David Winston Cope, B.Sc. 1945–2005

Originally published in the December 2005 edition of the Membership Newsletter (No.48)

David Winston Cope, B.Sc.  26th November 1945 – 18th August 2005

David died, aged 59, on August 18th 2005, following broncho-pneumonia and pulmonary embolism, while in the field near Wareham.  He had not enjoyed good health for the last few years, but had persevered with his work nonetheless.  Sadly he was not found for 2 days.

Born in the 26th November 1945 at Leek, Staffordshire, he attended Leek High School achieving 8 O Levels and 3 A Levels, including Geography and Geology.  He graduated from Manchester University in 1967.  He was unmarried, a quiet but enthusiastic man. David’s understanding of the peat soils of the Somerset Moors was second to none.  With a thorough knowledge of soils, geology and geomorphology, he was worth listening to when on a subject he knew well.  Away from the earth sciences, he was a keen sailor.

David joined the Soil Survey of England and Wales ager graduating.  He worked from the Burghill Road office, Bristol until 1975, when the Survey staff moved to Long Ashton Research Station.  Numerous Soil Survey maps, publications and reports bear his mane as author or co-author.  He remained at Long Ashton until he took a severance package, when the office closed in 1991.  At about that time he moved house from Clifton to Swindon.

As a soil surveyor he was enthusiastic and diligent.  He began helping in the completion of the Bath – Malmsbury 1 inch survey.  1969 brought a switch to 1:25,000 mapping of 10x10 km blocks, representing major elements of the country’s soilscape, when he carried out surveys in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire.  On the publication of his Wilton map and Record, Prof. Walter Russell wrote to David’s regional officer, Derek Findlay, with congratulations on the quality and insight of the survey, but regretting minor errors in the description of 19th century sheep folding on the downs!  In the ‘70s David made a large contribution to the mapping of peat thickness in the Somerset Moors.

1979 saw the start of the 1:¼ million National Soil Map, in which he mapped much of Somerset, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire, as well as part of Cornwall.  On that project’s completion in 1984, resumption of detailed mapping took him to the Fens.  Soon loss of funding caused the Soil Survey to redirect its efforts.  As well as carrying our privately commissioned farm surveys in various parts of the country, he contributed to the national lowland peat survey, along with detailed surveys of research stations, experimental husbandry farms and the reservoir catchment at Roadford, Devon.  At one time he undertook forensic work, helping solve a murder in Wiltshire.

In 1991 David left the Soil Survey, working as a self-employed subcontractor for the Survey and other organisations until his death.  This included soil surveying, soil sampling and surveys of soil erosion and corrosion risk. 

Outside his formal work, for several years David was the secretary of the South West England Soils Discussion Group, of which he was a founder member, and treasurer of the Survey’s union branch of the IPCS.  He joined the Bristol Naturalists’ Society in 1982 and was an active and enthusiastic member, being president of its geology section until his death.  Over the last 10 years David helped with a number of geological interpretation projects in the Bristol district.

At Long Ashton he was introduced to what became his favourite pastime, sailing.  This he involved himself in with enthusiasm, both practically in and around the Channel and by attending courses, including marine diesel engine maintenance.

Some soil surveyors see their maps as epitaphs; they are at the least scientifically informative and interesting, with not a few being elegant and almost artistic.  David however went one further.  Channel 4’s 1993 dramatisation of his forensic work had the actor playing him look at some soil and pronounce to the watching millions: “King’s Norton series”.  Few of us will emulate the raising of the popularisation of science to that level.