Saturday, 23 October 2021

TV ‘Dragon’ who just loves to escape to the country

SARAH WILLINGHAM says the South Oxfordshire countryside is her “sanctuary” from the hustle and bustle of working

SARAH WILLINGHAM says the South Oxfordshire countryside is her “sanctuary” from the hustle and bustle of working life.

The entrepreneur and BBC Dragons’ Den panellist, who lives just outside Goring, left London for leafier surroundings with her husband Michael Toxvaerd in 2007.

They wanted to start a family and had money left over from selling the Bombay Bicycle Club restaurant group, which Mrs Willingham purchased in 2004 before reversing its ailing fortunes.

The couple lived in Primrose Hill and were considering buying a larger property in Belsize Park but realised they no longer needed to live in the capital.

Mrs Willingham then visited Goring while filming an episode of The Restaurant with chef Raymond Blanc and was impressed. She returned with her husband to look round and they decided it was the ideal location.

Shortly afterwards the couple bought their home, which they share with their four children, aged between five and nine.

Mrs Willingham has become an official supporter of the village’s biennial Gap Festival and is encouraging as many people as possible to attend. She says she is proud of Goring’s close-knit community atmosphere and believes the event will raise the village’s profile to visitors.

The festival was launched in 2014 with funds left over from the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations in 2012. The entertainment includes concerts, workshops, talks and demonstrations by local artists and groups plus bigger names such as comedian Isy Suttie, soul singer Ruby Turner and folk performer Cara Dillon.

Mrs Willingham, 42, who grew up in Stoke-on-Trent, says: “It’s very important to support local talent. There are a lot of highly accomplished young people in this area who deserve to be showcased.

“I love the fact that the festival was born from the will of the community and residents’ passion for creating something everyone can enjoy. It can only be a positive thing and will put us on the map because a good festival really gets people talking.

“We’ve got such a beautiful village and this will attract a lot of visitors, which is great for local business. The centre of Goring is looking better than ever and this kind of event will show it at its best to the wider world.

“The festival could really take off if it’s done properly and attracts the right kind of sponsor. Towns like Cheltenham become famous for their festivals and there’s no reason Goring couldn’t do the same. I think it has a very exciting future.”

Mrs Willingham plans to see as much as possible at this year’s festival, which runs from June 15 to 19, as she was too busy to attend in 2014.

She said: “I’m particularly looking forward to Cara Dillon but there are loads of great events and the line-up is expanding all the time. I like the surprise element — there are performers you might know nothing about but it’s a chance to discover something new. Some people have this amazing gift inside them and it’s beautiful to see. I recently went to an open mic night and when one lady got up to sing it was so beautiful that I was almost in tears.”

Mrs Willingham, who started her career as a senior manager for the Planet Hollywood and Pizza Express chains, joined Dragons’ Den last year and recently finished filming the show’s 14th series, which will be aired this summer.

During the previous series of 15 episodes, she invested £92,500 in three ventures: a make-up cream for vitiligo sufferers, a coffee-based body scrub and a science-themed children’s entertainment firm.

She says she is a keen supporter of small businesses and uses the shops in Goring as much as she can. She gets her nails done every two weeks at Virgo Beauty and enjoys eating and drinking at Pierreponts café and the Miller of Mansfield restaurant.

Other favourites include the Goring Grocer, Mary S Interiors and the Inspiration gift shop at The Arcade.

“We’ve got a duty to support them because they’re a vital part of the community,” she says. “We’re very, very lucky to have to have some great retailers in Goring and I would encourage as many people as possible to use them. Fortunately I think most villagers do go out of their way to shop locally because they want to see their traders thriving. These businesses have a lot of heart and soul and we’re very proud of them.

“The Miller of Mansfield is brilliant — we don’t go there often enough because we have to look after the children but the food is fantastic. Nick and Mary Galer are a phenomenal couple; they’ve really turned it around since they took over and Nick is a very talented chef. I try to visit the Goring Grocer as often as possible. They sell these amazing Portuguese custard tarts which I absolutely love but they run out of them really quickly. I also think we’ve got a great selection of hairdressers.”

She wouldn’t share her views on Tesco’s plans for an Express store at the old Queen’s Arms pub, which are now being considered by South Oxfordshire District Council.

However, she said the fierce debate which had divided residents showed the strength of feeling on the issue.

Mrs Willingham and her husband, who is also an entrepreneur and investor, share all their childcare duties without outside help. She says the relaxed pace of rural life helps them cope with this.

“Achieving that balance between work and family is one of life’s hardest challenges,” she says. “I had children because I wanted to be a mother. I’m extremely family- oriented and they are my absolute priority.

“My husband and I do everything, including the school runs, but as a working mum its never feels like it’s enough; you always want to do more. Only last night I stayed up late to make 100 cupcakes for one of the children to take to school for their birthday!

“It’s just me, Michael and the children at the weekends. One thing I love about living here is that we can hire a little boat and paddle down the Thames or go for a bike ride and stop at the Perch and Pike in South Stoke, which is my absolute favourite pub. Filming Dragons’ Den takes me away for a two-month period and that’s pretty hardcore. It puts a lot of pressure on the family when Mum’s away all week and only comes back at weekends. It’s tough but this year we know it’s coming and can prepare ourselves. We’ll be taking lots of holiday over the summer to make up for it.

“Coming back here is like a sanctuary. The tranquillity is so important — being able to put logs on the fire, to enjoy total silence and things like that. I need to be able to switch my brain off from time to time and that kind of environment makes it possible.

“I’m constantly amazed by how lovely people are here and how willing they are to start and support community projects. I was so proud when we held our jubilee celebrations — it was all over the news and I was telling everyone, ‘that’s my village!’ I thought it was really cool.”

The family often visit Henley. Mrs Willingham says: “Henley is a wonderful town and going off there with the kids is a real treat. We’ll get an ice cream, hire a boat, feed the ducks or use the playground at Mill Meadows, which is great. It’s all just normal family stuff, really.

“I love the regatta — doesn’t everyone love a bit of glamour? I’m northern so I enjoy all the dressing up and the tradition surrounding it. I always feel very fortunate to go to an event that’s steeped in so much history. My husband and I recently went to the Venice Carnival, which actually felt very similar to the regatta as they’re both like stepping back in time.

“There was one time I was worried that I wouldn’t get into the stewards’ enclosure as my skirt was right on my knee. I made sure to pull it down a bit and luckily it was fine!”

Mrs Willingham says she and her fellow “dragons” only speak occasionally outside of filming due to other commitments but she enjoys the experience.

She said: “It’s fantastic intellectually — there’s always lots to take in and keep track of, so my mind is never as sharp as when I’ve just walked out of the den.

“You have to ask some tough questions but it’s important to be respectful to anyone who has made the effort to walk through that door, as long as they’ve shown respect for you. I have no time for people who are dismissive of us or the process. But if people are polite, honest and open then you have to return that.”

Mrs Willingham says sometimes it’s just a case of nerves for the applicants as being in the den is a stressful experience. As for relieving her own stress, she simply goes home.

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