By Sharon Goble
Countryside campaigner Penny Mills is never happier than when she’s at home with her donkeys or walking on Dartmoor with her husband Paul, but her life was very different before she escaped to Devon’s countryside seventeen years ago. So, what made the former ‘city girl’ up sticks and become a vocal advocate for countryside charity CPRE Devon?
You bump down an unmarked lane to reach Penny Mills’ Devon longhouse. Her home is off the beaten track and that’s how she likes it. The thatched farmhouse has chickens clucking around the yard and two donkeys in the paddock. It’s hard to imagine a more rural idyll than this smallholding close to the northern fringes of Dartmoor.
So, it comes as a surprise to discover that Penny once spent her life doing the 9-5, commuting daily into central London where she worked in the fast paced London property world. She would spend the daily tube journey dreaming of one day escaping to a rural hideaway.
For a few years, Penny and her husband looked on and off at possible properties all over the country before finding their dream home in Devon, and the seeds were sown for a new, gentler, greener way of life. Penny says: “I love the peace and quiet here. Seeing all the wildlife, the barn owls, which I’d never seen before, and the amazing, dark skies and stars. Where I grew up in Hertfordshire, the night sky was tinged with the orange glow of Greater London.
‘We are very lucky living in Devon. It’s only when I go back to the south-east, which is rare these days, that I realise how much noise and traffic there is and how peaceful Devon is by comparison. It’s important that the essence of Devon isn’t destroyed. It’s what makes it so special and why people come here on holiday.
‘As a child, I came to Devon every year on holiday. I remember those trips vividly. We used to stay at the Moor Park Hotel in Chagford and we also went to Woolacombe. We used to visit a great aunt who lived on a farm in North Devon after being evacuated to the area during the war. I loved our holidays in Devon. I particularly loved the farm. Perhaps when we were
looking to relocate, in my subconscious I was looking for that! We ended up buying this small farm near Okehampton and I set about surrounding myself with animals.”
Donkeys are reminiscent of her childhood too. “When I was a young child my mother would walk me and my brother up the road, where there was a small paddock with a donkey called Erma. When we came here, I decided to get two donkeys. I didn’t tell my husband about it. One evening when he came home, he heard an “Eeyore!” ‘What on earth is that!’, he said, ‘you’ve not gone and got a donkey?’ ‘No, I replied, I’ve got two!’ He has never quite got over it. I also went on a llama day, to find out about keeping llamas, but Paul put his foot down at that!”
The move to Devon certainly didn’t herald retirement for Penny, far from it. When she’s not busy caring for her menagerie of animals, she’s busy in her role as Director of the Devon branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (known as CPRE Devon for short) and is often to be found zig-zagging across the county sporting a bright green sweatshirt emblazoned with the charity’s logo.
CPRE Devon is an independent, environmental charity working to protect Devon’s countryside, green spaces and unique landscapes. Penny sees the charity’s role as a balancing act; weighing local development and the needs of a vibrant local economy against the need to maintain a tranquil and beautiful environment for the benefit of all.
“It’s not that I’m opposed to development. I simply hate bad
development and development in the wrong location. Development that harms our countryside. Several years ago CPRE Devon was at the forefront of opposing the great rush to build big onshore renewable schemes like Den Brook wind farm. To my mind, it’s a blight on the countryside for miles around. Thousands of acres of Devon farmland, which are needed for food production, have also been lost to solar panels, ironically called solar farms. It’s a total waste of productive pasture.
‘Wind turbines don’t work when the wind doesn’t blow, or blows too strongly, and solar panels don’t work when the sun doesn’t shine. The grid system wasn’t designed to take this intermittent power and it can’t be stored. Supply doesn’t match the demand. It’s an interesting fact that since the subsidies were cut in 2015, the rush to build these schemes slowed down markedly. I believe that’s because this kind of development is more often than not fuelled by the desire to make money not to satisfy the planet’s energy needs, which is what CPRE Devon said all along!”
Bad housing is another of Penny’s bugbears. CPRE Devon has been at the forefront of a long-running campaign to highlight the need for more sustainable and affordable housing for people in Devon. You may remember the successful ‘Greetings from Devon’ postcard initiative they launched last year targeting the then housing minister, Kit Malthouse.
Penny says: “The housing portfolio is a ministerial merry-go-round. A complete farce. The incumbents chop and change as often as the weather on Dartmoor! No wonder nothing ever gets done to tackle the very real underlying problems of providing genuinely affordably, decent quality housing provision in this country. I wish planners would force developers to build not just better-designed houses, but the infrastucture that these communities need with road, rail, jobs, hospitals, schools, etc. There seems to be no requirement for joined up thinking!
‘Where are the homes with local character in keeping with their surroundings, rather than trotting out the same templated housing designs and creating identikit sprawling estates across the country. There really is no excuse not to build properly sustainable and energy-efficient homes in this day and age.
‘And, importantly, homes that local people can actually afford to buy. CPRE Devon campaigns for the right number of homes and the right sort of houses to be built in the right locations, on brownfield sites wherever possible to save green fields from being destroyed.
‘I’m clearly not the only one who cares strongly about these issues. Since becoming the Director of CPRE Devon, our membership numbers have dramatically increased, and we have seen impressive turnouts at our seminars, workshops and public meetings. CPRE Devon is the most successful of all the county CPRE branches across the country. We want to bring about positive change because Devon is a glorious place to live and work, and our countryside deserves to be protected for future generations to enjoy as we have. I don’t want my generation to be the generation that destroyed much of Devon’s uniqueness.”
How did Penny come to be involved with CPRE Devon and take up the mantle of countryside campaigner?
“Soon after we moved here, I joined the parish council and it was there that I found out about the difficulties with the planning system. It seemed so ridiculously inconsistent. There was a particular planning issue which was causing a lot of concern locally and I got in contact with the CPRE.
‘I met a group of dedicated, committed volunteers who loved our countryside. At the second meeting I attended they asked if I’d like to run the local group!! That seems a long time ago… I agreed to take it on because I like trying to help local people and communities – being the voice of the underdog, I suppose. I value fairness, democracy and consistency and think it’s important to challenge things which are evidently unfair and wrong!”
The railway network is one of those things. It gets Penny hot under the collar that more isn’t being done to get cars off the road at a time of environmental concern. “We desperately need to get our regional rail network back on track. I was brought up close to a station. I used to travel to work every day by train. Perhaps that’s why I am passionate about the campaign to reinstate the Okehampton to Exeter rail line as a full daily passenger service.
‘It seems ludicrous to me that the Government is prepared to spend £100 billion on HS2 to cut 20 minutes off the journey from London to Birmingham, yet they are not prepared to spend a fraction of 1% of that investing in existing rail lines in Devon and the South West. There are many obvious benefits that would be brought to so many people over a wide area of Devon and North Cornwall.
The Government keeps touting the same old promises ‘We want to level up the country and invest in infrastructure in all parts of it’. Well, why not start with the Okehampton to Exeter line then?”
You sense Penny isn’t one to give up easily on issues she believes in. Does her tenacity border on stubbornness, I hazard? Could there be another reason she is so drawn to donkeys, I wonder? She brays with laughter at the suggestion. “Research suggests that donkeys have an unjustified reputation for being “stubborn” which comes from misunderstanding the differences between the behaviour of donkeys and horses.
‘What people think of as a donkey’s stubbornness is actually down to their great sense of self-preservation, their unwillingness to do something that might cause them harm. So, yes, we do share certain character traits! I have an acute sense of wanting to preserve Devon and all that is wonderful about this county’s identity for future generations.”
What for Penny are the ‘best bits’ of life in Devon? “I love Dartmoor and the coast. Luckily, both are within easy reach of home. Paul and I love walking. We are on a mission walking chunks of the South West Coast Path, and Dartmoor is such a fantastic wilderness that there are always new places to discover.
‘We’ve got lots of walking books and we enjoy getting out and trying a new route. We both love history, the ancient landscape and stone circles.
‘I also love the wealth of historic buildings in Devon. Churches are fascinating. Whether you are religious or not, they are an important part of our heritage. Two years ago, CPRE Devon launched its ‘Devon’s Best Churchyard Competition’ to celebrate these special places and what they have contributed to the landscape over the centuries. I really enjoy visiting the entries with my colleagues. It’s amazing to see what some communities have done to encourage wildlife in their local churchyard and make them
peaceful places for people to visit.
‘Doing this role, I’ve met so many wonderful people from all walks of life, in all parts of the county. We have a great team of people at CPRE Devon, all quite different personalities and from different backgrounds, but we all share our love of the countryside. ‘Having a strong sense of community is becoming increasingly important in our fragmented and fast-paced modern world. I’m lucky to have found a wonderful community of people and a sense of belonging here in Devon. That’s something to treasure.”