Fiona Danks

“It’s the best of both worlds”

I was born in 1960 in Kent, where my father was stationed for his National Service, and soon after we moved to Warwickshire where he took a job as  a GP. We lived in a village surrounded by countryside, and I grew up with my two younger sisters. We were always off walking in the woods with our dogs. Both my parents  loved the natural world and I was also fascinated by it.

We had strong links with Scotland, through my Scottish grandmother, and we had our childhood holidays there. I have always felt a deep connection with Scotland. So, it was a natural step after school to study Ecology at Edinburgh University.

After university, I had a gap year working and travelling in New Zealand, and then came back to do a PGCE in Bath in Environmental Education. That was where I met my husband, Peter, who was working in  agriculture in the area.

My first job was at the Shropshire Wildlife Trust as their Education Officer, and while I was there Peter and I decided to get married. He was based in Slough, so I applied for a job with the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) to be close to his work.

We came house hunting here on the May Bank Holiday weekend in 1985. We’d been looking at Thame and Wallingford, and we were driving from Britwell towards Watlington. Watlington looks so nice from there, as it nestles in the landscape below the Chilterns, and it just looked like somewhere we wanted to be. Even better, when we went into the estate agent and explained our budget and that we’d like a cottage, he didn’t laugh at us. He showed as a tiny, 2 bedroom cottage in New Road, and we bought it. We’re now on our third house in Watlington.

Watlington has changed relatively little in the time we have been here. There has been some small-scale development but it hasn’t changed the character of the town. I have concerns about the future developments as I believe new housing should meet a genuine need and be appropriate to the scale of the community and the context of the local environment.

Initially, we got to know people through getting involved with The Watlington Players, and then when we had children we made loads of friends. It is such a lovely place to have a young family. I worked for BBOWT for four years, and then my daughter Hannah was born in 1990 and my son Edward at the end of 1991. When they were small I wrote the text for a book on the Chilterns, and then another on the Cotswolds. It was my first venture into writing.

I also worked at the Day Nursery at Hill Cottage on Spring Lane. That’s where I met Jo Schofield, who had a son the same age as mine, and we became friends. I had been thinking about writing something to encourage more families to enjoy the countryside. More than that, I believe that children need to be connected to our natural environment so that they can understand its value and our dependence on it. Jo was having lots of adventures in the woods with her family, making dens, and photographing it, so we decided we’d do a book together, with her photography and my writing. We’ve now done eleven books. The first was “Nature’s Playground” and the latest, “Wild Things”, came out last year. We bounce ideas off each other and now we both do bits of photography and writing.

The children went to Watlington Primary School and Icknield. I liked that they could go to school in their hometown and walk there. I felt there was a good sense of community at Icknield, and they had great peers. They are all still good mates. Hannah lives in Oxford now, she’s an architect, and my son Edward works in International Relations in London.

As the children were growing up I was involved in the PTA committees, and then as a school governor for Watlington Primary School and Icknield Community College. 

When the children were at Watlington Primary School I got a job at the Trust for Oxfordshire’s Environment, or “TOE” for short. I worked there for 22 years, and was Director for the last ten, until I retired last month. We provided grants for environmental projects and awarded a total of almost £8m during my time, including playground equipment and footpath improvements for Watlington. The office was at the Earth Trust in Little Wittenham. I could take my dog to work and go on walks at lunchtime. I worked part time there, and part time on the books with Jo.

In the last year I have been involved with Watlington Climate Action Group, through the Facebook group initially, as I thought it looked interesting. Then I went to a meeting and was impressed by the organisation and commitment of those involved. Recently I have been involved in the development of the Green Plan, which is a joint initiative with Watlington Climate Action Group, Watlington Environment Group, and others. Through my work I was aware of people doing similar things in other communities such as Benson and Eynsham, and welcomed the fact that Watlington wants to do this too.

Whilst planting trees is important, we need a broader understanding of the natural environment and the ecosystem services that it provides. It’s about recognising that a healthy ecosystem isn’t just a “nice to have” for the species within it, but it is essential for a healthy planet for us all, providing benefits such as flood relief, pollination, and carbon sequestration. With the Green Plan we are trying to look at our local ecosystem holistically and work out how we can improve and protect it.

In my spare time I enjoy natural history and walking with my dogs in the countryside. I love the Chilterns and our amazing chalk grasslands and bluebell woods. I also love the wilder landscape of Scotland and the mountains there, so we go when we can.

What I have always liked about Watlington is that so much of what you need in life is here. When we moved here there were still two banks – Lloyds was where Peppermint Lime now is, and Barclays was where the Granary Deli is now. There were numerous pubs, and a toy shop, Rumpelstiltskin.

Watlington is still a great place to be after 35 years. It has a strong sense of community and the High Street is amazing. You can walk into town to get what you need and yet you also have the countryside on your doorstep. During Lockdown, Watlington was a really good place to be because of this. It’s the best of both worlds.

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

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