Sailing through his degree

Ben Teague smiling in Lancaster Environment Centre wearing his black, red and grey graduation gowns

Ben Teague chose to study geography because he’s interested “in the relationships between people and the world around us.” But originally, he wasn’t going to apply to Lancaster.

“The only reason I came to the open day was to get some driving practice,” Ben explains. “It chucked it down with rain all the way up the M6 and I came wanting to hate it. But when I got here it felt really welcoming, the staff all wanted to chat and it was clean and modern, with the best accommodation we saw by far.”

Ben changed his plans and put Lancaster as his first choice: he has never regretted it.

“The course allowed me to study a really nice mix of human and physical modules, and I liked the minor system so I could study politics in the first year, which broadened my horizons. I always picked modules because I enjoyed them rather than with an end in mind.”

Ben is a keen sailor, having spent many childhood holidays sailing at Abersoch in the Llyn Peninsula in North Wales. So when it came to choosing his dissertation topic, he decided to combine his passion for water sports with his love of the marine environment.  

He was inspired by research carried out by one of his lecturers, Dr John Childs, who had taught him Political Geography and researched attitudes to the sea. Ben decided to turn his attention to a bay he loved, where he’d been sailing since he was a boy.

“I wanted to investigate the perceptions, attitudes and behaviour of marine users, and whether their behaviour matched their attitudes.”

As well as interviewing sailors and other users of Abersoch Bay, he spent hours observing them to see how they interacted with the ocean. The area is covered by the Gwynedd Marine Code, and he wanted to know whether the bay users were aware of the code, and if they kept to its recommendations.

He discovered that most people saw the sea as two-dimensional and didn’t think about what happened below the surface. While they saw porpoises as marine wildlife and were concerned about how human actions affected them, they didn’t perceive sea grass at the bottom of the ocean in the same way or think about how dropping an anchor might damage it.

“People mostly believed they were respectful of wildlife and keeping to the marine code, but this was not always reflected in what they did. I asked them whether they kept a safe distance from wildlife and people felt they did, but the marine code said they should be 150m away and most people didn’t know that and didn’t keep to that in practice.”

“Doing the research has certainly changed my behaviour on the water, and a lot of other people have changed their behaviour as well. The Sailing Club I am involved with are working on a Sustainability Policy using the results of my research, which means it is having an impact.”

As well as working hard, Ben threw himself into the social life and activities of the University from the moment he arrived at Lancaster. He joined the University Sailing Club and went to all the Lancaster Environment Centre Society (LECSoc) events. In his second year, he became President of LECSoc, introducing new types of socials and greatly increasing the number of staff and students who attended.  He also helped out at University Open Days as a student ambassador.

This “helpfulness and positive spirit’ was recognised with a second Environment Centre award, the Sandra Irish Memorial Prize for the best overall contribution to the Department. The two prizes have increased Ben’s self-belief.

“I was never really the clever one at school, so to go out with a first-class degree, and to know I can compete with the best, is fantastic.”

Ben’s experience at Lancaster changed his career direction as well. When he arrived, he planned to be a teacher. He took advantage of one of the Lancaster Environment Centre’s more unusual modules where, for a term, students spend a morning a week as a classroom assistant to a geography teacher in a secondary school.

“I was in quite a deprived area of Blackpool in a school that was dipping in and out of special measures. A lot of the children had very difficult backgrounds and school offered the only bit of stability. It was a rewarding, inspiring and eye-opening experience.”

Despite enjoying his time in the classroom, Ben decided he didn’t want to teach. He’d become interested in planning, after hearing a speaker from the Royal Institute of Town Planning at a careers event during his first year at Lancaster. A module on Cities and Globalisation, and a field course to New York studying inequality, difference and resistance, cemented his interest.

“It made me realise how important it is to engage the community in development proposals. I became interested in shaping the physical landscape to make it work for everyone,” said Ben, who is now doing a masters in town planning at Manchester University.

Find out more about studying geography at Lancaster University.

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