Peter Cockerill, CEO of the Calvert Trust Kielder

Peter Cockerill has been at the helm of Calvert Trust Kielder for the past 25 years. He talks to Francesca Craggs about his journey from Benedictine monk to CEO of a North East charity that’s giving people with disabilities new-found freedom

Peter Cockerill, CEO of Calvert Trust Kielder
Peter Cockerill, CEO of Calvert Trust Kielder

Peter Cockerill’s vocation in life has always been to serve.

From his early years as trainee manager of one of London’s most swanky hotels, to the decade he spent as a Benedictine monk.

Yet it’s Peter’s present role as chief executive of the Calvert Trust Kielder, that has given him his greatest fulfilment. Since taking over the helm 25 years ago, he’s been instrumental in growing the Kielder-based charity into a successful business. Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the charity provides challenging outdoor adventure holidays for people with disabilities and their families.

Peter, 57, said: “I certainly see my life here at the Calvert Trust as an opportunity to serve and find it a very rewarding and fulfilling experience because of that. It’s more to do with the kind of person I am than any sense of moral superiority. It is simply a way of life and a career that I find terrifically fulfilling and satisfying.”

Born in West London and raised on the South Devon coast, Peter had no previous connections with the North East. In fact, he learned of the Calvert Trust post in a London pub.

“I bumped into an old school friend who mentioned that there was a charity in the North of England advertising for the post of chief executive. He suggested I apply, which I duly did in 1988, and was lucky enough to get it,” said Peter.

Founded in Keswick in 1978, the Calvert Trust was the inspiration of John Fryer-Spedding whose vision it was to enable people with disabilities to benefit from outdoor activities in the countryside. Calvert Trust Kielder opened in 1984 and welcomes more than 5,000 visitors every year. Despite its growth, the trust’s vision is very much the same.

Peter said: “We’ve grown enormously over that period of time. Thanks to the staff and the board of trustees here that have had the vision to see the trust evolve from what was a team of around 10, to the staff of 50 we have today.

“We’ve gone from just 1,000 a year, to over 5,000, with well over £3-4m of capital investment into the site. This year also sees the introduction of two luxury options – The Straker Chalet and George Clarke’s Sky Den.

“Despite this, the vision of the charity, to help change the lives of people with disabilities, hasn’t changed. We are still here to inspire people with disabilities to achieve and show them the big mountain can be climbed and they can get to the summit. We want to enable more people with disabilities to experience what we believe, and what our guests tell us, is a life changing experience.”

Originally from Chiswick, Peter was one of three siblings. His father headed up two insurance companies, and following his parent’s divorce, his mother took him, along with his brother and sister, to live in Exmouth, Devon.

Peter’s brother David is a scientist at CERN in Geneva, and part of the project team responsible for discovering the Higgs boson particle.

Following Peter’s O-levels, the big wide world of work beckoned and he made the decision to leave school at the age of 16. With a penchant for the finer things in life, he embarked in a career in the hotel industry. His first role at a small North Devon hotel, the Luttrell Arms in Dunster, then on to trainee manage one of London’s finest, Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair.

Peter said: “My aspirations as a child were to have fun and enjoy myself. Then life becomes a bit more real in your teenage years and you begin to have to make some important decisions.

“I enjoyed the idea of good food, good wine and good company, so decided on a career in the hotel industry.”

Peter recalls his four years at Brown’s with much fondness.

“I absolutely loved it. It was 1974 and the UK was going through difficult economic times. The International Monetary Fund had come into England to help save the country economically and the team stayed at Brown’s.”

The actor Peter Cushing was a regular for afternoon tea and politician George Brown used to be ensconced there, says Peter.

“People who stayed there tended to stay there because they wanted to be kept quiet and in the shadows. It wasn’t a glitzy hotel where people went to be seen, it was a hotel you went to not to be seen.”

At the age of 21, Peter’s career took a very different path. The desire to search for God, that had been with him from a young age, prompted him to enter the Benedictine monastery at Worth Abbey, Sussex.

“Having looked after the great and good, and helped feed and water the great and the good, I decided that wasn’t totally fulfilling. The desire to search for God and find God or the ultimate truth, led me to look to join the monastery.

“From the age of around eight it may have been a sort of fanciful idea to join the church, but it became real when I was around 17,” said Peter.

The Sussex monastery where Peter was to spend the next decade was the subject of a BBC documentary called The Monastery, which aired in 2005. As well as being a monk, Peter also taught in the on-site boarding school. A typical day in the monastery would start with silent prayer at 5.30am, before periods of prayer throughout the day, as well as reading, teaching, studying and manual labour.

Peter recalls: “You discover how difficult it is to be on your own with yourself. It’s a curious mixture of on the one hand being alone, and on the other hand being with a lot of people. Mixing and balancing those two elements of your life is always a challenge.”

The convivial streak in Peter meant he found it less easy to be alone. After 10 years, and a 30-day silent retreat, he made the decision to leave the community.

“I felt that the experience was becoming increasingly constraining and limiting. Whatever talents and gifts I’d been given, I wasn’t using them to the best of my ability and thought they could be applied more fruitfully used outside the monastery. I therefore decided to go back into the wild and live within the wild.”

The transition back into every day life came easy for Peter.

“I enjoyed that whole experience of being autonomous and being able to decide how I was going to live my life hour by hour, day by day, week by week. I found that a very fruitful experience, “he said.

In 1988, Peter took up his role at Calvert Trust Kielder. Venturing into “unknown territory” he relocated to the North East, and met and married wife Maria in 1991.

Located on the shores of Kielder Water, Calvert Trust Kielder offers a wide range of water and land-based activities to people with disabilities. From sailing and kayaking, to climbing and orienteering, around 5,000 people a year benefit from its facilities.

There are three Calvert Trust centres in the UK, each a charity in its own right, but sharing a common philosophy and service.

The charity is funded by a combination of paying guests and donations from benefactors.

Fundamental to Peter’s role, he says, is staying connected with guests.

He said: “One of the dangers about being a chief executive is that you can get very removed from the coal face and forget about the impact that your service has on the lives of individual guests and the great benefit it provides for them.

“That acts as a motivation for me when I get back to my office. Keeping in touch with guests brings the whole thing into focus and gives it purpose and meaning.”

To coincide with Calvert Trust Kielder’s 30th anniversary, its Realising Potential project aims to generate £12.5m to grow the charity further over the next three to four years.

With the investment it plans to build five more purpose designed, self catering chalets which will be fully accessible to people with disabilities. Also the addition of a green energy efficient heating system, indoor climbing and caving facility, sports hall, cafe shop, and staff offices.

Peter lives near Chollerford, Northumberland, with his wife Maria who works in educational research. Their son Max, 21, and daughter Camilla, 20, are both at Cambridge university, while their youngest daughter Anastasia, 16, is doing her GCSEs. While not at work, he enjoys a spot of gardening and soaking up the beautiful surroundings in which he lives.

And his hopes for the future of Calvert Trust Kielder?

Peter said: “As well as completing the £12.5m project, we would like to think about spreading our service to other parts of the UK, and potentially overseas.”

“What I love most about the job is working with a great team of people who share a common conviction and desire to serve.

“It’s inspirational to see young members of staff committing themselves to this way of life.

“If you ever had doubt about the qualities of the young generation, visit us and see what our fantastic young members of staff are doing.

“On par with that, to be able to meet with our guests and share their experiences, and see what a difference it make to them and their lives.”

The Questionnaire

What car do you drive? Ford Fiesta

What’s your favourite restaurant? The one with the biggest steaks

Who or what makes you laugh? Tommy Cooper

What’s your favourite book? Quiet Flows the Don

What was the last album you bought? Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water

What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got? Driving a JCB.

If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say? Allez vous en

What’s your greatest fear? Eternity

What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received? Keep smiling

And the worst? Keep smiling!

What’s your poison? Any red wine from the Maipo Valley of Chile

What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal? Hexham Courant

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for? £12.50 per week. Selling ice creams on the beach

How do you keep fit? Badly

What’s your most irritating habit? Flippancy

What’s your biggest extravagance? Central heating

Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire? John Fryer-Spedding, our founder

Which four famous people would you most like to dine with? Dolly Parton, Dickens, Vlad the Impaler, Plato

How would you like to be remembered? A good egg

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