Ashley Thomas talks to NATHAN BRIANT about his 40 years service with Trellech United community council.
IT STARTED off in Llandogo, but I was born in Cefn Fforest and went to Fair View School in Pengam until I was seven and then my parents – my father was a vicar, he was curate at Cefn Fforest – moved to Llandogo, where he was the rector and Dad liked being a parish priest and stayed there.
I went to Monmouth School. That was one of the reasons my parents stayed on. They came under pressure to move but my sister and I were both in Monmouth because Monmouth School was also our local grammar school.
Then I went to Cardiff University and went travelling; I spent a year in France. I went to the Central Massif near Brive and if I’m in France that’s where I normally am. When I’m there now it tends to go by weddings now. I was in a place called Tulle and a lot of my friends are from there but many have gone to Brive – and quite a lot of them are on local councils out there.
I asked to go out to a small market town as a language assistant because I thought if I went to a big city I’m going to be lost. I wanted somewhere a bit cosier. It was still quite a big town but the advantage was that I was in a lycée and everybody knew me. It was very interesting and dynamic.
I’ve been finishing a lot of things. This is triggered by my 40 years on Trellech United community council, which I suppose is significant in some ways. I didn’t realise it was significant until I told somebody that it was the 40th (annual general) meeting I’d been to. And they got together and had a testimonial framed, which was rather nice.
On the community council there’s Llandogo, Catbrook, The Narth, Trellech, Llanishen, Penallt and Whitebrook – so it’s seven villages and there are 13 councillors: me and 12 others.
I’ve been involved in the Wye Valley quite a lot so they just said if you stand (as a county councillor for Trellech United) – and some of them abandoned their allegiances because on community councils it doesn’t need to be party political. I was quite taken aback and the community council was effectively my party. Then of course I could keep in touch about things that were happening and that was what the present county councillor, Debby Blakebrough, has carried on.
I was elected (as a Monmouthshire councillor) in ’95 and then I didn’t stand again in 2008. I didn’t stand again because it was starting to drain me and the work of the county councillor is not just in meetings. It’s on the telephone, it’s talking to people; people phone up, people want to see you. A phone call is never less than 20 minutes, half an hour and you can’t finish a call just like that. So there’s a lot of running around in your own ward and my ward was pretty big.
The Wye Valley Society asked me to join with them, so I joined the committee and within a couple of months they’d asked me to be secretary. I’ve been on it ever since. So I did that for 12 years but then I got drawn into the community council as well. Everything from then on was triggered off by a big win right at the outset. I’ve been on that ever since. I was member for a while, then for about eight years I was vice-chairman and I stepped down after 12 years last year.
I taught locally – and to take it back a bit – I’d been working abroad and always said if a particular house comes up for sale in Llandogo, I wouldn’t mind having that. I was in Marrakech at the time when it did come up for sale. My mother got in touch with me and I came back home and arranged to buy it.
I retired and I was doing supply teaching but that was squeezed out because there was no way I could do that. And it got to the point I was neglecting the house.
When I became national chairman it was a totally different thing – you weren’t rushing around but there was a lot of travelling.
The joy of [being national chairman] was going to all the AONBs around the country. There are 47 areas of outstanding national beauty.
I was a French teacher. I taught in Caldicot and was a supply teacher. I worked in Bristol and went off to do this for a few years – I was always based in Llandogo because that’s where my parents were. It seems strange to have gone from local council, suddenly county council and then working nationally and national chairman. It took me all over.
I was never interested in education administration. I saw a lot of people come into teaching, step on the rest of it and move on; they wanted promotion. I stayed in the classroom and I’m glad I did because you get tremendous feedback from people I taught.
I look back and I don’t really know what I’ve achieved but it’s still kept me on the community council, looking after my own village and there’s always a crisis of some sort.
What happened was in 1972 when the county council came along and decided to put 19 trunk road lamps down in Llandogo. It had just been designated a conservation village and the whole area had just been designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I had been working abroad, brought up in the village, of course, and I was appalled at what had happened so I started writing.
I was in my mid-20s and I was writing. I got a petition up. I asked the county surveyor who he had consulted on who he had asked about doing this.
His reply to me was that as far as he was concerned he was satisfied they were perfectly in keeping and with regards consulting anyone he was not obliged to and had no intention of doing so. It was like a red rag to a bull.
I found they led me to it. The Argus had a hand in that because they came out and sent out a photographer. So how do you persuade people by word of mouth that it’s ugly? You can’t. But the Argus did a job for me because it took the photograph because the tops weren’t on them at that stage. It was only a relatively small report but they sliced the sides off the photograph to fit a column in the newspaper. All you could see was the poles and it foreshortens the distance between the poles. This had a dramatic effect on the county councillors: it was the first image they had seen of what had happened. All the talk and the writing was one thing but it didn’t have the same effect as the photograph and if you’re talking scenery, you’ve got to use photography.
Then the highways committee got together and decided to take them all down.