Interview: Lady Delia Thornton, Royal International Air Tattoo trustee

PUBLISHED: 14:32 18 July 2019 | UPDATED: 15:27 18 July 2019

Lady Delia Thornton in the wildflower meadow area of her garden.

Lady Delia Thornton in the wildflower meadow area of her garden.

© Thousand Word Media

Lady Delia Thornton, family law barrister and Royal International Air Tattoo trustee, tells us about her Cotswold Life

The Royal International Air Tattoo (or RIAT, as it's fondly known) has thrilled millions of visitors since its inception back in 1971. Held in Fairford each July, its reputation is now sky-high, recognised as the world's largest military airshow. That success is owed in no small part to its ability to adapt and transform to suit the needs of changing times.

The same could be said of RIAT trustee Lady Delia Thornton. She spent two decades working as a nurse and midwife, including eight years in the RAF. During the Falklands War, Delia led teams evacuating injured personnel from Port Stanley to RAF Brize Norton - which, on one memorable occasion, led to a stand-up row. Senior officers wanted the media to witness stretchers coming off a VC10 aircraft: "But the wounded military on board were determined they would walk proudly from the aircraft onto British soil, even though they'd been designated 'stretcher' cases.

"I held out on these patients' behalves until those who outranked me backed down. I understood that the pride of these young men was at stake. Healing is far more than bringing broken bones together; it's also about dignity and mental well-being."

After taking time out for the birth of her sons - Oliver, now an RAF flying instructor; and William, MD of a Cheltenham-based manufacturing company - Delia returned to midwifery… only to discover that anyone qualified before 1985 was prevented from progressing beyond junior level.

Horrified by that injustice, she left to study law. For the past two decades, she has worked as a barrister specialising in family law and child protection. "I'm 66 this year, but I've no intention of retiring just yet!" she says.

Delia is married to Air Marshal Sir Barry Thornton, KCB. They have five grandchildren, aged from one to seven.

Where do you live and why?

In Cirencester - and home is terribly important to me. Because Barry and I were in the Air Force, we were constantly moving around. We've always felt it vital for a family to have roots, so all our money went into property - never holidays; never new cars. We also had to decide whether or not we wanted to move our children from their school every couple of years. In the end, against my maternal instinct, the boys went as weekly borders to Cheltenham Junior, then onto the college, where they flourished. Without stability; without a sense of belonging and nurturing, we lose our way. And I can see that all the time in the work I do in child protection.

Lady Delia ThorntonLady Delia Thornton

How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?

For 25 years. I was brought up in Lincolnshire, and it was my childhood that taught me how important family is. My sister and I would regularly go with my mother to stay with her family in Bude: my grandma ran a B&B and everybody pitched in to help. We'd also drive to my dad's family in Sunderland.

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

It would include watching polo - I just love the [Cirencester] Park, which is typically 'Cotswolds' - followed by a Sunday roast with the family. And then a balloon ride! My love of flight must be in the genes. My father flew Lancasters during the war. And our son, Oliver, won the top pilot's prize of his course at Cranwell. When Ollie announced he wanted to go in the Air Force, Barry and I were genuinely shocked. He didn't have a disciplined hair on his body (which he'll agree with); and the nearest he'd been to an aeroplane was EasyJet on holiday. Before he committed to the RAF, we got him a flight trial with an instructor, who later phoned us to say, "He's an absolute natural."

William, on the other hand, is a born petrolhead!

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

I'd have the Bamford Estate, including Daylesford. I visited with a girlfriend when it first opened, and enjoyed tucking into the free samples in the deli. When I asked my friend why she wasn't eating them, she replied, "They're not free samples. They're on sale!" We left rather hurriedly for the garden shop. I must have devoured a good £15-worth.

Lady Delia Thornton, with her husband Air Marshal(Retired) Sir Barry in the garden of their home near Cirencester.Lady Delia Thornton, with her husband Air Marshal(Retired) Sir Barry in the garden of their home near Cirencester.

Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?

(Sorry, Stroud!) An enclosed valley just wouldn't suit me. I need sunshine, sky, and open spaces.

Where's the best pub in the area?

We're not great 'Let's go out for a drink' people, and I don't drink alcohol. But when we host New Year, we usually pile into the Village Pub, Barnsley, or the Bell at Sapperton, where we tend to be quite noisy!

And the best place to eat?

Again, either the Village Pub, or Barnsley House where I love walking round Rosemary Verey's gardens.

Lady Delia Thornton, with her husband Air Marshal(Retired) Sir Barry in a summerhouse in the garden of their home near Cirencester.Lady Delia Thornton, with her husband Air Marshal(Retired) Sir Barry in a summerhouse in the garden of their home near Cirencester.

What would you do for a special occasion?

I'd invite family and friends to join us at home - it's somewhere I love sharing. Very few of the children, or indeed the adults, I represent in court have ever sat round a dining table and had a meal together. It's sad when that's lost.

What's the best thing about the Cotswolds?

Drystone walls and converted barns.

... and the worst?

Fly-tipping (which I know happens everywhere). And the loss of front gardens to tarmac for car-parking.

Lady Delia Thornton, with her husband Air Marshal(Retired) Sir Barry in the garden of their home near Cirencester.Lady Delia Thornton, with her husband Air Marshal(Retired) Sir Barry in the garden of their home near Cirencester.

Which shop could you not live without?

I grow our vegetables, and I hope to extend that into winter crops this year - but I do need Jesse Smith's to complete our diet. Also, I couldn't live without my hairdresser, Jodie, at Goldworthy's, who is the best at cutting short hair.

What's the most underrated thing about the Cotswolds?

I don't know the most underrated thing about the Cotswolds; but sometimes I feel the most underrated thing in general is the importance of communicating with children. Nothing infuriates me more - either as a professional, or as a mother and grandmother - than walking into a restaurant like Bob's and seeing parents giving their children phones or iPads to watch movies to keep them quiet, instead of chatting to them or enjoying the general hubbub. What's more, it's double standards. In my work, parents or guardians of children in the care system get negative reports if they're on their telephone during supervised contact scenarios.

What is a person from the Cotswolds called?

A fierce defender of our 'real estate'.

Lady Delia ThorntonLady Delia Thornton

What would be a three-course Cotswold meal?

I'm going to be greedy! For meat-eaters: anything with wild garlic; then roast lamb, and bread and butter pudding. For vegetarians: anything from the café at the Organic Farm Shop on the Burford Road outside Cirencester.

What's your favourite view in the Cotswolds?

Within the Cotswolds, it's the view of the [Cirencester] Abbey steeple, rising above the landscape on the way back down from the Park, unadulterated by evidence of 'when' in time.

In my work, when I walk from my Chambers in Bristol to the family courts, I pass a nursery held within a church. You see these tiny tots in seventh heaven, playing outside - even in the rain, in their sou'westers - happy, healthy, and unbroken. What we're doing in the building next door is trying to help broken children achieve the same sorts of things. That keeps me on the straight and narrow.

What's your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?

Wherever you live is the best Cotswolds village - and I include the new ones. I'm always in Dobbies [Garden Centre] and, when I drive back home, I pass the new Cirencester housing estate on the roundabout. I call it Lilliput! All different heights and shapes: it pleases me to see it's not just straight lines of back-to-back housing. The planners are getting it right.

Flowers in the garden of Lady Delia Thornton.Flowers in the garden of Lady Delia Thornton.

Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds…

- Cotswold stone walls: boundaries are essential for social and self-discipline;

- Air power: there were more than 50 airfields in the Cotswolds;

- Roman roads: they unite the county like energy-filled pathways; an ancient equivalent of the internet.

What's your favourite Cotswolds building and why?

Chavenage House, because of its grandeur and the fact that it's almost unchanged over more than 400 years ago; a strong reminder of how the Cotswolds looked in the past.

Flowers in the garden of Lady Delia Thornton.Flowers in the garden of Lady Delia Thornton.

What would you never do in the Cotswolds?

I'd never complain about slow farm vehicles, the bedrock of the countryside.

Starter homes or executive properties?

Starter homes are essential. And executive properties encourage those in starter homes to aspire.

What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?

I'll do it in terms of former RAF bases:

- Edgehill, near Moreton-in-Marsh;

- Colerne, near Chippenham;

- Brize Norton, near Witney;

- Babdown Farm, near Tetbury.

I'll also have an extra - Rendcomb - in the middle: one of the few WW1 Royal Flying Corps airfields still operational today, albeit now only for civil use.

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

A subscription to Cotswold Life magazine as I'd want to know what was going on.

The only place we have actually lived abroad was Germany for two years; but I've been lucky enough to travel a lot, both accompanying Barry and as part of my own aeromedical duties. One trip that particularly stays in my mind was again during the Falklands War, bringing burns victims back home. The SS Uganda, a passenger liner commandeered as a hospital ship, transferred the wounded to us via HMS Hecla. Along with the wounded, their colleagues handed us a bag of perfume samples they'd found on the ship. "Look after our mates!" they said. It was so moving. They wanted to give something, even though we were just doing our job. That humanity gives me hope for everybody.

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

Don't complain about 4x4s: they're an essential part of Cotswold life. And go to Cotswold Country on Chesterton Lane to get yourself properly equipped with footwear and clothing.

And which book should they read?

I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. (Nothing to do with the Cotswolds, but a great read!)

Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?

From Sapperton, in a circular route via Edgeworth, and back to the Bell for lunch.

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

The Royal International Air Tattoo. It inspires and thrills; it brings people together; it celebrates flight, science and engineering. It's also an enormous benefit to the Cotswolds in terms of bringing money and opportunity in. And it's a unique opportunity for flight crews from all over the world to meet and share their passion for aviation.

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

I'd go to Highgrove on my own. When my Aunt Barbara - now 98 - was at Cambridge University, she used to spend the holidays at Highgrove, where my Great Uncle William was head gardener. There are certain parts of that garden that really speak to me, and I've tried to create areas around my own garden, too, where I can go when I'm busy or wanting inspiration; when I'm happy or upset. It's very strange. We've an area where we planted two trees in honour of our parents. Mine has a little statue beside it, wearing the beads my mother used to hang around her neck. The other is for Barry's parents, who always said they wanted to be together when they went. Their ashes are beside a tree that, all of its own volition, suddenly lost its leader and started to grow in two different directions.

To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?

To Peter Pan: a reminder that each of us once acted and thought as a child. We should never lose that inner child; the sense of fun.

The Cotswolds - aspic or asphalt?

They can both exist, side by side. Our house, for example, is a converted 18th-century barn that once housed cattle. In the kitchen are two pillars made from whatever came to hand - slate, old brick, Cotswold stone. But they're screeded so that the animals, as they pushed against them, didn't injure themselves. I love that imprint of good husbandry.

Which attitude best sums up the Cotswolds?

Responsibility. We are custodians of the Cotswolds for our children.

With whom would you most like to have a cider?

I'd bring together Leonardo da Vinci and Professor Brian Cox, separated by 500 years. It's considered that Leonardo's sketches of a helicopter detailed a predecessor to the modern flying machine. And then there's Brian Cox, who says that humans will live on Mars one day. They'd fascinate each other and inspire me.

For full details of the Royal International Air Tattoo, July 19-21, and to book tickets, visit airtattoo.com.

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