Phil Drabble: TV Presenter, Derbyshire

PUBLISHED: 13:05 29 April 2010 | UPDATED: 14:52 20 February 2013

Phil Drabble

Phil Drabble

From 1983 to 2001 in his monthly column PHIL DRABBLE gave readers to Derbyshire Life and Countryside an invaluable insight into every aspect of the countryside and entertained us with the work he was doing on his reserve near Abbots Bromley.

In over 40 years in public life I have been privileged to meet some remarkable men and women. But none was more remarkable, or more delightfully engaging, than Phi Drabble who died peacefully on 29th July, aged 93. The last three or four years were difficult for Phil. He could no longer walk his woods or, because of failing eyesight and failing hearing, see or hear the creatures of his 'beloved wilderness'. In 2005, Jess, his loyal and devoted wife, and lifetime com-panion, died and although Phil was lovingly cared for by Ruth, who was like a daughter to him, and a succession of kind carers, his was not an easy life.

I last saw him a few months ago. Conversation was difficult but there were still the odd flashes of wit, and acute com-ments on the deer, which continued to come several times a day to feed on the grain scat-tered on the giant mill wheel outside his win-dow.

I first met Phil just a few weeks after I was elected to Parliament in 1970. He came to my surgery, bringing with him Gerald Springthorpe, then Chief Warden of Cannock Chase, and father of Ruth. There was some problem on the Chase which Phil felt I should know about and a couple of weeks later I went with them both to see for myself. I was able to help a little and it was the beginning of a long and close friendship.

Within a couple of years or so my wife, Mary, and I and our two small sons were regular visitors to Goat Lodge, the once derelict cottage, with 90 acres attached, which he had bought in the 1960s and trans-formed into the most magical of rural retreats. It became one of our favourite places. For many years we would see each other five or six times a year. Phil and Jess would dine or lunch with us, and we would spend a day most school holidays at Goat Lodge, tramping the woods and to see the deer and the herons, and the pigs foraging among the acorns, and returning to one of Jess's magnificent meals.

In those days Phil used to drive, at terri-fying speed, a Morgan sports car, of which he had a succession. He was a favourite speaker at countless societies and luncheon clubs up and down the country where he would dispense his rural wisdom, and ency-clopaedic knowledge of wildlife, to enrap-tured audiences. He was, of course, a house- hold name far beyond the schools and Town Halls and hotels where he lectured. By the mid 1970s he had several books to his name and became a contributor to many maga-zines and newspapers, including Derbyshire Life. He had his own radio programmes and, in 1976 launched One Man and His Dog. Phil himself was rather doubtful about the poten-tial appeal of a programme about working sheep dogs, but his wonderful style as com-mentator and raconteur rapidly made the programme one of the nation's favourites. At one time it had over eight million viewers, and Phil presented it for 17 years.

Although his knowledge of wildlife and the countryside was profound and he was frequently consulted by academics and oth-ers, Phil was very much a 'hands on' natu-ralist.

He created what must have been the best managed wildlife sanctuary of its kind anywhere. Jess made a beautiful garden around the house, which might have looked like a rustic cottage but was a tastefully arranged and welcoming home where friends and colleagues enjoyed the famous Drabble hospitality.

During my many conversations with him I learned a great deal about Phil's fascinating life. He was the son of a well-loved Doctor. An only child, he had learned the ways of nature from his talks with gamekeepers and others on Squire Vernon's estate at Hilton.

His father wanted him to be a doctor. He went to Oxford but left after two years and spent the first 20 years of his working life in industry. He became a Director at Salters but escaped every weekend into the country-side and, as his writing and broadcasting began to give him a second income he deter-mined to cut free. At the age of 47 he left the factory and took on Goat Lodge. From then, as he said later, he, 'owned no man as his master'.

Phil's capacity for work was amazing. He was writing regular articles well into his 80's and still walking his woods. He often used to reminisce about the old days, about the gyp-sies, and gamekeepers, and poachers from whom, he would readily admit, he had learned more than from any books. He dis-tilled his and their wisdom into his writing and his broadcast talks and was widely recognised as one of the most influential nat-uralists of the age. In 1985 he produced what was probably his most important book, What Price the Countryside in which he wrote feelingly about the dangers that threatened the balance of rural life and the beauty of the countryside. He was equally scathing about meddlesome bureaucrats and those who posed as champions of green issues but had no practical commonsense - 'the woolly hat brigade'!

In 1992 Phil was made Midlander of the Year. I had the privilege, along with the Duke of Devonshire, of leading the tributes at the dinner given in his honour. In 1993 the Queen asked him to a private lunch at Buckingham Palace. He was immensely proud of that invitation. Later that year he was awarded the OBE. After the Investiture he and Jess had lunch with me at the House of Commons. Everyone wanted his auto-graph.

Of few people can it be said that they touched, and in various ways changed, the lives of millions - and changed them for the better. Phil Drabble was such a man.We will never know the full extent of his benevolent legacy, but those of us who knew him and loved him will remember him for the rest or our days.


14th May 1914 to 29th July 2007

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