Charles Milverton meets a new member of Shropshire society who has a pressing issue to promote
Only 12 months ago she was Miss Lydia Baugh, a young professional in her mid 20s living in a village just south of Shrewsbury.Then, in August last year, everything changed for Lydia. She married her boyfriend of three years, George, 9th Baron Forester, and consequently became the new Lady Forester.
The newlyweds moved into a property on the Willey estate, just outside Broseley, and Lady Forester continued with her job working as a qualified surveyor in the rural department at the Shrewsbury office of a national property firm.
A Shropshire lass through and through, Lydia was born 27 years ago to George, a historian, and Sula, who runs a consultancy business in Shrewsbury specialising in heritage projects. Lady Forester has an elder brother, Adrian, who has followed a more scientific path than the rest of his family and is now a weapons inspector on a nuclear-powered submarine, something his sister admits she is extremely proud of!
She was brought up in Meole village in Shrewsbury, and was educated at Shrewsbury High School, Meole Brace School and the town’s Sixth Form College. It was then on to Brighton to do a four-year business course before returning to Shropshire — to Harper Adams University College at Edgmond — to take her masters degree. And it was here that Lydia met her future husband.
Luckily, for those who know her, Lydia has changed only in title. She still loves horse riding (”though I never get a chance to do it!”) and supports the local Wheatland Hunt. Skiing and entertaining friends are other passions.
Most would say that marrying into one of the county’s best known landowning families has given Lady Forester a position of some privilege, and she would not argue with this. But she also took on the mantle of joining a rich historical legacy as well as a heavy responsibility to continue the centuries-old traditions of doing all she can for the good of the local community.
And the local community, specifically the one in Much Wenlock, is where she is currently devoting her efforts.
There is a burning issue which is causing real upset and huge worry in the market town: the planned closure of the Lady Forester Community Nursing Home by its current owners, who are understood to have considered offers for the site from property developers.
There is a huge wave of opposition among the townsfolk of Much Wenlock to the proposed closure, and the campaign, which is being waged to ensure the home’s continued existence, is being supported by an army of disgruntled, worried and frankly scared people.
“I didn’t know this particular part of Shropshire very well before I met George but I have quickly come to realise that Much Wenlock is a wonderful small town — a real jewel in Shropshire — which is inhabited by fine and caring people, many of whom have lived here for all their lives,” says Lady Forester, nursing a cup of coffee in her farmhouse-style kitchen.
“This is the first real issue related to the Forester family that I have been involved with as Lady Forester. The connection between the nursing home and the Forester family now is in name only, but both George and I are as appalled as anyone by the possibility of its closure.
“The prospect of losing this hugely valuable part of the community is almost too awful to contemplate. Not only are the current residents going to have to be moved, possibly several miles away which will cause huge upset in all sorts of ways, but the town will be losing a service which I think would be regretted enormously.
“Much Wenlock’s is an ageing population and there are planning proposals to build hundreds more homes so the need for a nursing home in the town is greater than ever; it really is needed more than ever before.
“Both George and I feel so strongly about this and we will certainly be doing everything we can to ensure that the home stays where it is for the benefit of the people it is intended for, the residents of Much Wenlock.”
Just by way of a history, after her death in March 1893, the then Lady Forester, Mary Anne, had provided enough of a financial legacy - in modern terms somewhere in the region of £25 million - for it to be channelled on her request into the construction of both a cottage hospital at or near Much Wenlock, and a convalescent home.
The site for the convalescent home was chosen to be Llandudno, while work on the cottage hospital began in 1900 on the Buildwas road out of Much Wenlock, which is where the building has remained.
In 1949, the home was given to the newly formed National Health Service on the proviso that it provided care for the community as Lady Forester would have wished, in perpetuity. However, when the decision was taken to build a general hospital at Telford, it was at the expense of 10 of Shropshire’s cottage hospitals, of which this was one - a decision which was greeted with dismay in the county.
The Much Wenlock hospital was at least allowed to open as a nursing home, unlike several others in the county, and in 1991 the Lady Forester Community Nursing Home opened. Conditions were changing within the NHS, however, and in 1996 it was taken on by ExtraCare, the home’s current owners.
Lord Forester, who is every bit as animated as his wife on this subject, shakes his head when he says: “It would be an absolute tragedy to lose the home which has been a great service to the people of Much Wenlock, both in its earlier existence as a cottage hospital and latterly as a nursing home.
“Over the last five years alone 74 people have used the GP beds but over a wider period it has given proper care, dignity and a level of independence to thousands more.
“I understand that the level of care has been incredibly high with people all over the country coming to visit their relatives and commenting on the quality of care there. Furthermore, there are 28 people working there, making it one of the town’s biggest employers. There are just so many people who will be affected if it were to close.
“It is so rare to have a service like this and everyone who cares for its survival should fight tooth and nail for its continuation.”
So what does this likeable, community-minded couple suggest to those people who want to add their efforts to the campaign but do not know what to do?
“There will only be this one opportunity so it’s vital we all do everything we can,” says Lady Forester.
“A public meeting has been scheduled for Friday, July 9, which is being chaired by Philip Dunne MP, and we urge people to attend. For users of Facebook there is a Save Lady Forester Nursing Home page which has several hundred members — this is updated regularly and keeps everyone posted.
“The main thing is that people keep the faith that a solution will be found. There are several people working tirelessly behind the scenes to try to find that solution, and with a bit of luck and common sense we will get there in the end.”