon stands in a woodland smiling and holding a professional camera

Cartographer, scientific illustrator, graphic designer, photographer, barman, pot washer, cleaner – 'jack of all trades' leaves Lancaster University after 18 years to focus on his family business, a 'knitting hotel'.

Simon Chew has photographed skeletons, reconstructed roman villas, made artificial eyes, designed Lancaster University’s first full-colour Geography prospectus, told Liverpool’s history through maps, and has had his work in more journals and books than most academic researchers. That doesn’t include his other life as a hotelier running a Blackpool guesthouse with his wife, Paula, catering to the growing interest in knitting holidays.

Even before joining Lancaster University in 2003, Simon had had several careers. After studying Scientific Illustration and Design at Blackpool Art College, he worked as an archaeological illustrator in Salisbury (working with future members of Time Team), Oxford and York.

"I was interested in archaeological reconstruction, what a roman villa looked like or a Viking settlement," says Simon, whose role involved creating maps and illustrating specialist publications and exhibitions – often drawing by hand with ink and stationed at a drawing board.

But family commitments meant he and Paula had to move to the North-West coast, settling on Blackpool, and Simon was looking for a new job. After a stint working for the NHS’s National Artificial Eye Service, he applied for job as a cartographer in Lancaster University’s Geography Department. He assumed he’d be joining a team, but when he arrived in 2003, he discovered the team was just him.

As well as producing maps for academics and PhD researchers, Simon created diagrams and other illustrations – for articles, presentations, posters and books on a huge range of subjects.

He’s particularly proud of his work with Professor Colin Pooley on Liverpool 800, a book covering the cultural and social history of Liverpool over the past 800 years. "There were all sorts of maps and diagrams and we had to get the data, look and design right."

In those days there wasn’t broad access to programmes like adobe and illustrator, so it could be a laborious process, and some work still had to be done by hand.

He collaborated with Dr Alan Blackburn, now a professor, to produce a full colour Geography prospectus – amongst the first departmental ones in the University - a new way of doing things that soon became standard.

When the Lancaster Environment Centre (LEC) was created, bringing environmental science, ecology and biology into the department, Simon had to master yet more subjects.

"I’ve got a reasonably broad knowledge but if somebody comes through the door, it can be so niche and specialist I sometimes haven’t a clue what it is about or what they are asking me to do." But he enjoyed working it out and flourished on the variety.

He also found his photography skills were in demand.

"When I was studying illustration, I was constantly using cameras for picking up reference material for illustrating a specific landscape. When I went into archaeology, I used to do site photography, I could be photographing elevations of ancient buildings or skeletons in the ground and back in the office I’d be producing reprographic work.

"Working for LEC there are so many different types of publication, so I would go and take a photograph if I didn’t have an image. If I went out on my days off to the Lake District or Morecambe Bay, I’d always be keeping an eye out for a useful photo."

Then the departmental website started becoming more important, and Simon was asked to produce illustrations for news stories, and portraits of staff. But that wasn’t always easy.

"Most people don’t want their photo taken. You tend to find people in science work behind closed doors and are quite reluctant to come out, so to try and publicise what they are doing, can be quite tricky. You’ve got to try to engage with people, talk to them and put them at ease. If you can get someone to relax, you get a much nicer, less formal photograph."

Simon’s photography skills were recognised in 2016 when he was shortlisted out of 10,000 submissions for Environmental Photographer of the Year for a photo of dramatic Boxing Day floods in Manchester – he’d been staying with his daughter near the River Irwell and decided the floods would be useful images for work.

Soon after Simon joined Lancaster University, he and his wife Paula bought the Westcliffe, an old guesthouse in Blackpool, so he had a double life, helping-out as host, barman and handyman in the hotel at evenings and weekends.

"It was difficult because there is such competition in Blackpool, so we had to come up with a niche of our own. Paula was always a very keen knitter, so we decided to try a few knitting holidays, see if we could target knitting groups."

As people realised that they could bring their knitting on holiday, the Westcliffe began attracting visitors from all over Britain, and then from abroad. Soon they were running knitting holidays at other venues as well.

Then their niche became even more niche. Paula’s father had been a lifeboatman on England’s east coast, and she became fascinated by ganseys – a traditional knitted working garment worn by fisherman.

"They are long sleeved, knitted in one piece, with specific patterns associated with different villages and towns. We did a tour focussed on them to Scarborough and Whitby."

Now Simon had another role, helping devise and deliver tours, while Paula acted as guide and tutor to enable people to design and knit their own unique gansey.

Though the pandemic was a tough time, the Westcliffe is now booked up a year ahead. Having inherited some money from his father, Simon has decided to leave the Lancaster Environment Centre and focus on the hotel and a new venture – creating machine made ganseys and selling them online.

Simon says he will miss the variety of his role working for one of the biggest environmental institutes in Europe, never knowing what will land on his desk next but knowing that it always matters.

"With the climate crisis and ecological crisis, if anybody is going to make a difference today it is the likes of the people here with their huge enthusiasm and passion for their subjects."

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