Interview: Clare Mahdiyone, chief executive of Stroud Valleys Project

Clare Mahdiyone (c) Andrew Higgins/TWM

Clare Mahdiyone (c) Andrew Higgins/TWM - Credit: © Thousand Word Media

The environmental charity set up to protect Stroud’s industrial heritage now enhances the lives of its own volunteers. Katie Jarvis meets chief executive Clare Mahdiyone to hear about her Cotswold Life

Clare Mahdiyone (c) Andrew Higgins/TWM

Clare Mahdiyone (c) Andrew Higgins/TWM - Credit: © Thousand Word Media

Happy Birthday to Stroud Valleys Project! Thirty years ago, this value-for-money environmental charity was set up with a special focus on industrial heritage. Its initial remit was to protect the mills – the ‘string of pearls’ – that once harnessed natural forces to power and prosper this picturesque district.

Today – with its tagline ‘Enriching lives, transforming places’ – it weaves an even richer cloth. For not only does it strive to make the valleys better, healthier places to live and work; it also works to enhance the lives of its 150-or-so volunteers. They’re the ones who help dig, weed and plant; who cut back branches, clear brooks, mow grass and build wildlife habitats. And while many of them are ordinary members of the public, others have experienced mental health issues, drug and alcohol addiction, and long-term unemployment.

“We have lots of people who have come from a challenging and difficult place,” says Clare Mahdiyone, who has run the charity for the past 12 years. “By being part of a team, they find themselves achieving more than they ever could on their own. Doing something practical, physical and outside, with alongside other people, can help turn lives around.”

The charity also runs a programme of walks, talks and events throughout the year.

Clare lives with her partner, Mark Sudron, an IT specialist in the charity sector. Between them, they have three sons.

Clare Mahdiyone, with some of the charity volunteers at the Stroud Valleys Project workshop in Cairn

Clare Mahdiyone, with some of the charity volunteers at the Stroud Valleys Project workshop in Cairncross (c) Andrew Higgins/TWM - Credit: © Thousand Word Media

Where do you live and why?

I live in Rodborough, from where you can look out over Stroud. Stroud is a working town – a bit of a broken Cotswold ‘chocolate box’. But, actually, it’s the industrial heritage that makes it special. It might not have the beauty of Bourton-on-the-Water; what it has got is character, all nestled in the hills.

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How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?

I’ve lived in Stroud for 25 years. When I was a child, my father was in the RAF, so we moved every two years. That can make you quite adaptable - though, when I had my own child, it also made me want to stay in the same place. I was always very interested in the environment and, after school, I studied biology at university in London, before starting with an American pharmaceutical. I soon discovered I didn’t like the big corporate world! When I got the opportunity to do this job [with Stroud Valleys Project], it felt like going back to something I’d really wanted to do when I was younger.

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

I’d go to Stroud Farmers’ Market to buy lots of yummy things for lunch. Then I’d walk on Minchinhampton and Rodborough Commons, stopping for an ice cream on the way. We’ve been working with the district council and the National Trust to make people understand how important and special the commons are. Last year, we produced a leaflet about caring for the cows that graze up there - and no cows were killed on the common last year. If it wasn’t for those cows, the land would start getting scrubby and the brambles take over; trees would grow and it would simply become a forest. No orchids. No skylarks.

The trouble is, there aren’t enough cows. Many people have grazing rights but there are only about 13 who use them. Because of the old land rights, you can’t just go and plonk on other cattle to make up the difference. Ideally, the rights need reforming.

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

I’d build a house on the common, and live with the cows and wild flowers...Though that would be illegal, wouldn’t it! In which case, I’d build a hobbit house, underground. The common is full of archaeology: I love high spaces that people have lived on for millennia. I get the same feeling up on Crickley Hill.

David Richards, one of the volunteers with the Stroud Valleys Project, at the charity's greenhouse i

David Richards, one of the volunteers with the Stroud Valleys Project, at the charity's greenhouse in Cairncross (c) Andrew Higgins/TWM - Credit: © Thousand Word Media

Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?

In a very urban environment. When I was doing my A levels, my mum and dad created a smallholding at their house in Cheltenham. To me, that was bliss.

Where’s the best pub in the area?

Stroud Brewery: they make their own beer; they do lovely pizzas in their pizza oven; and it’s in my favourite valley – the Golden Valley. The brewery is really supportive of our organisation. Last year, they raised money for us by doing a mountain-bike challenge.

And the best place to eat?

Thistledown in Nympsfield [outside Nailsworth], out in the middle of nowhere. They’ve got a great reputation for their camping but not enough people know about their food. Every time someone buys tea or coffee there, they give us a percentage to plant trees. Hedgerows – which are just trees that are managed in a different way – are really important ways of connecting up habitats for wildlife. Unfortunately, a lot of farmers will flail hedges off at the same height. What’s really good for creatures like bats is to have the odd tree sticking up, which can then become a roost.

What would you do for a special occasion?

As part of our 30th birthday celebrations, we held a picnic for staff and volunteers in Stratford Park, where we’re creating a sensory garden on the old putting green. It’s for the whole community to use: we did a public consultation to make sure we put in all the bits people want to see. Among the requests were places for wildlife; children asked for water-features; there’s even a mud-bath that someone wanted! It will take a couple of years to finish but bits are already open.

What’s the best thing about the Cotswolds?

The people from all walks of life who live here – and, in my job, I get the chance to meet some of them. Take our volunteers, for example: it could be someone who has retired, with time on their hands; it could be someone who has had mental-health or addiction problems and be in recovery; another might have been unemployed for a long time and now be looking to take steps back into ‘real’ life. Many have experienced a great deal of loneliness and isolation. Even doing something simple can be very special – like when we cook food together on a fire.

... and the worst?

Litter and dog mess. It’s often just a few people who are repeat offenders.

Which shop could you not live without?

It’s got to be the Stroud Valleys Project Eco Shop! Everything is either organic, local or Fairtrade - or it goes towards being sustainable. We’ve got everything from bamboo toothbrushes to bamboo socks (really soft, comfortable and won’t smell!) We sell seeds, second-hand gardening equipment and books; gifts, jewellery and cards. Even honey made by one of our volunteers.

What’s the most underrated thing about the Cotswolds?

Gloucestershire 2050 is currently taking place [], a county-wide conversation about what we want Gloucestershire to be like in 2050. We should never underestimate the value of industry in rural communities: without work, these will become holiday-home villages. Industry sustains the rural.

What is a person from the Cotswolds called?

A Stroudie - I’m such a Stroudie! It’s not about being born here; it’s about living here and loving it.

What would be a three-course Cotswold meal?

I have an allotment on Summer Street [Stroud], where I grow potatoes, beans, courgettes, rhubarb, blackcurrants, redcurrants, boysenberries – don’t quite know what they are! - squashes, beetroot, cabbagey things… And purple sprouting broccoli, one of my favourites. My three-course meal would start with allotment soup. Next, we’d have salad, purple sprouting broccoli, new potatoes and Gloucester Old Spot sausages. And then lots of berries for pudding. Unfortunately, these things aren’t all ready at the same time, so I’ll space my three courses out over several months.

What’s your favourite view in the Cotswolds?

The Golden Valley from a train. When you come through the tunnel after Kemble, it’s like breathing a sigh of relief. I always think to myself: I live here!

What’s your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?

A perfect Cotswolds village needs a school, a pub and a shop – preferably a community shop. So the place that springs to mind is Horsley [outside Nailsworth].

Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds... Our projects are about people, the environment and learning. If you draw a Venn diagram, they meet at well-being.

What’s your favourite Cotswolds building and why?

The Museum in the Park – it was dilapidated for a long time, but now it’s been put to good use, telling the story of the industrial heritage of Stroud. It’s at the centre of one of the most diverse green spaces in the town: Stratford Park. We worked with the museum to create the walled garden at the back, two years ago.

What would you never do in the Cotswolds?

I’d never consider anywhere to be wasteland.

Starter homes or executive properties?

We need affordable homes. What makes a village isn’t just the stone or the valleys; it’s the people.

What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?

Our work focuses on Stroud district, so my four corners are: Hardwicke, where we’ve created footpaths along the canal; Kingswood, where we’re working with the parish council to look after great crested newts on a housing estate; Painswick, where we’ve planted cowslips for the butterflies; and Berkeley, where we’re creating a community water-meadow called Sarah’s Field, on a piece of land given to the council by someone called Sarah. Fred Miller, one of our project officers, has just done a call-out for old carpets to go underneath the pond-liner to stop it popping.

If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?

I’d take ‘before and after’ photographs of any of our projects. Everywhere we work, we transform.

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

Appreciate the wildlife, the landscape and the green spaces. I don’t know how you could come here and not think they’re special.

And which book should they read?

Katie Fforde’s A Secret Garden: she’s such a supporter. The novel is based on the Rodborough Hidden Gardens and Sculpture trail, where profits are given to the Old Endowed School and to us. We’re also doing our own book of 30 years of Stroud Valleys Project (we’ve had great fun looking through all the old photos), which will be out in time for Christmas.

Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?

The lunchtime walk that I do through Frome Banks and along the canal. If you’re lucky, you can see kingfishers and dippers in the centre of Stroud.

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

It has to be our apple-pressing, along with our bat walks. We do Pumpkins & Apples in the Park each year at Stratford Park – a community event with the museum – where people bring apples from their garden to make juice. On our bat walks, between May and October, we take people out at dusk and use detectors to locate bats on an hour-long walk. Often, we’ll get six or seven different types, such as pipistrelle, Daubenton’s, noctule and horseshoe.

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

It’s rare to see little mammals, such as otters or dormice, because they’re nocturnal - all you see is signs of them – so I’d love to be invisible amongst them. We’ve just been involved in setting up Stroud Swift Group; I recently met someone who has put cameras in nesting boxes to watch the swift babies.

To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?

To Margaret Hills [Stroud Urban District Council’s first female councillor], whose achievements were recently celebrated as part of 100 years of women’s votes.

The Cotswolds – aspic or asphalt?

There’s an argument here for adapting for climate-change but maintaining some of our history at the same time. We’ve got to accept that climate change is happening: it’s coming into my work more and more. Take ash dieback, for example. What do we plant instead?

Which attitude best sums up the Cotswolds?

Innovative – like the Stroud Pound! A group of us set it up - including Molly Scott Cato, who is now an MEP – in 2009. It was an alternative currency, designed to keep money in the community. Because Stroud Valleys Project is on Threadneedle Street – like the Bank of England - we were the main exchange-point. It eventually fizzled out but it was a great project while it lasted.

With whom would you most like to have a cider?

David Attenborough: it was wanting to be like him that made me do biology in the first place. The whole thing about single-use plastic...I think he has done something amazing there. Quite simply, he is a god.

Stroud Valleys Project and its Eco Shop are at 8 Threadneedle Street, Stroud GL5 1AF, 01453 753358;