When I was 15 I wrote local history articles for the Braintree & Witham Times, my then local weekly newspaper. I remember writing about the local impact of the 1834 Poor Law and the arrival of the railway and getting paid £5 for doing something that I was interested in anyway.
After an undergraduate degree in English literature I toyed with the idea of doing an MA in history. It was either that or join the BBC graduate training scheme. I chose the BBC, where I've been for the past 25 years. I report for Radio 4 and 5 and for the 10 O'clock news, and write a weekly column for BBC News Online. Broadcasting deadlines can be early morning or late at night so it's hard fitting in time for studying and for a long time I didn't sign up for an MA. But I recently did an advanced diploma in local history entirely via the internet and after that I decided I really could go for a Masters.
I've learnt an awful lot on the course and I'm now embarrassed by my earlier efforts in local history. The main skills I've learnt relate to computing, for example using databases. History has changed a lot in the last 15 years because of computers. What you can now do on your own would have taken a team of 20 researchers before and I had no idea how much was on the internet, original sources like 19th century newspapers and census returns.
In the first year of the course there were two three-hour evening classes every week. That's more classes than I ever attended as an undergraduate. In the second year you work more on your own. My dissertation title is: Suburb or slum: the development of the Forty Acres district of Kingston Upon Thames, 1871-1901. Most classic suburbs developed as middle-class areas, like Surbiton in the mid-19th century, but the area I'm studying never quite established itself as a wholly middle-class suburb, largely because there was some pre-existing poor quality, working-class housing. The intended middle-class suburb of detached villas with gardens was occupied instead by a mix of working-class and middle-class families, white-collar clerks and blue-collar workers and labourers. It was a schizophrenic suburb, never quite sure whether it was middle-class or working class and I am trying to understand the factors behind this.
The course began with 15 students and now there are six. As an education correspondent you hear that things are dumbing down and how easy it is to get a degree, but not on this course. Either the students dropped out because it was too tough or they were told they weren't up to standard.
My dissertation research is based on where I live and when I wander the streets I feel I'm in the 19th century. The street patterns follow the old field patterns, the footpaths and field boundaries are still visible. Studying local history means you see more, it makes life richer.