Meet Ben Cowell: Newport's National Trust boss
PUBLISHED: 15:26 28 August 2013 | UPDATED: 15:26 28 August 2013
Ben Cowell's love of the countryside has been prevalent throughout his career; studying landscape history at the University of East Anglia, then working in Whitehall for the Department for Culture before joining the National Trust in 2008. Now appointed to run the National Trust in the East of England, Ben says it is both a passion and a responsibility he will never take lightly.
‘For as long as I can remember I have been passionate about heritage and countryside,’ says Ben. ‘It is wonderful to work for an organisation that I believe in and in a part of the country that I dearly love and enjoy. At a time when our landscape is constantly changing through the demands of development and climate change, we have a huge responsibility to protect it, not just for ourselves but for future generations.’
For the last ten years, Ben has lived with his wife and two young sons in Newport, near Saffron Walden, and the young Cowells are already enjoying their initiation to the great Essex outdoors. Ben explains: ‘My sons are aged three and five now and it’s wonderful for them to be growing up in the Essex countryside. We are lucky enough to live close to Hatfield Forest, where we often go for walks and den building, and they are great fans of the National Trust’s new adventure challenge Fifty Things to do Before You’re 11¾, which is fantastic fun for kids. It includes activities like climbing a tree, making mud pies and playing pooh sticks. Parents can register online and kids get their own virtual explorer and the chance to earn certificates and badges along the way.
‘My wife and I recently took the kids to Northey Island, in the Blackwater Estuary. It’s not normally open to the public but the National Trust ran a ‘castaway’ weekend, which was three days of wild camping and exploration on the island. It was wonderful; the children dressed up as pirates, played in a treehouse, camped out and built a raft. It’s a fantastic piece of coastland and we will be running lots more events like these in National Trust locations across the East of England.’
On a more serious note, Ben feels huge responsibility as custodian of some of the region’s most beautiful and historic landscapes, not just in their protection, but to ensure their future use. In 2013 he led the National Trust’s campaign to put the protection of the countryside at the forefront of the debate over reforms to the National Planning Policy Framework.
‘Were it not for the National Trust, the landscape we see today would look very different,’ explained Ben. ‘One and a half percent of land in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is now owned by the National Trust and ultimately we were set up to manage and safeguard land for the community and look after it for the benefit of everybody. Of course, we need to build houses and infrastructure, but it is important to treasure and protect our amazing landscape. I want to make the National Trust able to have more of a voice about this part of the country, especially in Essex, where I know there is a lot of pressure with new roads, developments and infrastructure. The National Trust can, and does, have a large impact on developments, new roads and larger ongoing issues like the expansion of Stansted Airport and offshore wind turbines.’
Meanwhile, the message from the National Trust is clear; come and enjoy the countryside that is on your doorstep.
‘In Essex it’s perceived that the National Trust doesn’t have much land or many properties. In fact, a recent survey highlighted that more than half of people in Essex were unable to name a single National Trust property in their county. That is concerning and we are working very hard to change those perceptions. We have some incredible sites and outdoor spaces, from Danbury Common and Hatfield Forest along the coast to Northey Island and inland to Coggeshall Grange Barn, Flatford and Bourne Mill.
‘Between now and December 2013 there are already 80 National Trust events and activities to choose from in Essex alone, as well as the Fifty Things challenge and the new Little Book of the Great Outdoors, which has some fantastic ideas for local outings. There is just so much to see and do, from walks and outdoor pursuits, to lectures, fairs and festivals, plus outdoor theatre and fun family activities. We want people to join us and get involved, just simply to enjoy our wonderful sites, support the National Trust as a member or to join our fantastic team of volunteers.’