Entrusting our past - interview with Ben Cowell, new regional head of the National Trust
PUBLISHED: 14:13 16 September 2013 | UPDATED: 14:13 16 September 2013
The new director of the National Trust for the east of England is a student of Hertfordshire's past and has a deep love of the county. Here he tells Sarah Beecroft about its historic gems and projects to enhance and celebrate them
Ben Cowell’s new role at the National Trust has brought him out of the city and into the countryside. Previously office-based and working in external communications, his position as director for the east of England is taking him across the region – sharing his passion for the trust’s properties and outdoor spaces.
‘We recently hosted a global George Bernard Shaw conference here in rural Hertfordshire,’ he enthuses as he strolls through an orchard at Morven Park.
More than 70 of the world’s leading Shaw scholars or ‘Shavians’ as they’re known, converged on the former Ayot St Lawrence home of the Irish playwright in June to celebrate his life and works.
‘It really was a stellar cast of people – the word’s most knowledgeable Shaw experts all together in a small village in Hertfordshire where Shaw wrote some of his finest work.’
Shaw’s Corner is perhaps the county’s most notable National Trust property. Shaw gave the house to the trust in the 1940s and continued to live there until he died in 1950, aged 94.
‘He wanted to leave a legacy. The way the house was left tells us a lot about how he lived. It’s almost as if he wanted to continue to tell people about his life from beyond the grave,’ Ben says. ‘It’s the most exquisite place I’ve seen since I took up this job, and it’s our job as the National Trust to cherish and look after the spirit of this and our other unique and interesting places for future generations.’
The orchard where Ben is now standing is another great example of why the National Trust’s work is important – 15 acres of unspoiled parkland in the middle of urban Potters Bar. Morven Park was once the site of a toll gate along the Great North Road. The remains of the old toll house and the road itself are now buried beneath the park.
‘We were given the house and grounds in two parts in the 1920s and 1930s by Mr A B Sanderson.
He wanted the house to be used for local benefit such as a cottage hospital or library, and for the park to be open and enjoyed by everyone.’
In keeping with Sanderson’s wishes, today the land is public parkland and the house is let as a care home – the proceeds of which help fund the upkeep of the surrounding land.
Ben says that without the trust, the park and its heritage would probably be long gone, ‘Had this place not been given to us to protect, it might well have been swallowed up for development,’ he says.
A student of Hertfordshire’s green spaces for his PhD, much of what he researched has indeed now disappeared. ‘Hertfordshire has always been a county where there has been lots of change. Its proximity to London has meant that it has often been at the centre of debates about whether or not there has been too much urban sprawl and how to protect the green belt.’
The term ‘green belt’ was coined by Octavia Hill, one of the founder members of the National Trust at the end of the 19th century. Octavia was a well-known campaigner convinced about the need to protect green spaces and constrain the spread of London into the countryside. More than 100 years later and now with more than four million members, the trust remains dedicated to the preservation of our cultural and environmental treasures. And like his predecessors, Ben too is committed to Octavia’s cause of keeping open spaces available for those in a predominantly urban environment.
‘We want more people to become aware and take advantage of places like Morven Park,’ he explains. ‘This really is quite a spectacular place. Some of the trees here are more than 400 years old but not many people know or have heard of it.’
All that is about to change. Part of Ben’s plans for the park, alongside newly- appointed ranger Andrew Gibbs, is to restore the land by planting more trees and working on the park’s hedgerows and ponds as well as building links with the community and raising awareness of its existence and importance.
‘About a third of the National Trust’s money comes from members,’ Ben says. ‘The rest comes from the trust’s commercial activities such as shops and cafes, rents from tenants, fundraising, donations and grants. Morven Park is the recipient of one such grant from Biffa Awards, which provides money for nature conservation projects like the restoration project here.’
One of Ben’s favourite Hertfordshire parks is Hatfield Forest. ‘It’s probably one of the most ancient woodlands in the country and one of the only surviving medieval forests. It’s unique and it is of international significance.’
The passion for the trust’s role and its inheritance is clear in Ben’s voice as he embraces the challenge of his new role, which he took up in January, but he adds it is a huge collective effort.
‘We’re very much a team, from the volunteers all the way up. We want to give people a friendly welcome and encourage them to keep coming back and supporting our cause.’
Ben adds that he hopes to be in the role for the long term and increase awareness of our heritage. ‘My main plan for the next five to 10 years is to put the east of England on the map. We have so many wonderful places here and I want everyone to value them wholeheartedly.’