Obituary: Betty Risdon

Tim Bullamore
Monday 24 May 1999 23:02

SINCE FIRST opening its gates in 1962, Rode Bird Gardens on the Wiltshire-Somerset border has introduced hundreds of thousands of people to the enormous variety of birds that inhabit our planet. Macaws fly freely while penguins, parrots and parakeets gaze with curiosity on the human visitors to their home.

The energy behind Rode belonged to Betty Risdon who, often with her own bare hands, created the bird sanctuary. Over the years it has grown into a successful tourist attraction with hundreds of exotic birds, a miniature steam railway and formal Victorian gardens.

Rode is a family park, owned by a family and run by a family. Betty Risdon was the cheerful matriarch of the group. As her great friend Johnny Morris, who died just 10 days before her, once said: "Betty was one of those people who makes life more fun." But the gardens have a serious side. The tourists help provide vital funding for the pioneering conservation and preservation work that Risdon always insisted must remain at the heart of Rode.

The only child of a mining engineer, she was born Elizabeth Walker in 1918 and was schooled in Australia. After her father died at an early age, her mother, from whom she inherited an intrepid sense of adventure, took over the family business selling explosives to the mining industry. Together they climbed the Matterhorn in 1954.

During the Second World War, she served as an officer with the Waaf based in Skegness and later worked with the WVS. She met her husband Donald Risdon in a Birmingham pub in 1959 when he said: "You must come up and see my animals sometime." Donald was the general manager of Dudley Zoo and after their marriage they lived over the shop, in a flat inside the zoo's offices. However Donald had long felt that in the context of an ordinary zoo, birds were too often afforded second place. With Betty's enthusiasm and his astute business acumen, they spent much of 1961 scouring the country for a suitable site for a bird zoo.

Rode Manor in Wiltshire had been run as a market garden for many years and the manor house had long since been demolished. In September 1961, Donald and Betty Risdon moved in and began the long and arduous task of realising their dream. Friends and family found themselves roped in to dig drains and ditches, man the turnstiles and run the office. Writing in the second of her two autobiographical books, The Roads From Rode (1998), Risdon said: "We hacked our way into the jungle and removed the worst of the weeds. Slowly the whole place began to come to life like some forgotten Sleeping Beauty."

The birds came from all over the world - from zoos, nature reserves, aviaries, friends and contacts. Risdon regularly found herself flying up the motorway to Heathrow Airport to collect a living cargo. She spent much of the 1970s developing the gardens at Rode into something of an arboretum and quickly established an equally popular reputation in horticultural circles. She was a founder member of the British Clematis Society in 1991, which has named a clematis after her.

Gales, snow and storms proved to be some of the greatest traumas the couple faced. But poachers also proved troublesome. Over the years Rode developed some advanced security systems for the protection of their birds. Meanwhile, the gardens were becoming well known. Johnny Morris and his television crew from Animal Magic filmed there and other visitors included Gerald Durrell, David Gower and Geoff Hamilton.

Betty Risdon never lost her sense of adventure. While her husband was alive, he had not been a great traveller; after his death in 1994, she threw herself into grand voyages. She visited South Georgia with Keith Shackleton, a descendent of Ernest Shackleton, and two years ago, at the age of 79, she was a passenger on the first commercial cruise-ship to circumnavigate Baffin Island in the Arctic.

Tim Bullamore

Elizabeth Sadler Walker, aviculturist: born Birmingham 10 March 1918; married 1943 Ronald Glenn (two sons; marriage dissolved 1951), 1959 Donald Risdon (died 1994); died Bath 18 May 1999.

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