Henry Elwes; Lord-Lieutenant for Gloucestershire

PUBLISHED: 18:19 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:58 20 February 2013

Henry Elwess

Henry Elwess

Henry Elwes is the quint essential Englishman; someone who cares deeply about his county and his community and who preaches evolution, not revolution. Katie Jarvis went along to meet him. Mark Fairhurst took the pictures.

Henry Elwes is Lord-Lieutenant of Gloucestershire, a county which is currently celebrating its millennium with a series of exhibitions, workshops, parties, performances and events reflecting its unique culture and traditions.

No one knows exactly when shires such as Gloucestershire were created by the Anglo-Saxons, but the year 1007 seems the most logical. That was the year King Ethelred appointed his son-in-law as ealdorman of Mercia. England was being invaded by Danish armies, and cash was needed to fund a navy to defend the isle. Eadric 'the greedy' divided the old kingdom into counties in order to tighten his grip on the taxation system - and this has become the basis for the theory of the origins of Gloucestershire.

As the Queen's personal representative in the county, Henry Elwes is delighted to have the role of President of the 1,000-year celebrations. "This has been a good initiative," he says. "It has alerted a lot of people to our past, and focused on an identity for the county at a time when so many things are being regionalized.

"Gloucestershire has lasted 1,000 years and woe betide anyone who tries to muck it up!"

Henry lives with his wife, Carolyn, in Colesbourne, the village his family has owned for more than 200 years.

Where do you live and why?

I live in Colesbourne Park because one of my ancestors made a lot of money in London and bought this property in 1789! I'm the seventh generation of the Elwes family to live here and I adore the place. Why? Well, curiously, it's the responsibility of looking after it - it's been a wonderful challenge. There are 2,500 acres of land, of which about 950 are commercial forestry; and we have around 50 properties, including houses, a filling station, a pub, saw mill, offices and workshops. After the Second World War, a lot of similar estates failed to survive: partly it was lack of will on the part of the owner, and partly an insufficient spread of resources. We've tried here to have a bit of everything; when one thing's down, the other's up.

How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?

We moved here when I was seven, so virtually all my life. It was as a child living here that I learned to love the countryside. We rode bicycles and ponies, walked everywhere, looked at birds' nests, collected butterflies... As well as all the wildlife, the working countryside was going on around you. Things have changed, of course: I can remember as a boy snowfalls lasting two or three weeks at a time, probably two or three times in the winter. We haven't had snow to speak of for 20 years. If you study the rings of trees, you can see that climate change happens naturally on a 50-80 year cycle, so I'm not particularly worried about that - but I am concerned about the human addition: we produce far too much waste and rotten gases, and that compounds something that's always been there.

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

Mowing grass! That's my personal debating time. I like to think about problems on the estate; what's happening in the county; what we can do to make things better - and I can't write it down while I'm mowing so I don't ever remember it! The gardens at Colesbourne Park are very big and do take a lot of effort; I like to do a lot of it myself, particularly the grass and the tree maintenance. For the rest of my weekend, I'd go to church and have lunch with my family.

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

I wouldn't want to move. Nor would I want untold millions to spend on the estate because that would make it different, and I don't want it different. I just want it to adapt to changing lifestyles. The key is to carry on modestly improving - evolution, not revolution. New ideas are very often built on a metropolitan thought of what the countryside is like, and that's one of the reasons I got involved in public life. Even within local government, there's a very urban view among the officers. They're born in towns, go to university, get a degree in landscape architecture, and then they tell us how to create the countryside. We need to get more people who live in the countryside to take an active part in local government as councillors. I make that point whenever I can, particularly to students.

Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?

In a large town.

Where's the best pub in the area?

The Colesbourne Inn, which we built in 1824. Up until then, everything used to go to Gloucester, which was the county town: Cheltenham was nothing. Then they discovered the spa waters and everything changed. When the new turnpike road to Cheltenham was built through Seven Springs, my family decided there should be a pub to service it. I don't go for a pint every night, but we do go up for supper, probably once a month.

What would you do for a special occasion?

It was my birthday last week and we went to The Old Passage Inn at Arlingham. It's a wonderful place, where you can enjoy a walk along the riverside after your meal.

I usually plant trees in the arboretum for important occasions. My great grandfather (also Henry) was one of those Victorian leisured plant collectors who began creating an arboretum of interesting trees from about 1890 onwards. Nothing much was done after he died in 1922, until I took an interest in the early '70s, along with the old forester who'd planted many of the trees himself. We started clearing out the rubbish and opening up the vistas, and have been planting ever since. I would think we must have 250 different types of trees at least. We've a hybrid poplar which, at 138 feet, is one of the biggest in England; we've also got the largest Lebanon Oak and the largest Turkish Hazel in the country, all planted around the turn of the last century. My great grandfather actually travelled to those places, unlike Holford at Westonbirt: he was a rich banker who bought all his plants. Funnily enough, there are no references in any of our books to the Holford family, but lots to the Ducies at Tortworth, the Banks, and the other great collectors with whom my great grandfather would discuss plants and swap cuttings.

What's the best thing about the Cotswolds?

There's a lovely view round every corner.

... and the worst?

The tower silos at Seven Springs.

Which shop could you not live without?

I'm not a shopper but I think a village shop and post office are vital to a community. The current policy on post offices is another example of an urban view - it doesn't take into account that these are the social service centres of a village. That's very true here. If someone's curtains are drawn, people will go round and check on them. That sort of thing doesn't happen in towns. I deliberately moved our shop and post office into the filling station six years ago. I took the view that the only way they could survive would be to join together - but if we hadn't owned them, the chances of getting them together would have been remote. I go in there every day to get my papers, milk, bread and soup for lunch.

I think another important element of a village is still the church. By nature, people are not churchgoers these days but, my goodness, they still want to get married or buried there. Open the church up on a Sunday morning and you'll get 10 people; but close it down and you'd have a riot.

What's the most underrated thing about the Cotswolds?

There's nothing wrong with 'underrated'. Underrated and understated is rather nice.

What is a person from the Cotswolds called?

I couldn't say, but certainly people who move into the Cotswolds can be one of two sorts. There are those who want street lights and pavements down the village lanes; and then there are the ex-directory sort, who come to hide. I'm disappointed in that. They're very fortunate to be able to afford to come here and there ought to be a payback.

What would be a three course Cotswold meal?

A crispy salad with Gloucestershire Old Spot bacon;

Cotswold lamb from our farm, with home-grown parsnips and Brussels sprouts;

Pudding would be blackberry and apple pie made with fruit from trees on the estate. We've traditional varieties such as Blenheims and Derbys, as well as an interesting apple called Rose of Ciren, created by the Jefferies Nurseries of Siddington more than 100 years ago. Charles Martell, who's a great apple man, has taken some cuttings. If it proves to be a new apple, it will be Gloucestershire's 100th variety.

What's your favourite view in the Cotswolds?

If we've got someone staying and it's a lovely evening, rather than sitting in the garden and having a drink we will take a bottle of wine and four glasses and go to the top of Pen Hill. It's very steep and your legs dangle over the bank, almost as if you're on a precipice. We'll sit up there, just gasping at the view over the valley here: it's magic, totally quiet, and hasn't changed for a century.

What's your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?

I don't think Colesbourne is particularly beautiful, but it's a working village with a sustainable character. If there is someone who, in effect, owns the whole village, they can influence what goes on. I think I've done that, and we are probably one of the most sustainable villages in the Cotswolds because we have a spread of jobs, including lots of part-time opportunities. People can't afford to travel 20 miles to work part time. We've got a big scheme on at the moment, building four new workshops that will provide at least nine new jobs in the village. We've also formed the Colesbourne Village Housing Association, which is about to build some affordable houses, reserved for people with long-standing village connections. They will be sold on a two-thirds basis, which will cost round about 100,000; when the owners sell them, they should be worth more, so they'll be able to move up the housing ladder.

I feel very responsible for the village. I don't 'own' it; I'm a caretaker, passing through. It's sad to think of estates being sold. I always think: That's another one gone.

What's your favourite Cotswolds building and why?

I would say Gloucester Cathedral, though it's not in the Cotswolds. I think it's one of the finest buildings in England - absolutely spectacular. It was once described as one of the seven great buildings of Europe.

What would you never do in the Cotswolds?

Go bicycling. It's far too hilly.

Starter homes or executive properties?

Here's a curious thing: the regional development agency has said there should be no more new housing in Cotswold villages; it should be concentrated in market towns. That's not a sustainable policy. We've got to have a little bit of development in villages, but we should look after our own: we don't want to build a housing estate for 500 Londoners.

What's more, you've got to have a good mix of housing. You've got to be able to provide for young people; you need average-sized houses for middling people; and you need to attract those with a little bit more money to help provide a new roof for the church!

What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?

Broadway, Moreton-in-Marsh, Stroud and Bath.

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

I simply wouldn't live abroad. It's hard enough to get me to go away on holiday.

What would you change about the Cotswolds or banish from the area?

I'd banish off-road motorbikes at weekends - absolute pest.

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

Join in. Villages are families, and the people who live in them should be givers, not takers.

And which book should they read?

Pevsner's The Buildings of England; it's an encyclopaedia, really.

Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?

I'm not a great walker. I cover miles, but mostly in my Land Rover. Walking is a leisurely pastime: I have to hurry to pack so much in.

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

Badminton Horse Trials.

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

I'd take a trout rod and go poaching on the Coln!

To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?

To the Cotswold Lion - the sheep - because it's responsible for so much. After the woollen industry failed, the Cotswolds got pretty ruinous. It's really only since the last war that the area has recovered and is looking good again.

The Cotswolds - aspic or asphalt?

History does matter - but you should glance back at history and look forward. Move forward with the times, but do it gently.

What attitude best sums up the Cotswolds?

We all have our Meldrew moments, but there's a lot of contentment in the Cotswolds.

With whom would you most like to have a cider?

My wife and family.

For more information on the millennium celebrations, log onto: www.glos.ac.uk/microsites/gloucestershire1000/index.cfm or phone Laura Fleming on 01242 714863

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