Local hero : Linda Duffin talks to Lady Caroline Cranbrook
PUBLISHED: 10:13 10 April 2018 | UPDATED: 13:07 10 April 2018
Prince Charles called her 'the doughtiest fighter for good sense in agriculture', the newspapers have dubbed her an eco-hero, she won an OBE for her services to the meat industry, she has been a castaway on the BBC's Desert Island Discs and was The Oldie's Campaigner of the Year in 2010.
She is of course Caroline, Countess of Cranbrook, known to everyone in Suffolk as Lady Caroline.
She will be 80 this year but shows no signs of slowing down, her steely determination hidden behind a cloud of white hair and a pair of mild blue eyes. She earned national fame when, in 1999, she launched a campaign to stop Tesco building a supermarket on the outskirts of Saxmundham.
The daughter of a pair of British spies – both of her parents worked for MI6 – she was brought up in London, Lincolnshire and Portugal. She won places at both Oxford and Cambridge and read history at Newnham before taking a job at Regent’s Park Zoo, where she worked alongside the famous zoologist Desmond Morris.
“I ran a club for children called the XYZ Club, Exceptional Young Zoologists, then I started and continued to edit a book called the International Zoo Yearbook, which was partly articles about zoos and breeding animals, and also a register of all the rare animals born in captivity,” she recalls “It was enormous fun and I greatly enjoyed it. I went round the world twice looking at zoos. Every city in the world has a zoo, and because I’d been corresponding with all of them I always had a friend.” That included China in the days before the Cultural Revolution.
Her travelling days were far from over when she met and married tropical biologist Gathorne Gathorne-Hardy, now Earl of Cranbrook. The couple lived in the Malaysian jungle in, says Lady Caroline, “a nice little house – no telephone, no electricity, but we did have running water. It came in a bamboo pipe out of the hills.” Their son, Jason, was born there, but after three years they returned to the family home in Great Glemham where Lady Caroline settled to raise her children.
She loves cooking and gardening, and her walled kitchen garden houses large collections of beans and chillies gleaned from various parts of the globe. But it was not long before she looked beyond a life of domesticity.
“After a couple of years, one of our ploughmen said had I looked at the cows lately – and they were starving. We had a very, very poor farm manager at the time who was totally incompetent and he hadn’t actually bought any food for the cattle that winter.
“So I got very interested in farming and kept on telling my father-in-law and brother-in-law that things didn’t seem to be going right. Eventually we dismissed this particular manager and I became more and more involved with the farm.” She was a working partner until 1999 when the family decide to contract out the work on their 850 acres.
And it was then that she got involved in campaigning for local food and local food producers.
“I had been asked to write an article for the East Anglian Daily Times, and I decided to write about the impact that the Tesco superstore might have on the local economy.” Being Caroline Cranbrook she did nothing by halves. She carried out a survey of every single small shop in the area.
“Altogether there were 81 shops and I found that they were actually sourcing their food from nearly 300 local and regional food producers. They varied hugely from somebody just supplying eggs from their back yard to somewhere like Copella or Bernard Matthews. I realised how important these small shops were.
“They’re enormously important socially as a place where people can exchange information, and for old and retired people who don’t have cars, again it’s very important to be able to shop locally. My concern at that time was the impact it [Tesco] would have on the local food chain and this was my main discovery. All food businesses start small and you cannot start a small food business unless you’ve got small outlets.”
Her research was published by the Campaign to Protect Rural England and Lady Caroline was asked to give evidence to parliamentary committees. Planning permission for the Tesco store was refused. Eight years later she surveyed the same small outlets and discovered that their number had increased, as had the number of producers supplying them.
The CPRE published those findings, too, and rolled out a nationwide project to emulate the success elsewhere. The OBE came when she launched another campaign to save small local abattoirs.
She was one of the founder members of the Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. It was set up and still runs as a non-profit-making event to promote Suffolk’s food and food producers.
“People have always been well aware what a wonderful place Suffolk is, but what had not been known was our food culture. We are one of the largest producers of commercial vegetables in the country and we are surrounded here by very successful, very large fruit and vegetable farms.
“But people were unaware of how much food in supermarkets actually comes from East Anglia. And they were completely unaware what an amazing amount of independent small food producers we have, producing really incredibly high quality and innovative products.”
Without Lady Caroline and the food festival there is little doubt there would be far fewer of them today. “It has produced a virtuous circle. Something like the food festival makes people aware that we have a lot of very good food. They start buying it then you get the local pubs, the restaurants, the cafés realising that it is an asset to be able to say ‘we have lamb or beef or tomatoes or cheese produced locally’. And as the demand increases it gives more opportunities for the producers to expand their businesses and for new ones to start up.”
She says the festival is effectively a nursery for small food producers, but it also gives them a larger audience, with top London shops visiting each year to look for new products. Lady Caroline is the festival president and puts in long hours working with producers, retailers and chefs, courting sponsors and decision-makers and providing a public face for the event. She loves to provide opportunities for networking, something she clearly has down to a fine art.
“Why do I care so much? I care very much about people, I care very much about the countryside. And I do think we’ve got something very special here. It’s not good going to a town and finding nothing in it, or just national chains.
“What draws people into the towns is when they’ve got something special to offer. Last weekend I noticed in the financial paper it said that the large retail parks had done rather badly over the last bank holiday weekend whereas the high street had done well, where they had speciality food shops. That says it, doesn’t it?”