Giles Aspinall

Giles A for web

‘I was brought up in the West Midlands, just north of Telford, so I’m not a local boy. Telford’s maybe not the best address but is in fact steeped in history, with the Ironbridge Gorge nearby. I was lucky to have a very nice upbringing, and we lived quite deep in the countryside. However we were surrounded mainly by intensively farmed monoculture so I didn’t really learn a lot about nature as a child, but later in life in my twenties I became fascinated. My parents were very into self-sufficiency when I was young, growing and freezing huge amounts of fruit and veg, and heating the house with logs that were stacked in an enormous shed. They both had jobs and worked in the town, and although at first sight they didn’t seem like self-sufficiency types, I think they just enjoyed the life.

After school in Telford, and later Southampton, I stumbled into a place at the University of Derby studying creative writing, which seemed like a good idea at the time. As a student I became rather an armchair conservationist, convinced that there was nothing right with the world, and everything was being destroyed. It only occurred to me when I was about 22 that in fact there was a lot that could be done practically. As part of my course I was studying Spanish, so there was a requirement to work in Spain, which is of course by far the best way to hone one’s language skills. I didn’t want to work in an office, and bar work wasn’t considered a good language learning environment, so I was lucky to discover a project in the Canary Islands, where there is a non-migratory population of whales and dolphins. At that time it was entertaining for the paying tourists but was sometimes rather distressing to the whales, especially the mothers and their calves. I worked there for a season, and the following year went back to run the project, my fluency in Spanish a much more useful factor than my very limited knowledge of cetaceans.

A year or so later I went for an interview with a large conservation charity, the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV), who were just starting to develop their work with young people, and my experiences in the Canaries helped me blag my way into a job. A year later, involved with recruitment, I was turning down people with far more experience than myself so it was indeed a very lucky break for me. I worked for them for 10 years, first in Wiltshire, then including Somerset and Dorset. During that time I actually had 6 different jobs, which kept the work interesting, and eventually I was covering the whole of the South West. As a national conservation charity their whole purpose was linking people with environmental work, and at one time they were the go-to organisation linking groups like Afro-Caribbean, Asian, or LBGT communities, or any marginalised people, with conservation work, which made my work inspiring and exciting, in fact right up my street. Those days were actually a golden age for conservation charities; we often complained about lack of funding, but with hindsight, under New Labour money was way more available than it is today. BTCV was funded through many different agencies, but a great deal of the money could be traced back to government and local authorities, so when the credit crunch came, they became a victim of austerity. I left shortly before that happened—I think we could all see it coming.

That was 7 years ago, and my next job was here at Magdalen. Rather by accident I came here for a meeting, about a year before there was a job. The meeting had been relocated from Castle Cary, and involved my having to drive an extra 30 miles, so I arrived a bit cross about the whole thing. But once here, I looked round the farm and the facilities, and was immediately smitten with the ethos, the peace, and the natural beauty of the place. Back home I thought nothing more would come of the visit, but a year later the job of chief exec was advertised, and had I not seen the place a year previously I would not have applied. So I struck lucky yet again. Back then Magdalen Farm had a very strong school trips programme, and they were just starting to develop care farming. Visiting school parties came from all over the south of England, and would typically stay for a week. However, these days with less funding available to schools, and parental contributions under pressure, parties normally stay for 3 days, and we’ve had to try and double the number of customer schools to maintain the same throughput. The other big change recently is that the care farming has finally blossomed, which is great; last year we had 4200 visitors through the farm gate, of whom 1000 were significantly disadvantaged, disabled, or vulnerable in some way. They are of all ages, but are predominantly children and young people. We also get a lot of families, with one or more disabled children accompanied by their parents, coming here for respite breaks.

Most visitors are here for basic environmental education. A lot of the children have very limited understanding of the countryside, and we get asked some absolute gems of questions, like “at what age does a sheep become a cow?” So we’re trying to set them straight with whatever questions they have, but really our main aim is to get them to fall in love with nature. If children grow up without knowing the answers to fundamental questions about the countryside that’s a shame, but in the end that’s probably not disastrous; crucially however if they go through life never appreciating the wonder of nature, then their behaviour will reflect that, and they won’t care about their environment or for the future of their planet.

Of those who come here with significant disadvantages, there are many with autism or other learning disabilities; there are young people and children who are refugees, without parents; there are children who are carers for others in their families—as young as 4, believe it or not—and there are young people who are unemployed or have other barriers to success. Our purpose for them is to use the environment and the natural world to help them with their difficulties, to move on. There is an inherent therapeutic value for them in being somewhere green and nice, especially if you’ve had a traumatic time. Young refugees will usually arrive all full of beans and excited, and then sometimes they will have spells of deep sadness. This is a reflection period, and may be the first time they’ve felt able to weep; it shows the value of coming somewhere quiet and green, where there are animals and birdsong. They feel a sense of release.

We have a team of 16 people working here, either directly with the visitors or cooking, cleaning and looking after people overnight. We also have a number of local volunteers helping out with the horticulture, as much of our food is home-grown. Their valuable work is not only motivated by the environmental contribution; it’s also a social one, as so many of the visitors are desperately poor and marginalised. One young refugee from North Korea, aged about 17, told me that one day whilst walking to school she noticed that the river which divided her country from China was frozen. Seeing an opportunity to escape to a new life, she decided to walk across, and kept going, leaving behind her family. How she survived until she reached England I don’t know, it probably doesn’t bear scrutiny; her suffering from the guilt of what she’d done, being unable to return, and with no means of contacting her family, was acute. But coming here helped.’