Desmond Fforde - My Cotswold Life

Katie Jarvis meets Desmond Fforde, who has some forthright views on our use of cars and the environment. Shaun Thompson took the pictures

Floating voter

Desmond Fforde has spent most of his working life on boats, and now sails for pleasure. He first went to sea as a 17-year-old cadet, working for the Vestey family’s Blue Star shipping line, before and he and his wife Katie Fforde – these days a best-selling novelist – embarked on an hotel boat business on the Worcester to Stratford canal stretch for three years.

Nowadays, they live in landlocked Rodborough, near Stroud, but the sea is never far from Desmond’s mind. So much so that he’s just published A Seaman’s Book of Sea Stories, collecting together some of his favourite nautical tales. All proceeds will go to The Prostate Cancer Charity. “I wanted to do something for men, and prostate cancer is something many suffer from,” he says. “As for the book itself, it’s a ‘taster’ to encourage people to read more about the sea. Our ships, our sailors and tales of the sea are inextricably woven into our history, our culture and our folklore.”

He and Katie have three children: Guy, 32, who works in Moscow; Frank, 29, a chef; and Briony, 27, who is married with a six-month-old son, Otis.

Where do you live and why?

I live in Rodborough near Stroud. Originally, we came here because it was equidistant between the two places where I worked. I was on the ferries as a navigating officer, sailing out of Pembroke Dock in West Wales, and out of Liverpool. We’ve stayed on simply because it’s a good place to live!

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How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?

For nearly 30 years. I was born in Northern Ireland, and I’d consider myself an Ulsterman, but I was brought up all over the place: by the sea in Donegal, by the River Dart in Devon, and in Scotland. As I child, I always thought of Northern Ireland as a sort of colonial society: we were Protestants but the majority of people were Catholics, and there was an uneasy truce in this artificially-created state that gave the Protestants the power. I suppose it’s given me a life-long feeling of being an outsider, a bit rootless; but if I’ve put down roots anywhere, it’s in Stroud.

What's your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?

It would include a walk along the Thames and Severn Canal up to Daneway, followed by Sunday lunch with the family. The canal is slightly decayed, particularly from the Daneway to the Tunnel, which is wonderful - long grass and overhanging trees. But I’m strongly in favour of the canal restoration: what attracts me is the thought that, one day, I’ll be able to go along it in a boat. There are concerns about wildlife but, on most restored canals, it repopulates quite quickly. Boats and tourists won’t alter the character of the Cotswold canals.

If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?

I’d buy Rodborough Fort, partly because it’s in such a magnificent position, and partly because it would give me enough room for my American sailing boat that currently lives on a trailer at Sharpness. It’s 26-ft long and made of fiberglass, but there’s nothing swanky about it! I’ve sailed it across the Channel to France, and to Ireland on the River Shannon and then through the canal that joins to Loch Erne in the north. I love the feeling of freedom: sailing is still very free from interference and regimentation, though red tape is increasing.

Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?

Bourton-on-the-Water: I’m not a crowd person. One of the nice things about living in Stroud is the number of walks you can take, even in the height of summer, where you have the footpaths to yourself.

Where's the best pub in the area?

I do go to the Prince Albert in Rodborough: the landlords – Lottie and Miles – are great fun. It’s a real community pub that doesn’t pretend to be anything smart or posh; you always meet interesting people there.

And the best place to eat?

Alfreda’s in Nailsworth – a nice little place; quite intimate.

What would you do for a special occasion?

Our latest ‘special occasion’ was the launch party for Sea Stories, which we held on our Dutch barge in London. The Dutch had hundreds and hundreds of these barges on their canals because most of the country’s trading was carried out by water – and still is, of course. Ours was built in 1897, so she’s a bit of a museum piece. She’s about 75-ft long and has holds that would have carried around 150 tons of cargo, but she’s now been converted to provide a big saloon downstairs, a sitting place on deck in the wheelhouse, as well as two double cabins and two singles. Originally, it would have been a pretty hard life for the family that lived and worked on her: you can still see the little space at the front with five-foot-long bunks for the children. We use it as an affordable alternative to a London flat.

What's the best thing about the Cotswolds?

I’m much more a lover of the Severn Vale than the Cotswolds themselves. As soon as you cross the A38, you enter into a different world; slower moving. I used to work for the National Waterways Museum in Gloucester and some of my time was spent salvaging barges from the river: that gave me a huge respect for the Severn. On one memorable occasion, I was asked to recover a concrete barge that had been deliberately beached in the 1960s to protect the river’s banks. The museum thought it would be interesting as an exhibit, to show people that concrete does float. It was extremely difficult to get out – full of mud – but I managed to do the job with the help of three prisoners from Gloucester jail!

... and the worst?

The fact that the villages on the tourist parts of the Cotswolds seem so lifeless because there’s not the normal activity that used to go on, say, 100 years ago.

Which shop could you not live without?

I do all the shopping in our household and the Shambles Market [every Friday and Saturday] in Stroud is my first port of call: it’s been going a lot longer than the farmers’ market. I’m especially fond of the fruit and veg stall run by Malcolm Monk. I also like Tony’s Butcher’s in Kendrick Street. I’m very pro Stroud: it’s not typical Cotswold but it has character.

What would be a three-course Cotswold meal?

I’d buy fish from David Felce’s stall for starters; Katie doesn’t like fish so it’s rare that I get to eat it. For main course, the local lamb and beef is good. My daughter buys half a side occasionally from the Stroud Slad Farm, but I’d also like to try some of the beef from Minchinhampton Common; the cattle seem to have such a nice life when they’re out there in the summer. And to finish, I’d bake apples from Croft Farm in Ashelworth, which has a stall at Stroud Farmers’ Market.

What's your favourite view in the Cotswolds?

I took the dogs up onto Selsley Common yesterday evening, just as the sun was setting. The Severn looked so beautiful – like a silver ribbon – with the forest stretching out beyond it.

What's your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?

Arlingham is an interesting place because it was once a village, like Saul, that was populated by sea captains who owned schooners and ran them all over the country.

Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds…

Mills: the whole of the Five Valleys was born on water power and it’s completely neglected now. We should be using all forms of renewable energy, but we currently seem to be concentrating on wind power rather than water; the two are complementary;

The dingly dells: the hidden valleys that are quite tucked away, such as Toadsmoor;

And the river Severn, the mainspring of so much in this area.

Which is your favourite Cotswolds building and why?

Rodborough Endowed Schools. It’s the oldest building in the area – supposed to date from the 14th century – and we’re trying to save it. Originally, they say, it was used as a chantry by the nuns from the Abbey of Caen, who once owned Minchinhampton; then it became a wool store. All through the 1800s, it housed Rodborough School until the current school was built in 1910. But now it needs both a new roof and a new purpose in life. Although it’s used for get-togethers and by some community groups, it suffers from a lack of parking.

What would you change about the Cotswolds or banish from the area?

If I had the courage, I’d ban cars. They ruin the whole ethos of villages and towns that were built before the motorcar. My mother, who was brought up on a fruit farm in Ledbury, was always very much into the environment, and that’s rubbed off on me. She was an early member of the Soil Association, and keen on organic food when it wasn’t profitable or popular. She not only used to make her own bread every day, but she’d grind her own corn, too. Being on a ship also makes you self sufficient; the really important things are the simplest: to be warm and dry – and having a good book to read helps!  Of course, the whole of Britain’s prosperity and trade was built on ships that were powered by wind, so really they made very little demand on the environment.

What's the first piece of advice you'd give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?

Walk the footpaths and find out about the countryside rather than going to beauty spots by car.

And which book should they read?

Yanto’s Summer, written in the 1970s by Ray Pickernell, who was a car salesman in Gloucester.  It’s a wonderful evocation of growing up in Sharpness and the Berkeley Vale in the years after the second world war: poaching salmon on the River Severn, and generally being a young man in those days. I’d love to meet him. You can buy the book from the Cotswold Canals Trust in Saul.

Which event, or activity, best sums up the Cotswolds?

Katie and I get invited to lots of really good events, but I have to say the one that I really enjoyed was Minchinhampton Country Fayre, which Katie opened last year. It gave the whole community a chance to get involved.

If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?

I’m not so worried about being invisible, but I would like to go back into the past: I tend to be quite nostalgic! There’s a lovely image that comes into my mind whenever I go up onto Rodborough Common and look down the Severn; the 19th century Stroud historian Paul Hawkins Fisher once wrote about watching the sails of all the ships going up and down the river. That must have been a wonderful sight.

To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?

The schooner captains. It was a marginal activity and not many made it to old age – a very hard life. It can be difficult to think of the past without a sort of rose-tinted mist, but I remember myself what shipping was like when the ports were thronged. The ships themselves were beautiful, but the actual work was very demanding.

With whom would you most like to have a cider?

I’ve a friend called Rod Shaw whose grandfather, Captain Hugh Shaw, wrote a book called Schooner Captain. He owned The Camborne, one of the last trading schooners to work mainly between here and Ireland in the 1920s and ‘30s. I’d love to be able to chat to him. I read his book in manuscript form before it was published, and came across an extraordinary incident he describes, which took place on the River Shannon in Limerick in 1922. The ship’s mate called him over to see this strange creature – like you’d imagine the Loch Ness monster – with a long neck and small head, looking to and fro rather anxiously. It swam slowly up river, with lots of people watching, and then it turned round and went down again. When they sailed later on that evening, they saw it out in the estuary. Captain Shaw was the last person who would invent something like that, but when the family came to publish the book, they thought it was so far-fetched, the left the incident out. What interested me was the fact that, if lots of people saw this thing, there must have been some comment in the local paper. I got someone in Limerick to research it, but he could find no mention.

A Seaman’s Book of Sea Stories, compiled by Desmond Fforde, is published by Accent Press, price �7.99. All profits benefit The Prostate Cancer Charity.

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