Roger Mortlock’s Cotswold Life
- Credit: © Thousand Word Media
Live music at the Prince Albert; a reviving cuppa at the Sherborne Village Shop and Tea Room; and the quirkiest of quirky events… Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust’s Roger Mortlock shares with us his Cotswold life
Roger Mortlock had long considered his dream job to be that of heading up Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust. “So when the post actually came up, I was terrified!” he laughs. “But I felt passionately about living and working in an area I loved, and being able to have a positive impact on that place.” In fact, with his varied background in policy and communications – top roles with the Soil Association and the Royal Shakespeare Company – he was the ideal chief executive, a post he took up in January 2013. The trust’s work has never been more vital, mitigating the effects of climate change and the continuing erosion of habitats. But, Roger says, there are many good news stories, too, particularly around people’s enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, the natural world. “Our job, above all else, is to tap into and channel the incredible energy that we find – in terms of membership and volunteers – all across the county.”
• Where do you live and why?
I live in Rodborough; and I guess that’s because I always want to be within easy access of the countryside – I have Rodborough Common on my doorstep, which is beautiful. But I also live in a community, and that’s an aspect of life which is pretty important to me too. I love the fact that walking to Stroud Farmers’ Market is a lengthy process because you bump into so many friends and neighbours. I’m surrounded by people who value their local landscape. They might not talk about the limestone grassland or marbled white butterflies but they genuinely love what’s there.
• How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?
I spent a long time in London; then, in 1999, I got a job with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, which meant living in South Warwickshire during the week. I moved to the Cotswolds permanently when I came to work at the Soil Association in 2007. I’ve lived in my current house for seven years, which is the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere! My father was in the army so I moved schools every two years throughout my childhood. I’ve got a friend from West Wales, who talks about the landscape being in her heart; I never understood that until I moved to Gloucestershire.
• What’s your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?
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When I was in London, I used to plan each weekend like a military operation! One of the things I love about living here is that things just happen: lots of walking; having lunch; seeing friends. I also use my weekends to get round our reserves. In fact, I blame Snows Farm Nature Reserve for bringing me to Gloucestershire in the first place. I was doing a walk through the Slad Valley and, suddenly, I came across this place where you just couldn’t hear traffic: I thought that didn’t exist anymore in Southern England. Victorian naturalists came to the Stroud Valleys in the 1800s because this was an area that hadn’t been touched: I think you can still capture that sense of excitement today. Nature in abundance.
• If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?
I’ve always lived in draughty Victorian houses so I’m rather attracted to the idea of somewhere sustainable and cheap to heat. I’d also want to be near people; and I’d want a sunny house – I’m obsessed with where the sun falls at different points of the year. But, if I’d had time and money, I’d have bought the old woodman’s house in Randwick Woods, which was up for auction recently, and I’d build an eco-home there.
• Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?
I can’t imagine being down a farm track miles from anywhere. But, there again, I’d have to have the countryside within walking distance. I do think, though, that we shouldn’t underestimate the amount of nature to be found in cities. When I was living in London, Hackney Marshes was on my doorstep. That was where my love of the natural world really cranked up, and where I first worked as a conservation volunteer.
• Where’s the best pub in the area?
I’m really lucky to have the best local I’ve ever had, on my doorstep: the Prince Albert. The music’s great; the comedy’s great; and it has the best New Year parties I’ve ever been to. I’m sure there are people who’ve moved to the area just because of that pub.
• And the best place to eat?
My mum has been based the other side of Burford for about 30 years, so we often go to Abbey Home Farm [The Organic Farm Shop on the Burford Road, Cirencester]. It’s quite old-school: it reminds me of the wholefood cafés of my youth, but I do love it. Everything comes from the farm so you get such a sense of eating seasonally. For a treat, I also like Made by Bob in Cirencester.
• Have you a favourite tearoom?
We [the wildlife trust] have been doing work on the water meadows at Sherborne with the National Trust. I often cycle round there and I well remember first discovering the village tea shop. I was on my bike, desperately thirsty and thinking, ‘I’ll never find a cup of tea in a place like this!’ Suddenly, like a mirage, the Sherborne Village Shop and Tea Room appeared. If I lived in the village, I’d be in there every day.
• What would you do for a special occasion?
Last year was a very special occasion for us, as a trust. We’ve been looking after Daneway Banks [in Stroud’s Golden Valley, near Sapperton] for more than 45 years, and they’re the location of one of the most successful reintroduction experiments we’ve ever had. In the 60s, the large blue butterfly was common in the Cotswolds; but it became extinct in Britain in 1979. Working with Oxford University, we masterminded bringing over butterfly eggs, which were released at Daneway Banks. The project was more successful than anybody expected – last year, we produced one of the largest colonies of the large blue in Europe and ended up giving butterflies back to Sweden: a real ‘coals to Newcastle’ story! Recently, we launched an appeal to purchase Daneway Banks, with an amazing response. We have now reached our target and the process of buying the land is going ahead.
• What’s the best thing about the Cotswolds?
The undiscovered corners... Such as a walk through Stinchcombe Woods, full of the smell of wild garlic; skylarks overhead; and the majestic beeches stretching out like a series of cathedrals. Or coming across a field of pyramid orchids. Often, we don’t realise how rare that sort of profusion is because we’re so used to seeing it.
•...and the worst?
On a bad day, I sometimes feel my job is about trying to reduce the scale of loss, and that’s depressing. There’s a great clothing company in Wales called Howies, who say on their jeans, Value the earth because they’re not making it anymore.
• Which shop could you not live without?
Brutons in Nailsworth because you can find anything there. I’ve a soft spot for hardware stores.
• What’s the most underrated thing about the Cotswolds?
We underrate people’s passion for the natural environment in Gloucestershire. In terms of wildlife trusts around the country, we top the charts - and have done for many years - because around five percent of all households are members, which is astonishing. We’re also powered by 500 active volunteers.
• What is a person from the Cotswolds called?
Lucky. A friend who came to stay the other week said to me, ‘You probably don’t see how beautiful it is anymore’. I hope I do.
• What would be a three course Cotswold meal?
I’m a big bread-maker so I’d make a loaf using Shipton Mill flour. I’m also a fan of foraging: depending on the time of year, I’d include wild garlic or fungi in my meal. The main course would be stew, using beef from Richard Spyvee at Ruscombe, or from Ian Boyd’s farm at Whittington: they’re both members of the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association. I’d serve cheese for pudding, particularly the Single Gloucester we produce in partnership with Simon Weaver. And we’d drink Tom Long from Stroud Brewery.
• What’s your favourite view in the Cotswolds?
We’ve just taken on the management of Poor’s Allotment in the Forest of Dean, which overlooks the Cotswold escarpment but from the other side of the Severn. Until I started this job, all of my favourite views were from the escarpment. The great joy, for me, has been about understanding the western side of the river.
• What’s your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?
Bourton [on-the-Water]. Visitors often see it as a chocolate-box village but it has a really mixed community. Lots of people come to the Cotswolds without ever getting a true sense of the landscape, which is why we’re planning to develop our reserve at Bourton – Greystones Farm – into a discovery visitor-centre to help people interpret the archaeology and the natural environment of this site. It’s one of the first Cotswold places where people really settled in numbers, around 6,000 years ago.
• Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds
The Forest of Dean, the Vale, and the high Cotswolds. When we talk about the Cotswolds, it can be easy to forget the Severn - one of the most important tidal estuaries in Europe.
• What’s your favourite Cotswolds building and why?
St Oswald’s Church in Widford is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen: I endlessly take people there. It’s a small, medieval chapel, sitting on its own in the middle of fields, still with wall paintings of devils and kings.
• What would you never do in the Cotswolds?
I get so frustrated about people leaving dog-poo lying around when it’s really easy to pick it up and bin it. Even worse is bagging it and leaving it on a branch.
• Starter homes or executive properties?
There needs to be a mix. I partly grew up in London, where expensive houses sit cheek-by-jowl with social housing. One of the great things about the conservation movement is that social boundaries are not very marked: you get people in social housing and you get the big landowners, each with a love of nature. Long may that continue.
• What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?
In terms of nature reserves: Cox’s Island on the Avon to the north; Lower Woods at Wickwar in the south; Lancaut on the Wye to the west; Whelford Pools in the east.
• If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?
I’d take a print I’ve got of Swifts Hill by printmaker and illustrator Andy Lovell, who lives in Painswick.
• What’s the first piece of advice you’d give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?
Join the wildlife trust, get an OS map, and travel through the Cotswolds on foot or by cycle.
• And which book should they read?
A wildlife ID book. We’ve lost our ability to identify the natural world. It’s not about knowing the Latin names; it’s about understanding why things are where they are and what their lifecycle is.
• Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?
The Laurie Lee Wildlife Way, which the trust opened for Laurie Lee’s centenary. I’d seen a Ted Hughes trail in Devon and I suddenly thought how great it would be to have an equivalent. One of the wonderful things about this job is that you can have an idea and see it happen fairly quickly. Cider with Rosie is taught in high schools around the world as an iconic representation of the English countryside – and it’s on our doorstep.
• Which event, or activity, best sums up the Cotswolds?
A quirky stream of things, such as the Olimpicks at Dover’s Hill; cheese-rolling at Cooper’s Hill; sack-racing in Tetbury; Randwick Wap; well dressing... If I had to pick one, Giffords Circus does it for me.
• If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?
I’d like to be in a wood at night, watching undetected. The closest I’ve come has been getting up in the early hours of a summer’s morning for our badger-vaccination programme.
To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?
To Sir Peter Scott, who founded Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, the World Wildlife Fund and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.
• The Cotswolds - aspic or asphalt.
Neither - I feel passionately about this. Our job isn’t just about conservation but about creating nature-rich environments for the future, as well. Like it or not, we’ve got to build more houses in Gloucestershire, so let’s do it right. We’re working with developers to try to create places that are good for people and for wildlife.
• With whom would you most like to have a cider?
It sounds corny but I’d choose any of our volunteer groups. I’m fascinated by their different motivations, their passion for the natural world, and their knowledge.
For more information about Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, its work, and how to join, visit www.gloucestershirewildlifetrust.co.uk or phone 01452 383333.