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Countryside Volunteers

PUBLISHED: 12:43 19 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:32 20 February 2013

Avon Valley District erecting deer fencing in Colerne Park Wood near Bath

Avon Valley District erecting deer fencing in Colerne Park Wood near Bath

Katie Jarvis meets some of the dedicated volunteers who clear paths, build bridges, lay hedges and repair drystone walls, all to protect our greatest asset.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Cotswold Voluntary Wardens - that band of unpaid workers who help keep our countryside looking spick and span!


There are now more than 340 wardens who carry out valuable conservation projects in the Cotswolds, including path clearance, gate installation and bridge building, drystone walling, hedgelaying, scrub clearance and restoration of historic features. Wardens also lead hundreds of guided walks every year.


As the voluntary arm of the Cotswolds Conservation Board - the organization that exists to conserve and enhance the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) - wardens complete thousands of hours of conservation work every year, and in 2006-7 broke their own record by collectively working over 40,000 hours.


It was back in 1968 that Major Ray Clarke was set the task of recruiting volunteers to care for and enhance the countryside. Employed by Gloucestershire County Council to help found the wardens, he set to work and by 1970 there were more than 200 members.


Current head warden, Colin Boulton said, "It was no surprise that the number of wardens swelled so quickly. That is testament to Major Clarke's hard work, and to the dedication of those who have been wardens over the years and those who now make up the service. It also illustrates the great sense of achievement and fulfillment there is to be had from working voluntarily to care for an area that is well loved by so many."


The wardens will be celebrating their 40th year with a week of activity in the early summer, including parish walks in the north Cotswolds, family-focused walks across the area, a public conservation work party in the south and a special event to mark the anniversary at the Royal Agricultural College.


A series of 15 short walks that are suitable for those using wheelchairs, power scooters and pushchairs has also been created to mark the 40th anniversary. 'Walks on Wheels', which will be available to the public in the spring, has been given the stamp of approval by access professionals and disability groups and all of the routes have been tested.


So why become a warden, and what sorts of tasks will you tackle? We put those questions to some modern-day volunteers....


Becoming a Cotswold Warden was a breath of fresh air for Jean Booth. She gave up a hectic office life seven years ago and decided to devote some of her newly-found spare time to volunteering in the countryside. It was, she says, one of her best ever decisions!


Seven years ago, I had a job as an information systems manager for an educational publisher, working all hours; it was pretty pressured. On top of that, my husband was working one week in Germany and one week in England, and we had teenage children - so giving up work seemed like a good idea! I couldn't just do nothing, though. As I've always loved the country and I love walking, I decided to volunteer as a Cotswold Warden - and I've never looked back.


I work as a parish warden for Stanway, making sure the area is well looked after - I get very possessive about my patch! I'm also a Cotswold Way warden, which means I'm responsible for part of this national trail. One of my roles is leading guided walks. That was very scary to begin with because, whatever happens on the walk, you are in charge. But we're trained in health and safety and first aid, and I really enjoy it now. We always lead in pairs, and we give our walkers information as we go along. Different wardens will have different specialist interests - one might be very into plants and birdlife; another will know the history of the area. The warden I'm with talks about geology, which people find fascinating.


I tend to lead walks from Haresfield Beacon to Cooper's Hill and from Hailes Abbey to Broadway. We get all sorts of walkers - locals, ramblers, tourists. One of the great points of interest is always Stanway House, especially as it's frequently used as a film location. The owner, Lord Neidpath, is in the process of renovating an ancient water mill and, if we happen to hit the right day, we're allowed to take walkers round.


I also go out with work parties, which can be lovely in the summer - though the weather can equally be grim! We might be putting in new footpath bridges or working on stiles. When you start a job such as replacing a field stile with a gate, you have to finish it the same day, no matter how cold and wet it might be. But that's all part of the fun! Some of the wardens are very experienced: they provide help and advice to those who are new to the work. It's surprising how diverse a group they are. A lot do tend to be towards the retired end, but by no means all of them. They're all ages and from all walks of life.


I'm well aware that the Cotswold countryside just wouldn't look as good as it does without this volunteer force who give their time and effort. I can see that particularly when I visit other parts of the country where they don't have such a service. But I also get a lot of pleasure myself out of giving something back, and being able to show people the area. Many locals don't do much walking outside of the towns and villages where they live. It's wonderful when, after huffing and puffing up a hill, they stop and look at the view. Suddenly it's all worthwhile!


One of my favourite spots on the Cotswold Way is the escarpment, looking out towards Evesham and the Malverns. On a good day, you can see for miles and miles. I can remember thinking, when I first gave up work, that this was either going to be the worst thing I ever did or the best. And I can tell you, it's turned out to be absolutely the best. There's no way I'd swap this for an office and computer!


Colin Hunt became a warden eight years ago, two years after taking early retirement from a job in housing with Bristol City Council. He lives in Wick, South Gloucestershire, around six miles from Bath.


Being a warden certainly keeps you fit! If you have to put in a new stile, for example, it's very physical work. You have to dig out the old posts before siting the new stile in pretty deep holes - all practical stuff. You'll often find that people on the work party have been in offices all their lives, but they know how to hammer in a nail or work a saw. When I took early retirement, I decided I really wanted to spend time outdoors - and I've discovered a lot of like-minded people among the wardens. What I do find is that work parties recapture that feeling of camaraderie - pulling together as a team. There'll be times when you're ankle deep in mud and you come home soaking wet, but you soon dry out!


Tree and hedge planting is another important aspect of the work. I've heard farmers talk about how, in the '60s, they were encouraged to grub out the hedges; it's good to see the countryside being restored nowadays. We do all sorts of interesting things: I was helping with a hedge a couple of weeks ago with a lady who is very interested in dormice, which are becoming scarce. She was trying to find a way for the dormice to travel from one piece of woodland to another. What we did was to plug gaps in the hedge to extend their habitat and give them a better chance of making their way there.


There are times when I'm out most days as a warden - though that's through choice. As well as being a warden for part of the Cotswold Way National Trail, I look after a particular area around where I live. It's around seven or eight miles from top to bottom and four miles wide. I couldn't possibly get around every single footpath regularly, but a fellow warden and I keep an eye on it as a whole. We don't get a big problem with litter, but we'll cut back the seasonal growth - nettles and brambles - from around the stiles, and report any bigger jobs that need doing.


I feel wardens are a focal point in the Cotswolds. You get people working in the countryside, people living in the countryside, and people who use it for pleasure, and it's part of our job to bring those groups together. We do many jobs that, I suppose, would otherwise fall to councils, which don't always have the resources, or to landowners and farmers, who are already overstretched. To be honest, if we didn't do the work, I don't know who would.


I'm originally from Newcastle, but although I was born and brought up in the city, I was introduced to the countryside when I was very young. From the age of 14, I went walking - with the school, with the Scouts and with friends - particularly in Northumbria, the Lake District and Scotland. I've lived in Wick now for 30 years and I love it here. One of the things that appealed to me is that the work we do helps to enhance the beauty of the place.


There's no doubt the countryside is under stress because of the changing climate. But at least as a warden, I feel I'm helping to work towards a solution.



For Dave Scott, one of the satisfactions of being a Cotswold Warden lies in the new skills he is constantly learning, from coppicing to filling in grant application forms. He also uses his experiences to teach his school classes an appreciation of the rural life



I'm a teacher - I teach the first two years of juniors at Christ Church Cathedral School in Oxford - and one of the first things I do with the children is to take them to a quarry at Cross Hands, north of Chipping Norton, where they look for fossils. That's part of my initial work with them on rocks and their formation. I talk about the way the Cotswolds' man-made artefacts, like the walls and the buildings, merge into the landscape because they're made from the limestone. This area is unique in that way, and it's one of the reasons why I work for the warden service.


I blame my mother for getting me involved in volunteering in the first place! She was brought up in a strict Methodist household where the idea of service within the community ran deep. As a result, I joined the Durham Countryside Ranger Service when I was 18. I ended up in this area thanks to my first teaching job in Worcestershire, and I joined the Cotswolds AONB in January 1976.


I've worked in the countryside for a long time, but I'd never call myself an expert - you're always learning. One of the skills I've picked up is coppicing, which goes back to medieval times. We've been working with the Wychwood Forest conservation project that was set up on the old hunting forest in West Oxfordshire. The idea of coppicing is to let more light into the woodland to benefit the ground flora - wood anemones, primroses and occasionally the pyramid orchid. It's also a way of collecting the stakes and heatherings you need when you lay a hedge. Heatherings can be known as binders - long, thin bits of hazel, 12-13 feet long, that you twist as you put them into the top of the hedge. That's not a skill I've mastered! One of the woods where we've been working hadn't been coppiced for 70 or 80 years.


But it's not just practical skills that you need. I've had to learn how to put in grant applications, and I often have to negotiate with county council officials or visit landowners. I really enjoy going to see farmers - they're a fount of knowledge. I keep meaning to take a tape recorder. One chap of about 85 was telling me how they used to use shire horses to do the ploughing. One of these horses was old and lazy and wouldn't go out if it was cold. 'So,' he said, 'we used to light a small fire under him'! I wonder what the RSPCA would make of that!


People who bang on about farmers being the custodians of our land are absolutely right. When the children and I talk about farmers, I always point out that they're not just food producers. The pupils I teach are at the right age to learn about the countryside, and they're very enthusiastic about it. We had a classic occurrence recently. We were driving by a field of beef cattle and I heard one of the boys at the back say, "There's lunch!" And I thought, 'Yes! Fantastic!' It doesn't come from a plastic wrapper in Sainsbury's.


A couple of years ago, when I was head warden, I managed to persuade my head master to let me take an unpaid day off a week to do this work, and that's what I've done ever since. In fact, the children always refer to what I do out in the countryside as my 'real job'!


There's no doubt about it, though. At the end of a work party job, you step back and think, 'Yes, I've done that.' Or you come across trees you planted, and there's a great satisfaction in thinking, 'These are still going to be here in 50 years' time.'


The wardens:




  • Lead hundreds of themed guided walks across the year. From geology to orchids, the wardens know their stuff and will share their intimate knowledge of the Cotswold landscape with you on the walk. You can find a walks listing online at www.cotswoldsaonb.org.uk or in the back of the Cotswold Lion newspaper available at most libraries or Tourist Information Centres in the Cotswolds.




  • Work to improve existing walking routes. This could be anything from clearing paths of scrub and replacing stiles with more accessible 'kissing gates' to installing new signposts and putting up waymarkers.




  • Help to restore historic features in the Cotswold landscape such as dewponds; these are man-made cobbled ponds designed to collect rainwater and provide a water source for livestock in remote locations.




  • Repair drystone walls across the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Many wardens have taken part in drystone walling training courses and use the ancient rural skill to help repair the network of thousands of miles of drystone wall that crisscross the AONB.




  • Work to lay hedges across the AONB. Many wardens know how to lay a hedge in the traditional local style (Midland and West Country) and can be seen using their skills across the Cotswolds during the winter months.




  • Plant many trees every year. This year wardens have been focusing their attention on planting near to very old 'veteran trees' so that when the old trees die new ones will take their place and the delicate ecosystem that depends on the tree for its existence can transfer and continue.




  • Help to clear scrub on important 'wildflower rich' grassland sites. The beautiful wildflower sites that we know and love in the Cotswolds can only exist with careful management, which includes sensitive grazing and the clearance of scrub. Wardens put the work in to ensure that flora and fauna on these sites thrive.




  • Act as ambassadors for the Cotswolds AONB and promote the work that goes on to conserve and enhance the area at local shows and fetes.




  • Work to devise accessible circular walks for the public. Find out about their latest project, Walks on Wheels, 15 short routes designed for mobility scooters, wheelchairs and buggies at www.cotswoldsaonb.org.uk or call and request a walks pack 01451 862000.




  • Provide an important point of contact between community groups, parish councils, local rights of way teams, landowners and the Cotswolds Conservation Board. Some wardens work within their parish, offering a link to Cotswold communities helping to resolve some local issues, such as ensuring that damaged gates and stiles are repaired.



FRIENDS of the Cotswolds, a new charity, has been launched to help protect and conserve this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).


The charity will raise funds through donations, appeals, campaigns and events, which will be invested in a wide range of projects. The aim will be threefold:


To promote, enhance and conserve the AONB and surrounding areas;


To raise awareness about the natural environment and


To provide activities and facilities within the area



Simon Randall, chairman of the charity says,



"Primarily Friends of the Cotswolds was set up to protect the Cotswolds and preserve the countryside. There are a lot of threatened buildings, woodlands and grasslands which need a new lease of life and this way, we can help the area retain its charm so that future generations can enjoy it. Also, we want visitors to the region to get as much out of it as we do!"


Within the Cotswolds are internationally-important grasslands, rare species and geological and heritage sites of great significance. Donations received will contribute to conserving this rich variety of landscape features in an area defined by its wonderful mix of open views, woodlands and rolling wolds, as well as quiet hidden valleys, which contrast with the dramatic scarp edge offering stunning views across the Severn Valley and on to Wales. Other funds will go towards saving endangered animals or rare plants such as the Cotswold Pennycress; protecting historic sites and features; managing grasslands and woodlands; and reviving traditional crafts and skills.


Alternatively, you may wish to support the Friends of the Cotswolds in other ways, such as helping to organise fund-raising events or appeals.


Community groups, local societies, parish and town councils and schools and colleges could receive financial help for projects, as well as local authorities and the Cotswolds Conservation Board.


The Friends of the Cotswolds was created by the organisation that exists to conserve and enhance the AONB - the Cotswolds Conservation Board - but is an independent organisation and a registered charity.


If you would like more information about the Friends of the Cotswolds, or advice and assistance on how to make a donation, the Friends Development Officer can be contacted on 01451 862035. Alternatively visit the Cotswold Conservation Board website on www.cotswoldsaonb.com


For more information about becoming a Cotswold Voluntary Warden, phone the Cotswolds Conservation Board on 01451 862000 or log onto www.cotswoldsaonb.com and click on 'volunteering'.


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