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