My Cotswold Life

Clare Mahdiy­one, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Stroud Val­leys Project, talks hob­bit houses, bam­boo tooth­brushes and cel­e­brat­ing the char­ity’s 30th Birth­day

Cotswold Life - - INSIDE -

PHOTOS: An­drew Hig­gins

Happy Birth­day to Stroud Val­leys Project! Thirty years ago, this value-for-money en­vi­ron­men­tal char­ity was set up with a spe­cial fo­cus on in­dus­trial her­itage. Its ini­tial re­mit was to pro­tect the mills – the ‘string of pearls’ – that once har­nessed nat­u­ral forces to power and pros­per this pic­turesque district.

To­day – with its tagline ‘En­rich­ing lives, trans­form­ing places’ – it weaves an even richer cloth. For not only does it strive to make the val­leys bet­ter, health­ier places to live and work; it also works to en­hance the lives of its 150-or-so vol­un­teers. They’re the ones who help dig, weed and plant; who cut back branches, clear brooks, mow grass and build wildlife habi­tats. And while many of them are or­di­nary mem­bers of the pub­lic, oth­ers have ex­pe­ri­enced men­tal health is­sues, drug and al­co­hol ad­dic­tion, and long-term un­em­ploy­ment.

“We have lots of peo­ple who have come from a chal­leng­ing and dif­fi­cult place,” says Clare Mahdiy­one, who has run the char­ity for the past 12 years. “By be­ing part of a team, they find them­selves achiev­ing more than they ever could on their own. Do­ing some­thing prac­ti­cal, phys­i­cal and out­side, with along­side other peo­ple, can help turn lives around.”

The char­ity also runs a pro­gramme of walks, talks and events through­out the year.

Clare lives with her part­ner, Mark Su­dron, an IT spe­cial­ist in the char­ity sec­tor. Be­tween them, they have three sons.

Where do you live and why?

I live in Rod­bor­ough, from where you can look out over Stroud. Stroud is a work­ing town – a bit of a bro­ken Cotswold ‘choco­late box’. But, ac­tu­ally, it’s the in­dus­trial her­itage that makes it spe­cial. It might not have the beauty of Bour­ton-on-the-wa­ter; what it has got is char­ac­ter, all nes­tled in the hills.

How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?

I’ve lived in Stroud for 25 years. When I was a child, my fa­ther was in the RAF, so we moved ev­ery two years. That can make you quite adapt­able though, when I had my own child, it also made me want to stay in the same place. I was al­ways very in­ter­ested in the en­vi­ron­ment and, af­ter school, I stud­ied bi­ol­ogy at univer­sity in Lon­don, be­fore start­ing with an Amer­i­can phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal. I soon dis­cov­ered I didn’t like the big cor­po­rate world! When I got the op­por­tu­nity to do this job [with Stroud Val­leys Project], it felt like go­ing back to some­thing I’d re­ally wanted to do when I was younger.

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

I’d go to Stroud Farmers’ Market to buy lots of yummy things for lunch. Then I’d walk on Minch­in­hamp­ton and Rod­bor­ough Com­mons, stop­ping for an ice cream on the way. We’ve been work­ing with the district coun­cil and the Na­tional Trust to make peo­ple un­der­stand how im­por­tant and spe­cial the com­mons are. Last year, we pro­duced a leaflet about car­ing for the cows that graze up there - and no

‘It’s rare to see lit­tle mam­mals, such as ot­ters or dormice, be­cause they’re noc­tur­nal, so I’d love to be in­vis­i­ble amongst them’

cows were killed on the com­mon last year. If it wasn’t for those cows, the land would start get­ting scrubby and the bram­bles take over; trees would grow and it would sim­ply be­come a for­est. No orchids. No sky­larks.

The trou­ble is, there aren’t enough cows. Many peo­ple have graz­ing rights but there are only about 13 who use them. Be­cause of the old land rights, you can’t just go and plonk on other cat­tle to make up the dif­fer­ence. Ide­ally, the rights need re­form­ing.

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

I’d build a house on the com­mon, and live with the cows and wild flow­ers… Though that would be il­le­gal, wouldn’t it! In which case, I’d build a hob­bit house, un­der­ground. The com­mon is full of ar­chae­ol­ogy: I love high spa­ces that peo­ple have lived on for mil­len­nia. I get the same feel­ing up on Crick­ley Hill.

Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?

In a very ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment. When I was do­ing my A-lev­els, my mum and dad cre­ated a small­hold­ing at their house in Chel­tenham. To me, that was bliss.

Where’s the best pub in the area?

Stroud Brew­ery: they make their own beer; they do lovely piz­zas in their pizza oven; and it’s in my favourite val­ley – the Golden Val­ley. The brew­ery is re­ally sup­port­ive of our or­gan­i­sa­tion. Last year, they raised money for us by do­ing a moun­tain-bike chal­lenge.

And the best place to eat?

This­tle­down in Nymps­field [out­side Nailsworth], out in the mid­dle of nowhere. They’ve got a great rep­u­ta­tion for their camp­ing but not enough peo­ple know about their food. Ev­ery time some­one buys tea or cof­fee there, they give us a per­cent­age to plant trees. Hedgerows – which are just trees that are man­aged in a dif­fer­ent way – are re­ally im­por­tant ways of con­nect­ing up habi­tats for wildlife. Un­for­tu­nately, a lot of farmers will flail hedges off at the same height. What’s re­ally good for crea­tures like bats is to have the odd tree stick­ing up, which can then be­come a roost.

What would you do for a spe­cial oc­ca­sion?

As part of our 30th birth­day cel­e­bra­tions, we held a pic­nic for staff and vol­un­teers in Strat­ford Park, where we’re cre­at­ing a sen­sory gar­den on the old putting green. It’s for the whole com­mu­nity to use: we did a pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion to make sure we put in all the bits peo­ple want to see. Among the re­quests were places for wildlife; chil­dren asked for wa­ter-fea­tures; there’s even a mud-bath that some­one wanted! It will take a cou­ple of years to fin­ish but bits are al­ready open.

What is a per­son from the Cotswolds called?

A Stroudie - I’m such a Stroudie! It’s not about be­ing born here; it’s about liv­ing here and lov­ing it.

What’s the best thing about the Cotswolds?

The peo­ple from all walks of life who live here – and, in my job, I get the chance to meet some of them. Take our vol­un­teers, for ex­am­ple: it could be some­one who has re­tired, with time on their hands; it could be some­one who has had men­tal-health or ad­dic­tion prob­lems and be in re­cov­ery; an­other might have been un­em­ployed for a long time and now be look­ing to take steps back into ‘real’ life. Many have ex­pe­ri­enced a great deal of lone­li­ness and iso­la­tion. Even do­ing some­thing sim­ple can be very spe­cial – like when we cook food to­gether on a fire.

... and the worst?

Lit­ter and dog mess. It’s of­ten just a few peo­ple who are re­peat of­fend­ers.

Which shop could you not live with­out?

It’s got to be the Stroud Val­leys Project Eco Shop! Ev­ery­thing is ei­ther or­ganic, lo­cal or Fairtrade - or it goes to­wards be­ing sus­tain­able. We’ve got ev­ery­thing from bam­boo tooth­brushes to bam­boo socks (re­ally soft, com­fort­able and won’t smell!) We sell seeds, sec­ond­hand gar­den­ing equip­ment and books; gifts, jew­ellery and cards. Even honey made by one of our vol­un­teers.

What’s the most un­der­rated thing about the Cotswolds?

Glouces­ter­shire 2050 is cur­rently tak­ing place [glos2050.com], a coun­ty­wide con­ver­sa­tion about what we want Glouces­ter­shire to be like in 2050. We should never un­der­es­ti­mate the value of in­dus­try in ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties: with­out work, these will be­come hol­i­day-home vil­lages. In­dus­try sus­tains the ru­ral.

What would be a three-course Cotswold meal?

I have an al­lot­ment on Sum­mer Street [Stroud], where I grow pota­toes, beans, cour­gettes, rhubarb, black­cur­rants, red­cur­rants, boy­sen­ber­ries – don’t quite know what they are! - squashes, beet­root, cab­bagey things… And pur­ple sprout­ing broc­coli, one of my favourites. My three-course meal would start with al­lot­ment soup. Next, we’d have salad, pur­ple sprout­ing broc­coli, new pota­toes and Gloucester Old Spot sausages. And then lots of berries for pud­ding. Un­for­tu­nately, these things aren’t all ready at the same time, so I’ll space my three cour­ses out over sev­eral months.

What’s your favourite view in the Cotswolds?

The Golden Val­ley from a train. When you come through the tun­nel af­ter Kem­ble, it’s like breath­ing a sigh of re­lief. I al­ways think to my­self: I live here!

What’s your quin­tes­sen­tial Cotswolds vil­lage and why?

A per­fect Cotswolds vil­lage needs a school, a pub and a shop – prefer­ably a com­mu­nity shop. So the place that springs to mind is Hors­ley [out­side Nailsworth].

Name three ba­sic el­e­ments of the Cotswolds…

Our projects are about peo­ple, the en­vi­ron­ment and learn­ing. If you draw a Venn di­a­gram, they meet at well­be­ing.

What’s your favourite Cotswolds build­ing and why?

The Mu­seum in the Park – it was di­lap­i­dated for a long time, but now it’s been put to good use, telling the story of the in­dus­trial her­itage of Stroud. It’s at the cen­tre of one of the most di­verse green spa­ces in the town: Strat­ford Park. We worked with the mu­seum to cre­ate the walled gar­den at the back, two years ago.

What would you never do in the Cotswolds?

I’d never con­sider any­where to be waste­land.

Starter homes or ex­ec­u­tive prop­er­ties?

We need af­ford­able homes. What makes a vil­lage isn’t just the stone or the val­leys; it’s the peo­ple.

What are the four cor­ners of the Cotswolds?

Our work fo­cuses on Stroud district, so my four cor­ners are: Hard­wicke, where we’ve cre­ated foot­paths along the canal; Kingswood, where we’re work­ing with the par­ish coun­cil to look af­ter great crested newts on a hous­ing es­tate; Pain­swick, where we’ve planted cowslips for the but­ter­flies; and Berke­ley, where we’re cre­at­ing a com­mu­nity wa­ter­meadow called Sarah’s Field, on a piece of land given to the coun­cil by some­one called Sarah. Fred Miller, one of our project of­fi­cers, has just done a call-out for old car­pets to go un­der­neath the pond-liner to stop it pop­ping.

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

I’d take ‘be­fore and af­ter’ pho­to­graphs of any of our projects. Ev­ery­where we work, we trans­form.

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

Ap­pre­ci­ate the wildlife, the land­scape and the green spa­ces. I don’t know how you could come here and not think they’re spe­cial.

And which book should they read?

Katie Fforde’s A Se­cret Gar­den: she’s such a sup­porter. The novel is based on the Rod­bor­ough Hid­den Gar­dens and Sculp­ture trail, where prof­its are given to the Old En­dowed School and to us. We’re also do­ing our own book of 30 years of Stroud Val­leys Project (we’ve had great fun look­ing through all the old photos), which will be out in time for Christ­mas.

Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?

The lunchtime walk that I do through Frome Banks and along the canal. If you’re lucky, you can see king­fish­ers and dip­pers in the cen­tre of Stroud.

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

It has to be our ap­ple-press­ing, along with our bat walks. We do Pump­kins & Ap­ples in the Park each year at Strat­ford Park – a com­mu­nity event with the mu­seum – where peo­ple bring ap­ples from their gar­den to make juice. On our bat walks, be­tween May and Oc­to­ber, we take peo­ple out at dusk and use de­tec­tors to lo­cate bats on an hour­long walk. Of­ten, we’ll get six or seven dif­fer­ent types, such as pip­istrelle, Dauben­ton’s, noc­tule and horse­shoe.

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

It’s rare to see lit­tle mam­mals, such as ot­ters or dormice, be­cause they’re noc­tur­nal – all you see is signs of them – so I’d love to be in­vis­i­ble amongst them. We’ve just been in­volved in set­ting up Stroud Swift Group; I re­cently met some­one who has put cam­eras in nest­ing boxes to watch the swift ba­bies.

To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds me­mo­rial?

To Mar­garet Hills [Stroud Ur­ban District Coun­cil’s first fe­male coun­cil­lor], whose achieve­ments were re­cently cel­e­brated as part of 100 years of women’s votes.

The Cotswolds – as­pic or as­phalt?

There’s an ar­gu­ment here for adapt­ing for cli­mate change but main­tain­ing some of our his­tory at the same time. We’ve got to ac­cept that cli­mate change is hap­pen­ing: it’s com­ing into my work more and more. Take ash dieback, for ex­am­ple. What do we plant in­stead?

Which at­ti­tude best sums up the Cotswolds?

In­no­va­tive – like the Stroud Pound! A group of us set it up – in­clud­ing Molly Scott Cato, who is now an MEP – in 2009. It was an al­ter­na­tive cur­rency, de­signed to keep money in the com­mu­nity. Be­cause Stroud Val­leys Project is on Thread­nee­dle Street – like the Bank of Eng­land - we were the main ex­change-point. It even­tu­ally fiz­zled out but it was a great project while it lasted.

With whom would you most like to have a cider?

David At­ten­bor­ough: it was want­ing to be like him that made me do bi­ol­ogy in the first place. The whole thing about sin­gle-use plas­tic… I think he has done some­thing amaz­ing there. Quite sim­ply, he is a god. Stroud Val­leys Project and its Eco Shop are at 8 Thread­nee­dle Street, Stroud GL5 1AF, 01453 753358; stroud­val­leyspro­ject.org

David Richards, one of the vol­un­teers with the Stroud Val­leys Project, at the char­ity’s green­house in Cairn­cross.

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