Ian’s day

On Saturday 10 June friends of the late Ian Mercer gathered on Dartmoor to celebrate all that he gave us.  They came from many parts of the country, and many parts of his varied and rich life.

I helped to organise the day, with Kevin Bishop, Dartmoor National Park Officer (the post Ian held for 17 years), Andrew Cooper of Devon Wildlife Trust and Rob Lucas of the Field Studies Council (Ian was president of both organisations).  We had arranged a choice of walks in the morning and a gathering at Princetown at lunchtime, with a further walk in the afternoon.

With Sue Goodfellow, who worked for over 30 years as the national park authority’s ecologist and latterly as Director of Park Management and Director of Conservation, I led a walk from Venford Reservoir car-park to Bench Tor, and down into White Wood following the ‘pipeline route’ (which takes water from the reservoir towards Paignton). Other walks on offer were to Fox Tor mire (but not across it!) at Swincombe, and Lynton’s Quarry near Two Bridges.

All the walks were related to Ian’s interests and achievements, but ours was the most popular with over 40 joining us including many of Ian’s and his wife Pam’s relatives.

3 Bench Tor

On the slopes of Bench Tor

The day was not promising.  I had driven across Dartmoor from the west in mist and rain. But it cleared slightly as I reached Venford, and we did not let the weather affect our plans. In fact the sun glimmered through the gentle rain and the mist hung over the hills creating a rare ethereal atmosphere.  The rain was sufficient to make photography difficult, with constant drops on my camera lens as you can see from my photos here.

Although Sue and I were billed as joint leaders, Sue did most of the leading and explaining, in a low-key and informative manner.

1 Sue in car park

Sue Goodfellow introduces the walk

This was truly Ian’s walk; along the way we remembered his work as a naturalist, a geographer,  Dartmoor National Park officer and chairman of the Dartmoor Commoners’ Council.  Sue explained how Ian was ahead of his time: 40 years ago he was thinking about the relationship between farming, landscape and access and putting this into practice.  The Dartmoor National Park Authority bought Holne Moor in 1975 and Ian became Steward of the Manor of Holne, a role of which he was very proud.

2 S Devons

South Devon cattle on Holne Moor

As we strolled up the slope of Bench Tor we stopped to listen to Holne commoner Phil Cleave on the importance of grazing to regulate the vegetation, for landscape, access and archaeology.  The commoners had a great respect for Ian and his ideas for management of the commons.

Peter Beacham, chairman of the Devonshire Association and former historic buildings officer for Devon County Council who had known Ian for 50 years, spoke about Ian’s appreciation of the historic landscape of Dartmoor. Ian facilitated pioneering work on Dartmoor’s ancient field boundaries, known as reaves, by Andrew Fleming on Holne Moor in the late 1970s.  Under Peter’s gentle tuition, Ian also learnt the value of the moor’s historic buildings.

2a Peter Beacham CC

Peter Beacham addresses us © Chris Chapman

We reached the top of Bench Tor.  The mist hung over the valley, but we could just see the outline of the slope on the other side of the River Dart with its plunging oakwoods.

Sue, Pam and I had recced the walk in April on a glorious day when the visibility was wonderful, as you can see in the two photos below.

from Bench TorFrom Bench Tor 2

Today was different but no less lovely.

3a on Bench Tor

On Bench Tor

Then we followed the slope down to White Wood, with its twisted oaks and mossy rocks. I saw a tree pipit and knew that Ian would have been pleased.  He used to lead dawn-chorus bird-walks here and he put up nestboxes for pied flycatchers.

4 White Wood

In White Wood

Sue pointed out experimental research plots which Ian had fenced in order to study the effect of the removal of grazing, and charcoal-burners’ platforms which were studied by Nick Atkinson, Ian’s successor as park officer.

5 White Wood

We returned to the car-park and then headed to Princetown as the weather deteriorated. We met in the ballroom at the Duchy Hotel, which is leased by the Dartmoor National Park Authority, with food provided by Justine Colton of Tor Royal.  It was a fabulous gathering of people many of whom had not seen each other for some time, and I was glad that we had all been issued with name-labels as it made the meeting and greeting so much easier.  We could have chatted all day.  How Ian would have loved it.

Kevin Bishop welcomed us all and spoke about Ian.

7 Kevin speaking CC

Kevin Bishop speaking ©Chris Chapman

He explained that the ballroom was being named the Ian Mercer Room.

IDM room

Then he invited Pam to unveil the intepretation panel which briefly tells Ian’s story.

6 Pam and plaque

Pam unveils the panel











Other speakers were Geoff Hearnden, former chairman of the Devon Wildlife Trust; Fiona Reynolds, former chief of the Campaign for National Parks, CPRE and the National Trust; David Butterworth, the Yorkshire Dales National Park Officer; Rob Lucas, chief executive of the Field Studies Council; Tom Mercer, one of Ian’s sons; and Maurice Retallick, Dartmoor commoner and long-standing member of the Dartmoor National Park Authority.  All had tales to tell, some very funny, of Ian at work, in the pub and with his family.

I wound up with my own memories of Ian and invited the 100+ friends and colleagues of Ian to raise their glasses as I gave his favourite toast:

May you live long and die the same length.  May heaven bless you and the devil miss you and balls to the girl who wouldn’t kiss you.

Thank you Ian, your memory lives on in those many individuals and organisations whom you influenced and inspired more than you ever knew.

Posted in Access, Birds, commons, Dartmoor, National parks, Natural history, wild country | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Radical Ramblers on Black Down

The Radical Ramblers, a long-standing group of left-wing walkers led by Alan (Lord) Haworth, visited Black Down common in West Sussex on 17 June. I have often joined them in Scotland, on the annual walk to celebrate the life and achievements of our much-loved leader, the late John Smith, so it was a change to be in lowland England.

Actually, it wasn’t really lowland: our aim was to find the trig point on top of Black Down, which is a Marilyn, (a mountain or hill of any height with a drop of 150 metres or 492 feet on all sides).  The trig point on Black Down is 280 metres. Surprisingly, it is the highest point in the South Downs National Park.

2 at trig point

Sign at the trig point

We started at Haslemere station and approached the down along the sunken Tennyson’s Lane, following the Serpent Trail.  After we had walked some way across the heathland, Alan began looking for the trig point and Radical Ramblers dispersed in all directions, as is their wont.  It was a bit like the hunt for the woozle.

1 looking for trig point

The hunt for the trig point

At last Alan found the trig, among trees.  If we had stayed on the track we would have come to it more easily.

There must once have been a view from here, but it is now surrounded by trees.

Trig point by Alan

At the trig point

We stopped here for lunch and then went on to the Temple of the Winds.  This is on the prow of the hill with a magnificent view south to the chalk downs of Ditchling Beacon and Chanctonbury Ring.  The view was, apparently, much enjoyed by Tennyson who lied at Aldworth House on the east side of the down.

6 view from temple

5 view from temple

There is a semi-circular stone bench which is dedicated to Mable, the wife of Edward Hunter, who bought the land and gave it to the National Trust in 1944.

13 bench

Edward was no relation of Robert Hunter, solicitor to the Open Spaces Society who later founded the National Trust and lived for 30 years in Haslemere.  Edward was a printing magnate from Frensham; he was appalled by proposals to construct a road across the Black Down ridge to a café at the end of the promontory, causing him to buy 500 acres in 1942.  (Thanks to the Black Down and Hindhead supporters of the National Trust for this information.)

7 radicals

Radical Ramblers enjoy the bench

We went back by a different route, largely following the Sussex Border Path.  We crossed a meadow south of Valewood Farm House. This is National Trust land with public access beyond the rights of way.

11 common

It had a fine collection of heath spotted orchids.

12 orchids

As we came back through Haslemere we paused to watch a cricket match.  The ball came whizzing over the boundary, and after some searching we found it stuck in a tree next to the footpath.  Walkers have their advantages.

12 cricket

Cricket match



Posted in Access, commons, National Trust, Radical Ramblers, South Downs National Park, walking | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Barossa blitz

A huddle of about 20 birdwatchers gathered at the end of Kings Ride at Camberley in Surrey, for the annual nightjar survey on Barossa and Poors Allotment military training area on 12 June.  

1 gathering

At the end of King’s Ride

Ben Habgood of Surrey Wildlife Trust, who leads the surveys, asked us to meet at 8.30pm so, as usual, I got there early to see what birds were around.  I went to the spot where I have seen dartford warblers in the past but was disappointed to find the heather was being swamped by fir trees, making it a less favourable habitat for dartfords, and I didn’t see one.

Ben explained what we were to do and where we were going.  The territory was divided into seven zones.  This time I was to go with Bill to zone 7, in the north-west corner, which was within the military live-firing area, known as the range-danger area or RDA.  I was pleased to be going somewhere new.

2 Ben explains

Ben explains

James Adler from Surrey Wildlife Trust drove Bill and me to zone 7.  We were to walk a triangle in the cleared area of heathland and record all the churring nightjars and any other wildlife.


Our triangular walk is shown by the yellow line

James dropped us at about 9.20; it was still daylight.

4 territory

Bill was familiar with this area as he comes here often, by agreement with the Ministry of Defence.  He knows where you might see dartford warblers and firecrest, but sadly we saw neither.

7 Dartford territory

Dartford warbler territory

We were quite close to the noisy A321 Sandhurst bypass with the constant hum of traffic. Our first nightjar began churring at about 9.45, some way off.  As we walked on we heard others, and also saw woodcock.

6 territoryThere was a magnificent sunset with the trees outlined against the sky.

8 getting darkWe reckoned we heard five nightjars churring from all parts of the site.  Some did their flight call too.  At the very end we saw one fly down from a tree to the ground.

James came to collect us at 10.40.  He said that four to five nightjars was the usual number for zone 7.   We rejoined the others at Kings Ride and heard how they fared.  It sounded like it had been another successful evening.  I certainly enjoyed my twilight walk over the heath.

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The world of commons conferences

The Countryside and Community Research Institute of Gloucestershire University has published an e-book on the biennial, global conferences of the International Association of the Study of the Commons (IASC).  

It is by John Powell and Chris Short of CCRI, and me, and includes many of the blogs we wrote during the conferences. It is called A Companion to IASC Commons Conferences and you can download it here.

Commons e-book cover

I was a bit of a latecomer.  My first attendance at an IASC conference was the one held in 2008 at Cheltenham, which was organised by CCRI.  Here is my note from the e-book about my introduction to the world of IASC and its conferences.

Global concept
Although I had been working on commons for the Open Spaces Society for 24 years, my knowledge of commons as a global concept, extending beyond land and water, was woefully inadequate in the year 2008.  That all changed when I received an invitation from Graham Bathe of Natural England (NE), who was hosting a pre-conference workshop.  I was to join speakers from NE, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Federation of Cumbria Commoners, the theme being ‘Connecting the UK’s Ancient and Contemporary Commons’.

John, Ruth and Chris

John Powell, Ruth Meinzen-Dick and Chris Short on the slopes of Mount Fuji, IASC conference in Japan, 2013

I was not familiar with addressing an international audience, but it was extremely rewarding; there was an immense level of interest and I was surprised and pleased to learn that many delegates were familiar with Lord Eversley’s book of 1910: Commons, Forests and Footpaths—for some it was bedtime reading!

But even more interesting for me was the opportunity to take part in the policy forum in the big marquee on the following day.  It was about ‘Creating a political voice for the commons’ and enabled me to talk about the campaigning which is dear to my heart.  It was organised by Ruth Meinzen-Dick and Stephan Dorhn from Collective Action and Property Rights (Capri), and there were speakers from United Nations, Africa and India.

Different meanings
It was then that I began to appreciate that commons have different meanings in different nations, and that they are under threat worldwide.  In England and Wales commons are probably safer when they are owned or managed by public bodies, but I learnt that elsewhere it is the opposite: governments are stealing commons from the people.

The Cheltenham conference opened my eyes to the world of commons and shortly afterwards I joined the IASC and have attended every biennial conference since.

Posted in commons, International Association for the Study of the Commons, Open Spaces Society | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

What route for the Hamble estuary coast path?

As Natural England (NE) gradually develops the England Coast Path with its adjoining access land, local campaigners study the route and argue for the best possible one.

The path between Calshot and Gosport in south Hampshire has a problem when it reaches the Hamble valley.  NE wants to make use of the ferry across the estuary between Warsash and Hamble and not create a path on either side of the estuary.  The Hamble River Valley Forum (HRVF), backed by the Open Spaces Society, believes that there should be an alternative route, on both sides of the estuary, north to the A27 road crossing, about two miles upstream.

4 pink ferry

The pink ferry crosses the estuary to Hamble

The organisations argue that the ferry is uncertain and unreliable, with no timetable (passengers have to summon it using a mobile phone), it is inaccessible several times a year because of high tides, it cannot operate in all weather conditions, it is difficult to gain access to it and it is not financially viable during the winter.  It is therefore not guaranteed to continue in perpetuity.

5 ferry sign

The ferry terminal at Warsash

In March I walked part of the proposed alternative on the eastern side of the estuary.  It would follow the Solent Way, an attractive route.

2 Solent way

The Solent Way

It has plenty of ornithological interest

1 Brent geese

Brent geese

and passes a nature reserve.

3 Nature reserve

Nature reserve

More work is needed for the route on the western side of the estuary but HRVF has identified a potential route.  The A27 crossing is not unpleasant because there are wide footways on the bridge.

Having made their submissions, the organisations await NE’s report to see whether a further campaign is needed.

Posted in Access, Birds, campaigns, Coastal access, Natural England, Open Spaces Society, Public paths, walking | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Genial Geoff

The late Geoff Eastwood, the Ramblers’ vice-president and activist in East Yorkshire and Derwent Area, would have been 77 today, 26 May.  We miss him greatly.  Geoff played a leading role in the creation of the Wolds Way national trail and he saved many paths in the old Humberside county from hideous diversions.

Geoff was born in 1940 in Littleport, near Ely in Cambridgeshire, to Rowland and Stella Eastwood.  He went to Southampton University to study for a BSc and PhD in biochemistry and physiology.  Here he met his future wife Pat, who was studying languages.  They were married in 1963 and enjoyed walking locally on Southampton Common and in Romsey water meadows.

Geoff and Pat moved to the East Riding village of Lockington in 1970 when Geoff took a research post with Smith, Kline and French.  They had two daughters, Helen and Clare.  Helen took her first steps on a walking holiday led by Geoff in the Auvergne.  In the mid 1970s Geoff was appointed senior then principal lecturer at Hull College of Further Education, where he became head of biology.  He guided the department through changing times as the college approached polytechnic status (finally to become Lincoln University in 1992).

by Ray Wallis, above Glencoe

Geoff above Glencoe. Photo: Ray Wallis

After Geoff and Pat were divorced, Geoff moved to Driffield in 1987 with his partner Kathryn Gregory.  He retired early in 1991, and soon took up new challenges, becoming town clerk of Driffield from 1991 to 2002, a director of the Driffield Navigation Trust from 1991 to 2013, and representative of the Ramblers on the Howardian Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Joint Advisory Committee.  During their 30 years together, Kathryn fully supported Geoff in his committee work and often accompanied him on his foreign tours and meetings.  They both loved visiting Asia, especially Vietnam.

While they were living in Lockington, Geoff and Pat were confronted on a walk by a farmer’s wife who insisted there was no public right of way.  Geoff was sure that there was. This incident galvanised him into joining the Ramblers.  He became East Riding and Derwent Area secretary in 1972 and coordinated campaigns for recognition of public paths in the old Humberside county area, fighting plans to rationalise them.  It was a hostile environment for those wishing to protect our paths and make the countryside better for walkers.

Geoff helped to lead the campaign for the Yorkshire Wolds Way which, in 1982, became a long-distance path (now national trail).  He was at the forefront of the Ramblers’ alternative opening of the way on 2 October 1982, in protest at the Countryside Commission’s choice of route.  The commission yielded to the pressures of landowner Lord Middleton who did not want it to go through the medieval village of Wharram Percy.  I write about this here.  Helen cut the ribbon at our opening at Millington Pastures, Nettledale.

Wolds Way 2 Oct 82

Helen Eastwood cuts the tape, with Ramblers’ president Peter Melchett (left) and Ramblers’ secretary Alan Mattingly and vice-chairman David Rubinstein (right), at the alternative opening of the Wolds Way on 2 October 1982. Photo: Hull Daily Mail

Geoff and Helen joined us on the 25th anniversary of the event.

celebration 2

25th anniversary: left to right Helen Eastwood, Geoff Eastwood, David Rubinstein, Ann Holt, Dennis and Angela Parker

A popular leader of local walks Geoff also organised camping weekends all over Britain.  He wrote several walks guides and leaflets which are still in use.  He took on the demanding role of area footpath secretary from 1979 to 2002.

While engaged with his local Ramblers’ work, Geoff became active in the Ramblers nationally.  In 1974 he was elected to the national executive committee, becoming vice-chairman in 1989 and chairman from 1990 to 1993.  He returned to the committee from 1993-6, before becoming a national vice-president in 1998.

I first met Geoff when I entered the world of Ramblers at national council, held at Keble College in Oxford in 1982.  He was very kind to me and backed me as a young committee member.  His chairmanship was relaxed, good-natured and unhurried, so his meetings were not quick but they were invariably friendly.

Geoff enjoyed taking part in Ramblers’ events to campaign for access.

Rambling Today summer 1999, Ulrike Preuss smaller

The cover of Rambling Today, summer 1999, Ramblers’ rally for access on Shirburn Hill, Oxfordshire, Geoff at the front. Photo: Ulrike Preuss

In 1972 Geoff started to lead for Ramblers Holidays in Europe and beyond.  He became chairman of RH and then of the new Ramblers Holidays Charitable Trust until his retirement on health grounds in 2013.  He represented the trust on the Ramblers committee (later board of trustees) and also at annual meetings of the European Ramblers Association.

Geoff was a man of vitality and energy, enjoying a successful career in research and higher education.  He was held in esteem by students and colleagues alike.  At the same time he made major contributions as a volunteer to the outdoors movement locally and nationally and by his dedicated service with Ramblers Holidays.

He developed Parkinson’s disease and in 2016 had a serious fall at home resulting in a massive haematoma.  He was transferred to St Catherine’s Hospice in Scarborough where he received wonderful care, and Kathryn was with him until he died on 25 June 2016.  He is survived by Pat, Helen, Clare and Kathryn.

With thanks to Peter Ayling for the notes of Geoff’s life.

Geoffrey Eastwood 1940-2016

Posted in Access, National trail, Obituary, Ramblers, walking | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Summoned by sunset

Last night I saw the sunset reflected in an open window, and ran outside to get a better view.  From the field I could see a wide pink horizon.

sunset 1

I went up the hill, through the wood where a plump young tawny owl was lisping and hissing and then flew awkwardly off into another tree .

Once I was out of the trees I got an even better view and it was redder now over the Wormsley valley.  But my camera does not of course do it justice.

sunset 2

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