Author Gordon Ottewell
PUBLISHED: 23:31 28 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:40 20 February 2013
Gordon Ottewell's books reflect the very real passion he has for this area and its natural beauty. Katie Jarvis took a stroll with the author, while Mike Charity took the photographs.
Author Gordon Ottewell was raised in the industrial Midlands and began his working life in the mines. But in his 30s, he retrained as a teacher and moved to the Oxfordshire Cotswolds, where he began to instill in his pupils a love of their natural surroundings. "The countryside is my passion; I can't begin to tell you how it has enriched my life," he says. "I've never met a child yet who didn't respond to what I call 'the wondrous world around us'."
Now retired from teaching, he writes and lectures about the Cotswolds, and leads guided walks for Urchfont Manor in Wiltshire and Denman College in Oxford. "I'm a foot soldier," he says. "One of the very first books my mother bought me was England's Pleasance by SPB Mais. One of his expressions that I took to heart was: Unless you travel slowly, you'll never see England at all."
Gordon lives in Winchcombe with his wife, Margaret.
Where do you live and why?
We live at Winchcombe because we wanted a little town with - from my purely selfish point of view - ready access to the countryside. Looking back on a long life, I was never happier than wandering through fields, picking up bits of bone and owl pellets, and flowers that I didn't know. My first awakening was butterflies and moths. Like many boys, I bred them and reared them - found the eggs or the caterpillars. Mother was very house-proud but father allowed me a little corner of his carpenter's workshop where I could keep them. I loved birds early on but I had ambivalent feelings about collecting eggs. A gamekeeper once caught me with a robin's egg in my hand and I crushed it with my nervous responses to his questioning; I knew it was wrong, though it was quite acceptable in the '30s and '40s to do that. But then my interest in birds intensified and I remember on Boxing Day 1952, Margaret and I saw a pair of bullfinches; from then, I started to keep a nature diary and, until a few years ago, I kept it regularly
How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?
We came down in '64 when I was made head of Kingham village school. I wanted to have my own school and to guide it in the way I thought it should go. Teachers do their level best, in spite of the constraints put on them nowadays, but there's not enough room in the curriculum for nature studies. It's not a childhood unless you've seen and experienced living things; unless you've got your hands dirty; unless the sense of wonder is revealed - and no amount of television can replace hands-on getting out there, looking at things, touching them, asking questions. All right it's raining, but so what? All right, it's muddy, but so what? That's the way children can come to grips with evolution; with death; and to learn how to take care of the world - I've just been reading about sea eagles being poisoned in parts of Scotland. The idea of spending hours looking at screens...
What's your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?
It doesn't matter what season, it's to be following footpaths or bridleways - we have such a wonderful heritage of access - and to be using all the senses: birdsong is one of the greatest, richest experiences of my life. I wouldn't have to go very far. I'm very fond of Farmcote; I like to get up into Guiting Woods; I love the Stroud Valleys and the big commons up at Rodborough and Minchinhampton. Even if I live to be 120 and walk every week, there are still going to be parts of the Cotswolds I don't really know. Each time you cross a stile or open a gate, there's something new.
If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?
My wife wouldn't like it one bit but it would be somewhere quite remote. I fancy Farmcote, up above Winchcombe, with the little church of St Faith. It stands high, with footpaths radiating all around. I do tend to go for little lost places. I also love woodland; if I had the chance, I'd have a modest abode surrounded by trees. One of my favourite poems is Robert Frost, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. It sends a frisson of excitement through my very being when I hear it read.
Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?
I'm not a townsman; I always call myself a country bumpkin, even though my origins are the industrial Midlands. I wouldn't live in a place bigger than Winchcombe; I'd feel utterly lost. The countryside is my lung, my inspiration, my delight. I couldn't envisage a life without it.
Where's the best pub in the area?
I'm not a pub person, though I have a walking group - Friends of Gordon Ottewell - that meets every month and they always insist we have a pub lunch at Christmas. This year, it's at The Craven Arms in Brockhampton.
And the best place to eat?
Give me a grassy bank with some bird song and a cheese and onion sandwich and I'm happy. Where? Perhaps Slad, with a copy of As I walked Out: I do talks on Laurie. Once, at a meeting of the West Country Writers Association. I was at one end of the top table and he was at the other, but I never got the chance to talk to him: one of my great regrets. Although he led this double life in London, he was a champion and fought to keep the valley free from developers. Valerie Grove's Laurie Lee: The Well-loved Stranger is the best page-turning biography I've ever read.
What would you do for a special occasion?
Purely for sentimental reasons, I'd follow the Evenlode in the footsteps of William Warde Fowler. He was an Oxford Don, a Fellow of Lincoln College, and a Victorian naturalist who wrote A Year with the Birds, the first popular bird book this country has ever had. He had a great love of common birds and his descriptions were eloquent and instructive. He lived at Kingham for 49 years and was my first 'guide': his books really inspired me to get to know the unexplored Cotswolds. Sadly, footpath access to the Evenlode is limited, but Warde Fowler, being a gentleman, could get to places others couldn't. He tells a lovely story of meeting Simpson-Hayward, the famous landowner and cricketer; when he explained he was looking for a certain wild flower, he got access, whereas an ordinary rambler wouldn't have done. It was a bit of 'pulling rank'.
What's the best thing about the Cotswolds?
The variety within a small compass: hill and valley, town and village; and never ceasing to find surprises, such as quirky monuments. Just above Winchcombe we've got 'Cromwell's Seat'. People say one of the Cromwells sat there watching Hailes Abbey being dismantled. Personally, I think it's a shrine. Unless you leave the beaten track, you don't discover these things.
... and the worst?
The idea that Cotswold pleasures lie entirely within contemporary needs and contemporary desires; it's not complete unless you've had a sumptuous meal or you've been to a gallery where everything is beautifully displayed. The real Cotswolds are Mother Earth and everything that springs from it.
Which shop could you not live without?
We've got a jolly good Co-op in Winchcombe, which I count as a local store, and a lot of other good local shops within the town. I think supermarkets are loathsome.
What's your favourite view in the Cotswolds?
Dover's Hill, Chipping Campden, is one because it's a wonderful amphitheatre; plus I enjoy the story of Dover and his Olympick games. I used to love Icomb hill but Guy's Folly that once stood there has been demolished and a television mast put in its place.
What's your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?
Condicote because of Condicote Lane, which is part of the Roman road, Ryknild Street. I love the thought of walking from near Slaughter bridge on the Fosseway up to Condicote village in the steps of the Roman legions. And, of course, Condicote has a walled village green, a wayside cross, an unassuming little church with a lot of Norman features, and the remains of a primitive henge. It also has remoteness about it I find engaging. The greatest compliment I can pay it is that it's almost as good as a Peakland village!
Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds
Obviously the stone: this wonderful oolite, which is graded from grey right up to ginger-biscuit red once you get towards Banbury.
The sheep: you've only got to step into Northleach church and see those wonderful brasses to the great 'wool' men, who were entrepreneurs in the finest sense of the word; men like John Thame, with such vision, who acquired wealth and used it for posterity.
And then the river valleys: the Evenlode is still my favourite because it needs a champion; it's really a river of the Midland plain - sluggish, meandering, furtive; it's not a clear stream of trout; it's not been eulogised by a Michael Drayton; but it has its own quirky character and its own appeal.
What's your favourite Cotswolds building and why?
Owlpen Manor - it sits beautifully, is all of a piece, in a glorious setting. It was wonderfully restored by Norman Jewson, so it's got everything. Even a ghost, apparently,
What would you never do in the Cotswolds?
I would never take my car along roads that are indicated as unfit for motorists, which other people sadly do; and I would never use a quarry as a tip. I think there will be a dawning where people will begin to cherish quarries because they're part of our heritage. You've only got to look at somewhere like Little Barrington where the quarry produced some of the finest Cotswold stone that went down to London.
Starter homes or executive properties?
We have to provide homes for working people whose roots are Cotswolds and who shouldn't be driven by dire necessity into towns: we've got to keep the countryside healthy. But it's got to be controlled, too. Years ago, Oxfordshire County Council set a marvellous tone in building good council houses; people like Robertson Scott and Stafford Cripps were involved. We need to hear Cotswold speech in our villages - it's part of the inheritance.
What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?
I think of Meon Hill above Chipping Campden as the last outlie in the north. I'm not a lover of Castle Combe because it's been 'Doolittled', so I'd go south as far as Malmesbury. West, we've got the escarpment itself. And east, I'd want to include places like Hook Norton or even Bloxham because there are traces of the Cotswold influence there.
What's the first piece of advice you'd give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?
By all means go to the pubs; by all means explore the churches; but get to know the bare bones of the landscape as much as you can, using your feet and all the senses.
And which book should they read?
J Arthur Gibbs, A Cotswold Village was the first popular book. And although it's not Cotswolds, there's no better book on the subject than The Dymock Poets by Sean Street. I'm a founder member of the Edward Thomas Fellowship and I give talks on the Dymock poets.
Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?
There's a lovely walk from Charlbury, along the edge of Cornbury Park to Fawler, then back along the Oxfordshire Way to Charlbury. It's lovely because you've got the River Evenlode; you've got Charlbury, which is an underrated little town with a good history to it; there's the Oxfordshire Way - hedgerows and wildlife and good sweeping views across the Evenlode Valley. And there's the constant 'threat' of Wychwood Forest in the background: a mysterious place with a quality that's almost sinister - but appealing none the less.
If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?
Although I've mixed feelings about the railway following the river, I'd be intrigued to go back in time and ask Brunel why he decided to build his Oxford/Worcester/Wolverhampton railway along the Evenlode rather than the Windrush Valley.
To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?
To Ivor Gurney. His music and his poetry are his memorial, but I'd like to see something more tangible on Crickley Hill where, for a time, he worked as a farm labourer.
The Cotswolds - aspic or asphalt?
We must guard against indiscriminate progress. And for goodness sake, do preserve the characteristics, such as the uncluttered landscape and the wildlife!
With whom would you most like to have a cider?
William Warde Fowler was my man. He was erudite and modest and had so much depth to his character; I could tap into that and be all the richer for the experience.
Discovering Cotswold Villages, 7.95; Literary Strolls in the Cotswolds and Forest of Dean, 6.95; and Tangleton, a novel based on the Cotswolds for children aged 9-12,4.99, are all by Gordon Ottewell and available from local bookshops.