Eric says farewell to Oakwell Hall after 21 years as site manager

From tree-planting, dry stone walling and conservation to Oakwell Hall, the Brontes and Gentleman Jack, Eric Brown has seen all that and more during three decades at Kirklees Council.

Sunday, 30th May 2021, 8:00 am
Eric hopes that some of the young people he has worked with during his career have been influenced to help make a difference to the environment

Eric, 57, of Mirfield, has met hundreds if not thousands of people over the course of his career with the council. But come June the countryside officer turned museums manager will call time on a 33-year career.

“It’s just bizarre to think it’s so long,” said Eric. “It feels like yesterday when I was starting out. Where has the time gone?”

Eric is not retiring as such, he’s just stepping down for a slower pace of life and to do more of the things he enjoys.

Eric Brown at Oakwell Hall, which he said was the ‘perfect’ place to work due to his interest in history, particularly the English Civil War period

“The time is right to go,” said Eric. “I’m still in my 50s and there’s other things I want to do. I want to do a bit more travelling, do some writing and this gives me the freedom to do that.

“I’ve enjoyed working for the council and it’s been a great place to work but now I’m ready to take a step back.”

Eric joined the council in June 1988 as an assistant countryside ranger in the Colne Valley using the outdoor skills he learned with the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers.

“It was a fun job,” recalled Eric. “It was about countryside management and working with priority communities. There was lots of educational work and engaging with people.”

Filming for the BBC drama Gunpowder at Oakwell Hall in 2017

After a year or two he was promoted to Heavy Woollen countryside officer and worked on projects across Dewsbury, Batley and Spen in the 1990s.

“I think Kirklees was probably ahead of its time on sustainability and the environment,” said Eric.

“There was an Environment Unit, albeit a small one, but it was quite forward-thinking. We worked with schools and community groups and I would like to think that one or two of the young people we worked with back then were influenced by what we were doing and are now in a position to make a difference.”

There was a lot of tree-planting even then and Eric is pleased some of those trees are now thriving woodlands.

One he is most proud of was a greening project in Thornhill Lees which turned derelict farmland into a community woodland. Thousands of trees were planted and the woodland is thriving.

“Hopefully that stirs in people’s memories because it was a project that has changed the landscape,” he said.

After 12 years Eric stepped up to become head ranger at Oakwell Hall Country Park in Birstall. When the manager went on maternity leave, Eric stood in before getting the site manager’s job permanently.

That meant he was now responsible for the buildings and the museum collections rather than the outdoors. There were new skills to be learned but Eric loved it.

“I’ve always had a fascination for history through my father and grandfather and particularly for the English Civil War period, so Oakwell was perfect. We brought in costumed characters to bring the 17th century to life for visitors.”

Eric’s role expanded to take in responsibility for Red House Museum in Gomersal, the home of pioneering adventurer Mary Taylor, a friend of Charlotte Bronte.

Volunteers helped make the gardens, in particular, a beautiful feature but by 2016 financial pressures within the council meant Red House had to close. Dewsbury Museum went too and Eric said: “We were sorry to lose them but there were financial pressures and difficult decisions had to be made.

“I think there are brighter times ahead now and there’s a recognition from those higher up that heritage has a value.”

Oakwell is now seen as an ideal wedding venue and the coffers have also been swelled in recent years when it’s been used as a film and TV location.

Oakwell has been used for the BBC’s Gentleman Jack and earlier this year it featured - somehow - as a dog training base in Monaco on the BBC series The Syndicate. Telly fans should also keep their eyes peeled for the forthcoming Channel 5 historical drama Anne Boleyn.

As the country emerges from the pandemic, Eric sees now as a good time to leave Oakwell Hall. “I’ve been here 21 years and it’s time for somebody new to come in and take it forward and start that post-Covid rebuilding,” he said.

Eric does some work for the council’s electoral services and does some landscape gardening too and is also looking to go into acting as a film or TV extra. And, no, he hasn’t sneaked into a background shot on Gentleman Jack, at least not yet.

“It does feel surreal to be leaving but it’s time for me to go and do other things,” said Eric. “Hopefully I won’t miss it too much.”