Defender of the Realm

From next month, avid walker Dame Fiona Reynolds joins Stuart Maconie as a regular columnist in Country Walking.

A former Director General of the National Trust and director for the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, Dame Fiona has been at the forefront of battle to protect England�s natural heritage for more than 30 years. She is currently Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge and has recently returned from a trek to Everest base camp.

Who or what first got you into walking?
My parents. All our holidays as children (I�m one of five girls) were spent in Snowdonia (a cottage at Llandanwg near Harlech) or the Lake District (camping in Littletown) and walking was What We Do. We were only allowed time on the beach when we�d done enough walking, and we always made the Best of the Day (one of my father�s favourite sayings). We climbed most peaks � our special favourites were Cnicht and the Rhinogs, Yewbarrow and Cat Bells as well as the big ones. We also became familiar with almost every waterfall in both National Parks as that was our family�s wet-weather alternative to the hills! 

What kind of walking do you normally do? 
Nowadays most of my walking is around one or other of the two lovely places in which I�m lucky enough to live � a village just outside Cirencester in the Cotswolds and Cambridge. I have favourite walks in both places, mostly 4 � 5 miles, but given the chance I love nothing better than a day-long stomp across big hills.

�And who with? 
Quite often I walk alone, or with Lucy our spaniel/collie cross. But I love it when my husband Bob or my daughters (I have three) join me. Bob and I also walk every month with a group of close friends in Cirencester and it�s a really important part of my life � great company and good walks chosen by my friend and route-planner (I�m the navigator, being most obsessed with maps) Anne.

What, to you, is the single biggest benefit of going for a walk?
I can�t imagine life without walking now; it�s become so central to my life.  Unless I start the day with a good walk I feel itchy and frustrated. Going for a walk wakes me up, clears my head and makes me feel good.

Could you briefly outline your career path to date? 
Immediately after leaving Cambridge (where I read Geography then Land Economy then did a Masters in Land Economy) in 1980 I got an amazing job, as Secretary to the Council for National Parks. This (now the Campaign for National Parks) was a tiny charity with just me and a part time assistant, though it grew fast. 

My President was Lord Hunt of Llanfair Waterdine who as John Hunt had led the successful 1953 Everest expedition, and it was a hugely important time for National Parks which were facing a variety of threats. I was lobbying Parliament one day, the EU the next, and campaigning against quarries, new conifer forests, ugly housing developments and road expansion. 

In 1987 I moved as Assistant Director (Policy) to CPRE, wanting to stretch my wings to protect the wider countryside and found myself doing exactly that. I became Director in 1992 and stayed until 1998, working on all aspects of countryside policy (eg farming, planning, energy, water, forestry) and also getting involved in �greening� both UK and European policies generally. 

In 1998 I went into the civil service (Cabinet Office) as Director of the Women�s Unit.  Most people thought I was mad, but I wanted to see how Government worked from the inside, and the women�s agenda had many things in common with the environmental agenda � it needed to work across different policy areas and people had to be persuaded it mattered.  It was tough, and not as much fun as my other jobs, but I learned a lot including how to work within a big bureaucracy.

And then the job of my dreams came up � Director-General of the National Trust. I�d been a volunteer at the Trust since 1984 (a member of a regional committee and the Council) so I knew it well, but I had never been on the staff.  I didn�t expect to get the job, being so much younger (and a woman!) than previous DGs, but to my delight I was appointed in 2000.

I quickly embarked on major change in the organisation: some were very controversial like moving the central office out of London to Swindon, overhauling the staff structures and finances. My goal, though, was cultural change:  helping the Trust to love people as much as places. It was fascinating, exhausting, difficult and rewarding all at once � and we achieved some amazing things, including reaching 4m members and winning some important campaigning victories. I loved it very much, but I knew that after 12 years it was time to hand it on.

So in 2013 I moved to become Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where I have the privilege to work with amazing academics and students. And I do one or two other things, including being the Senior Independent Director on the Board of the BBC, a non executive director of Wessex Water and pursuing my passion for landscape protection by writing and giving occasional lectures.

Was there a walk, view or place which made you think, �looking after places like this is what I really want to do�?
From my childhood I realised that places weren�t beautiful by accident:  our landscape is man-made and is beautiful because people care about it. I grew up in the Midlands in the 1960s where rapid change was taking place � huge numbers of new houses were built and the M6 was constructed nearby.  So there wasn�t one thing, but being exposed to much beauty and an awareness of threat that made me realize that I cared passionately about landscape conservation.

When you joined the National Trust, you fought hard to make the Trust and its properties more welcoming and inclusive. Was that a hard process? 
Yes! Everyone was (and remains!) passionate about conservation, so even though it was recognised that members and visitors were important, people in large numbers were felt to cause problems. All the pressures � parking cars, feet on sensitive carpets, fingers touching things � had been worked and worked on, to try and minimise the problems they created. 

So however inadvertently, the �shush�, �don�t sit there�, �don�t touch that� atmosphere prevailed, and the Trust felt too bossy and formal.  But people can change, and when the conservators took the lead in working out where people could sit, and what they could touch, all the positive reasons for welcoming people with open arms started to be obvious.  Welcoming families, showing them behind the scenes and involving them in conservation were all huge steps forward and now the Trust is known for the warmth of its welcome and its genuine love of people.

Why is it important that people should engage with Britain�s landscapes and heritage?
Because they are important and vulnerable. Our landscape is the product of many thousands of years� evolution � a man-made landscape, as W G Hoskins showed us in my Desert Island Discs book choice The Making of the English Landscape. It is a rich cultural record - a palimpsest where the story of many generations of people�s occupancy and management of the land can, astonishingly, still be read. 

It is also home to a rich wildlife heritage.   Landscapes feed the soul and the body, providing inspiration and relaxation. 

Yet within a generation, since the Second World War, we have wiped out much of this record through the intensification of farming, building in inappropriate locations, and the homogenisation caused by road signs, clone towns and the standardization of much of modern life. We are ironing out the wrinkles and crinkles that make places special and if we are not careful everywhere will look the same.  We can do something about this, but only if we care enough to do so. David Attenborough once said:  you cannot protect what you do not first love.   That�s why it�s so important to me that we all have the chance to enjoy and love landscape.

You�re especially keen to attract families, and particularly children, into the countryside. What can it offer them that a TV or computer game can�t? 
So much!  Playing outside encourages children to be adventurous, to test themselves and get muddy, to experience nature rather than having it served up for them on television.  The sights, sounds, smells, taste and touch of the outdoors stimulate every aspect of a child�s experience, whereas the TV or the on-screen games are narrow and introspective.  

The statistics are alarming: fewer than 1 in 10 children play regularly in wild places now, compared to almost half a generation ago; fewer than a quarter use their local patch of nature compared to half a generation ago; the area across which children range unaccompanied has declined 90% since the 1970s; and a child is three times more likely to be admitted to hospital for falling out of bed than falling out of a tree. We must promote the value of free-range children

Who is your walking hero and why? 
At CNP I worked with John Hunt and he was inspirational. Not so much for his leadership of the Everest ascent, though that was awesome, but because he loved walking and would find every opportunity to do so. I will never forget visits to National Parks with John when I was in my early 20s at CNP: he would ask to climb a mountain rather than meeting in an office, and would stride up the hills leaving the National Park officials puffing in his wake. He taught me that walking was therapeutic, and a good way to do business.

Is there a walk you�ve never done but are dying to do? 
Loads! I adore long distance walks but I�ve been so busy I have barely scratched the surface of them (Offa�s Dyke is my top walk so far). Hadrian�s Wall and the Pennine Way are top of my to-do list but I�d also adore to do the whole of the South West and Pembrokeshire Coast Paths. Oh, and the Coast to Coast too � and I have ALWAYS longed to walk across Morecambe Bay�

Do you have a favourite British walk? 
That is SO hard.  There are lots! The island of Lundy has got to be up there, and some of our local walks in Gloucestershire. But maybe, just maybe, my favourite is the long ridge from Elidir Fawr over Y Garn and up onto the Glyderau. The slog up Elidir Fawr and the descent (perhaps over Tryfan if there�s time and the conditions are good) frame one of the most glorious walks I know, with spectacular views in all directions.  I�ve done it more times than I can count including, many years ago, as part of an attempt on the three-thousanders. It never palls.

And a favourite overseas walk? 
Last year I achieved one of my life�s ambitions in a trip to Everest North Basecamp � the one in Tibet, from where Mallory made his summit attempts.  It is an extraordinary place � bare, quiet, cold and lonely � utterly unlike what I�ve heard of the bustle of the approach from Nepal. It was a magical, if surreal experience:  at 5,500m everything feels just slightly distant; and the mountain� literally � provokes awe.

You only walk a couple of miles, but even that is an effort at that height and with (in our case) little over a week to acclimatise. What surprised me was not the majesty of the mountain, but my complete lack of desire to go one step beyond basecamp. It is a force not to be reckoned with.

Closer to home, in recent years we have discovered the Apuan Alps in north west Tuscany and they provide glorious walking � well more like scrambling.   A great walk we�ve done twice is from Fornovolasco, a tiny village a few miles west of Barga, up to Monte Forato, whose summit is a approached via a spectacular natural arch, then a high level ridge walk round to Foci di Valli under the towering Pania della Croce. These jagged limestone peaks (close to the marble quarries at Carrara) make wonderful walking and the scenery is exquisite. 

On Desert Island Discs, your luxury item was a set of Ordnance Survey Explorer maps. Can you sum up your passion for them?
The point about maps is that they tell a story. Look at them closely and the history of the landscape unfolds � here is the river, there the main transport routes, here a Roman Camp and there a deserted mediaeval village. Why are there clustered settlements in this part of the country and long, strung out ones over there? Why is this church in the middle of a field? Why, for that matter are there dense, tiny fields here and no field boundaries at all somewhere else? Why does that footpath follow that route � where was it going? The questions are endless, and fascinating. The geology and history of our country is so diverse that every map is different. I could never tire of studying them. Oh, and they are useful for getting you from A to B, too.

Apart from maps, what one essential item would you never walk without?
My pedometer � I am going to confess I never leave it behind.  I like knowing how far I�ve walked and lots of steps add to my sense of satisfaction at the end of a long day.


An abridged version of this interview appears in the April issue of Country Walking, on sale March 27th. Dame Fiona�s new column starts in Country Walking May 2014, on sale April 24th.