Joe Henson MBE: A year to remember

The Henson family celebrate with Joe's MBE and the 40th anniversary of Cotswold's beloved Farm Park.

Christmas is all about spending time with the family and this year, as we gather round the festive table, we’ll be raising a glass to the head of the Henson family. It’s been quite a year for my Dad, Joe, and as 2011 draws to a close we’ll be reflecting on the 40th anniversary of his great brainchild, the Cotswold Farm Park.

It was back in 1971 that he had the ingenuity to set up the first farm attraction of its type anywhere in the world. Of course nowadays there are farm parks everywhere but in the early ‘70s people thought he was mad. He had to put up with scorn from his fellow farmers and opposition from his neighbours who complained that they didn’t want the Cotswolds clogged up with tourists. But he won them over in the end and four decades later his creation is as popular as ever.

It’s amazing to think that with some families we’re now seeing the third generation of visitors; people who came as children in the early days and who later brought their own kids along are now returning with their grandchildren. When Dad was in day-to-day charge he always insisted that we had to make the experience special for every single visitor and that continues to be our aim today. It’s a wonderful legacy but Joe would be the first to admit that he couldn’t have done it all on his own.

So a few months ago we marked the 40th anniversary with a party for farm staff past and present as well as some of the people we’ve relied upon over the years. They’d travelled from all over the Cotswolds to celebrate with us and included everyone from the father and son team who look after our ground works to the local livestock haulier who transports the animals on and off the farm.

If all that wasn’t special enough, 2011 was also the year that Dad’s lifelong passion for Britain’s rare breeds was recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. It was with surprise and delight that we learnt that establishing the Farm Park and helping create the Rare Breeds Survival Trust had earned him the MBE for services to conservation. His investiture took place at Windsor Castle and he was presented with his medal by Princess Anne who is a fellow rare breeds enthusiast.

So while other recipients probably spoke to HRH about themselves, my dad had a chat with her about White Park Cattle. It was obvious that she was genuinely delighted to be giving him the MBE. It made me very proud particularly as I’m the family member who’s followed in his footsteps, although my tiny feet hardly fill his shoes. He’s my mentor and my hero too and he always has been. I think it’s fantastic that he’s been singled out for all the work he’s done over the decades and it makes me feel even prouder of him. I’m sure he won’t admit this but I’ve got a sneaky feeling that he was a little bit nervous about receiving his honour. Who wouldn’t be? Both Mum and Dad had spent a lot of time arranging the day, organising transport and hotels as well as getting the various far-flung family members together in one place.

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So it was a big deal and important to him that everything went smoothly. What’s more, he used the occasion to reveal a fascinating family story with a royal connection. Joes’ father, Leslie Henson, was a well-loved actor and comedian from the 1920s right through to the ‘50s. He entertained the troops during the war and performed in front of the royal family at Windsor Castle. In those days divorcees weren’t allowed to receive honours and as he’d been previously married before he wed my grandmother, King George VI couldn’t give him a knighthood.

So as a mark of his gratitude His Majesty presented Leslie with a set of platinum and diamond shirt studs and cufflinks when he appeared at Windsor. The King then added “these are for you, I wish I could give you more”.

Ever the showman, my Dad wore those special royal cufflinks at his investiture and gave them a trip back to Windsor in memory of his father.

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