Fun times with the swimming pigs of Gloucestershire.

It was an unusual, intriguing thing to say, but I immediately recognised the voice on the radio. It was an old family friend, Daphne Neville, doing the thing she does best – entertaining and charming the public. This time it was her appearance at the Frampton Country Fair which had been captured on mic and broadcast to the nation. Although to be honest, Daphne is no stranger to the spotlight; as well as being an otter conservationist, she’s an actress and former TV presenter.  

This gracious and generous lady has had a remarkable career; she was a newsreader in the early days of ITV, a presenter on BBC Radio Bristol in the 1970s, had a long-running role as Nora the Barmaid in The Archers and has appeared in everything from Crossroads and Casualty to the Netflix sensation The Crown where she played one of Prince Philip’s relatives. But in country circles, Daphne is known to everyone as ‘The Otter Lady’ and she knows more about them than almost anyone. There can’t be many people whose careers combine acting and otters, and Daphne’s involvement with wildlife began in 1980 when she became concerned about the quality of Britain’s waterways. ‘Otters are the symbol of good health,’ she told the BBC, ‘they can only survive if the rivers are clean.’  

Daphne’s been taking her otters to country shows and wildlife events for decades, to the delight of audiences young and old, and there’s one bit of Neville wisdom which they never forget; otters hate being wet. It’s true. As soon as they’re out of the water otters want to dry off and shake themselves like a dog before rolling around in grass or fallen leaves to finish the job.       

My favourite story about Daphne concerns trotters not otters. The Cotswold Farm Park has always provided animals for period movies and historical TV dramas, and one film we were involved in needed some underwater footage of pigs swimming. Even David Attenborough would struggle with that. But we knew that Daphne lived in a converted mill beside an old lake and that it would be the perfect location. It was a picture postcard setting with the combination of water, woodland, valley sides and nearby farmland creating a timeless, peaceful idyll. I’m afraid to say the serene atmosphere would soon be shattered.  

I arrived as planned with some hefty Gloucestershire Old Spots and Tamworth porkers and followed the film crew down to the Neville’s lovely home at the bottom of a steep tree-lined valley beside the still waters of the mill pond. Now, everyone knows that pigs don’t fly, but I had always been told that they can’t swim either, so I was more than a little dubious about the whole venture. They’ll sink like stones, I was telling myself. How wrong could I be? When I lowered the first one in to the water, it was quickly out of my grasp, then out of my reach and finally out of my depth as it shot off like a torpedo. There was no way I could keep up even with my finest front crawl, so eventually I had to build a hurdle pen in the lake to stop them swimming away.  

I was exhausted by the end of it all and, when the last take was in the can, I’m sure I must have muttered to myself, ‘never again.’ Thankfully, I didn’t mean it. I’m pleased to say the Cotswold Farm Park piggies have appeared in lots of movies since then. But always on dry land!     

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