The Preview Interview: Martin Lane

The Preview Interview: Martin Lane

The Cotswolds was designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in 1966, then the region was expanded in 1990 to cover over 800 square miles. The Cotswolds Conservation Board was established as an independent organisation to look after the AONB, working collectively with 15 different local authorities. Here, Martin Lane, Director of the Cotswolds Conservation Board, talks to Sally Bult about the AONB’s 50th anniversary celebrations and what makes the Cotswolds such a special area in terms of conservation…

Please would you tell our readers about the role of the Cotswolds Conservation Board.
The Board was set up in late 2004 to look after the Cotswolds AONB. With 15 (then 17) different local authorities working in partnership, they themselves recognised that making decisions in this way wasn’t the most effective or efficient model, so the partners readily signed up to the independent conservation board option.

The reason the area was designated in 1966 was to conserve and enhance the landscape. The Board has two purposes – to follow this ethos and also to enable a greater understanding and enjoyment of what makes the Cotswolds special. We achieve this through various means: guided walks by voluntary wardens; a partnership with GWR and some of the local bus services to provide an integrated travel pass; and through our
Cotswold Lion publication which provides an insight into the rural crafts and skills like dry stone walling and also provides information as to how a particular landscape feature has developed.

The Board’s day to day funding comes from government grants but we all realise that those have been under strain and we’ve faced austerity just like everyone else. We are therefore always looking to strengthen and widen the funding base, be that through corporate support or other forms of grants like the Heritage Lottery Fund.

In terms of conservation, you can’t conserve in aspic – that just won’t work. It has to be a living, working landscape and has to be able to move with the times. Development and change should take place but we have to look at what makes the area special and ensure it is there for generations to come. Farmers and planners often come in for criticism of their decisions but I always say that if it wasn’t for those decisions we wouldn’t have the landscape – it’s how we have some of the village and town scenes we see today.

There’s a lot of development pressure but it is important to get the scale of that development right for the area and the design of housing must reflect the locality. It shouldn’t be massive change all at once but smaller, incremental changes that fit with their surroundings over time rather than a sudden estate emerging. We aren’t the planning authority, although we can advise and help with policy making.

What is your professional background? 
I’m a geographer and forester. Prior to this appointment, I was working for the Countryside Commission which was a government agency associated with the countryside, involved in grant giving and facilitating projects.

What makes the Cotswolds such a special area in terms of conservation?
I believe there is really nowhere else that has the same mix of landscape and buildings. There are certainly more extreme landscapes in Britain – mountainous areas or those with extremes of climate – but the Cotswolds has a fantastic blend of the underlying limestone and the way it is reflected in the network of walls and how they then knit into the villages. It’s this mix of architecture and natural elements that makes it so special here.

In 1990, the Cotswolds AONB grew in size by a third. Do you think it will be extended any further?
I think the brand or name ’Cotswolds’ is so well known that everyone wants their fair and reasonable share of it, whether marketing a business or a service. However, I suspect in terms of the landscape designation, we’re probably at our limits.

The Cotswolds Conservation Board is based at the Cotswolds Discovery Centre at The Old Prison, just outside Northleach. What can visitors expect to find here?
We were lucky as we had been tenants of the local authority here and we had helped establish the Friends of the Cotswolds charity in 2007 so when the site came up for sale, the charity stepped in and acquired the site, retaining us as tenants. We manage the site on a day to day basis. As it is on the crossroads of the A40 and the Fosse Way, we are ideally situated to tell the Cotswolds’ story and it is a great place for people to find information and learn about what makes the area special. Whether you are a resident or a visitor, it has appeal and relevance.

We have been developing the café, The Cotswold Lion, since 2013 and hope to secure other grants to invest in the site. We also hold rural skills courses here such as blacksmith courses in the old forge (which we’ve recently opened on site), hedge laying, stone tiling, flax making, wool weaving and dry stone walling. We are now an accredited trainer for dry stone walling, so it’s great to be able to offer such a healthy and rich rural skills programme. Participants come from all walks of life – from people who just want to have a go, to professional staff who may be involved in the landscape industry and, for example, want to know more about walling. 

Course vouchers are a popular gift at Easter, Father’s Day and Christmas: they are something a bit different!

Do you get time to explore the area much yourself?
I wish! Like many jobs, mine involves spending a lot of time in front of a computer screen. The days that I do get out are fantastic. I’d like to think I know the area well but the AONB is the best part of 800 square miles and I can still turn a corner or go down a lane and be surprised.

Where, for you, is a ’must see’?
You’ve got to go for a walk on the Cotswold Way National Trail as it hugs the Cotswold escarpment and gives fantastic views both into and across parts of the AONB – and further out to Wales on a good day. I’d also recommend visiting one of the market towns like Chipping Norton or Stow-on-the-Wold and sampling some of the local produce or a drink. If you drop down into Stroud and some of the old mill towns, the landscape changes and you could think you’re in part of Lancashire – it’s that richness and that sense of surprise that makes it so appealing. At times, it is easy to forget how amazing it is.

Have the Cotswolds AONB’s first 50 years been successful? What next?
We are starting a project this year called ’Cotswolds @ 50’ to look back and see how the landscape has changed and to do some modelling on ’what if?’ – to show how the landscape could look in the future in relation to climate change and farming. We’re looking backwards to plan forwards.

Overall, the quality of landscape we have now is down to the pioneering, visionary work done in the 1940s which gave birth to the National Parks and the AONBs. Local people seized that opportunity and lobbied hard for the original designation in 1966 and then again during the review in the late 1980s which led to the expansion of the area.

What next? The area is renowned for the rich quality of its walking and its footpaths. The Lake District has called itself the ’Adventure Capital of England,’ so why shouldn’t the Cotswolds be the ’Exploring and Walking Capital of England’? Is that something we should be looking at more?

We’ve also been working with bus and rail companies to create a Discoverer Ticket. At the moment, you can buy a ticket at Oxford station and spend the day exploring the Cotswolds. It would be lovely to see more bus companies getting involved to expand and develop that, to enable visitors to buy a Cotswolds Discoverer Ticket at more stations, such as Paddington and Birmingham New Street.

We’re also looking at what the Cotswolds contributes further afield. We’ve been doing some initial work regarding the enormous aquifer of water under the Cotswolds – the limestone generates and retains a high quality of water and approximately 500 million litres of water are supplied to Thames Water on a daily basis. We’re looking at the Cotswolds as a supplier of that fundamental clean resource and what we and others should be doing to invest in that provision for the future.

How can locals help?
The area needs to be a thriving, working landscape so it is helpful when as many people as possible support local producers and volunteer to do practical work. We have a very strong voluntary warden network, with more than 300 wardens out and about, and new volunteers are always welcome.

You could also take part in a rural skills course, whether for a single day or longer. When you drive along and admire the thatching or a piece of walling, why not learn something about those skills?

National Trust at Lodge Park, Aldsworth, is hosting your Living Landscape Festival on Saturday 18 September as part of the AONB’s golden anniversary festivities. What can visitors expect?
We work closely with National Trust across the length and breadth of the Cotswolds but this is the first time we’ve collaborated on a festival. It will be a celebration of local food and drink, crafts and producers, with 60 or 70 stalls selling items that have been made or sourced locally. There will also be some great music, dancing and demonstrations of rural skills. We want to make it accessible to everyone, so it will be a fun, family friendly day out.

Hook Norton Brewery, which has brewed a special ’Cotswold Lion’ beer for our 50th anniversary, and Cotswold Distillery, with its Cotswold Gin, are both supporting us by donating funds from the sales of these special drinks in our anniversary year. It will be a quirky, interesting festival so everyone should come along and enjoy a full day out.

The Cotswolds Discovery Centre at The Old Prison, Northleach, is open daily: 01451 862000 / GL54 3JH / cotswoldsaonb.org.uk

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