Ramblers’ vice-president Peter Melchett was 70 on 24 February.
I first met Peter when he was president of the Ramblers (1981-4) and I was a newly-elected member of the executive committee. Peter and the Ramblers had got to know each other over the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 which had a section on rights of way. Peter was then a Labour peer, the 4th Baron Melchett (having succeeded his father who died in 1973).
Peter undertook impressive, tireless work for us and other amenity organisations in moving amendments. One of his victories was to prevent a change in the law on public-path diversions and extinguishments. The government wanted to give local authorities the power to confirm opposed path-orders, rather than the independent secretary of state. This would have been a disaster, and Peter helped to stop it. He also managed to improve the clause on bulls and public paths, although he did not succeed in getting a complete ban on bulls in fields crossed by paths. He moved copious amendments to strengthen the law on sites of special scientific interest.
On 31 July 1982 he dedicated over five miles of rights of way on his farm, Courtyard Farm at Ringstead in North Norfolk. This was, and still is, a rare event, so Peter set a terrific example. The paths were linked with existing rights of way and offered three circular walks around the farm which is a lovely spot, with fine views to the sea.
I was there for the opening as I was staying in Norfolk. Two days later there was an emergency meeting of the Ramblers’ executive committee in London, to discuss whether we should organise our own launch of the Wolds Way long-distance path. The Countryside Commission had caved in to the president of the Country Landowners’ Association, Lord Middleton, and agreed not to route the long-distance path on a footpath though the mediaeval settlement of Wharram Percy which Middleton owned. The Wharram Percy route was more attractive and interesting than the proposed alternative. I had wanted to go to the Ramblers’ EC meeting but as I had already arranged to be in Norfolk I had sent my apologies.
However, when I saw Peter at his path launch he offered to drive me to London and back in the day since, as president, he planned to be at the meeting. I accepted his offer, and we whizzed down the A1 to the meeting, voted to hold an alternative opening of the Wolds Way (definitely the right decision) and whizzed back. It was on that drive that I heard The Archers for the first time, and I have been an avid listener ever since.
In his time as president, Peter won the Ramblers much publicity. He spoke out on access, the need for planning controls over farming activities, and for a reform of the subsidy system. His presidential addresses at our national councils were enthusiastically received.
After standing down as president Peter was elected to the executive committee in 1985 and 1986, and was vice-chairman in 1987. He abandoned the House of Lords during the 1980s; he became executive director at Greenpeace and later policy director at the Soil Association (which he still is).
As the then Ramblers’ director, Alan Mattingly, wrote in the caption above, Peter’s approach to farming was an example to the rest of the agricultural community, and he always thought about people and their need to enjoy the countryside. Nearly 40 years on, he is still remembered as a brilliant president of the Ramblers.