The Secret People of the Cotswolds
"You are walking with a nine-year-old child who doesn’t normally go into the countryside and they look across a field and get very excited to see a real horse"
They have been called the Secret People of the Cotswolds. Yet you will certainly have come across their activities, which over the last year alone have amounted to 45,639 hours of work, worth an estimated £304,260.
We’re talking about the Cotswold Voluntary Wardens, the voluntary arm of the Cotswolds Conservation Board, who roll up their sleeves to install gates, repair dry stone walls, plant trees and do so much more to maintain and enhance our Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
The wardens’ popular guided walks programme saw 5,600 people take part in no fewer than 365 rambles in the last year, while their educational activities encouraged 1,004 schoolchildren from 16 schools out of the classroom into the countryside – fossil hunting, visiting farms and enjoying ‘wild days’.
Formed in 1968, the wardens have notched up many achievements over the decades, from a Tidy Britain Award in 1986 for their Clean up the Cotswolds Campaign to the creation of a series of Wonder Walks inspiring people to explore the Seven Wonders of the Cotswolds nominated by public vote in 2012. They also help to look after the Cotswold Way National Trail.
Over 330 active wardens currently give their time, experience, skills and enthusiasm, and they come from all walks of life and age ranges, though Head Warden John Bartram acknowledges that while some are younger, the majority are in their late 50s and above.
As Head Warden, John helps to make sure the five self-administering districts into which wardens are divided across the AONB “are going in roughly the same direction,” while Volunteer Coordinator Rebecca Jones is the liaison point at the Cotswolds Conservation Board.
John, a retired geologist, joined the Avon district in 2009 because he “enjoyed walking in the Cotswolds and wanted to do something to keep them as they are,” he says, adding, “There’s a real sense of camaraderie getting out and working with other people in a relaxed way.”
He is active on work parties and is a parish warden. This involves checking the condition of footpaths and public rights of way in a parish, organising improvements or repair, and liaising with the parish council, helping to raise the profi le of the AONB. He also focuses on guided walks, for example co-leading an upcoming 5-mile ‘Dyrham: Park and Countryside’ ramble with fellow warden John Walker (12 September).
Warden-led walks are free to the public, though donations are welcome, which go into a Countryside Fund to support practical projects to conserve and enhance the AONB – including the restoration by Avon district wardens of an old Cotswold stone bridge at Castle Combe, John says.
Retired primary school teacher Rosemary Wilson has been a voluntary warden for five years, putting her experience to good use in East district (covering the Oxfordshire and Warwickshire Cotswolds). She recently led a children’s walk on Village Farm, Salford, which saw the group collect leaves, feathers and other natural objects to create pictures. The farmer, Nigel Fawdry, gave the accompanying adults an insight into the conservation work carried out on his farm and everyone was treated to a tractor and trailer ride concluding with a picnic.
Through the Education Project, Rosemary has also helped to take children from disadvantaged areas out into the Cotswold countryside. “It’s so lovely when you are walking with a nine-year-old child who doesn’t normally go into the countryside and they look across a field and get very excited to see a real horse or animal in its natural environment,” she says.
“Sometimes I do classroom-based work too, map reading and artwork, so I’m transferring the skills I acquired from my teaching career into the work I do with the wardens”
A leader also of adult walks, Rosemary adds: “I love sharing our countryside with other people, helping them to understand the landscape they are walking through. The wardens do work right across the board keeping the countryside in good order, and it’s so worthwhile.”
Volunteering in numbers
Cotswold Voluntary Wardens’ conservation activities during 20014/15 included:
• coppicing over 31,000 sq metres of woodland and clearing 109,000 sq metres, at 25 woodland sites
• erecting 1,800 metres of fencing
• planting 1,028 hedge trees/shrubs
• repairing, improving or installing 65 stiles
• clearing over 800 metres of streams and ditches
• repairing or rebuilding 700 metres of dry stone walls
Cotswold Voluntary Wardens
Both Avon and East (Oxfordshire and Warwickshire Cotswolds) districts are currently looking for more voluntary wardens. Information here.
For information on guided walks led by Cotswold Voluntary Wardens, see here.
Many organisations around the AONB offer volunteering opportunities, from Wildlife Trusts to The Wychwood Project, Stroud Valleys Project and Save our Magnificent Meadows. For contacts, visit here.
You might also help at museums and historic houses. This summer, for example:
Dyrham Park is recruiting volunteers ranging from exhibition guides to roof guides (enabling visitors to see mansion roof conservation work underway and view the park from a fresh perspective), tel. Bob Vaughan Jones, Volunteer Recruitment Coordinator, 0117 9371334, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Volunteers at Museum in the Park, Stroud, can help in varying roles, from working on collections to being involved with the new Walled Garden, museuminthepark.org.uk
Chedworth Roman Villa recruits volunteer events assistants and car park attendant/welcome volunteers, tel. Hazel Barry-Scott, Volunteer Manager, 01242 890256, email email@example.com