“It’s the best place in the country”
I was born in Cheltenham in 1958. My father was a farm manager in the Cotswolds, but when I was five the farm was sold. We ended up at Shirburn Farm when I was seven as my father got a job as the farm manager. I went to the original Watlington Primary School, and I remember feeling instantly settled there.
The farm was like a huge playground to us. It was a wonderful childhood. We were allowed to go up onto the hillside by ourselves and explore. Having all that area to play in was bliss.
I went from Watlington Primary School to Icknield School and I have fond memories of my time there. One class was called Rural Science which including ‘double digging’ the vegetable garden at school. The teacher, Mr Denslow, would leave us to it, and at the end of the lesson he’d come out, and check if we’d pulled out all the couch grass.
From the age of around 14, on the weekends a friend and I would walk off into the hills, take a tin of beans and a pack of bacon, and start a fire to cook it on. Our parents wouldn’t see us all day. On one occasion, we were on Aston Rowant Nature Reserve and this guy appeared and told us we were not allowed to light a fire. After talking to us for a while, he decided we were reasonably good lads and let us get on with it. It turned out that he was the reserve warden, Paul Toynton.
At the end of a year at Henley College, I was seventeen and knew I didn’t want to get into farming but couldn’t quite work out what I wanted to do in life. So, I got a week’s work experience helping Paul at the Nature Reserve and discovered that there was this outdoor work which helped protect and encourage nature and I thought to myself – this is what I want to do.
For the next four or five years, I used to do six months of seasonal work at the Nature Reserve, and then spend the rest of the year travelling. I travelled throughout Europe and North America. It was just perfect, but eventually the reserve’s budget was slashed, and the seasonal work dried up. I was 21, and it was about time I got a proper job, so I got a position as Assistant Warden at the National Trust, based at Hughendon Manor, near High Wycombe. There were just two of us looking after all the National Trust Open Space properties in the Chilterns and Watlington Hill was on my patch. The work included improving public access, fencing, scrub clearance, and monitoring the chalk grassland flora and fauna. I did that for three years.
I met Sabine, now my wife, through a friend in Lewknor, where she was working as an au pair. I left the Trust and we went on a round-the-world trip for a whole year and spent quite a bit of time in New Zealand, where I learned sheep shearing. On my return I worked for a tree surgeon, Ron Brown, in Nettlebed, doing fencing, and tree surgery and tree felling. But I hankered after a return to nature conservation, so I returned to the Aston Rowant Nature Reserve as assistant site manager.
In order to go up the promotion ladder I applied for a job in Devon, so we moved down there with our first child, Jessica. I was area warden for South Dartmoor for the National Trust. It was a great job and a beautiful place, but I didn’t feel settled. I hadn’t cut the umbilical cord with Watlington. My family and friends were all still here and we’d come up at weekends and have a great time. I became Head Warden for the whole of Dartmoor and my life became swamped with paperwork, Health & Safety, and budgets. It was stressful and not for me. We had bought a house in Britwell Salome a year before, and so gave up the job to come back home, just before our son Jonathan was born.
Coming back was fantastic. From the granite moorland of Devon back to the chalk grasslands and beech woodlands of the Chilterns. I had felt like a fish out of water, and it was such a sense of relief coming back to the landscape I know. The soils, the smells, the sounds – it’s all utterly different.
I became self employed when I returned, carrying out a range of countryside management for the National Trust, Natural England, and private land owners. The main part of my work has always been hedgerows. I’ve become a bit of a hedgerow specialist. I’m on the Defra steering group Hedgelink, and my work with hedgerows has taken me to many different countries. A big part of my job is hedge laying, and I have attended hundreds of competitions over the years. I was once Chairman of the National Hedgerow Society, of which Prince Charles is the patron and am still a trustee. I do all Prince Charles’ hedge laying at Highgrove. He does quite a bit himself as well. Hedgerows provide so much in terms of habitat, shelter, corridors for wildlife, and stopping erosion, as well as being culturally important. Can you imagine our country without hedges!
I have about a hundred of my own sheep which I graze on one third of the Aston Rowant Reserve on the chalk grassland. The sheep have suffered numerous dog attacks on the reserve. People don’t realise that even if a dog is just chasing the sheep, the sheep might well abort her lambs, and ground nesting birds can also be disturbed.
I also create wildflower meadows and teach people scything. I’ve competed in the European Scything Championships, and I scythe all the wildflower meadows at Highgrove each summer. I try to go to Transylvania as often as I can and help farmer friends in the mountains with their scything.
I was a founder member of MOTH – Music On The Hill, which was a legendary music festival held at Watlington Hill Farm. It was hard work, and everyone worked for free – all the money was given to various charities. I also play a bit of guitar and the Cajon – a Spanish drum box. We play in local pubs. I love old country pubs, and real ale, and I still love to travel. I’m also an avid West Ham fan, and am a season ticket holder. I have worked at Glastonbury Festival for 25 years or more, and now my whole family work there as well.
We moved from Britwell Salome to Christmas Common fifteen years ago to have a bit more space around us and to be up in the hills. We knocked down our old wooden bungalow and built an oak framed cottage which we share with two terriers.
Although Watlington has changed a lot, there is still a huge sense of community, and pride in the area; I think it is still a very special place. It’s position just below the Chilterns Scarp, the chalk hills, the ancient Icknield Way, the beech woods, the history – I think it is the best place in the country.
Watlington Folk is a documentary project by photographer Nicola Schafer. Watlington is blessed with pretty buildings and beautiful countryside, however it is the people who live here that truly make the place. This project aims to capture that through a series of portraits of the people who live here together with their “Watlington Story”. For more information, please contact Nicola through her website http://www.nicolaschafer.co.uk