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Deb and Bill Jordan at Pensthorpe
Interview: Bill and Deb Jordan
By Martin Barber
At the centre of an empire selling breakfast cereals Bill and Deb Jordan are used to a challenge, but the pair who also own Pensthorpe Nature Reserve are about to be put further to the test as they welcome BBC Springwatch to their 600 acre home.
Waking up to a dawn chorus sung by an array of rare birds and being able to wander around your own nature reserve after visitors have gone for the day is a rural idyll which Bill and Deb Jordan can call their own.
However, the couple, who have owned Pensthorpe Nature Reserve for six years, freely admit they had no idea at the beginning of the mammoth and multi-layered challenge they had taken on.
In tandem with running the multi-national Jordans cereals business, looking after the sanctuary in north Norfolk has been all-consuming for the pair and the task has just got even more complex with the arrival of the BBC2 prime-time wildlife show Springwatch.
Presenters Bill Oddie and Kate Humble have been settling into their new location near Fakenham, ready to go to air for three weeks from Monday, 26 May, 2008.
Meanwhile, the Jordans and their staff have been getting used to life with the esteemed Natural History Unit crew wandering around fixing new cameras and laying cables to try to capture the movements of bird and wildlife such as cranes, otters and badgers for millions of TV viewers.
Martin Barber spoke to Bill and Deb about their life at Pensthorpe and the legacy that Springwatch could offer their 600 acres of precious habitat.
MB: Why are the two of you, in Norfolk, running this huge nature reserve?
BJ: Well, we often wonder ourselves at times! It's a very odd story. We happened to visit Pensthorpe, we kind of remembered we'd seen it for sale sometime before, and we asked whether it had been sold.
Things started from there. We were in the nip of the role, and here we are six years later.
DJ: That's just about how it happened. For some reason we had seen it was for sale, and I said to Bill, 'Don't get any ideas'.
He had looked at other various businesses in Norfolk, but mostly always to do with mills or mill sites, obviously his interest being something related to Jordans and the mill there.
It was very odd, I was surprised when he seemed to be taking an interest in the particulars of Pensthorpe.
About two months later he suggested we take a family trip here. And I remember laughing and saying, 'Don't get any ideas – I'll come for the trip but that's it!'
But it is a very, very odd place Pensthorpe, and I've heard other people say it, that it's very unique, and when you get here it sort of grips you, and unfortunately I could sort of feel it gripping me on the very first time we got here!
BJ: It was on a day a bit like today – it was brilliant weather, wasn't it? We just sort of walked round, the children seemed to get on very well, and it was just sort of one of those captivating days really.
BJ: I'm glad we're agreed on that one!
Deb was brought up in Ringstead
MB: So the magic gripped you, but were you also glad to come back here being a Norfolk girl at heart.
DJ: Yes. Actually if truth be known I'd always imagined that I would return. I'd been away for years in London, and although I loved being in London and was very happy there, I never really imagined staying there forever.
Being brought up on a farm in Norfolk spoils you, and whenever we could we'd get back, and luckily for me Bill, being a Bedfordshire boy, was very partial to Norfolk.
When my parents were alive we would visit as often as we could, so it was great for me that he seemed very taken with Norfolk as well.
MB: Where was home when you were here?
DJ: Home was Ringstead. It was my father who farmed it then, and now my brother is still there.
So it's lovely for us, because it means that I can visit our family home and sit outside with a large glass of wine and wander round the garden and reminisce.
Somebody else is now in my bedroom, and it’s lovely to be able to visit and feel part of it still.
MB: How did you two meet?
DJ: He's looking tense, because there are one or two embarrassing things when we look back! We went to a Hot Gossip party in Bedfordshire.
My sister introduced me to Bill by taking me to that party and Bill was dressed in an all-in-one red catsuit with bosoms!
BJ: Well, there you are! You can tell what interests her! Which I haven't worn since, I think you'd better put that in a bit quick - but I might!
MB: So was it the catsuit that caught your eye?
DJ: No, it was so off-putting I was a bit dubious about him that day. But he caught up with me in London a few weeks after that, and luckily there was no sign of the catsuit so I have him a second chance!
MB: So we know you grew up in Bedfordshire, Bill, what was your background?
BJ: Similar background. We kind of lived above the shop, we lived at the flower mill, the mill in Bedfordshire, in fact, my mum still does.
We were brought up at the flower mill, and we built up a natural food business over 30, nearly 40 years now.
In a way, Pensthorpe's got a lot of links to that sort of background, because bit by bit - with the natural food thing - we've got quite close to how our food was grown, how the cereals were grown and the sort of wildlife that the farmers we were working with were encouraging.
So it seemed like a good idea to get involved at Pensthorpe with more wildlife habitat on the farm here. That was part of the link.
Bill spends every weekend in Norfolk
The farm and the nature reserve and the wildlife is very much part of the Jordan’s cereals story, so there's some sort of continuity there perhaps.
MB: Is it a struggle to run the two businesses side-by-side?
BJ: They're very, very different. Deb tends to involve herself up here seven days a week. I'm in Bedfordshire for some of the week, and then back here either end of the week.
We've got a very good team here at Pensthorpe, but whilst it's not a big business, it's incredibly complex.
Catering and retailing, and you need good conservationists on board as well to know how to look after the nature reserve.
There's an excellent lady looking after the garden, with a small team of volunteers. It's quite complex. If we'd known how complex it was, we perhaps wouldn't have put our heads in the noose quite so willingly!
MB: Deb, you run the reserve day-to-day. Was there ever a moment where you thought 'Blimey, what have we done!'
DJ: I think probably once a week ever since we came six years ago we have that conversation!
It's as well we probably didn't know, and that's not meant to be a sort of negative thing. We love the place, we're so partial to it, and every day we're very thankful that we're here, but it has been tremendous hard work.
At times it's quite a strain on our relationship, because really every Thursday night when Bill arrives we're running through everything that's happened since he's been away.
I'm sure that the children have found it difficult and often wondered quite why we did it, to put such pressure on ourselves and them and our family life.
But it doesn't alter the fact that it’s an incredibly special place. I think what Bill was saying about the fact that it's so diverse, that is probably one of its complexities.
You're trying to run a shop, you're trying to run a café… You're trying to oversee those things, even with fantastic staff in all departments.
You've got a farm, you've got agricultural skills that are needed, you've got conservation skills that are needed. It's actually trying to combine all those skills together that is probably the most complex thing.
And I think that's probably what we hadn't really understood before we came here. I'm sure looking back there’s things that we would have done differently, but we've learned a massive amount about conservation, about agriculture, about everything.
BJ: The numbers of people visiting has gone up, there are a lot of really loyal visitors which is great, and they keep coming back year after year. We can respond to what it is they're looking for.
Peace is certainly one of those things, they do like the birds and we do this thing called the Wensum Tour, where 18 at a time we take them around the farmland, and that's very popular.
I think about 6,000 people went on that last year. Again, it's just a sort of good look at the Wensum Valley, and you get up to the top there at the breckland you can look over really nice countryside, which is not really possible.
Pensthorpe Nature Reserve
The Wensum is a sort of fascinating river but there’s not actually that many places where you can get to see it.
I guess we're lucky here because we've got about a mile of Wensum runs through Pensthorpe, there are a lot of good things like that to add to the list for people to have a look at.
MB: You’re proud parents – how many in the family?
DJ: We've got a son called Jed, who's 15, and a daughter called Inca who's 13.
When we first arrived here they were both extremely hands-on, and spent many many hours outside working with the bird collections, and now our son's gone into a slightly different mode aged 15, it's slightly less interesting!
They're hands-on, but probably not as much as when we started.
BJ: They learned a lot quicker than I did. If I get stuck on bird names I have to ask Inga, 'What's that one then,' and she'll tell me, and put me right if I get it wrong.
DJ: She's excellent, very good on her birds, and has been very helpful.
It's been a very strange life, and when Jed was actually boarding at school I had Inga home and on two or three occasions I had to root the poor child out of bed and pop her in a car when we'd got a poorly flamingo that needed propping up in the middle of the night and she was too young to leave in the house.
Poor child, I'd scoop her into the back of the car and we'd go and look at the flamingo together. No, they've been brilliant, both of them.
When I consider probably what we've put them through over the last few years I think they've handled it extremely well.
BJ: I think they do like living here. It's great to be on site here, but what, of course, does go with it as Deb says is you do get called out if a fence breaks down or a sheep gets stuck…
DJ: Gets its horns stuck in a fence!
BJ: That was about half past one in the morning. Fortunately I did sleep through it!
DJ: We had a phone call from somebody to say, 'There’s an awful bleating,' and so I put the phone down and I said, 'Bill, another of the young lambs has got its horns' – because of course with the horns that the Norfolk Horned Sheep have they regularly get them tussled in the fence – and when I said, 'What are you going to do about it,' he grunted and turned over and carried on snoring!
So once again I was out there on my own.
MB: It’s a great environment in which to bring up children. Have they inherited your love of nature?
DJ: Yes, I would hope so. I think that when I was small, rushing around on a bicycle in Ringstead, you didn't have the problems that children face these days of everybody being terrified about their welfare, and you were just so free.
You spent days out in the fields, and all you really had to do was just check back in for lunch at some stage, and then you were gone again.
Unfortunately with busy roads I even find myself sometimes worrying about the children on bicycles or worrying about their welfare, which is a shame.
But since we got here we are in the very privileged position that we have wonderful family walks first thing in the morning and last thing at night when the visitors have gone home.
We take our binoculars and all four of us walk as a family, and I think we get a huge pleasure from being out there amongst it.
BJ: We're making quite an effort here to try and engage teenagers in Pensthorpe and natural history generally, and generally people say that between the ages of about 13 and 30 there are rather more interesting things for people to do, so it's quite difficult to keep them interested.
But it's one of things, as Deb says really, you kind of get back to.
I think if you've been brought up that way, or your parents or grandparents have taken you around places like this, I think it's something that you find more interesting as you get older.
MB: You must have been hugely excited to have gotten the phone call from Springwatch asking if they could come and film here. Do you remember what happened that day?
DJ: I remember that in November we had an e-mail through from the BBC saying that they were interested in coming to do a recce at Pensthorpe.
Bill Oddie and Kate Humble
They were looking at numerous other sites, with a view to moving Springwatch at some stage, either 2008 or 2009.
And I think I sat and looked at the e-mail for about 25 minutes, then I went to Mark [Nobel, Pensthorpe's press and marketing manager] and said, 'Look Mark, it's not altered in 25 minutes, so I'm going to ask you to read it.'
He read it and we did some squealing in excitement, and really from then on we kept trying to calm ourselves and say, 'Look, this is just the very beginning.'
It did say that Bill Oddie had put us forward as one of the proposed sites because he had been here September-time.
He'd come to do some filming for his Really Wild Show, and I think he had – really luckily for us – really seemed to have a lovely time that day.
We'd all chatted when he'd finished, and he'd said, 'What a lovely site,' and so we were just so thrilled that he had remembered us enough to put us forward as one of the potential sites.
But we then had a very long time to wait until January when they first arrived to do their first look over the site.
We were always quite encouraged because we knew that being such a unique site here, that we'd got such diverse habitats, that we always felt confident that we never probably imagined that we would be the site, but we felt confident that we wouldn't embarrass ourselves.
We felt that we had a lot to show, and local people that have been visiting for years have always said this. There's something here for everybody – as far as visitors are concerned there's something here for children, gardens for gardeners, and all that.
As far as Springwatch was concerned, we were very sure that with our breckland habitat and the River Wensum and ancient woodland and so many different diverse habitats that we should be able to provide somewhere near what they needed.
BJ: I think Bill Oddie was the guy who spotted it. He was here filming and at the end of the day there is a lot going on as Debs says, and she bravely went up to him and said, 'Well, what do you think Bill,' and 'Have you had a good day,' and 'Can we quote you,' and he said, 'Yes, you can quote me, I think this is wonderful, it's a great place, I'll say whatever you want me to say!'
So Debs said, 'Well, thanks very much!' He obviously remembered the day, and he went back and he obviously recommended the site.
I think there are a number of stages of reconnaissance, and each time we held our breath and wondered where we were on the beauty parade list.
But I think they recognised the fact that we've got the breckland higher areas, where right at this second you've got lapwings and other birds, and then you've got the wetlands and the wildflower meadows.
I think as long as the weather holds properly there should be tonnes for them to film, and lots of new celebrity wildlife for them to take pictures of! From Norfolk rather than from Devon this time round!
MB: What were your nerves like when they first came to visit?
D: Yes, it was a little tense! We got together as a team in the morning and worked out what we wanted to show them. One of the things that we have been so impressed by is that whenever they come they're always very friendly!
Sweetly, they said that one of the reasons they'd decided to choose us, or what had helped in the final choice, was that Pensthorpe staff are very similar, and it's very much a family feel.
And I think that's something we're very proud of here, a fabulous team of staff. And I think that they helped by putting themselves out and were very welcoming.
And likewise in return whenever the BBC or those doing the recce at the beginning came we were always just so delightfully impressed with the friendliness of them.
In fact, when Bill and Kate came that was even more nerve-wracking, and same thing again – they were just fabulously friendly and easy and relaxed.
MB: What species do you think we'll be treated to during Springwatch?
BJ: I think one of the things we're a bit nervous about at the moment, for instance, the lapwings are all breeding and we've got these little sorts of black cotton wool balls running about which are the chicks.
But, of course, I think one of the things people do say to us is it does seem rather late on in the season, Springwatch being 26 May.
TV viewers could spot one of Pensthorpe's badgers
But I think there will still be a few birds like that. Badgers, we have, there's plenty of sort of activity badger-wise. There are a lot of wading birds nesting at this sort of time.
DJ: And then all the garden birds. I think Springwatch is known for its garden birds, the Great Tits and all the others. I'm pretty certain that those are doing their thing as we speak!
B: I think hopefully there’s plenty out on the farm as well as in the reserve. That's part of the thing – you've got the garden stuff, the reserve birds, and a lot of farmland wildlife as well, which you can see out there any time of day.
MB: I would imagine that having Springwatch here should increase the visitor numbers in the months to come?
BJ: Well it sounds a bit lame, but there's been no real precedent so far as to what really happens with Springwatch.
Before, they were on a farm which wasn't open to visitors - this is open to visitors but we really genuinely have no idea what's going to happen.
DJ: Or how to staff.
BJ: Yes, so it’s going to be very difficult. I think the pressure's going to be on, and we're going to have to play it a day at a time.
I think the numbers will go up, whether it's for a short time or whether it's for a prolonged time you don't really know. So it's difficult to say.
We think certainly there's four million people watch Springwatch, and if we get 0.001% come down the drive we're still going to be busy.
But I think it’s good because more people get to know what we're doing here at Pensthorpe, and there is a lot of stuff other than the more obvious, there's re-introduction stuff and there are a lot of other activities on here.
If we get more numbers we'll hopefully be able to do a bit more of that. All grist to the mill, as they say.
MB: What would you like to do next here at Pensthorpe?
DJ: We opened the cranery last year. We've got eight of the world's 15 different species of crane and we had hoped to take that a stage further.
Married to each other and the wildlife
We haven't had the amount of staff or funding really to totally set that whole new PCT [Pensthorpe Conservation Trust] area up as we'd like to.
We would like to progress the red squirrels that we have, so there are various projects to do with conservation that we'd like to further, most certainly.
BJ: The children thing is something we want to push along. Only about eight to 10 per cent of the people turning up at the moment are children. But we think that's perhaps because we've got to raise our game a bit.
So, again last year, we introduced a bug walk, which had some 4ft bees and 6ft grasshoppers and things like that made by a local sculptor. That sort of whetted children's appetites, and their parents I suspect, certainly their grandparents. So it's things like that we can put in.
You've got to work on a number of levels really to interest people, get them interested.
The gardens are something which initially gets people through into Pensthorpe, and while they're here they can then see what other things we're doing. So I think we're going to have our work cut out for the next 10, 20 years, whether we like it or not!
DJ: Absolutely! We had expanded the shop last year, and we expanded the café, but it's going to be our first season this season.
The lovely thing is that at Christmas we had quite a lot of grandparents who were actually buying for their grandchildren; bird boxes and the seed and taking away the whole pack as a Christmas gift. It’s really nice to think of gifts like.
BJ: Yes, it's slowly changing. I think what we're finding is that certainly since we've been here – lucky really, I suppose – obviously the interest in wildlife and the countryside is growing, and people want some sort of contact with that and what to get their foot on the ladder in terms of what's going on.
And there are an awful lot of people we've found since we've been here, who say 'We drive past Pensthorpe on a regular basis, but we don't know what you do?' So it's been good that a lot of people locally are turning up and getting introduced to the site.
We obviously hope they'll come back again when they've got a bit more time, walk the reserve a bit more and get lost out there and have a good day.
DJ: Like we did when we came, six and a half years ago, for a walk, and then ended up with a nature reserve! And a few headaches, but never mind!
last updated: 25/06/2008 at 22:15