Cuchlaine King, the Arctic pioneer whose heart was in the Dales

Cuchlaine King with former student Jack Ives on an expedition in the '50s. Photo courtesy Jane Ritchie

By Betsy Everett

Cuchlaine King, a leading scientist of the 20th century who has died in Bainbridge aged 97, has been featured on Radio 4’s flagship obituary programme, Last Word, where tribute was paid to her by a former colleague.

Professor Brian Whalley of Sheffield University, described Prof King’s pioneering work in the 1950s and ‘60s, when she travelled to remote parts of the world where other women at that time did not, or could not, venture. In 1965 she became the first woman to be allowed by the Canadian government to join an expedition to the Arctic, led by one of her former students, Jack Ives.

Cuchlaine was a geomorphologist, studying the physical features of the earth’s surface to understand how landscapes are formed. Working initially on sand movement and coastal erosion, and later glaciation, she travelled from the Mediterranean to the Arctic, to communist China, New Zealand, North and South America, Iceland and Norway.

Her work combined an academic interest in geomorphology with a lifelong love of the natural environment, from the ice fields of the Arctic to the valleys and hills of the Yorkshire dales, where the King family had its roots, and Cuchlaine had her heart: she retired to the family home in Worton nearly 40 years ago.

With characteristic modesty, and a quiet disposition, she would underplay her achievements, claiming only that she had “paved the way for gender equality in Arctic exploration,” a sentiment echoed in Prof Ives’ 2016 book on Baffin Island which he dedicated to her

She had joined Ives’s field trips to Iceland in 1953 and 1954, where on one expedition tragedy struck, with the deaths of two members in blizzard conditions. He chose Cuchlaine alone to accompany him on the long and arduous night-time trek to raise the alarm.

Professor King’s father, the eminent geologist William Bernard Robinson King, was her role model – she and her sister Margaret both followed his example by gaining BAs in geography at Cambridge University in the early 1940s. She attributed her academic success in a largely male field to his determination that she should follow whatever course she chose in life, emboldening and inspiring her in equal measure.

Like many of her generation, rather than fighting for equality of opportunity for women, she led by example, ensuring that her chosen academic discipline could benefit from the best brains, regardless of gender.

Among her many publications was “Beaches and Coasts” (1959)   the first text book of its kind by a British academic, says Prof Whalley. .

In 2016 she was the subject of a paper, “Blood, Sand and Ice,” presented to the Geological Society of America by Prof Dorothy Sack of Ohio University.

In the early 2000s Prof Sack visited Cuchlaine at her home in Wensleydale. “She was truly a pioneer. . .  and she was such a delight. Meeting with her was one of the highlights of my professional life,” she wrote.

After graduating from Cambridge in 1943, Cuchlaine joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) where she was attached to the Met Office in Belfast during the second world war, taking weather reports and drawing up charts for pilots.

She returned to Cambridge to complete her doctorate, taught for a year at Durham University, then moved to Nottingham University where in 1969  she became a professor of physical geography.

She worshipped for many years at St Oswald’s Church, Askrigg, where she learned to bell-ring under the tutelage of tower captain, Jack Metcalfe, on her retirement. “Bell-ringing was one of the great pleasures of my life,” she once said.

Cuchlaine was also a generous benefactor, paying for the complete restoration of the bell ropes which had broken in 2016 because of excessive damp in the tower, and the collection at her memorial service in St Oswald’s was donated to the tower fund.

Maud and the text book.

She used to lead guided walks for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, accompanied by her beloved border terriers. “If people were half as sensible as dogs, the world would be a better place,” was a favourite saying, often whispered in the ear of Maud, one of the breed for whom she had a special affection and who was a regular visitor to her apartment in Sycamore Hall.

Prof King leaves a niece, Jane Ritchie of West Burton, and three nephews, Nicholas, Timothy and John Ritchie.

Cuchlaine Audrey Muriel King, born Cambridge, June 26, 1922, died Bainbridge, North Yorkshire, 17 December, 2019.

Cuchlaine out in the field. Photo by Jack D. Ives.