Interview with Ed Vaizey MP

Ed Vaizey has represented Wantage at Westminster since 2005 and in 2010 was appointed Minister for Culture, Communi-cations and Creative Industries.  His portfolio includes the arts, libraries, museums & galleries, the media, the digital economy and telecommunications.

Ed’s previous jobs have included political researcher, barrister, public relations adviser, journalist, broadcaster, and chief speech writer for Michael Howard.  His hobbies include horseriding, and watching Chelsea FC and Didcot Town FC.

Here Derek Pickett asks him how he views the past, present and future of our part of the world.

DP:  Would you like to start by telling us about your constituency, in relation to the people who live there, and how it relates to the ones around it, economically and socially?

EV:  Statistically, Wantage is about the 8th richest constituency in the country, so it’s very well off, with very low unemployment, around 2.1%.  I often describe the constituency as being four constituencies, because each of its four market towns has its own distinct local economy.

Starting in the furthest west there’s Faringdon, a very nice market town, which is quite close to Swindon, so people there tend to commute into Swindon.  The Defence Academy at Shrivenham is just to the south of it.  Faringdon has three claims to fame.  One is that it was a Civil War town, where the Royalists fought the Roundheads.  Charles I is supposed to have stayed there occasionally.  The church is still missing the top of its steeple as a result of that confrontation.  It’s taken 350 years and no-one’s got round to fixing it.  The second is Lord Berners, who used to live there and was a great friend of the Pre-Raphaelites.  He was a great eccentric.  He used to keep a pet giraffe and he famously dyed some pigeons pink and flew them round the town.  There is now a Pink Pigeon Society in his honour.  You’ll occasionally see a model pigeon up on the window sills of some of the houses in the market square.  The third claim to fame is that it’s very near Buscot Park, Lord Faringdon’s residence, which has a lot of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, as well as a Titian.  It’s open to the public on occasion.  William Morris lived up the road in Kelmscott Manor, so there were a lot of artistic things going on there in the late 19th century.

As you go east from Faringdon you come to Wantage, and Grove, which is the village just to the north of Wantage, which is almost effectively a town, about 2,000 homes.  Grove had a Second World War airfield where Glenn Miller and his band came through.  There are photographs of him taken at Grove Airfield.

Wantage, as I’m sure we’ll come on to talk about, is the birthplace of King Alfred but among its other claims to fame there is Lord Wantage, who was MP for the area in the 1850s.  He was one of the first people to win a VC, in the Crimean War.  He commissioned the town’s statue of King Alfred, modelled on himself, which was unveiled by the Prince of Wales so there are lots of great photographs of the town turning out.  He founded a Victoria Cross Gallery, of paintings of all the people who’d won Victoria Crosses.  It went into storage during the war and was dispersed afterwards but there’s still the Victoria Cross Gallery in the town.

He was originally Robert Lindsay but he married a Loyd and the Loyds are still around.  Thomas Loyd and Christopher Loyd effectively own the village of Lockinge, just to the east of Wantage, which Lord Wantage in the 19th century turned into a model estate village.  He was one of the first to provide proper accommodation for his workers and it became a model for others, as well as a model for modern farming methods.  He also revolutionised logistics and rationing for the Army and helped found the Red Cross.  Somebody someday should write a small biography of him.

One has to remember that this part of the world used to be quite poor.  Wantage was known as ‘black Wantage’ in the 18th century, and as a place of slight lawlessness.  You can still see in the geography that Wantage sits between the M40 and the M4.  It used to be off the beaten track.  It wasn’t Oxford and it wasn’t Newbury, it was somewhere in between.  The area was quite poor until relatively recently, even in the 60s or 70s.

Next you have Didcot, the biggest town in my constituency, which is why I tend to refer to myself as the MP for Wantage & Didcot, even though Didcot is not technically in the title of the constituency.  It’s the size it is because when Brunel was putting his railway through, the good people of Abingdon didn’t want anything to do with this new-fangled contraption, so the railway went through Didcot.  It is effectively a railway town; the local team are nicknamed the Railwaymen and there’s a lot of Victorian working-class terraced housing around the station.  It became a major logistics centre so, for example, half the ammunition used in the First World War went through Didcot at some point.  The old barracks and ammunition dumps have morphed into a very successful business park, Milton Park.  There are the unmissable cooling towers, of the power station, which were laid out by Henry Moore, making it the largest Henry Moore sculpture in the world.  

Didcot is really coming into its own.  When I was a candidate it was famously nominated as one of the 20 worst towns in Britain but with its new development – the Orchard Centre, the Cornerstone Arts Centre and so on – there’s a much greater sense of pride about living in Didcot these days.  It’s known around the world, thanks to the Not the Nine O’Clock News sketch where the train announcer – I think it’s Rowan Atkinson – refers to Didcot Parkway but in a very elaborate manner.  In fact, a lot of people haven’t heard of Wantage, so when I say I’m the MP for Wantage, and they say, where’s that, I say it’s near Didcot and then they know what I’m talking about.

The Great Western Society in Didcot has a lot of old steam engines and a lot of films are made there – Sherlock Holmes was made there recently, as was Anna Karenina.  The other notable railway attraction in my constituency is the Pendon Museum, a great model railway museum in Long Wittenham, which apparently Pete Waterman is quite a fan of.  Besides the model trains, it includes immaculately made models of local houses of note.