Stephen Hirst, former Mayor of Tetbury on the Tetbury Food & Drink Festival
After five years as Mayor, Stephen Hirst is a wonderful advocate for this vibrant market town. Katie Jarvis talked to him about his Cotswold life. Pictures by Anna Lythgoe.
If you think the lovely market town of Tetbury looks good enough to eat, then this is the month for you. The fourth Tetbury Food and Drink Festival takes place from September 23-26, featuring special Cotswold menus, competitions, cooking demonstrations and a fantastic Sunday food market, as well as experiences that money just can’t buy – such as the chance to jump the waiting list and tour the Prince of Wales’s Highgrove gardens, with lunch or dinner afterwards.
One of the founders of the festival is town councillor Stephen Hirst, who’s just finished a five-year stint as mayor. He lives with wife, Sue, one of the main organisers of Tetbury in Bloom.
Where do you live and why?
In Tetbury! It’s a wonderful place and so central for wherever you want to go in the UK – which was why I chose it originally. At that time, I worked as a sales manager for Castrol, whose head office was in Swindon, so Tetbury was both near enough and far enough away.
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How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?
I moved to Tetbury from Taunton 26 years ago, which means I’ve seen great changes in the Cotswolds – and particularly in Tetbury – during that time. Certainly, nowadays, the Cotswolds has more of a commercial hat on than it ever had before, which has to be a good thing. We need to encourage jobs to the area. If you look at pictures of Cotswold villages in the 1930s, you can clearly see that life revolved around agriculture. As farming faded away, tourism replaced it, and that has made a big difference. The water park in Cirencester is a good example; when I first came, it was simply a collection of gravel pits filled with water. Now, like it or loathe it, it’s full of holiday villages.
What’s your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?
I’d be happy riding up and down one of the preservation railways. The Severn Valley is very good, as is the GWR: they represent a bit of nostalgia. When I was mayor, my weekends were a bit more exhausting than they are now. I was constantly called on to meet lots of interesting people, from the Prince of Wales down to – well, everybody – because everyone has their own particular spark! It was a fantastic experience. I sincerely believe that, if you’re going to do the job properly, you almost have to adopt the French role of a mayor and soak yourself in a community.
If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?
I’d spend six months in the Cotswolds and six months in Antigua, which is such a friendly, relaxed island but still with an English tradition. I enjoy relaxing but, at the same time, not for too long. I’ve itchy feet and I always want to be doing things, talking to people, exploring and being nosy.
Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?
I wouldn’t like to live in Cheltenham or Gloucester, where a relaxing atmosphere is in short supply. The thing about Tetbury is that it’s the right size town for individuals to be able to make a difference, and that’s important to me.
Where’s the best place to eat?
We’re spoilt for choice! It all depends on what I wanted to eat: the Ormond supplies the best burgers in town; the Close Hotel has a wonderful value-for-money menu. Calcot and Whatley Manors also have excellent restaurants.
The great thing is that more or less everyone joins in with Tetbury Food and Drink Festival, which arose from some tourism studies that we (the town council) commissioned. The consultant we employed told us the best way to encourage tourism was to hold events. We already had the Woolsack Races in May, of course; but we still needed to make Tetbury a destination, rather than somewhere to drive through on the way to somewhere else. One of the ideas we came up with was a food festival because Tetbury does have such great food suppliers. This September is our fourth, and each year has been better than the previous one.
Have you a favourite tearoom?
I come to the Close Hotel because it’s so central. It’s hard to believe that, until at least the mid 20th century, it was someone’s private house. It has a lovely garden, which was once enormous. The houses in Close Gardens are built on part of the former grounds.
What’s the best thing about the Cotswolds?
The variety. You can be in the centre of a thriving city such as Gloucester or Cheltenham, and yet you can be in a very, very small village within half an hour. Unless you’ve lived here, you don’t know the true beauty of the Cotswolds. London thinks it’s got it all but it hasn’t! Plus, it has the traffic jams and the congestion.
... and the worst?
People who expect to come here and make a killing and don’t want to contribute to the community.
Which shop could you not live without?
The Highgrove Shop has been the icing on the cake. We were well on the well to revitalising the town before it arrived, but it’s been a fantastic bonus. Tetbury used to be the teashop-and-toilet stop for Highgrove.
You’d get coaches haring down from Wolverhampton, pulling up outside the toilets, and everyone would run out, then back in again! Now they actually stop and buy things. The Prince of Wales is a great example of someone who has moved here and really contributed to the community. He also has Duchy Home Farm, of course, which is a huge organic farm with a ‘Veg Shed’ shop, which opens twice a week – a world-class example of farming at its best. It smells a bit strong sometimes but that’s organic farming for you!
What’s the most under-rated thing about the Cotswolds?
The stunning views.
What would be a three-course Cotswold meal?
I’m a soup person, and Rob Rees (the Cotswold Chef, who’ll be appearing at the food festival) does a fantastic white onion soup, which is one of my favourites. Another is asparagus and smoky bacon soup, as made by the Priory here in Tetbury.
Then I’d have a really nice steak, which I’d buy from Jesse Smith’s: John, the butcher, is a real local character. And I’d finish with a summer pudding. I’ve never made one – it’s one of my challenges for this year – but I do a devilish rice pudding. I enjoy cooking. When I was young, I used to work for my uncle in his wonderful Yorkshire bakery during the summer holidays. He had been around during the war, when he learned to turn cod into salmon and rabbit into chicken just by cooking it very slowly.
What’s your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?
Cherington is nice; but I do honestly wonder whether there’s such a thing as a quintessential Cotswolds village any more. So many have had the heart torn out of them as the pubs shut down and the village shops go west.
What’s your favourite Cotswolds building and why?
Tetbury Market Hall is a terrific building. Some people say its dolphins are a sign of trade; others that Sir William Romney, a Tetbury benefactor, was saved from shipwreck by two dolphins. This year, it’s the 400th anniversary of Sir William Romney’s School in Tetbury.
Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds…
The true Cotswold character: someone who has got their feet in both the past and the future; The wonderful buildings, both in villages and market-town centres, which should be looked after very carefully; And the views.
What’s your favourite view in the Cotswolds?
The view from the top of Frocester Hill looking out towards the river and into Wales; and I love looking over the plain from Birdlip.
What would you never do in the Cotswolds?
I’d never refused to join in or become locked up in my own atmosphere. Having said that, I was away a lot when I was working and I certainly wasn’t a part of the community then. Becoming involved has altered my perspective on the town, and walking down the street nowadays is a very different experience because of that. I feel that I belong. That’s one of the big criticisms of second homes; the people who own them don’t belong, and they don’t realise what they’re missing.
Starter homes or executive properties?
We must have a balance. There’s a great need for affordable starter homes, but people grow out of them, so you also need follow on homes that are larger. The Cotswolds is a wonderful example of gradual development: there are still villages; there are still market towns and, until recently, there haven’t been plans for large numbers of housing. We should have gradual, organic growth, not huge slugs of new homes. There isn’t the infrastructure, and there aren’t the jobs.
What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?
Westonbirt; Broadway/Chipping Campden; Lechlade; Latton.
If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?
I don’t hanker to move anywhere. One of the good things about this country is the variable climate: every day can be different. If anything drove me back from Antigua, it would be having the same weather all the time. But, if I did move away, I’d take a book about Tetbury’s branch line, which was a Beeching casualty. And I’d also take the carriage clock from my mantelpiece that I was given when I finished as mayor.
What would you change about the Cotswolds or banish from the area?
I don’t hate anything about it apart from the traffic getting worse, but that’s difficult to change. For some people, busy traffic is a nuisance; for others, it brings much-needed business.
What’s the first piece of advice you’d give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?
Have a good look around and decide where you’re most comfortable. People have a tendency to think that the Cotswolds is the same throughout, yet Stow is totally different from Tetbury, and Chipping Campden is different again.
And which book should they read?
They should buy an Old Spot Trust Cook Book, an excellent collection of recipes contributed by local characters. My own contributions were a quick tomato soup and my first-class ginger cake, which is probably the best ginger cake in the world bar none.
Which event, or activity, best sums up the Cotswolds?
Tetbury Woolsack Races are fantastic. When I first moved here, I thought how silly it was, to run downhill with a pack on your back! But it’s a wonderful example of the sorts of events that go on in the area. Myself, I could probably manage 10 steps carrying a woolpack: I certainly couldn’t run with one.
If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?
I’m never invisible in Tetbury and I don’t mind that at all. So what I would like to do instead is to travel back in time and meet Stainer Holford, who planted Westonbirt Arboretum. I get the impression he wasn’t all that people-friendly, whereas I am a people-person, but he had tremendous vision. Sir Henry Elwes today is doing something similar at Colesbourne Park with his collection of snowdrops.
To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?
To the merry band of architects who created some of the wonderful church buildings we have – in villages and in towns – which are all so different from each other. Those churches are memorials in themselves, of course, but it would be nice to know more about the people who built them.
The Cotswolds – aspic or asphalt?
That’s a massive debate. If possible, we should develop sensitively. Certainly, there should be a balance between houses and industry. We need to know that the jobs are there before we build houses, and every market town should be encouraging small businesses that can provide full-time jobs. Stroud is a good example of a place that has managed to attract employers. What we shouldn’t be doing is to encourage people to settle who then work an hour-and-a-half away. That’s part of what I call the Walt Disney effect: people like to live in a beautiful part of the country, but they’re not prepared to work there.
With whom would you like to have a cider?
Nelson Mandela must be a lot of people’s choice. He’s a tremendous example of lots of positive aspects of life, such as tolerance and understanding. In the same way, the Cotswolds, at its best, is a very tolerant and understanding place to live.
What attitude best sums up the Cotswolds?
A magic sense of belonging that binds communities together.
To find out more about the Tetbury Food and Drink Festival, from September 23-26, visit www.tetbury.org.uk
You can get details of where to buy the Old Spot Trust Cook Book from www.oldspottrust.co.uk
All profits go to the Old Spot Trust, a non-profit-making organisation that raises and donates money to Gloucestershire charities, community groups and other non-profit-making organisations.