Remembering farming hero Joe Henson
14:44 07 October 2015
The farming world has lost one of its heroes, Joe Henson, MBE, who has died after a short illness, at the age of 82
Joe Henson was the most gentlemanly, courteous and knowledgeable of interviewees, writes Katie Jarvis.
When I went to see him, at his home in Bourton-on-the-Water, I met a man who was homely, gently humorous and modest – with no reason to be modest. The previous year, in 2011, he had been awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to conservation. A founder member of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, Joe opened the Cotswold Farm Park at Guiting Power in 1971 – a farm that has become a showcase for at-risk breeds, and is now one of the region’s major tourist attractions.
But rather than talk about his achievements during our hour-or-so together, Joe focused on his home and his family – his wife, Gill, and their four children. Of course, they include Adam, the television presenter and Cotswold Life columnist, who now runs the Cotswold Farm Park and its associated farm; and daughters Rebecca, Louise, and Libby, also a rare-breed expert with her own specialist IT business.
Here are some of the answers Joe Henson gave in his My Cotswold Life interview. The final extract is particularly poignant.
How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?
For 60 years: I came to Cirencester agricultural college when I was 19. I grew up in London, where my dad, Leslie, was an actor; we had to live within easy reach of the West End. I had a model farm that I loved, and I used to spend my Saturday sixpence on a lead animal for it each week. We then moved to Northwood, at the end of the tube line, which was very rural, and my mum would walk me to a little farm up the road, where everything except the ploughing was done by horses. The herd of cows was hand-milked; the milk was bottled and delivered by pony and float; the chickens were all free range, and one of my jobs was to go round with a basket looking for eggs to take back to the farmer. That was the life for me. Because Dad was away in the war, entertaining the troops all over the world, my Grampy Bill got me a pair of rabbits to teach me about the facts of life! We were soon outnumbered so mum and I would swap oven-ready rabbit for eggs and vegetables; you can imagine that we didn’t live badly.
What’s your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?
Having friends to lunch. My wife is a very good cook and she loves to entertain.
If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?
I wouldn’t move. I need to be within walking distance of the post office and the one in Bourton is still going strong; it’s heartbreaking the way so many others are closing. But if money were no object, then I’d probably have ended up paying for that very expensive Highland bull that Adam bought in Scotland [as seen in a Countryfile episode]. We agreed a price before he left, and he doubled it. I said to him, ‘If you’d sent me out to buy that bull and I’d done that, you’d have given me hell!’ But Adam was absolutely right; for a Highland, that bull has got amazing conformation.
Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?
Even though I was born in London, I’m a country boy so I wouldn’t want to live in Gloucester, for instance. Cheltenham is nice for a shopping trip, lunch or the theatre: I love good acting. When I was a boy, I had a very bad stammer, so there was never any question of me being an actor. I cured myself by discovering that girls don’t go out with boys who stammer!
What would you do for a special occasion?
We’re having a special occasion this year  because it’s our 55th wedding anniversary and I will be 80. We’re going to have the whole family and some very close friends over in a marquee in the garden. The last wonderful occasion was when I received my MBE: I was so delighted it was the Princess Royal who gave it to me; she breeds rare breeds so we have something in common.
What’s the best thing about the Cotswolds?
The people. We’ve got so many good friends who would do anything for us if we needed help, and that’s what life is all about.
... and the worst?
Bovine TB. The two sides of the argument have got to come together and work out a scheme that will stop this terrible disease. On one particular occasion, we lost seven cows in calf, two stock bulls, and one of a pair of oxen Adam had been training to pull. It was my life’s work going down the drain. From the wider point of view, badgers die a terrible, painful, appalling death from TB. I’m a lover of wildlife; it’s been my hobby all my life, and it really upsets me to think of badgers and how they suffer.
What’s the most underrated thing about the Cotswolds?
Farmers who look after the countryside, the farm animals and the wildlife. They’re underrated because people don’t really see what they’re doing.
What would be a three-course Cotswold meal?
Gill does a wonderful roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. My father’s greatest friend was Stanley Holloway – a lovely man – who was famous for reciting poems; he described the best Yorkshire puddings as like ‘fluff from the breast of a dove’! We’d get the beef from Lambourne’s in Stow, the butcher who processes Adam’s meat. I like all the breeds but I have to say I particularly enjoy Belted Galloway. I can’t have a starter because I always have second helpings of beef, but I would enjoy crème caramel for pudding.
What’s your favourite view in the Cotswolds?
We have a water tower at the top of the farm and I always used to take the children up there for the view, which is just amazing. To the east, you can see the tower of Stow church; to the west, you look across to Guiting Wood; and to the south, on a clear day, you can see the Marlborough Downs. Louise works for a charity called the Forest Peoples Programme, championing the rights of indigenous people all over the world. She has been to all sorts of amazing places but she once said to me, “Sometimes, dad, when I’m on the top of a mountain, looking at what I’m told is the most beautiful view in the world, I think: I wish I was on top of the water tower.’
Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds…
People don’t understand that the breeds of grazing animals affect the land, which is why, in the old days before they cottoned on to it, a lot of nature reserves went wrong; they would fence them off and keep the animals out, without realising those animals were vital. Nowadays many nature reserves are using rare breeds because they eat the sorts of things that modern hybrids won’t.
What would you never do in the Cotswolds?
Burn straw. I used to, for my sins, because in those days there wasn’t the market for the straw that there is now; it was the best way of clearing the stubble of all the weed seeds and other rubbish. It was wrong; it was dangerous; it was against nature. In places like Australia and Florida, the plants and animals are used to big burns, but in this country they aren’t and I’m sure we did damage.
Starter homes or executive properties?
There has always been a mix of working people and wealth, and there always should be: in the old days, it was the farm-workers’ cottages alongside the big houses, which employed a lot of staff. Nowadays, fewer people are employed on farms and the cottages they once lived in are highly sought-after. The answer is that we have got to look to ways of building inexpensive dwellings – and that is actually happening at Bourton. There is one big estate of smaller houses being done very nicely, which proves it is possible.
Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?
My pleasure at night, after I’d closed the farm park, was walking round my animals, making sure they were all settled. I always had particular favourites. Gill bottle-fed an Exmoor foal called May, who would always come up to me for a scratch.
To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?
To William Garne the Elder. He kept the Cotswold breed going when they no longer fitted the commercial world: everybody wanted small joints, so breeds like the Southdown came in and replaced them; and the particular kind of wool they produced didn’t suit the factories up in the north. If it wasn’t for him, there wouldn’t be a Cotswold breed today.
If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?
A lock of Cotswold wool because I would like to be buried with it. Traditionally, shepherds were always buried with Cotswold wool so that, when they met St Peter at the Gate, he would know that they were shepherds, which is why they couldn’t get to church on Sundays.
Our thoughts are with Joe’s family.