Today my Dad would have been 100

My Dad, Jay (John Benjamin) Ashbrook, would have been 100 today.  He died in October 2002 aged 86.

He was born on 26 July 1916 in Madison, Wisconsin, of Arthur Elliott Ashbrook and Katherine Austin (after whom I was named) and went to the University of Wisconsin.

Dad's graduation certificate

He was, he said, directly descended from one of Morgan’s Raiders, who attacked the northern states during the American Civil War: his father came from Kentucky and his mother from Arkansas, so they were southerners.  His older sister Marcie married Frank Woy and moved to Butte, Montana, and he often visited them; he was fond of her children, Frankie (who still keeps in close touch with us) and Sally.

Dad met Mum during the war; his friends from Madison, Mum’s aunt Jessie and her daughter Jane, wrote to Mum to say he was coming over with the US army, but he telephoned her before she got the letter so she was no doubt rather taken aback.  She was then a land girl at Northiam in East Sussex, and made the trip to London to meet him.

M&D 50th wedding anniv 1

Mum and Dad at their 50th wedding anniversary party, September 1998

They married in 1948 and Dad stayed in England.  They lived at first in London and then bought Wrango, in Denham Village, south Bucks, in 1952.  Mum (aged 99) still lives there though it is a little large for her now.  My sister Sue was born in London but by the time I was born they lived at Wrango.  At first Dad was selling food to the US bases over here, then he moved into publishing.

1954 Sue and Dad

Dad and Sue at Wrango, 1954

We had a happy upbringing in Denham.  My early memories of Dad are that he was immensely kind, generous and good-natured.  We were always pleased when he ran our baths because he let us have long, deep ones.  He invented bedtime stories for us and would willingly get up at crack of dawn to take me bird watching at the gravel pits.  When we went to the New York in 1962 he said he would buy me a diamond tiara.  It was a joke but I held him to it and so he bought me a two-dollar one from Bloomingdale’s—which was fine by me.

Connie and Belinda
He loved cars and Connie the Continental Bentley was his joy (and her predecessor, Belinda, whom I never knew).



Mum and Dad shared a love of dogs which has been passed down the family.  The earliest I remember was Elmer, a characterful Boston Bull terrier who adored Dad, but we had a succession of dachshunds too.

Dad and Elmer

Dad and Elmer at Wrango

Dad was a party-lover and was always good company.  He had a stock of jokes and sayings—’One man’s Mede is another man’s Persian’ for instance.  Sometimes they were a bit obscure: when our dachshund was limping he said ‘poor Horace is St Albans’ (Verulam, ie very lame).  He liked to play with words and come up with funny phrases such as ‘one swell foop’ (one fell swoop).

Sue followed Dad to the University of Wisconsin and in 1973 married Fritz Casselman.  Dad was delighted when they produced two grandsons for him, Ben and Peter, with whom he could share his love of boyish things: cars, the traction engine and making peanut brittle (a sticky toffee confection—don’t mention the mess!).

At Jamie Dunsterville's wedding

Dad enjoying a party

Dad was proficient at painting and later etching.  For a time he rented a studio at the top of a tall London building with no lift, and it was a real test for some of his portlier friends to visit him.  Later he escaped to the top floor at Wrango and even the basement.  I liked his landscapes, especially those he painted in the Rockies (which he loved), and was sorry he didn’t do more of them.


The Wind River range in the Rockies, Wyoming

He painted a good self-portrait too.


And his friend from the Langham Club, Cliff Hatts, did an even better portrait.

Dad pastel by Cliff Hatt 1994

Pastel of Dad by Cliff Hatts, 1994

When Dad died, Mum organised a seat in his memory on the village green at Denham.  He had been a co-trustee of the green with Hugh Stewart, another long-standing Denham resident and good friend.  The green had been given to the village in 1952 by Reverend Herbert Ward to save it from development.  Dad and Hugh registered the green as a charity in 1992 and set up the Friends of the Village Green to raise funds to maintain it.  We think of Dad whenever we pass the green.


Mum, Sue, Ben and Peter on Dad’s bench on Denham village green, on Mum’s 90th birthday, 31 March 2007.

It is sad that Dad did not live to see his two grandsons married, Ben to Erin in 2011 and Peter to Erica in 2015.  He would have been proud of them all and would have enjoyed their excellent wedding parties.

We all miss you Dad.

Dad 80th birthday

Eightieth birthday, 80 candles

Posted in Art, Memories | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

Unforgotten field

Today I returned to my prep-school sports ground at Knotty Green near Beaconsfield (I was checking out a nearby common).  Every week in summer we walked the half mile from High March school to what was known as ‘Field’ for sports practice.  This was the Knotty Green cricket ground, at the junction of the B474 and Forty Green Road.

Knotty Green cricket field


I was no good at sports but I was quite a fast runner.  On sports day one year I was given the job of runner, conveying messages from the judges in the pavilion to the teams at the other end.  So I would charge to and fro feeling important, a bit like Rabbit.  It felt like a long way, the field looks much smaller to me now!  The role of runner was a nice consolation for never winning a prize on sports day.

1965 High March sportsday

High March sports day 1965 at Field


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On Plumstone Mountain

Thirty years ago, on 17 July 1986, I had a partial victory on Plumstone Mountain common, north of Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire.  For the first time in living memory a county council resolved to take enforcement action against unlawful fencing of common land. The decision followed a meeting, at the foot of the jagged Plumstone Rocks, and a site inspection of the common by local authority officials and councillors, farmers and conservationists.  

For the previous three years the Open Spaces Society had been pressing Dyfed County Council to use its powers to remove the unlawful fencing on this windswept common with its commanding views over Pembrokeshire.


Plumstone Rocks

OSS member and local resident David Bowen first raised the alarm in January 1984 that the land was being ploughed and fenced—by the commoners themselves—without the necessary ministerial consent under section 194 of the Law of Property Act 1925 (the relevant law at the time).  The land had been registered with four commoners and no known owner and so was placed in the ‘protection’ of the county council under section 9 of the Commons Registration Act 1965.  I was greatly assisted by Swansea solicitor Edward Harris who specialises in commons cases.

Then three of the commoners (Messrs Bevan, Griffiths and Pearce) claimed that, as they had fenced parts of the common more than 12 years ago (without permission) and had treated the land as their own, under the rules of adverse possession each owned the land he had enclosed.

Ownership hearing
The Chief Commons Commissioner, Mr George Squibb, reopened the ownership hearing and confirmed the commoners’ claims, although the fencing was, he said ‘in flagrant breach of section 194 of the Law of Property Act 1925’.  In those days, if a landowner succeeded in removing common rights from the land he or she had a good chance of getting it struck off the commons register (as it was no longer ‘land subject to rights of common’—it was not until the Hazeley Heath case in 1990 that deregistration by these means was prevented).  The risk therefore was that each of the commoners would buy out the other commoners on the land they were claiming as their own and then deregister it.

Dyfed County Council refused to appeal against this decision but agreed to call a site meeting of a plenipotentiary planning subcommittee on 17 July 1986.

And so we gathered at the foot of Plumstone Rocks.  Present were the county planning officer and legal assisant, the chairman and vice-chairman of the planning committee, two officials from Preseli District Council, three from Camrose Community Council, farmers and their solicitors, and Aubrey Mason, Tom Goodall, David Bowen and me, for OSS and Ramblers.

1986 Plumstone site visit

The site meeting on Plumstone Rocks

The county planning officer and county secretary had produced a joint report recommending the removal of the fences on land placed under the protection of the council which the commoners were not claiming as their own.  They considered that the fencing of the land claimed by the commoners should be kept under review.

I addressed the (all-male) gathering.  I pointed out that all the fencing was equally unlawful.  The council had powers under the Law of Property Act to take enforcement action, and the commons commissioner had agreed the fencing was illegal.  If the council did not take action, the land would probably be removed from the commons register.  Plumstone was an extremely important moorland area, there was little moorland left in the vicinity, neighbouring Treffgarne Mountain having recently been deregistered.  From 1972 to 1985 the whole of Plumstone Mountain had been in the protection of Dyfed County Council yet the council had done nothing.

The farmers’ solicitor, Mr Hill said that there was a misconception about common land.  The public had no legal access there so the fencing could not impede it and therefore it was not unlawful.  The clerk of Camrose Community Council, Roy Warlow, supported us and said he had  lived nearby all his life, the mountain was of outstanding natural beauty and he was concerned about the implications of the fencing.  Aubrey Mason was concerned that the fencing obstructed public paths.

The party then walked around the site and the councillors were surprised to find that the farmers had cultivated the land in the council’s care without permission.  The group then disbanded and I went to find a phone box to call the Western Mail and dictate my press release.  My scribbled notes reveal that I argued that ‘too much of Plumstone Mountain has been consumed by cultivation … Dyfed County Council has neglected to protect the land and has let the farmers enclose and cultivate it.  But it is not too late to save the mountain.  Dyfed County Council can go to court for removal of the fencing.  We urge it to do so.’

I stopped at Bridgend services on my way home to call the Western Mail again, to learn the outcome of the meeting.  The councillors had agreed to remove the fencing which was less than 12 years old.  ‘Not good enough’ I said, but actually I knew it was pretty good to get any action at all.

Plumstone looking S

The view south across the common

However, action took a long time to happen, and we had to continue pressing the council until at last, at the end of December 1986, the fences on council land were removed.

That was not the end of the story.  Edward Harris did some prodigious research and discovered that the mountain had been handed down to the Henry family, via a nineteenth-century trust.  The Henrys lived in Minnesota, USA, and three generations of the family came over in May 1992 for a formal deed signing, to put the land in the hands of trustees which included the Open Spaces Society.

Plumstone W Mail 16 May 1992

Story in the Western Mail, 16 May 1992

While not all the unlawful fences have gone, the land is now in a much better state, a sweep of heather where Dartford warblers have been seen.  The decision of Dyfed councillors on that breezy hilltop in July 1986 was a milestone in the history of this singular common.








Posted in Access, common land, common rights, commons, Open Spaces Society, Ramblers, Uncategorized, Wales | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

What news for the environment?

It’s a sad fact that the Secretary of State for Environment is always one of the last posts to be announced in any cabinet reshuffle, and at the time of writing I am still waiting to hear who it will be.  It ought to be one of the top jobs, for it is our future.

Meanwhile, I reflect on Theresa May’s record on paths and access.  In 2005 she opened the new footpath under the A404 dual-carriageway at Bisham near Marlow, following an eight-year campaign by the Ramblers (led by the redoutable Margaret Bowdery).

Opening of Bisham 9  069

Theresa May and Margaret Bowdery open the footpath under the A404 dual carriageway at Bisham, 17 June 2005. Photo: Dave Ramm

But I don’t recall her helping much to get the Thames Path routed by the river in Maidenhead, instead of along the dangerous rat-run of Ray Mead Road, a campaign which has for the time being failed.

web RMRd 4

The Thames Path National Trail

And in her next-door constituency of Windsor, what about the Thames Path which should run through the Home Park but instead, for alleged security reasons, is forced onto the busy residential road through Datchet?  In this of all years, the queen’s ninetieth birthday and the twentieth anniversary of the Thames Path National Trail, we ought to get the route sorted. I’m not sure that Theresa May will be much help though.


Posted in Access, Politics, Public paths, Ramblers | 4 Comments


‘Do you know about national parks?’ asked the young man who came to do a service job at our cottage.

He had just come down the stairs from our workroom, where he could not help seeing the campaigning posters stuck on the walls.


I was gobsmacked, and delighted of course.  He had recently visited the Peak District which he had thoroughly enjoyed.  That was the first time he had been north of Milton Keynes.  I reckon he was in his early twenties.

He wanted to know where to find mountains not too far away—a tricky one.  The Brecon Beacons are the nearest thing to mountains within about five hours’ drive, and I recommended the South Downs as closer, with some pretty steep hills.

He went away eager to look up the Campaign for National Parks‘ website and armed with my book about the history of our movement, Saving Open Spaces.

I hope he returns to us, so I can find out what discoveries he has made.

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This was the first year I have done the annual nightjar survey in July. For the previous six years it has been the last or penultimate Sunday of June, but the weather dictated a later date this year.  However, it did not seem to have an adverse effect on our bird count.

With about 20 others, I carry out the survey for Surrey Wildlife Trust (SWT) on Barossa and Poors Allotment (to the north-east of Barossa), part of the Thames Basin Heaths near Camberley in Surrey (see previous blogs).  The heath is a Special Protection Area (under EU legislation) and Natural England requires the numbers of three key species: nightjar, Dartford warbler and woodlark to be monitored.  The land is managed by SWT.

2 path

I arrived a little early for a stroll around the heath and was pleased to see a couple of young tree pipits, stonechats, goldfinches and a roe deer.

3 stonechat

Male stonechat


1 roe deer

Roe deer









The surveyors met at the cattle-grid off King’s Ride, Camberley at 8.15 pm.  Ben Habgood, SWT’s grazing officer for the reserve, explained what we needed to do, with the usual health and safety precautions. He had divided the territory into six zones, with a further two in the Barossa Range Danger Area where the military carries out live firing (and for which SWT need access by a locked gate).

4 gathering

Ben explains

Then we set off in small groups to our allotted zone.  I was with Ted Rogers, who surveys the area regularly and is very knowledgeable, an excellent companion.

Our patch was to the north-west of Wishmoor Bottom, the stream which runs along the boundary of Surrey and Bracknell Heath (Berkshire); we were on the Berkshire side.  I was pleased about this because I knew from previous years that this contained the only breeding area for Dartford warblers in the vicinity.  We walked along by the heather and then saw one, flying low.  I might have thought it was a dunnock, but Ted knew.  Then we spotted it again, zipping across our path, and this time I saw the distinctive long tail.

5 Darty area

Where we saw the Dartford warbler

It was a beautiful, calm evening, perfect for nightjars, but this also meant they might not start churring until late.  The occasional woodcock flew around in a big arc, peeping. We heard our first nightjar at 9.55 pm, outside our zone, and then at 10.00 we heard one in our zone and at 10.07 a further one.  We walked over to where we had heard the latter, and it churred again.  When it stopped we saw it silhouetted, like a large humming-bird, against the sunset in a brief hover.  A moment to treasure.

7 heath

Sunset over Barossa, close to where we saw the nightjar

We returned to the cattle-grid at about 10.45 (seeing two glow-worms en route) to report our returns.  It is always difficult to know exactly how many birds one has heard, and we reported two definites and possibly three.  We also heard a number outside our zone which we recorded, with the times, so that they could be used as corroborating evidence.

6 heath

The heath near Wishmoor Bottom

A week later Ben emailed us with the results: at least 28 confirmed reports of individual churring locations, compared with 22 in 2015.  This is very encouraging and a credit to SWT’s management of the land.  It’s a 60-mile round trip for me, but I appreciate the annual opportunity to hear and see heathland birds which are not to be found on my home patch.





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News from the checkout

I found myself in the checkout queue at Henley Waitrose today with an angry lady.  She was fuming about the headline in the The Times: Being a mother gives me the edge on May—Leadsom.  She said that her daughter was unable to have children and that Andrea Leadsom’s statements were offensive.  She used a number of other adjectives which I don’t recall.

She was not prepared to entertain Leadsom’s argument that she had been misquoted.  I was able to deduce that my checkout companion was involved in the Wycombe Conservative Association.  Leadsom had no chance of winning her vote.

I am no fan of May, but it seems that Leadsom would have been wise to continue as she started on Thursday, on the announcement of the two candidates, by refusing to talk to the press.the_times.750

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