My Cotswold Life

John Bowen has the sup­port of friends and neigh­bours in Nailsworth who are ral­ly­ing round to help a re­mark­able man

Cotswold Life - - INSIDE - WORDS: Katie Jarvis Š PHO­TOS: An­drew Hig­gins

Last Au­gust, painter and dec­o­ra­tor John Bowen was work­ing up a lad­der in Nailsworth when he suf­fered a heart at­tack and fell 20 feet onto a con­crete pa­tio, frac­tur­ing his neck and spine.

That, John says – in his typ­i­cally up­beat way – is where his luck be­gan. He was work­ing at the house of a for­mer nurse, with an off-duty GP next door; be­tween them, they saved his life.

He spent the next month in South­mead Hos­pi­tal, fol­lowed by five months in the spinal unit at Sal­is­bury. “I can’t re­mem­ber a sin­gle bad mo­ment,” he says. “The staff, top to bot­tom, were ex­cel­lent.”

You won’t find John dwelling on the fact that he’s paral­ysed from the waist down; he’ll tell you how blessed he is still to have the use of his up­per body. He won’t com­plain about the first few months, when he was barely al­lowed to move in bed. “Three months of ly­ing still means you get a great amount of time to think; you go into this lovely mode where ev­ery­thing is on a pos­i­tive level,” he says in­stead.

He won’t de­spair that, pre-in­jury, he was a keen climber and sports fa­natic, fit and lean. He’ll tell you about his friend, Will Ben­nett, whom he met in hos­pi­tal – now a dou­ble-am­putee who is also para­plegic fol­low­ing a climb­ing ac­ci­dent in the Avon Gorge.

No won­der John and his wife, Lou, are held in such es­teem in their home town of Nailsworth, where fel­low traders and res­i­dents are ral­ly­ing round to help them.

John’s Cotswold life has changed for­ever in the past 12 months. “I’ve learned such a lot,” he says. “I’ve learned that I wasn’t deep enough; I wasn’t a rich emo­tional hu­man be­ing. Since the ac­ci­dent, I think in much gen­tler, more hu­man­i­tar­ian terms; more about oth­ers. I’m not quite so im­por­tant – this is what hos­pi­tal taught me, see­ing other peo­ple’s plights.”

Where do you live and why?

Lou and I used to live in a cot­tage in Nailsworth but it’s not wheelchair­friendly, so we’re now in a bun­ga­low in Glouces­ter. It’s owned by Lou’s par­ents, who were in the process of de­vel­op­ing it to sell. Two months af­ter the builders started, I in­jured my­self and my fa­therin-law handed me the keys, say­ing: ‘John, this is yours for as long as you need it.’ That’s the luck of life. All Lou’s fam­ily are fan­tas­tic to a let­ter.

For a lot of peo­ple with spinal prob­lems, find­ing suit­able ac­com­mo­da­tion keeps them in hos­pi­tal far longer than they need to be. What a waste of time and money that is. One per­son I met in the spinal unit was An­drew, a self-em­ployed builder from Corn­wall. He couldn’t work any­more so he and his part­ner couldn’t af­ford their rent. They ended up on a wait­ing-list for suit­able prop­erty. Lou used to see her cry­ing on the phone, try­ing and try­ing to find some­where for them to live.

How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?

I was born in Tang­mere, Sus­sex. My dad was Air Force so we moved every three years; but my mum was a Glouces­ter girl, from the Pain­swick Road, so we were al­ways drawn back here. Se­bert Street, op­po­site the rugby grounds, where my aunt still lives, is a con­stant mem­ory from child­hood.

At 12, I was put in board­ing school. When my par­ents picked me up at the end of term, I’d say, “Please get me out of here.” But in many ways, it did me good: I could vent en­ergy on the play­ing field. If you weren’t good at aca­demic stuff – which I wasn’t – you had to get good at cricket, at rugby, at hockey. I ex­celled at all the sports put in front of me.

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

I’d have a day by my­self on the Satur­day; it’s im­por­tant for all of us to spend time on our own. Sun­day is a day for fam­ily and close friends. But, if no­body comes round, that would still be great: Lou and I are easy in each other’s com­pany.

Be­fore my in­jury, I used to dis­ap­pear all day with the dog we had – a lovely Jack Rus­sell. I’d come home in the evening and my head would be full of con­ver­sa­tion. I can’t do that any­more, but I am con­cen­trat­ing on get­ting strong. I have pri­vate physio three times a week, and this is where Nailsworth kicks in. Anna Read from Clob­ber – where Lou works – and Philippa Ken­zie from Peter Joy [es­tate agents] ap­proached a lot of lo­cal busi­nesses and said, “Can you spon­sor John each month be­cause we’re try­ing to pay for the sort of physio the NHS can’t pro­vide?” And they’ve come up al­most to the penny. It’s helped pay for me to see ther­a­pist Mike O’hara pri­vately, three times a week. Mike has told me he’ll try to get me on my feet again one day – not to be able to walk as I used to, but any time on my feet helps with cir­cu­la­tion, mus­cle-tone and bones.

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

Back in Nailsworth – every time.

If I had lots of money, though, I’d use it to pro­vide men­tors for young peo­ple with spinal dam­age. I had my own ex­pe­ri­ence of men­tor­ing in Sal­is­bury. I was fresh out of bed – af­ter three months of not be­ing able to move – and ev­ery­thing felt brand new. Me and Jo,

‘Three months of ly­ing still means you get a great amount of time to think; you go into this mode where ev­ery­thing is on a pos­i­tive level’

a lady from the char­ity Stars Ap­peal, went out for a day to a car mu­seum, and with us came an Es­to­nian guy who’d bro­ken his back af­ter fall­ing while weld­ing a big silo. He’d for­got­ten what it was to feel happy – but I wasn’t go­ing to take his down-ness for the day. So I started men­tor­ing him and Jo fin­ished it off. I said to him, “You can go through life say­ing, ‘Poor me!’ but that’s not go­ing to change the way your legs work. The other way is to ac­cept it and to work with it. Don’t spend an­other day of your life up­set be­cause that squashes your spirit.”

I saw him three weeks later and he said, “Do you know what, John. I haven’t had a bad day since.”

Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?

We’re blessed in this county. Even if you live in the mid­dle of a city, 10 min­utes later you can be in the sticks, by your­self, sur­rounded by bird­song.

Where’s the best pub in the area?

There are so many I love. In my area now is the Red Lion, on the river at Wain­load. But for an evening sun­set, there’s no finer vista than at the Ge­orge, New­mar­ket [Nailsworth].

And the best place to eat?

Up on top at This­tle­down [Nymps­field], the camp­site near the wind­mill. There’s so much glass there; when you’re eat­ing, what you can see are these big skies over Minch.

What would you do for a spe­cial oc­ca­sion?

I love cook­ing, so it would be cre­at­ing three dif­fer­ent cur­ries and hav­ing peo­ple I love come round. I don’t ask for big; I’m not a five-star bloke; it’s the sim­ple things of mix­ing with my neph­ews and hav­ing great broth­ers; lovely in-laws as well. From the mo­ment your pan goes on, there should be love in­volved in your cook­ing.

What’s the best thing about the Cotswolds?

You’re al­lowed to be your­self and to cel­e­brate who you are. There are so many peo­ple out there do­ing their own thing, which means they’re never dull. Nailsworth ex­em­pli­fies that at­ti­tude.

... and the worst?

Inac­ces­si­bil­ity. I feel this about Bri­tain in gen­eral. I love coastal paths but there’s no way in a wheel­chair you can do them – not even a stretch. I loved get­ting close to the edge of a cliff and look­ing down; fright­ened the life out of me, but I still loved look­ing on the rocks be­low and watch­ing the big sea push in. I don’t think I can do that any­more. I’d like – in the fu­ture – to ap­proach coun­cils with coastal paths and say, ‘Lis­ten. At least make a mile ac­ces­si­ble.’

Which shop could you not live with­out?

Coun­try Qual­ity Meat, the butch­ers in Nailsworth by the Coop. I’ve worked for all of them be­hind the scenes and they’re as gen­uine at home as they are at work. They’ve been in­cred­i­bly gen­er­ous – from tex­ting me to ask, ‘How are you, John?’, to donating to my cause.

What’s the most un­der­rated thing about the Cotswolds?

Glouces­ter­shire is seen as quite a posh place; ac­tu­ally, it’s very di­verse. You’ve got the wealth­i­est man in the world, Ge­orge Soros, with a prop­erty in Winch­combe. But you’ve only got to go to the out­skirts of Chel­tenham or Tred­worth to find kids not get­ting fed prop­erly.

What’s your favourite view in the Cotswolds?

From the ridge at Hawkes­bury Up­ton. Look to your left and, when the light is right, you can see to the White Horse at Uff­in­g­ton. On the other side, you’ve got Aber­gavenny. A vista of well over 100 miles.

What’s your quin­tes­sen­tial Cotswolds vil­lage and why?

Aven­ing would do me. The stone; the slope; the fact that it’s so close to wood­land, river and fields. And it’s bang in the mid­dle of Tet­bury and Nailsworth – two towns en­tirely dif­fer­ent from one an­other – so you’ve got di­ver­sity as well.

Name three ba­sic el­e­ments of the Cotswolds…

It’s al­ways been stone, the val­leys and farm­ing. But now I want to add gen­eros­ity. Some of the big­gest hearts you’ll ever meet are Glouces­ter peo­ple. If they have very lit­tle, they’ll still give it.

What’s your favourite Cotswolds build­ing and why?

El­more Court. I spent many years work­ing with the Guises, tak­ing care of the Tu­dor stair­case and the pan­elled rooms. I met Anselm as he took the place on; I knew his mum and dad, Jamie and Carol, be­fore that. Jamie is

a Sir but he’ll be the first to make you a drink. You’d be work­ing; you’d turn around and there would be a cup of cof­fee.

What would you never do in the Cotswolds?

Get bored. I don’t know what it feels like. Maybe a slight inkling midafter­noon but I then switch tack – pick up a book; get the in­ter­net out; re­search stuff.

Starter homes or ex­ec­u­tive prop­er­ties?

I’m ap­palled that the youth are stuck at home un­til they’re 35. It stunts their men­tal growth and puts a strain on their par­ents. I’d build wooden cab­ins for young peo­ple try­ing to get on the prop­erty lad­der: £100,000 each, with eco-loos and wind tur­bines. We’ve places in Glouces­ter­shire where these could be sited, five at a time.

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

I’d drill a hole through a lit­tle Pain­swick fos­sil and wear it on a neck­lace. They’re there in their thou­sands and re­mind me of Glouces­ter­shire terra: that the ground we walk on was once an ocean.

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

If you come in all pompous, try­ing to change things, peo­ple are go­ing to shout at you. This is about be­ing here, in the coun­try.

And which book should they read?

Cider with Rosie is a lovely start. And then a book on the Cotswold Way; it doesn’t mat­ter if you don’t walk – you can use it to dis­cover all the towns and vil­lages.

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

Cheese rollers. It’s so scary – I wouldn’t take part. I’m sur­prised peo­ple don’t break their necks more of­ten than they do. I now re­alise that life hangs in the bal­ance.

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

I’d like to be on the rugby field, along­side some of the Glouces­ter pack, in­volved in the rough and tum­ble. In a way, though, you are in­vis­i­ble when you’re in your [wheel]chair. Peo­ple look past you in­stead of catch­ing your eye. I don’t mind – I’ve got enough sup­port from my fam­ily and friends. But, if I was a lonely type, it would com­pound that, for sure.

To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memo­rial?

A bust of Lau­rie Lee in Slad.

The Cotswolds – as­pic or as­phalt?

We’ve pretty much spoilt the val­ley, when you look over from cheese rollers down into Huc­cle­cote. We’ve cre­ated work for peo­ple but the vista has changed. White roofs. Mas­sive ICI plant. Uni­gate. We’ve put a load of metal in some very beau­ti­ful places. Some of the big houses the wealthy have built have gone with mod­ern de­sign and peo­ple are now rolling past what look like of­fices. From Stroud to Pain­swick is the per­fect ex­am­ple.

With whom would you most like to have a cider?

That’s easy. I’m a rugby fan but it’s a foot­baller called Di­dier Drogba be­cause of his hu­man­i­tar­ian work. He’s from the Ivory Coast orig­i­nally but he works round the world sup­port­ing var­i­ous char­i­ties, throw­ing money at them with­out any­body know­ing – much as Prince and David Bowie did. I’d like to be in the pres­ence of some­body who uses money in the way wealthy peo­ple can, if they choose.

NKEEP IN TOUCH

To keep up to date with John and Lou’s story, visit goget­fund­ing.com/john­sjour­ney. Char­i­ties help­ing Cotswold peo­ple with spinal in­juries in­clude South­ern Spinal In­juries Trust (ssit.org.uk); and Stars Ap­peal (starsap­peal.org)

‘I’d like to ap­proach coun­cils with coastal paths and say: Lis­ten. At least make a mile ac­ces­si­ble’

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