Country Matters: One pint short of a perfect night

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The Independent Online
BOLD and generous the man who invites a horde of other landowners and their wives to tour his estate. Well-disposed though they may be, they are rivals in the same business, and cannot help but observe every detail of management through beady eyes.

On the other hand, few people have land as glorious as that of the Miserden Estate, near Stroud, where Major Tom Wills entertained the Gloucestershire branch of the Country Landowners' Association the other evening. The fact that more than 100 members and wives turned out was itself a measure of the attraction for this is a classic English estate, run on traditional lines to the highest standards.

Not only does it extend to 3,000 acres of farm and forest, set astride a fine, deep valley, the estate also embraces the entire village of Miserden, except for church and pub, the estate and owns 66 stone-built dwellings, besides numerous barns and outbuildings.

The evening's proceedings opened in the village hall, which at once demonstrated Miserden's superior status, being solidly built of stone and lined with panelling. Taking the chair for the CLA branch's AGM, annual general meeting, the president, Earl Bathurst, rattled through his agenda at commendable speed, goaded by the knowledge that the next users of the hall, a troop of Morris dancers, were already forming up gathering outside.

In a brief introduction, Major Wills explained that his grandfather had bought the estate in 1912, and that he regards himself as no more than a tenant for life, his aim being to hand the property over to the next generation in as good shape as he took it on, or better. With the estate situated in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, he sees it as his prime duty to maintain the integrity of the landscape.

Next Harry Withers, agent for the estate since 1952, extolled the advantages of the village. 'We have a beautiful church, a fine school, a magnificent village hall, a post office, a shop, a smithy, a stained-glass-window manufacturer, a builder, a plumber, an electrician, two artists, a hairdresser and a nursery gardener. We have deliveries of milk, eggs, fish, newspapers and firewood. We have a splendid cricket field and a team to match . . .'

Mr Withers He drew our attention to the absence of overhead wires all put underground in the Sixties in a combined operation organised by the estate, the electricity board and the post office. He also praised the private water supply, laid down in 1914, emanating from nearby springs, boosted by hydraulic rams, and only in recent years supplemented by connection to the mains.

The entire company then scrambled aboard four large tractor-drawn trailers, with straw bales for seats, and set off on a tour of the estate. Luckily We had picked a perfect evening, so and the that woods and fields were looking at their glossiest in the low, slanting sun.

First stop was the main dairy unit, where 150 Friesians are milked. Michael Maxwell, the farm manager, explained over a loudhailer that two of his major problems are were height and distance: much of the land lies almost 900ft feet above sea level, so that crops are always late, and the estate is so strung out on either side of the main valley that some parts of the farm are two or three miles from others.

Next we rolled down into the valley, where Major Wills addressed us in parkland with a herd of teenaged Friesians nuzzling at his elbow. Their close proximity was appropriate, for one of his subjects was badgers, which transmit tuberculosis to cattle.

He revealed that there are 25 active badger setts on the estate, and that two years ago he lost nine cattle, which had to be slaughtered after reacting positively to TB tests. Badgers, he declared, are 'very emotive animals'. Because they are rarely seen during the day, people suppose there are far fewer of them than is the case there are far more of them than people suppose, and although they are intensively fancied by local groups, 'who tend to feel that they have a right to come and look at setts whenever they want',' as yet there is no national body in charge of the species. Nor has any competent authority pronounced on what is might be or is not an acceptable population density.

Another potential hazard is the network of footpaths and bridleways, 42 of them which cross that cross the estate and are used more and more. In the old days, many of them ran diagonally across fields, but by patient negotiation with local councils and the Ramblers' Association, the estate has got had all but two diverted round headlands, thus saving the farm staff the time and expense of cutting or spraying lanes through growing crops.

To reach our third halt we dived into the bottom of the valley, crossed the infant river Frome, and climbed beneath some magnificent firs into an area of young beech. There Major Wills declared that he himself derives enormous pleasure from walking or riding through well-kept woods, and outlined the methods whereby he and his two resident foresters manage their 700 acres: he need hardly have been so deprecating about their achievements, for the evidence of their skill was all around us.

The fourth stop was in a modern farmyard, which houses housed the grain-dryier and lambing shed: the essential, if unglamorous, hub of operations. Mike Maxwell described the flock of 1,200 ewes as 'the scavengers of the estate' which perform an important role in grazing the grass banks which that are too steep for cultivation. Without the sheep, the banks one of the most striking features of the landscape would quickly be taken over by nettles, thistles and scrub.

Mr Maxwell He then spoke sharply on the subject of hippies, from whom, he said, the estate has 'suffered significantly'. The cost of shifting one convoy of wagons amounted to was pounds 2,000, and caused untold a lot of ill will. Now, in an attempt to forestall further invasions, after every infestation, the council sends in JCBs to dig ditches out of wide grass verges, so that caravans cannot park on them an effective procedure, but one which destroys the appearance of the lanes.

One final stop in the valley gave Mike Mr Maxwell a chance to dilate on grassland management, and on the wooded bank behind him, where volunteers clear patches of scrub for the benefit of the Duke of Burgundy's fritillary, a small, brown butterfly which that feeds on cowslips.

Back in the village, we hit our first and only snag: the Carpenters Arms was shut. God's boots] Inquiries revealed that the landlord has fallen into dispute with Whitbreads, and that locals are getting up a petition for the pub to re-open under new management. Well they may be, for that was all we wanted one pint to round off a golden evening.