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The Bridge Interviews

Sue and Hugo Ashton

Sue and Hugo Ashton

June 2018

This month’s interviewees are a contrasting couple.  Sue is a Burfordian born and bred with a background in arts and creative activities.  Hugo was born abroad, moved to Burford relatively recently and has a more technical bent.  Together they are a formidable team who are making an enormous contribution to life in the town.


First, Sue.  Her father, Roger Warner, came to Burford in 1936 and opened an antique shop in what is now known as Wysdom Hall.  He was the second dealer in Burford, joining Bowermans lower down the hill in part of what is now the Oxford Shirt Company. By the mid-1960s there were up to 16 antique shops flourishing in the High Street.  Roger closed the business during the Second World War and reopened in 1947.  He married Ruth, a botanist who grew up in South Africa, and they had three children - Simon, who is a landscape photographer and video artist living in Yorkshire, and Deborah who is an eminent theatre and opera director. Roger was well known in the trade with a Quaker’s reputation for honesty. He was a founder member of the Tolsey Museum, shortly to be joined by Chris Walker, and Sue has continued this link through her active role on the current Museum committee.


Sue literally grew up over the shop - “Life was never dull – as children we hated Wednesday afternoons (early closing day) when the house became so quiet!” Unusual items passed through their shop/home – wonderful dolls-houses, a gypsy caravan, and even a fairground roundabout which went to a museum in York.

The Burford Sue grew up in was very different from today – the families who ran the shops in the High Street lived above and behind their businesses. “There were three grocers, two butchers and bakers, a fishmonger, a haberdasher and of course, wonderful Taylor’s hardware shop. We learned to swim off the old rickety bridge at Guildenford, long before the car park was dreamt of, and a proper Fair came to Priory Lane three times a year. There were fetes and pageants and the dragon came down the Hill on Midsummer’s Eve….halcyon really!” Sue went to a Quaker boarding school, Sidcot, in Somerset and then to college in Oxford, starting her first job there.


Hugo was born and schooled in Bulawayo, the second city in what was then Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). His father was in charge of African housing in the city and oversaw the Africanisation of his department, taking pride of the fact that his assistant became chief executive of the city when Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980.  


Between school and university at New College, Oxford, on a Rhodes Scholarship to read Engineering Science with Economics, Hugo did national service in the Rhodesian army, training as a paramedic.  His service at this time was “not particularly active”, ending up guarding the Kariba Dam wall which was a crossing point over the Zambezi river between Zambia and Rhodesia.  The checkpoints on both sides both closed at 6pm sharp.  A family making the crossing in a car late in the day left Zambia but dawdled and did not reach the Rhodesian checkpoint before it closed. They were stranded on the dam wall for the night.  Hugo sent down blankets, coffee and sandwiches to make their night more comfortable.  Two months later, he discovered that the grateful recipient was one of his tutors at Oxford!


Sue met Hugo in his last term, and introduced him to Burford and her parents. He then persuaded her to come and visit him in Rhodesia.  She stayed for a year, working, travelling and meeting her South African cousins, before returning to live in London.


Hugo spent two years working for the Rhodesian Railways but was called up for military duty as a reservist increasingly frequently.  Service at this stage was much more active as the civil war intensified between Ian Smith’s white minority government and the forces of ZANU and ZAPU led respectively by Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo.  As the duty sergeant running a field hospital, Hugo learned how to patch up bullet wounds and other injuries, and prescribe sedatives, no doubt useful skills for his later role at the Burford Festival!  He had one or two narrow escapes.  On one occasion, some soldiers were caught in an ambush and the medic assessing the casualties was himself shot.  Hugo was ordered to follow in his place but at the last minute his commanding officer decided that this was too risky.  The helicopter in which Hugo evacuated the wounded returned to base riddled with bullet holes!


After two years of this Hugo decided that enough was enough and made use of an extra year of his scholarship to return to England to take a master’s degree in Transport Economics in Birmingham.  His employers and commanding officer supported this and he returned here in 1976. He was reunited with Sue, and persuaded her to join him in Birmingham where she quickly found a job working for the university. At the end of Hugo’s studies he decided to stay in England and they married in the Quaker Meeting House in Pytts Lane in 1979.   They lived in Oxford initially but after a project they both worked on in the Sudan, they thought an overseas stint would be fun and Hugo applied for a transport planning role in Hong Kong. They were based there on and off from 1982 to 1991, during which time Hugo changed career by joining Coopers & Lybrand as a management consultant working on public sector reform and privatisation, and they moved house from Oxford to London.


Sue worked initially for an employment agency in Hong Kong but with the arrival of Lysander (in 1982) and Dominic (1987) she became a full-time expat wife and mother.  (Lysander is in theatrical video design and has worked with many leading theatre and opera companies, and on the David Bowie exhibition at the V&A.  Dominic works for the Department for International Development and was recently appointed as head of its humanitarian response unit.)  In 1985, when Roger retired, he and Ruth moved across Pytts Lane to The Lodge which became a very popular summer retreat for the Ashton family.


When they returned full time to the UK, Sue and Hugo decided that the countryside called and started serious house-hunting.  They looked for a house in the Cotswolds but had a disastrous visit to one at Upper Swell where Dominic fell in the river and Roger fell down a ladder.  The next week they viewed a house in Petersfield in Hampshire near friends, where the children were so enthusiastic (“Look! It’s got carpets!”), they decided it would be a good stop-gap – lasting 17 years.  This was where Sue found her true vocation as a garden designer.  She studied horticulture at Sparsholt College near Winchester and then at the School of Garden Design in London.  She started her first commission while still at college, followed by a design for the driveway of a large converted barn which began a 5-year project to create a garden on a virgin site. Another large design project on a 10-acre site, included a tennis court, swimming pool, a small lake and major planting with parterres and woodland. These projects built her reputation and more work followed, mainly in Sussex, Hampshire, Surrey and Wiltshire.  Most of Sue’s work is on large country gardens but she has also designed tiny gardens in London which she says are just as challenging “ every inch counts”. In 2006, Sue designed a garden for an award-winning trade stand at the Chelsea Flower Show, and is a Registered Member of the Society of Garden Designers for which a high standard of client work must be demonstrated and maintained.  Her design work goes on all year round, and at the time of our meeting, Sue had four very active jobs with others at quieter stages.


After Sue’s mother died, and her father the following year, The Lodge was found to be unstable and in need of much repair before it could be sold.  Hugo and Sue stayed in the house from time to time while this was going on, and realised how much the house and town could offer them – Sue needed a conservatory in her life and Hugo had become a freelance consultant and could work from home – so they left Hampshire and moved to Burford.  


The focus of Sue’s business gradually shifted to this area although she continued to work across a large part of the country. She has also revived and developed the Lodge garden “with enormous pleasure”. Many readers will have visited it during the Festival’s open gardens weekends.  It is also open at other times by arrangement.  Last year groups visited several gardens in Burford including The Lodge and this raised about £1000 for the Tolsey Museum. 


In 2012 Hugo was asked to become treasurer of the Burford Festival.  “I agreed to do it as I was tired of being known in Burford as Roger Warner’s daughter’s husband”.  At about the same time David Clarke decided to stand down as chairman.  “No one else wanted to take this on and somehow I was persuaded to do so”.  Unusually he was new to the Festival while all the others on the committee had done it before.  It was a steep learning curve but “no different from running a field hospital”.  Hugo had no experience of arts administration but understands project management, having led teams of up to 80 people.  It helped that Sue knew a lot of people in the town and “where the bodies are buried”. “Her behind the scenes help and views have been invaluable” particularly on some the wilder ideas for the Festival and Sue now organises the Garden Weekend events (with Christopher Moore and others) which is a major feature of the Festival, combining open gardens with speakers on relevant topics. 


What have been the high points of running the Festival?  “The great response of everyone to the Festival has been wonderful.  That has encouraged us to do more and to broaden it.  Originally it was largely a classical music weekend, and took place behind the scenes but now it has broadened and you can see Burford en fête with bunting on the Hill and everyone having a good time.  There was great feedback about almost all the 50 events last year.  That challenges us to make it even better next time.”


The Festival started in 2001.  Hugo became chairman in 2012 and is leading the committee for the Festival in 2019 which will be the tenth for Burford.  He is encouraged by the fact that people now put it in their diaries in advance and try to avoid going away when it is on.  The next one is from 7 to 16 June 2019 so, if you have not already done so, make a note of it now.  It is sure to be special!

Sue and Hugo Ashton
Sue and Hugo Ashton
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