Brian Ashley’s vision and entrepreneurial spirit was not confined to conceiving the iconic Marlborough College Summer School or leading Marlborough’s Jazz Festival (see marlborough.news obituary, February 11).
In the late 1980s, while running the Henge Shop at Avebury, and not one to idly twiddle his thumbs – except when water divining among the stones, he and his wife Kathe bought the Ridgeway Café.
This was a single storey transport café precariously perched on the brow of the hill where a limb of the Ridgeway meets the A4. Its position was precarious in more ways than one: the M4 had long since siphoned off most of the lorry trade and as vehicles got bigger and bigger, any stray driver might dine alone because no one else had room to park.
The Ashleys re-invented the menu to attract walkers, but retained their succulent bacon sandwiches, which often proved irresistible even to normally vegetarian customers.
But Brian had other plans for the café. He envisaged a hotel, a much needed hostel and an interpretation centre.
Planning permission was sought. Kennet Council’s planning committee turned it down, only for the full council to approve it. This resulted in a full blown planning inquiry – which attracted the attention of the national press.
Brian was up for it. So too was a local protest group. The innovative design consisted of roofs looking like small-scale versions of Silbury Hill – leading the protestors to use the slogan ‘Save Our Skyline’.
The protest group paid for a London barrister by raising money at an auction. The lots on offer included a lorry load of horse manure (£28) and a meal for six cooked by Jane Grigson who lived nearby (£128).
Wiltshire Council opposed the scheme on road safety grounds – the brow of the hill being an accident ‘black spot’. Brian, in typical fashion, conducted his own case. He wrong footed the highways authority by producing a writ against them issued by the victim of an accident outside the café.
Wiltshire Council’s case was not helped when they were forced to admit that their projections for an increase in vehicle use at the proposed buildings on the site were calculated using a Greater London Council survey of the traffic using twelve West End restaurants. Thirty years on, it is not known how many of those restaurants still exist, but Wiltshire Council planners’ ‘vehicle use’ estimates remain consistently dubious.
Perhaps predictably, the Planning Inspector ruled against the scheme and, rather late in the day, the National Trust moved in and flattened the café – possibly just ahead of a reversing juggernaut.
What remains is a picture of Brian Ashley as a catalyst for change and a man unafraid to ruffle a few stiff and starchy feathers.
There is, though, another picture. That of Brian in much later years, travelling through Marlborough on his mobility scooter preceded by his dog on a lead. At a distance, and if the angle of the sun was right, he could resemble a determined warrior going into battle in his chariot pulled along by a Jack Russell – surprising and confusing his opponent to the very end.