Interview: Reggie Heyworth, Cotswold Wildlife Park
- Credit: © Thousand Word Media
Katie Jarvis talks Marmite sandwiches and poison dart frogs - but definitely no cider - with Reggie Heyworth, who runs the Cotswold Wildlife Park
Reggie Heyworth runs Cotswold Wildlife Park in Burford: one of the region’s most popular and picturesque attractions. Set in 160 acres of parkland, with beautifully tended gardens, it’s home to an extraordinary array of animals. You’re as likely to ‘bump’ into an Asiatic lion or a giant anteater, as you are a baby white rhino – Belle and Alan were born at the park last autumn. That’s not to mention the stunning collection of exotic birds, primates, reptiles and amphibians.
And ‘bump’ is the key word. When Reggie’s father – the late John Heyworth – opened the wildlife park back in 1970, he wasn’t interested in the safari model so many other big-estate owners were espousing. His vision was for an attraction where people could park their cars and walk, getting as close to the animals as safely possible. Today, the park is hugely successful, welcoming some 420,000 paying visitors each year, most from within an hour’s drive.
This was an idea born of expediency; dreamed up to save an estate from post-Second World War bankruptcy. But for Reggie – a life-long animal lover, like his father before him – Cotswold Wildlife Park is a home he wouldn’t exchange for any other: “There’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be,” he says.
Where do you live and why?
At the Cotswold Wildlife Park – in the middle of Bradwell Grove Estate – in what used to be the gamekeeper’s cottage. My house isn’t very big but it’s in the most tranquil position, and I love it. My father inherited this beautiful estate from his grandfather, when he was just 24. Like many of his friends, he had been packed off to boarding school at a young age; his father was in the army and travelled the world with his wife, so dad was brought up by his grandparents. Aged 16, during the Second World War, he was called into his housemaster’s study to be told that his father had been killed – so it was an unusual upbringing, to say the least. By the time his grandfather died, post-war Britain was depressed and bankrupt; people in a similar position were selling up big estates and emigrating. But my father had always loved this place: against the advice of family, he hung on to as much as he could, paid a huge inheritance tax bill and decided to give things a go.
How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?
Apart from a five-year break, working in rhino conservation in Tanzania, I’ve never lived anywhere else. When I was very young, the house was rented out to the local health authority; it became rather unloved and forlorn, and I remember finding it spooky and strange. I didn’t even realise it was anything to do with us – we lived a couple of fields away. But by 1969, the local authority staff had left and the house was empty. It needed a lot of work – the roof was in a terrible state – and my father didn’t have much money. Despite all that, he couldn’t face selling the house and parkland. He thought of everything he could do with it, from running events to turning it into a golf club; but he loved animals, so he decided he’d give a wildlife park a try. I was aged seven when it opened, with giant hornbills, tapirs and llamas; there were otters and penguins in the walled garden; prairie dogs and coatimundis, and quite a lot of birds. It was every child’s dream. The first book I’d ever read was My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. I was absolutely enamoured.
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What’s your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?
Anything that allows me to tickle a rhino. I’m mad about them. The two youngsters we’ve got at the moment – numbers four and five of the babies we’ve bred at the park – are Belle and Alan, born last October. Adults and youngsters are all quite biddable so I regularly go in and give them a good scratch. They’re very gentle but, of course, they’re also unpredictable; you still have to be careful.
If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?
I wouldn’t move for all the money in the world. Nor, if I had a blank cheque, would I be throwing it at conservation work – an issue dear to my heart. NGOs and charities, whose lifeblood depends on raising funds, too often perpetuate the idea that conservation problems can only be solved by spending money. As Orwell said, if you control the language, you control the debate. The real issues are often ignored. What we should be addressing are female empowerment and giving women control over their bodies; population issues; and waste.
Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?
Any village with lots of security gates. When I was young and would go with my parents to visit friends in local villages, no one would lock their cars or their doors. Nowadays, people close themselves off with solid automatic gates, not because of security fears but because it’s the way they want to live.
Where’s the best pub in the area?
The Cotty [Cotswold] Arms in Burford High Street. It feels like a proper pub.
And the best place to eat?
Definitely the Swan in Swinbrook. My grandparents used to live in the village and I spent a lot of my childhood there.
What would you do for a special occasion?
I’d have a roar and snore: an overnight camp in my shepherd’s hut by the lion enclosure. They’re wonderful animals and much endangered. The tent shakes when lions roar close by.
What’s the best thing about the Cotswolds?
The changing seasons. Our long and sometimes harsh winters can be a struggle; I wouldn’t say our rhinos enjoy them, but they get through it. Most animals are zoo-bred in the Northern Hemisphere so they’ve all adapted pretty well over time.
... and the worst?
One of our rare droughts, when all the crops and gardens look terrible, and the trees get very stressed. Whenever we used to complain that it was pouring with rain, my father would say, ‘Believe me, anything is better than a drought’.
Which shop could you not live without?
From a personal perspective, Asda in Carterton. I love it!
As far as the wildlife park goes, the gift shop. I’ve got a great team of people and I’m very proud of it. Unusually for a place like us, our visitors are not made to leave via the shop, which doesn’t even have a sign.
What’s the most underrated thing about the Cotswolds?
I once said I wanted us to be the best wildlife park in the world that no one has ever heard of. I still haven’t found a better way of putting it. When my father was starting out, there were a number of larger-than-life, showy characters – Gerald Durrell at Jersey Zoo; John Aspinall at Howletts Zoo; the Marquess of Bath at Longleat; the Dowager Duchess of Bedford, an absolute camera-magnet at Woburn – who were also setting up wildlife parks and zoos. My father was the complete opposite of them: very low key. I want everybody here to feel they’re working at the best wildlife park in the world. But the idea of having the national, let alone global, status of one of the big boys, I find slightly cringe-making.
What is a person from the Cotswolds called?
A winner in life’s lottery.
What would be a three-course Cotswold meal?
I’m happy with a Marmite sandwich. I lived for five years in Tanzania where I’d go weeks living off local beans, rice, and whatever fruit was in season.
What’s your favourite view in the Cotswolds?
The best sight ever was arriving half an hour after the birth of Astrid, our first ever baby rhino calf in July 2013.
What’s your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?
Church, vicarage, pub, swifts in summer, and no tourists: Shilton. It even has a ford.
Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds...
Water, stone and skylarks.
What’s your favourite Cotswolds building and why?
Holwell church in our village. It’s where my father is buried and where I’d like to end up one day.
What would you never do in the Cotswolds?
Get into my car on a bank holiday Monday.
Starter homes or executive properties?
Starter homes. We employ 140 full-time-equivalent members of staff, and affordable housing is a big issue for a lot of them. We’re lucky that we’re close to Carterton, which does have lower-price houses, as well as plenty of people who want to work locally whose partners are in the RAF.
What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?
The four corners of our Cotswold world, in terms of animals we have here, are:
North: the wolverine, historically from Northern Europe, Russia, Northern Canada and Alaska;
South: penguins in general, though ours are Humboldt penguins from the west coast of South America;
West: the poison dart frog from the western South Americas;
East: the clouded leopard from Borneo.
If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?
I haven’t seen it myself yet but I would take a box-set of This Country. I don’t have a television licence because I refuse to pay the fee; I got tired a long time ago of the relentless sneering - by the metropolitan elite that dominates the BBC - against the Church of England.
What’s the first piece of advice you’d give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?
Visit the churches but avoid the PCCs.
And which book should they read?
The Music Room by William Fiennes: a hymn of praise to his older brother, Richard, who suffered from epilepsy. The Fiennes family has been at Broughton Castle for more than 800 years: that’s real roots in the Cotswolds.
Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?
I love walking from Holwell to Shilton along the public footpath, which takes you down the Shill Valley. You never see anybody else on it other than other than neighbours out on their horses.
Which event, or activity, best sums up the Cotswolds?
Sheep-shearing - I wish there was more of it. It’s one of the great sadnesses of modern farming that intensification has taken hold, meaning you see so much less livestock than you once did. We’re organic farmers, with around 2,000 arable acres under the plough in partnership with another local farmer; and then there are our cattle and sheep.
If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?
I wouldn’t mind sitting in on a Cotswold Wildlife Park staff tea-break. It would be really fun to listen to what was being said. If I tried to do the same with the animals, they’d smell me!
To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?
Like the ‘Unknown Warrior’, there should be one to the unknown parish priest: a huge and unsung resource in village life. I’ve just read a biography of John Keble, which brought home to me – not that I’ve ever doubted it – how important the position of vicar has been historically, and still is. They represent an entire arm of what has now been farmed out to local authorities (who, sadly, have too many other priorities to juggle): social service-providers, compassion-givers, mental health carers. Apparently, that’s one of the underlying messages from This Country [TV series].
The Cotswolds – aspic or asphalt?
Aspic – who wouldn’t! My father refused to turn the estate into a safari park. He said, ‘No. I want people to get out of their cars and enjoy the gardens, the trees and the fresh air’. We were never keen on asphalt.
Which attitude best sums up the Cotswolds?
With whom would you most like to have a cider?
I had an ‘accident’ on cider, aged about 16, so whoever I have it with is going to have to drink my share! My hero is Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye. We are very lucky to have people like that, holding power to account. Superb sense of humour and complete integrity.
Cotswold Wildlife Park (Bradwell Grove, OX18 4JP), two miles south of Burford, is open every day apart from Christmas. For more information, visit cotswoldwildlifepark.co.uk.