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Richard Iliffe 1932-2021

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Richard Iliffe 1932-2021

Richard Iliffe, Chair of the Leicestershire Fungi Study group since 1988, died peacefully at home on the 17th October 2021 aged 89 years.

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Richard was born in the village of Fleckney, South Leicestershire. His lifelong interest in the natural world developed during childhood, first gardening with his father and later, as a schoolboy, enjoying long rambles with his dog. Following a chance meeting with J C Badcock, a local naturalist and the author of a weekly column for the Leicester Mercury, Richard aged ten was encouraged to accompany him on regular walks round the local countryside. At that time Richard was most interested in bird watching, and Jack introduced him to many and taught him to recognise their calls and their songs. This enthusiasm remained with him throughout his life.

Richard studied hard and did well at school, and throughout his working life seized and relished opportunities to extend his intellect and interests.

Initially working as a clerk at Leicester City Water Department, he passed local government exams after attending evening classes, and moved to the Engineering Department as a trainee, continuing his evening classes at Leicester Technical College in mathematics and engineering sciences. He spent 4 years there, mostly preparing drawings and plans for new water pipelines in Leicester and the county – including at Cropston Pumping Station – and the new reservoir at Staunton Harold. He said that one of the attractions of the job was that he could spent a lot of time outdoors and enjoy ornithology at the same time.

He qualified as a civil engineer and worked initially for Taylor-Woodrow Construction in London, on projects including a multi-storey office block in the Strand and the Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Station. In 1960, he moved to Derbyshire as site engineer for pipelines in the Derwent valley, later returning to London as senior site engineer for John Laing and working on a number of motorway projects. In 1971 he moved to Costain International and participated in a major road construction project in Nepal. He travelled to overseas sites in Egypt and the Gulf States, South Africa, and the Philippines, before returning to London to work on the Thames barrier.

In 1979, Richard decided to move back to Leicestershire to help look after his ailing father, and he was appointed Regional Civil Engineer at J Laing’s new office. He bought a house in Hinckley, which he renovated and redesigned and he took lifelong pleasure in his large garden.

It was typical of Richard that, wherever he lived, he was energetic in making a social circle for himself and joining a wide range of cultural and social groups. Feeling also at this stage that his working life was not stretching him enough intellectually, he enrolled in the Open University in 1983, and completed a BA Honours degree in Natural Sciences. He joined the Hinckley Natural History Society, making several good friends there, and joined them in regular outings to the surrounding countryside to study birds and wildlife. One friend moved to Cornwall and Richard would for many years take a ‘holiday week’ of natural history there with him – usually in late May or June when the birds were singing, and the butterflies were active. He later became a stalwart of the Market Bosworth and District Natural History Society (MBNHS) and contributed monthly nature notes to the regular village newsletter ‘Aspect.’

It was in October 1980 that Richard was present at the inaugural meeting of the Leicestershire Fungi Study Group (LFSG) in the Teacher Leaders' Rooms at the Leicester City Museum, New Walk. Many of the forty or so present had attended a Workers Educational Course on fungi led by Christopher Scotter, who was elected first chair.

Founder members recall:

            “Richard became quite dedicated to the fungi. He regularly attended field meetings of the British Mycological Society and local fungus groups such as those in Warwickshire, Derbyshire, the Forest of Dean and elsewhere, and from these visits he brought back much new information and passed it on to us. In the early years we had several weekend meetings in the New Forest and Richard organised accommodation and foray sites through a lecturer from Southampton University. These certainly helped to increase our knowledge of fungi and promoted a real friendship within the group.” 

            “During his early membership of the LFSG he impressed me with his treatment of what we considered a problematical fungal group, that of Mycenae. He presented his findings at an evening meeting, having diligently searched through all the publications on the genus that he could find, and compiled a table of around eighty species and their characters, organised in an accessible way. From then on, we could reduce our problem specimens down to just a few names to look into later. It was great step forward.”

From the beginning, he was meticulous about fungal identification, both in taking notes in the field, and in microscopic confirmation, and never hesitated to have material checked and properly refereed by experts, such as those at Kew, which gave reliability to his identifications and records. He worked as a team with the late Tom Hering, who joined the LFSG in the mid-1980s as Recorder for VC55, and they both devoted the autumn of each year to forays and recording, sharing the identification of the finds and producing a combined list, with especial delight if a new record was anticipated. Between them they increased the number of records from 3000 in the 1980s to 55000 today.

Richard became Chair in 1988 and remained so until his death. He always said that a group's success lay in having a regular and structured programme, and this principle has continued, with monthly indoor meetings and weekly outdoor forays in Spring and Autumn.

The LFSG, under Richard's chairmanship, made some great contributions to the Leicestershire Museums Service which supported and housed the group since its inception. In 1992-3, with a generous financial grant from the service, it presented a large exhibition, "A Celebration of Fungi" which was well received and ran for a year. Richard's personal contributions were mainly water colour paintings, another of his interests.

He steered the group through difficult times when the Museum Service was re-organised after 1997 and the group moved to a new venue. His files and the LFSG fungus collections are still housed in Leicestershire Museum Service, currently at the Collections Resources Annexe, Barrow upon Soar.

Richard was always particularly welcoming and encouraging to new members. In one of his early Chairman’s reports, he wrote “Fungi can be very confusing and frustrating, and to learn to identify them there is no substitute for being outdoors and finding them where they grow, preferably in the company of someone who can give a bit of guidance.”   When out in the field he would help members identify fungi, point out key features and not lose patience when someone else asked him the same question. In indoor meetings he would run identification sessions and teach microscope skills.

He was also keen to promote interest in fungi to a wider audience, and even in his eighties would lead forays for other groups, including the MBNHS, The Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society, the Hinckley Naturalists, and the Leicester Rural Community Council. He also organised the public event held at the Leicester Botanical Gardens annually for National Fungus Day. Without fail he manned the exhibition, and delighted in speaking to visitors, especially those with young families.

After the lockdown for Covid-19 in March 2020, Richard became housebound, with increasing ill-health. A small group of LFSG members led by Tom Hering carried out 14 autumn forays that year to support the recording for VC55. Richard was keen to be involved and looked forward to receiving a basket of specimens, both common and unusual, for identification. Both Tom and Richard said that this was one of the best seasons they had experienced.

He continued to take pleasure in his garden and kept nature notes and weather records until his death. At leisure he was a voracious reader, a lover of classical music particularly the violin, and an avid viewer of competitive sports of any variety. He said he loved to see people at the top of their game. He had always lived alone, but said he was never lonely.

Richard began as an enthusiastic amateur, but through his own initiative and hard work he became a respected expert mycologist and an inspiring leader, remaining unassuming and approachable and always keen to support others. He will be greatly missed by his friends and colleagues in the LFSG and in the wider Mycology community.

Find out more about the Leicestershire Fungi Study Group