Munificent Margaret

The Open Spaces Society’s former vice-president, the late Margaret Smith, would have been 101 today.  She died in 2010 aged 91 and is still greatly missed.  Her husband Ronald is aged 95.

Margaret was a keen, generous and hardworking supporter of the Open Spaces Society.  Not only had she been a vice-president since 1997, and custodial trustee from 1992 to 2008, but she also represented the society on the Hampstead Heath Consultative Committee from 1993 to 2001.


Hampstead Heath

Margaret was born in 1918 in Bristol.  Both her parents were schoolteachers.  She and Ronald were married in 1948 and spent 62 happy years together.  They lived first in Golders Green and then moved to Potters Bar in Hertfordshire in 1950.  Margaret joined the tennis club and continued to play tennis well into her old age.

Her interests were mainly outdoor ones.  She loved walking and this opened for her other enthusiasms—for open country and then for commons, greens and rights of way.  Her work for the Open Spaces Society became an abiding passion.  That led to an interest in the historical background to common land and its obscurities, and she and Ronald acquired a manorial title, as Lord of the Manor of Plardiwick, near Gnosall in Staffordshire, to see what were the implications of such a status.


Plardiwick Bridge by Roger Kidd (geograph, licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence)

Margaret was an active member of the Potters Bar Society with a spell as chairman.  She was particularly keen to ensure that the open spaces and paths in Potters Bar were well protected.  She cared about London open spaces as a whole and attended meetings of the London Green Belt Council, of which Ronald was chairman for many years and then became vice-president.

I visited Ronald and Margaret at their home and Margaret cooked me one of her Elizabethan meals, she had a host of Elizabethan recipes.  It was delicious.

Ronald and Margaret travelled to 55 countries and took 16,500 slides, all of which are catalogued.  These were particularly invaluable for the talks they gave to raise money for the society, amounting to significant sums over the years.  Of their 2,700 talks, Margaret gave slightly over half.  As Ronald said at her funeral, the problem was not to get her talking, but to stop her!

Margaret had extremely clear diction and was a pleasure to listen to.  She had a lovely sense of humour.  The nurses at the Chase Farm Hospital, where Margaret spent her last weeks, went out of their way to express their admiration for Margaret’s beautiful smile and her politeness to the staff.

Margaret Smith

Margaret in the Victorian pavilion at Hanbury Hall in Worcestershire in 1996. Photo: Ronald Smith

The Open Spaces Society had a huge affection for Margaret.  In her honour and his, the society’s AGM elected Ronald as a vice-president at the meeting following Margaret’s death.  She left the society an extremely generous legacy and we are indebted to her for her support and enthusiasm for the cause.

Posted in Access, commons, Obituary, Open Spaces Society, town and village greens | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

On the side of a cliff

Ramblers’ Welsh Council this year was held in the dramatic setting of Nant Gwrtheryn, the Welsh language centre on the cliffs of the Llŷn peninsula in Gwynedd.  

On the night before the event, some of us stayed in the prosaic Travelodge in nearby Porthmadog; the best bit was the misty early-morning walk I took with Chris Hodgson, chair of Ramblers Cymru.  He led me to the harbour from which slate was exported,

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Porthmadog harbour

and then around a lake created from the Afon Glaslyn, with views of the Moelwyn range.

1 Portmadog

View of the Moelwyns

Nearby, Moel-y-Gest beckoned us to climb it, but sadly we hadn’t the time.

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Moel-y-Gest (262 metres)

We set off early for Nant Gwrtheyrn, which is near Llithfaen on the western side of the Llŷn peninsula.  The sun came out and the drive down to the centre was breathtaking, on a switchback road among the quarries.

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View north from Nant Gwrtheyrn

I had last been here on 5 August 1995 when Ramblers Cymru organised a walk around Wales to celebrate the organisation’s sixtieth jubilee.  It was a memorable day, and baking hot.  We met at Trefor, in the shadow of the magnificent hill Yr Eifl to the north of Nant.  A minibus took the walkers to Nefyn, where the late Michael Griffith (chairman of the Countryside Council for Wales), Geoff Williams (who had organised the event), and I made short speeches in the car park, and I read out a jubilee message which was repeated in Welsh.

We walked north-east along the coast to Nant, where we were shown around.  We were running late so, rather than stop for tea in the café, Michael and I left the group and walked up the steep road back to Trefor.  We were both keen swimmers and we stopped for a dip from Trefor Beach before heading our separate ways.

Nant, then known as Porth y Nant, was a village serving the surrounding quarries, which closed in the 1970s.  The abandoned village was then occupied by the New Atlantis Commune of hippies who did much damage, but it was rescued, renovated and developed into the Welsh language centre.  The comfortable accommodation in the old cottages is arranged around a green space.

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Nant cottages

3 Nant Gwrtheyrn

Green space

The Ramblers’ meeting was held in a room with a balcony and a wide view of the sea, making it hard to concentrate.  I was on the look out for choughs, though sadly didn’t see any.  However, there were plenty of ravens among the crags, and I think I saw a peregrine.

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Ramblers’ meeting room

4 View to the sea

View south west

A high point of the day was the arrival of Max Grant, our much-loved activist from North Wales Area, former member of Ramblers Cymru’s executive committee and rights-of-way and access guru.  He had a stroke a year ago but, through his own grit and determination, and steadfast support from his partner Margaret Thomas, he has made an amazing recovery.  He walked in to the meeting room to a round of applause: an emotional moment.

Max and Margaret

Max and Margaret

The meeting began with updates on the work of the year, and after lunch there were workshops to discuss various Ramblers’ topics. Ramblers Cymru are pursuing many projects with great energy and success: Paths for People (working with communities and highway authorities to boost the path network), waymarking and improving the Cambrian Way, organising a walking festival to celebrate the seventh anniversary of the Wales Coast Path, to name a few.

In the middle of the afternoon we had a walk around the centre, led by local Rambler Margaret Lowe who told us of the history.  I spotted coal tits and treecreepers.

5 Nant Gwrtheyrn

The plas, where the quarry captain lived, to the left, and meeting room, café and balcony right

We returned indoors for more workshops, and I was glad that we had a spare hour before supper.  A few of us walked on the path which runs south-west along the side of the cliff.  There was a spectacular sunset.

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We reconvened for dinner, with an inspiring speech from Ramblers Cymru’s president Will Renwick

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Will Renwick

and an energetic Twmpath, led by Twmpathology.

On Sunday morning, after a short night, I was up at 6am to accompany my visually-impaired friend, Marika Kovacs, to the beach.  We wanted to fit this in before I joined the organised pre-breakfast walk.  It was a fine morning and the tide was out.


Early morning on the beach

Marika hunted for pebbles and we both took a couple home to remind us of our visit to the sea.

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Hunting for pebbles

Then I joined the official walk, along the cliffs where we had been the previous evening and beyond, to stunted woodlands which are designated as a site of special scientific interest.

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The stunted woods

The light on Penrhyn Glas headland was beautiful.

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Penrhyn Glas

All too soon we had to head back to the centre

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Heading back

passing feral goats and kids, neatly camouflaged among the rocks.

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Feral goats

That was the end of our walking opportunities.  After breakfast we had a morning of formal AGM business and talks.

From the balcony we spotted a raptor floating on the thermals against the dark rock of Penrhyn Glas.  Despite having my binoculars I cannot be sure what it was; it was large and reddish brown.  The best fit is a marsh harrier but it did not seem the right habitat.  I emailed Nant the following day and they are making inquiries.  I do hope we can solve it.

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Return to Dunblane

One of the treats I enjoy as a Ramblers’ trustee is the opportunity to visit our Scottish and Welsh Councils, usually in March each year.

This year Scottish Council was once again held in Dunblane, north of Stirling, where it was two years ago.  We stayed at the imposing Dunblane Hydro which first opened in 1878 as a Victorian health spa.

1 Hydro

Dunblane Hydro

I arrived on Friday evening and, before the meeting kicked off at Saturday lunchtime, I took a short walk with the chair of Ramblers Cymru, Chris Hodgson.  I wanted to see if there were still grey wagtails on the River Allan.  Last time we saw them on the Sunday morning; this time there was one perched on the top of the railway bridge across the river.

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Bridge over River Allan

As we walked back towards the town I saw goldcrests in the trees alongside the river.  The town itself is attractive with plaques telling colourful stories, such as this one.

3 Minnie Burn

Dunblane story

We also had time for a quick visit to the thirteenth-century cathedral with its fine stained-glass windows.

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Dunblane cathedral

Then it was back to the hotel for the meeting.

Highlights were the welcome from Ramblers Scotland’s president Ben Dolphin, journalist, blogger and countryside ranger, who had in his first year in the role walked with more than half the Ramblers’ groups in Scotland and is a great enthusiast of the outdoors.  The annual Dick Balharry lecture was delivered by photographer Peter Cairns who spoke provocatively about wilderness and showed some amazing photographs and videos.

We were visited by five members of the student Nizhny Novgorod Mountain Club in Russia.  They gave us a talk on Sunday morning about their amazing expeditions, and then entertained us with some of their campfire songs, including A red, red rose by Robbie Burns (who is popular in Russia).

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Camp fire song. Photo: Barry Pottle

From the hotel there was a fine view of the hills to the north, covered in snow.

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Snow-capped hills

It was a bit of a disappointment on the short pre-breakfast walk, led by Ray Finlay on Sunday morning up the hill behind the hotel, that the mist was down so we saw little, but it was still an enjoyable outing.

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View west over Dunblane

In fact, as we returned it began to snow.

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Starting to snow.

I was disappointed to find that a misleading notice, which I spotted on the walk two years ago, was still in place.  Under the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 and its access code, the estate owners cannot require people to keep to the footpath, nor can they ban horses and ponies.

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Misleading sign

However, the problem is that the access authorities, in this case Stirling, do not have the resources to follow up such cases.  Helen Todd, Ramblers Scotland’s excellent campaigns and policy manager, tells me that Stirling’s access officer was made redundant about two years ago and not replaced, and that the team of three which existed a decade ago have all gone.

Nevertheless, I am confident that Ramblers Scotland will do what it can to ensure that our access rights are upheld.

On my journey home I was able to tick off another bird for 2019.  I had a 30-minute break in Newcastle upon Tyne so hurried down to Tyne Bridge to see the kittiwakes there.

Kittiwakes, Tyne Bridge

Kittiwakes on Tyne Bridge (they look like little brown dots)

Posted in Access, Ramblers, Scotland, walking | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Let’s reinvent the Countryside Agency

Twenty years ago today the Countryside Agency was born.  It brought together the Countryside Commission and the Rural Development Commission with the aim, in the words of the then deputy prime minister John Prescott, of ‘delivering the government’s vision of a thriving, sustainable countryside’.

Indeed, the Countryside Agency is the only government agency before and since to focus on all three elements of sustainability: environment, social and economic.  It embraced landscape, national parks, public rights of way, green spaces, rural deprivation, public transport, village halls, shops and services, rural proofing—and much more.

Sadly, it lasted for only seven and a half years, from 1 April 1999 to 1 October 2006.  Philip Lowe from Newcastle University and I were the only two board members who served for the agency’s entire existence, being reappointed twice.  During that time we had some excellent companions on the board and a lot of fun too.

A unique attribute was that the agency could develop policy from its experience on the ground and its solid research; in those days the government listened to its advisers.


A sample of the agency’s excellent research notes

The agency did well from the government’s Rural White Paper in 2000 and was given funds to run programmes benefiting rural communities and the countryside.  It was a challenge to respond quickly to this windfall, but being relatively small the agency was pretty agile.

Its Vital Villages grant programme encouraged the preparation of parish plans and improvements to community and transport services.  The agency was influential in the outcome of Planning Policy Statement 3 on rural housing, enabling local authorities to designate small sites for affordable homes.

The agency’s chair, Ewen Cameron, was appointed the Rural Tsar, and for a time he was able to influence government and encourage it to ‘think rural’.  The agency also established criteria for rural proofing.

It researched and funded projects to address rural disadvantage, social exclusion and rural affordable housing.  It promoted market towns as hubs for the wider rural areas.  It pushed the idea of ‘quality parish councils’ to secure better local governance.

Projects such as Millennium Greens and its successor Doorstep Greens, and the Local Heritage Initiative (LHI) put money into communities to create lasting assets, with staff in place to advise and encourage.  For Doorstep Greens, with support from the Big Lottery, we provided grants of between £10,000 and £150,000 to help communities create and manage local open space.  Nearly 200 were created.  LHI was part-funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and hundreds of local projects were created, ranging from celebrating local industrial heritage to creating oral histories; the funds were readily accessible without too much form-filling.

I was the lead board member for these initiatives and cut the ribbon at a number of launches of Millennium and Doorstep Greens.  I saw communities and individuals blossom from their involvement; some of those who led the projects won a new confidence in themselves.

2000 Jul 1 Desborough Mill green

Opening Desborough Millennium Green, Northamptonshire, 1 July 2000

Of course, the agency was created just after the government had announced it would legislate for a right of access.  It influenced the Countryside and Rights of Way Act and then, when it became law, devised the system for mapping access land (not its greatest success as the result was that a great deal of potentially eligible land was omitted).  It also championed rights of way and carried out a nationwide condition survey.

It was responsible for designating two national parks, the New Forest and South Downs, detailed work which required board members to visit various contentious sites to advise on the boundary.


Countryside Agency board’s visit to Lepe Park in the New Forest, 2006

I particularly enjoyed being the lead board member for the Peak District National Park, I attended many meetings there often staying at the wonderful Losehill Hall, and chaired appointment panels for the secretary of state’s nominees on the park authority.  I also took part in the two-day process for appointing the chief executive, Jim Dixon, in 2003.


Grindsbrook Valley, Peak District National Park

We had to weather foot and mouth in 2001, and advised the government on how to respond.  We did not cancel our board meeting in Shap, Cumbria, on 21 March 2001 at the height of the enforced countryside closure because we wanted to set an example by putting money into the rural economy and showing we cared.

91 March 4 FMD sign Turville BW3

Foot-and-mouth closure, March 2001

We aimed to influence behaviour too.  Our Eat the View scheme (the name invented by our board member Martin Doughty) explained the connection between food, its genesis and production, supporting sustainable land management, promoting a sense of place, and encouraging people to think before they buy.

CRC document

Commission for Rural Communities study, March 2005

The agency was abolished in 2006 following a review by Lord Haskins, who mistakenly believed that policy and delivery should be separated—but of course there was politics too, the treasury no doubt thought the agency was getting too much money and doing Defra’s job for it.  From the agency’s ashes Natural England took on the land, access and recreation aspects but could never focus on or resource them as the agency did.

The work with communities went to the Commission for Rural Communities (launched in March 2005 as ‘the new voice for England’s rural people, businesses and communities’),  This struggled from lack of funding and was taken inhouse in 2011 and finally buried completely in 2013 when its excellent programmes disappeared into a black hole.

It is important not to forget all that the Countryside Agency achieved, it made things better for the countryside and its people, with its ability to experiment and influence policy across the whole rural scene.  Its story is summarised in The Life and Times of the Countryside Agency, a critical commentary by James Garo Deruonian, to which I and other members of the board and staff contributed.

There is a further reorganisation of the Defra agencies in the offing but the risk is that they will be ransacked to save money.  We can only hope that a future government will recognise again the good sense of bringing together environmental, social and economic factors in one body and reinvent the Countryside Agency.

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A people’s charter

Seventy years ago today, on 31 March 1949, the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Bill began its second reading in the House of Commons.  

Len from book cover

Len Clark

My friend Len Clark was there.  He has written of the ‘thrill of sitting in the public gallery of the House of Commons, with my wife to be [Isobel Hoggan],  as we listened to politicians of all parties signing up to faith in their creation, at the second reading of the 1949 act’.

For Len and Isobel it was a good day out.  However, I believe my mother (of similar age to Len) decided to celebrate her 32nd birthday elsewhere!

It was a long debate running to 200 columns of Hansard (3.50 – 10 pm on 31 March, and 11am to 3.58 pm on 1 April).  The bill introduced much that was new: national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, national nature reserves, definitive maps of public paths, long-distance paths (now national trails), and access agreements and orders.  It was an extremely important post-war initiative, though some parts of it were much better than others.

Memorable moment
A memorable moment was when Lewis Silkin, then Minister of Town and Country Planning, in moving the second reading, said (column 1493):

This is not just a bill.  It is a people’s charter—a people’s charter for the open air, for the hikers and the ramblers, for everyone who lives to get out into the open air and enjoy the countryside.  Without it they are fettered, deprived of their powers of access and facilities needed to make holidays enjoyable.  With it the countryside is theirs to preserve, to cherish, to enjoy and to make their own.

I read those splendid words to a gathering yesterday to celebrate the ninth anniversary of the South Downs National Park.  This is the newest national park, but it was on the original list identified in the 1947 report of the National Parks Committee which was chaired by Sir Arthur Hobhouse.  The committee wrote of the South Downs:

We were impressed with the importance of including at least one national park within easy reach of London.  There exists in the South Downs and area of still unspoilt country, certainly of less wildness and grandeur than the more rugged parks of the north and west, but possessing great natural beauty and much open rambling land, extending south-eastwards to the magnificent chalk cliffs of Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters.n  we recommend it unhesitatingly on its intrinsic merits as well as on the ground of its accessibility.

web Seven Sisters

Seven Sisters

There was a long campaign to get the South Downs made into a national park, and we missed Len yesterday: he was deeply involved in that campaign and often came to these celebratory events, but now the journey from Farncombe in Surrey is a bit too much for him.

1 Gathering at QECP

Gathering to celebrate the South Downs National Park’s ninth anniversary

After the speeches, at the Queen Elizabeth Country Park near Petersfield in Hampshire, we enjoyed a six-mile walk, taking in the attractive village of Buriton



and back through the beech hangers.


Beech hangers

And after the walk I went alone to the top of Butser Hill, with misty views and skylarks.


Butser Hill

The downs are not as unspoilt as they were when Hobhouse reported; much of the chalk downland and sheep walks have disappeared and there are significant development pressures.  But they are still beautiful and inspirational, and provide enjoyment for thousands of people.

Indeed, the national parks of England and Wales are a success story, but they need stronger protection and more funding—something for which we constantly argue—so that they really can fulfil the 1949 dream of a countryside for the people, in Silkin’s words, ‘to cherish, to enjoy and to make their own’.

Posted in Access, National parks, parliament, South Downs, wild country | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Gull Friday

There weren’t many birds on Spade Oak Lake, Little Marlow in Bucks, on Friday morning (29 March).  Chiffchaffs and blackcaps were singing in the sunshine, and some wigeon, gadwall and a lone mandarin duck were on the lake.  There were a few lapwings on the shore and herons and cormorants in the trees above.  I wondered if I was missing anything.

Gulls 1

View across the lake

I asked that question to a man behind a telescope which was trained on the far shore. He said he was watching a Caspian gull.  That was a first for me, and I dug out my Collins Bird Guide—but the gull was not featured.  When my edition was published (1999) the Caspian was classified as a subspecies of herring gull and so has no separate entry nor picture.  Wikipedia says it has ‘a troubled taxonomic history’.  It was only formally recognised as a species in 2007, the first UK record was in 1995.

Through the telescope I saw the gull preening itself.  Then it went to sleep and looked like the other gulls along the shore (as it did anyway through my binoculars).  There was a row of five and my helpful birder told me they were (right to left) herring, Caspian, common, herring and lesser black-backed gulls.

Left to myself I would not have identified them, so it was a fortunate encounter.

Gulls 2

Close up of the five gulls, the Caspian is second from the right.  There is a gadwall in the foreground


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Dartington connection

After the Ramblers’ Devon Area AGM at Dartington Hall I wandered into the grounds.  There were two sculptures I was keen to revisit.

The Henry Moore Memorial Figure is situated on a prominent spot above the tiltyard.

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Henry Moore’s Memorial Figure (1947)

It was dedicated to Christopher Martin, first administrator of the Arts Centre at Dartington.

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Inscription on the Henry Moore

Both my mother and her sister Nancy Balfour knew Chris Martin.  Mum told me how he took her up a funicular and gave her lunch when she was on a skiing holiday in 1935.  I have found a photo from the holiday in Igls, Tirol.

Chris Martin, Cicely and Aunt Nancy 1935

Chris Martin, his future wife Ciceley, and Aunt Nancy at Igls, Tirol, in 1935

Sadly, Chris died young in 1944.  Ciceley went on to marry Philip Hendy, who was later director of the National Gallery and Aunt Nancy kept up her friendship with her.

The other sculpture with which I wanted to reacquaint myself is the delightful bronze donkey by Willi Soukop, an early teacher of Elisabeth Frink.  Soukop came to Dartington in 1934 at the suggestion of Leonard Elmhirst’s secretary, as he was anxious to leave Vienna.  (Leonard Elmhirst and his wife Dorothy founded Dartington; they bought the neglected buildings at Dartington in 1925.)  Soukop had little money, and the gardens superintendent suggested he make some sculptures to sell on the Dartington stand at the Chelsea Flower Show.  Strangely but fortunately the donkey was not sold, and Elmhirst bought it for Dartington, where it has remained a much-loved feature of the garden.

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Willi Soukop’s Donkey (1935)

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