Phil Vickery becomes ambassador for Prince’s Countryside Fund
Sunday 26th Feb 2012
Former England rugby captain Phil Vickery MBE was today announced as the first ambassador of the Prince's Countryside Fund, the brainchild of the Prince of Wales.
"Throwing his weight behind the country: an interview with Phil Vickery"
The Telegraph, 26 Feb 2012
The game of rugby and our countryside have many things in common. Mud and muscle, camaraderie and national pride to name a few. Then there is Phil Vickery.
Since retiring from the game in 2010, the former England captain who was a World Cup winner in 2003, can be found on the family farm in Gloucestershire. Four operations on his neck and back meant that, aged 35, Phil has had to call it a day. “I had a wonderful rugby career,” he says, “but it’s over and you lose a big part of your life.”
Born and bred on a West Country farm and a “proud Englishman”, Phil is today announced as the first ambassador to the Prince’s Countryside Fund, the brainchild of the Prince of Wales. He hopes to take some of the team-building morale he injected into the England side, and move into an altogether different field. The clear message from Phil is this: “Whether you live in the city, country or town, we can all do a little bit to support our countryside.”
Rural life has underpinned everything he has done. He grew up in Kilkhampton, near Bude in Cornwall, where his earliest memories were of standing in gaps in hedges to stop sheep escaping, digging up potatoes and riding on a bale sledge. The farmhouse kitchen, he recalls, was like “the office”. “Everyone came in from the fields and yard and met there – it was like the boardroom. Orders were given out, disasters reported. Then we would discuss how to fix them.”
His ambition in life was the family farm, only “rugby got in the way a bit”. In his softly-spoken West Country accent, Phil describes playing in a small rugby club in Bude with farmers, firemen and life guards. “There is a huge amount of camaraderie in rugby and it’s the same in the countryside,” he says. At 19, he moved to Gloucestershire and found a job on a farm before signing his first contract to play rugby for less than £4,000 a year. After the £25 a week he was getting at home, he thought he’d won the lottery.
Phil went on to play for London Wasps and was capped 73 times by England before injury forced him to hang up his boots. He moved to his own farm in Taynton last year, with his wife Kate and children, Megan, 6, and Harry, 3. But it is his role with The Prince’s Countryside Fund that he wants to tackle head on.
The fund was launched in 2010 with the aim of supporting rural communities and improving the sustainability of the British countryside through education and business support. Reconnecting the people of Britain with the countryside is paramount. Organisations are invited to apply for grants, available biannually, and the latest 15 recipients are announced here today.
A share of the latest £422,000 pot will go to, among others: the Pembrokeshire Beekeepers’ Association; the Peak District’s upland farmers; “Open Farm Weekends” in Northern Ireland; the Plunkett Foundation, which halts the closure of rural shops nationwide, and more. The fund is supported by household names such as Waitrose, Asda, McVities, Strutt & Parker, M&S, and Barbour in return for the right to display the Prince’s Countryside Fund logo in stores and on products.
All the winning projects have proved “a special contribution to safeguarding the countryside at either a national or more local level”, according to Tor Harris, director of the Prince’s Countryside Fund. “With the countryside under threat and often neglected, and with 5.5 million people relying on rural industries for employment, the work of the Prince’s Countryside Fund is a vital lifeline.” Pressures faced include the volatility of farming incomes, the demand for low food prices in supermarkets and the rising input costs squeezing farmers.
Educating children about farming, training young people and passing on skills are vital components of what the fund stands for. Some 60,000 new entrants into farming are needed over the next decade to ensure our countryside can provide the food we need. Encouraging young people to forge careers in rural areas is vital to the future of farming. But it is not easy. In upland farms, the average age of a decision-maker is 58. The average profit in 2008 was £6,000. But it’s important that we preserve this heritage. “The British countryside is the envy of the world,” as Phil points out, “we must make people who work in it feel valuable. Let’s help give people the opportunity,” he says, “start by teaching kids to grow vegetables, give them invaluable knowledge and pass it down through the generations. It’s about helping the industry show people that there is a future.”
Awareness of the link between food and farming is where we can all make a difference. Phil describes himself as “a cook, not a chef”, but proved he was no ordinary cook by winning Celebrity Masterchef in 2011 with a black pudding starter, roast lamb and proper pudding. His love of good food comes directly from his farm background: the food on the table was the product of all the hard work. “We produce some of the greatest food in the world here in the British Isles,” he says. Here’s where we can all help: on a special occasion, buy meat from a farmers’ market, or local pressed apple juice from the village deli and support small producers.
Phil’s final thought is to the protection of our countryside, and that we acknowledge those who safeguard it. “When you drive around the countryside and see how fantastic it looks, be aware of how much goes into that – all the workers that keep it looking so good. We should make sure we don’t lose those people and those wonderful skills.” It’s not about going back to the “good old days”, he adds, but about taking those values into the future.