Eddie Sutherland, my great-grandfather, started Sutherland’s potted meats business in the 1920s. We’ve talked about that in other blog articles. The business remained in family hands until the early 1990s when my uncle Nick sold – Sutherland’s having previously gone public in the 1980s. My father, Alistair, had left in 1986 to pursue his rally driving career, so as a kid I wasn’t really across or that aware of the family business. It was out of family hands by the time I was even at school.

I was never that far away from potted beef though. My mum used to make it at home and sell it to the shop around the corner. The strange thing is that back then I couldn’t stand being in the same room while she was making it. The smell of it really turned me off. I hated it; the smell, let alone the taste of it! I had to leave the room.

When I was at school it seemed like everyone wanted to be a lawyer. Once I went to a careers’ seminar where I met someone who worked for an estate agency and I got interested in the idea of selling houses. A bit later I did a work placement from school at an estate agent. I really enjoyed it and asked them for recommendations on what I should do to get into the industry. They recommended building surveying, so I looked into it. I also really wanted to go to university to experience that kind of life. I’d been to Nottingham a few times – mainly to gigs at Rock City. Nottingham Trent University (NTU) is very near Rock City so it kind of all became inevitable and then fell into place. I knew I wanted to go there from day one. Also, I knew that their School of Architecture, Design and the Built Environment was one of the best in the country.

For various reasons I didn’t get the grades I really needed or had anticipated, but NTU accepted me. They told me that my personal statement had won them over; the passion and clarity of it.

I studied there for three years, which included a placement at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals, fixing things up around the different buildings.

My final year was 2008, which was a tricky year – the global financial crisis hit hard with the building industry suffering particularly; just about collapsing. We were warned by our lecturers and heads of department about the work situation and what to expect when we left university.

“There’s not going to be many jobs left,” was the mantra. And they were right. Maybe only 10 or 15 out that year’s class of a hundred or so ended up, or are still, in building surveying or related work. Everyone else went on to do something else after graduating.

I knew I wanted to see a bit of the world, not just travel, but volunteer and do something meaningful, so I went out to South Africa for a year. I lived and worked in the Cape Flats in Cape Town.  I did two roles out there, working in conservation management – which aligned to a degree with what I’d studied. I worked first of all at the Rondevlei nature reserve – a large bird sanctuary. We would bring kids in from the surrounding areas. We had kids from eight up to eighteen from these disadvantaged areas to visit the nature reserve and stay the weekend. We taught them about the environment. Litter was a big issue in that area, so we taught them about them litter – about what it does to the environment and why it’s important to dispose of it properly. Also, snakes. Those communities were really scared of snakes so would kill them at every opportunity they had. They weren’t aware of the positives that snakes bring to the ecosystem. 

I also worked at another nature reserve doing ground maintenance.

It was a great adventure out there. I loved South Africa and have always wanted to go back. When I look back at my time there and the times I spent with my host family I realise how much of those experiences shaped the person I am now and particularly how it benefitted my relationship with my dad.