As a member of the Countryside Agency board (1999 to 2006) I enjoyed many regional visits. Roughly every other month we would hold our board meeting away from the headquarters of John Dower House in Cheltenham and visit one of the regions, to learn more about the work of the agency and its partners. These occasions were always interesting and stimulating.
One visit stands out as being different. It was 20 years ago today, on 21 March 2002, and was the swansong of landscape architect Paul Walshe, who was retiring as the agency’s head of special areas. The event, which he organised, was a celebration of the arts in the south west.
After a walk around the National Trust’s Sherborne estate in Gloucestershire on 20 March, we crossed the A40 to the trust’s Lodge Park. This is a fascinating doll’s house-like building, erected in the 1630s as a place of entertainment for John Dutton.
We had dinner here, noisily entertained by the Oxford Waits, with guests from the artworld. I was sitting next to Nancy Sinclair of Aunehead Arts, whom I had not met. Reading her label I immediately thought of that wilderness in central southern Dartmoor. Nancy was surprised that I knew she came from Dartmoor since, she said, no one had spotted the Dartmoor connection in the name Aunehead before. That was the start of a lovely friendship, and my support for AHA (promoting arts in rural communities) until sadly it had to close in 2013.
Also, I met Lesley Greene (of whom I had heard through my aunt Nancy Balfour) who was chairman of the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trust. It was a fruitful evening.
The next morning, we piled onto a coach to take us to the Forest of Dean. As was normal on such occasions, we were addressed, as we bowled along, by a local person. This time it was a councillor, but it seemed a bit odd that he got the name of his council wrong (I recall he said he was from the Dean Forest Council) and odder still when he began to talk about Wales. Lesley asked him a question about funding and got a rotten answer. It took some time for us (or me at any rate) to realise he was an actor, from Anthony Richards’s Common Players. Along the way we stopped to pick up a ‘major’, and then an ‘artist’ with a bucket of clay. They all got into an argument and the artist ended up pasting the councillor with clay. Eventually we dropped them off by the roadside leaving rather a lot of mud behind.
We came to Beechenhurst in the forest, and after discussions indoors walked up to the magnificent ‘giant’s chair’, called Place, by Magdelena Jetelova. It was made of oak, blackened from a traditional charcoal-kiln. It was dismantled in 2015 to be converted to charcoal as the artist wished. You can read about it here.
Paul Walshe’s farewell left the board members with a greater awareness of the role of arts as a contribution to landscape and community. Although the chair is no longer at the top of the forest it stands out in my memory.