The women shaping a new countryside
Country Life UK|January 26, 2022
Throughout history, formidable women such as Cleopatra and Lady Eve Balfour did much to nurture the land. Camilla Akers-Douglas talks to four present-day matriarchs who are helping to boost the rural economy in very different ways
Camilla Akers-Douglas

THIS is a story about creativity in the countryside. It is a women’s tale because, crucially, they are playing a significant role in improving understanding of the countryside and reinvigorating its rural economy. It seems that the age-old idea that Mother Nature personifies the Earth, as the source from which all life springs, is echoed by the feminine way of seeing the land and understanding it—this is often Nature-based and grounded in long-term regeneration.

Many notable women have thought this way throughout history. The Egyptian queen Cleopatra issued several edicts decreeing that anyone found killing earthworms should be imprisoned—or even killed—because she understood the importance of the soil in the Nile valley delta. Lady Eve Balfour, the organic farming pioneer who co-founded the Soil Association in 1946 (‘All about Eve’, September 8, 2021), believed the long-term health of the soil should be prioritized above highly mechanized, intensive farming systems. Yet it wasn’t until January 17, 1990—shortly after her death—that the Government, under Margaret Thatcher, offered grants to encourage British farmers to change to organic methods.

‘As I became involved with the organic movement, I was pleasantly surprised by how many more women were participating,’ states Helen Browning, the current chief executive of the Soil Association and a pig farmer. ‘At our conferences, nearly half the delegates are female, compared with perhaps 10% at “conventional” farming gatherings. With sustainability, women are often leading the way.’

No one wants the future to be a place of ecological damage. Most of us understand the need for regeneration, long-term thinking, and transformative plans for the health of the countryside. We’d all like to leave young people with a safer climate and a healthier planet. Here, we hear from four women who have had the vision, imagination, and tenacity to change things for the better in the countryside, bringing fresh and innovative enterprise to the rural economy.

The Somerset atelier

THE roller coaster of Brexit and Covid spurred the fashion designer Alice Temperley to move her headquarters from London to an old garment factory in the centre of Ilminster, Somerset. Having grown up on her parents’ cider farm in the county, this return is the absolute opposite of opening a new store in New York, Paris or Tokyo, especially as Miss Temperley purchased the 28,000sq ft Victorian building for the same price as one year’s rent on her Mayfair office. ‘It had been derelict for 15 years, the roof was leaking and there was a foot of pigeon poo in every corner,’ she explains.

Now partially renovated, Phoenix Studios houses her atelier and bridal studio, as well as the design and productdevelopment team, all of whom have relocated from London. Now, Miss Temperley employs 15 people in the town and finds that clients who prefer ‘the Somerset experience’ are happy to travel there for their fittings.

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