Lesley Archer: Chief Executive
PUBLISHED: 18:13 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:06 20 February 2013
Lesley Archer, chief executive of the Gloucestershire Rural comminity Council, talks to katie Jarvis about her favourite Cotswold places and how good works are best when they go un-noticed. Pictures by Mark Fairhurst
If you live in the middle of the countryside, with no car and no public transport, then how are you supposed to get to work? If you're elderly and dread the loss of your village post office, who can you turn to? Or maybe you're starting off in life, wondering how you'll ever make the first rung of the housing ladder.
There is an organisation that can help; but it does its behind-the-scenes work so quietly and efficiently, you often don't know it's been involved at all. Gloucestershire Rural Community Council (GRCC) is a charity established more than 80 years ago to provide advice and help to rural communities.
At its head is Lesley Archer, who describes herself as rural to the core. "Here at GRCC, we don't do things for people; we do things with people. That gives communities a particular pride in their achievements," she says.
Lesley and her husband, Charles, have four grown-up children: Will and Tom, who are both in agriculture; James, a plumber, and Kate, a nursery nurse.
Where do you live and why?
I live on a 300-acre farm at Ashton under Hill because I'm married to a farmer! My husband's family is farming through and through, and that has filtered through to the next generation, though they can't do it in the same way that we have. Will, our eldest, moved to Africa for five years to grow vegetables on the slopes of Mount Kenya, that were shipped back to English supermarkets. He now lives here in Ashton with his family. Our next son, Tom, works for an agricultural research company in Evesham, and manages their trials into cereals and seed dressings, some of which take place on our farm.
How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?
Although I was born in Essex, I moved to this area as a child around 50 years ago. I've lived on our farm for 34 years - almost all our married life. When we took it over, we employed six men full time and probably another dozen seasonal ladies, planting and harvesting vegetables. Today, it's my husband on his own, with some help from contractors. It's a lonely existence, working on a farm. There are a lot of farmers we know in their 50s who want to change career, but what can they do? They've never been employed by anybody. That's why you find a lot of farmers' wives go out to work; we're the diversification.
What's your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?
A perfect weekend would be long walks with a large group of extended family and friends, ending up with a picnic on the top of Bredon Hill. Adults and children would play rounders together, and there would be Jeep and Land Rover rides. We love community activities. My husband has lived in the village all his life, and three of his sisters live within five miles, so our children have all grown up together. My children feel at home in rural England and that's where they want to bring up their own families; but with house prices, it's often a case of having to start off somewhere else and work your way back.
If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?
Probably stay where I was. I'm not good at imagining things I'm not going to do.
Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?
I've seen beautiful houses in Gloucester and Cheltenham but I couldn't move there because I need to be surrounded by green space. The building is less important to me than the setting.
Where's the best pub in the area?
I'm not a pub person, but I recognise the value of pubs. They were always considered one of the 'essentials' of a village, along with the Lord of the Manor, the farmer, and the vicar, and so on. They were the people everybody looked up to; they'd be chairman of the parish council and on the school board. They'd be the people who gave advice and made things happen. The farmer - the Lord of the Manor - would have employed a lot of men so he could nip off to all those meetings. Now, the farmer doesn't have the time. Communities have changed in the last 25 years, and we have to accept that.
And the best place to eat?
The Lamb Inn in Burford: good, interesting food; pleasant surroundings; friendly; not pompous; and not the next hotel in the chain.
Have you a favourite tearoom?
The best place for a tea is in Ashton under Hill village hall, organised by the WI during the open gardens summer weekend.
What would you do for a special occasion?
Special occasions are usually home-spun, and take place around the Aga in our farmhouse kitchen. We love our big Sunday lunches, with beef from Gilders who graze some of their animals on our grass keep. Our Sundays are defined by the chapel in the village. We don't have a minister or pastor; my husband is responsible for it. Once upon a time, people worked and prayed together. That doesn't happen any more, but we often invite people back to eat with us. We've got friends from all over the world - partly because we've got such an old house. The new part dates from 1638! Visitors love to come and experience how England used to be.
What's the best thing about the Cotswolds?
The scenery: the green and the stone of the Cotswolds are different from anywhere else in the world. Whenever we've been away, we come back down Fish Hill, look across the Vale, and know we're home. And if we look very carefully, we can even pick out our Wellingtonia trees in the front garden!
... and the worst?
The cost of housing. Two of our children have managed to buy a home each, but they have had to put all their resources into it - and their houses are not big. It used to be that the special places in England were expensive, due to their proximity to centres like London; now there are very few areas of England where people can buy on the wages they earn. What's been particularly unfortunate is that the young people who have stayed at home and tried to save to buy their own place have been outstripped by rising house prices: salaries haven't kept up. I don't think there's an easy answer to all this.
Which shop could you not live without?
Pine & Things at Portobello Farm, Shipston-on-Stour. We've just bought some very nice wardrobes from there.
What's the most under-rated thing about the Cotswolds?
It's the size and diversity. People in Gloucestershire tend to think of the Cotswolds as the area covered by Cotswold District Council; whereas, if you asked an American, they'd describe a much bigger area.
What is a person from the Cotswolds called?
People from the Cotswolds think of themselves in a very local way. My husband would say he lived on Bredon Hill.
What would be a three course Cotswold meal?
Smoked trout from Donnington;
Cotswold lamb grazed on Bredon Hill;
Spot Loggins ice cream from the Applebys in Bretforton, made with organic milk from their own cows.
I would also serve plums from our old orchard that has just been replanted with traditional varieties under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme. There used to be someone called Ron Sidwell in the village who could identify every plum by its stone!
What's your favourite view in the Cotswolds?
From Farncombe, looking across the Vale of Evesham towards Bredon Hill. On New Year's Eve, you see fireworks in all directions.
What's your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?
GRCC looks for a quintessential village each year, but the award has nothing to do with prettiness or how well it's kept. We look for most vibrant, most involved, most economically active, most forward-thinking. These are qualities you can't see by driving through; you can only experience them by joining in.
Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds...
Village agents: we have a team of 30 working across Gloucestershire, helping older people access the services they need. For example, you might live 100 yards from a bus stop, but if you can't get to it, you might as well be in the middle of nowhere. Our agents might not be able to sort something themselves, but they'll always know someone who can;
Post office services: we're in a real muddle with post offices. Whatever we say or do, Post Office Ltd are going to close some branches; it is up to communities to work with us to find a way of filling that gap.
Rural community councils: these bodies give independent advice and support; and they help rural communities to determine and achieve their aspirations.
What's your favourite Cotswolds building and why?
Buildings aren't important to me, but people are. Whenever I think of a building, it's always because of what has happened there. Local people are more essential than local architecture or landscape, and that's why it's vital we balance our communities by enabling all kinds of people to live in them.
What would you never do in the Cotswolds?
Starter homes or executive properties?
It's got to be both. There is a lack of understanding, even now, when people talk about building affordable housing on exception sites in villages. What they're actually talking about is social housing. That means there is a group of people that falls through the net: they're not in great enough need to qualify for a social home; yet they don't have a high enough income to buy on the open market. What a lot of people want is houses they can afford to buy.
What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?
In the widest sense: Oxford, Bredon Hill, Bath and Stratford-upon-Avon.
If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?
I'd take photographs from Will's wedding at St James', Chipping Campden. Although the photos show the Cotswolds, it's the people in the pictures that matter to me.
What would you change about the Cotswolds or banish from the area?
The centralisation of services. We're busy telling people to look at their carbon footprints; then we go and close post offices and village stores. It doesn't make sense.
What's the first piece of advice you'd give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?
Go for a drive and get lost - in the nicest possible way - with a full tank of petrol and a camera.
And which book should they read?
Another Kind of Magic by Mollie Harris.
Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?
From Laverton to Buckland, right up over the Cotswold Way; then down to Snowshill and back to Laverton via Stanton.
Which event, or activity, best sums up the Cotswolds?
Moreton Show in September. It's the last good rural really agricultural show that's connected to farming. With many 'agricultural' shows nowadays, you're paying to shop, but Moreton Show is fresh; people talk to each other; and they seem to have a real connection to place.
If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?
GRCC is that 'invisible' force in the countryside. We empower people, which means that when we get it right, you don't even know GRCC has been involved. The only problem is you then get people asking: 'What do you actually do?'!
To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?
To the many ordinary people in communities who do things they're not paid to do, but who look for no reward - such as the elderly lady who makes an extra apple pie to give to someone else. No one will ever know about it, but it's special.
The Cotswolds - aspic or asphalt?
We shouldn't do either. We can embrace changes, if we think they're right. And we can also learn from mistakes we've made in the past. We won't always get it right, but we'll do it better next time.
What attitude best sums up the Cotswolds?
We can do it together!
With whom would you most like to have a cider?
I'd like to travel 20 or 30 years into the future to speak to one of today's young people who - due to the present economic circumstances - has been unable to get that home they wanted to buy and was forced to move away. I'd like to ask them what difference it had made to their lives, and whether it was that disastrous.
To find out more about the work of the Gloucestershire Rural Community Council, visit the website at www.grcc.org.uk or call them on 01452 528491.