Happy birthday, Peter Melchett

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.

Rucksack Jun 81

Article in the Ramblers’ Rucksack magazine, June 1981

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.

Path opening 31 Jul 82

The Mayor of King’s Lynn and Peter at the opening of the paths at Courtyard Farm

Rucksack Oct 82 cropped

Story in Rucksack, October 1982









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.

Rucksack April 1984

Peter stands down as president of the Ramblers (Rucksack, April 1984)

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.

Rucksack Jun 1983

Printed in Rucksack, June 1983

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The hundredth gate

North Bucks rRIPPLE (ramblers Repairing and Improving Public Paths for Leisure and Exercise), the small group of six retired people who work on the ground in north Buckinghamshire to make public paths more accessible, celebrated the installation of their 100th and 101st gates in Whitchurch, near Aylesbury, on 7 February.

The team, under the aegis of the Buckinghamshire, Milton Keynes and West Middlesex Ramblers, was founded in early 2015 and works closely with Bucks County Council rights-of-way department, landowners and villagers.  It is removing obstacles, such as dilapidated stiles, from the public-path network at the rate of around one per week.  It installs self-closing, self-latching, galvanised steel gates which are friendly to farmers’ stock and make life much easier for older and less-able walkers.

The 100th gate was sponsored by Aylesbury Ramblers through the group’s Donate a Gate (DaG) scheme, whereby a person or occasion can be marked by a plaque on the gate.  The gate is just to the south of Oving Road on the west side of Whitchurch (grid reference SP 795 209).  The Ramblers are able to reclaim the gift aid on DaG, which goes back into the project.

2 New kissing-gate

The 100th gate. L-R: Derek Holland, Bill Piers, Keith Wheeler-Cherry (all of North Bucks rRipple) and Jon Clark (Bucks County Council strategic access officer).  Photo by Peter Smith

The work by rRIPPLE is extremely impressive and to a high standard (I wish though that the county council still issued wooden gates rather than the stark metal ones).  In these days of austerity, it is invaluable that volunteers are willing to help the county council to get work done on our rights of way.

Says the team leader, Bill Piers from Haddenham: ‘This scheme has proved immensely popular.  Passing walkers frequently ask our working party for a DaG application form.

‘The work is onerous and requires some skill, but I am willing to train any volunteers.  It’s fun and sociable too—and we generally finish the day in the pub.’

1 Stile which was replaced

The stile which was replaced

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Better for butterflies

Common Wood: part 13

It was a misty morning on 19 February, but that did not deter the Dartmoor Preservation Association conservation volunteers.  Fourteen of us came on the workday at Common Wood, my common near Horndon on Dartmoor which we are managing for fritillary butterflies.  Megan Lowe and Simon Phelps from Butterfly Conservation’s All the Moor Butterflies project also joined us.

1 arrival

Meeting in the mist at Hillbridge Farm

We gathered at 10 o’clock at Hillbridge Farm and walked along the leat to Common Wood.  We were working on the upper slope where we hope to attract Pearl Bordered and Small Pearl Bordered Fritillaries.  It would have been far too wet to have tackled the marsh in the bottom which is a potential site for Marsh Fritillaries.

We were to cut away brambles, hawthorn and gorse, leaving the bracken.  The volunteers are so used to attacking bracken (much of their work is to clear Dartmoor’s antiquities) that it must be quite difficult for them to leave it at Common Wood, but it is needed to provide the right habitat for the butterflies.

It was hard work on the slippery slope with brambles getting twisted round our legs.

4 work party

We dragged our cuttings down the slope to the windrow, a hedge made of the brash.  It runs just above the leat.

8 windrow


Claude Williams did great work with the strimmer.

3 Claude strimming

Claude strimming

And here is Simon Phelps tackling a tough gorse bush.

5 Simon Phelps

Simon and the gorse bush

We had coffee- and lunch-breaks, which were much improved by the range of homemade cakes offered by John and Elaine Viant.

6 lunch

Lunch break

By the end of the day we had certainly made a difference to the vegetation.

2 before


7 after








At around 3 pm we packed up our tools and headed back to Hillbridge for a sumptuous tea.

10 packing up

Packing up

We shall be back again in October, but meanwhile the volunteers can feel satisfied that they have made Common Wood better for butterflies, and some of them will return in the summer to see how many we have here.


9 after

Job done—for now

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A fieldful of fieldfares

This morning I did the second of my four bird-surveys of the grid square for Kingston Stert (SP70F) in south Oxfordshire.  The survey is for the River Thame Conservation Trust, and I describe my route here.  It was a very different day from my first visit last December, with blindingly bright sun and a strongish wind, both of which make bird counts difficult.

Sydenham village

Sydenham village, Oxfordshire

There was also a great deal of mud, and the walk along Sewell’s Lane bridleway north towards Sydenham was really hard work, partly because it had been deeply rutted by farm vehicles.

Sewell's Lane mud

Sewell’s Lane, practically impassable for walkers and cyclists

But what of the birds?  I saw or heard 25 species, the same number as on my visit on 2 December.

Last time I had seen many fieldfares in the trees around the fields to the north-east of the village and they were the most numerous bird in my survey.  This time I saw no fieldfares there and had given up on seeing any when, on my long walk over the fields south of the village I caught sight of one, the sun glinting on its chest, in a neighbouring grassy field.  Then with my binoculars I saw that there were something like 200 there, apparently playing grandmother’s footsteps with surreptitious little hops and short flights.  Their colours were strikingly beautiful but if it had not been sunny I might not have seen them.

Fieldfare field

A fieldful of fieldfares

Once again, fieldfares were the most numerous on my survey, followed a long way behind by rooks (23, but probably an underestimate), blackbirds (21) and blue tit (13).  I saw my first greenfinches of the year.  A skylark sang in the large fields stretching away to the Chiltern escarpment—a signal of spring!


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What is a trainer? A matter for the courts

I was delighted when my friend George Laurence QC invited me to lunch at the Middle Temple this week.  The Elizabethan hall is majestic with its exquisitely carved minstrels’ gallery, long oak-tables and splendid paintings.

Hall 2

Middle Temple hall

A particular feature is the double hammerbeam roof, said to be the finest in London.


Double hammerbeam roof

In 1940 the eastern end of the hall was blasted by a landmine and the minstrels’ gallery was shattered into pieces.  The oak remains were gathered and painstakingly reassembled after the war.  The painting by Frank Beresford, which hangs in the gallery, shows the extent of the damage.


Middle Temple hall after the hit by a landmine in 1940, by Frank Beresford

Before setting out that morning I had checked the dress code and seen that trainers were not permitted even at lunch time, but I needed to wear a comfortable pair of shoes for walking round London all day.  I had selected a pair of lace-ups which I considered did not fit the description of trainer (dictionary definition: a soft sports shoe suitable for casual wear).



George was not so sure, but we asked the steward at the entrance and he said I would be allowed in.  He would not however give a definitive answer as to whether my shoes were trainers or not, so I guess that is a matter for the courts.  But I was glad not to have to change my shoes (I had brought spares just in case).

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A bit of Bayeux on Dartmoor

With the Bayeux Tapestry possibly to visit Britain for the first time in 2020, we learn that there is a replica at Reading Museum.

And there is (or was) a fine reproduction of parts of scenes 42 and 43 on the kitchen wall of Old Middle Cator, near Widecombe-in-the-Moor on Dartmoor.


Bayeux Tapestry scenes 42 and 43 on the kitchen wall at Old Middle Cator, painted by Sylvia Sayer

This was painted in oils, some time in the 1970s, by my good friend the late Sylvia Sayer, who owned at Cator from 1928 until she died in 2000.  She was a fine artist, and did particularly wonderful, meticulous drawings—but her constant work defending Dartmoor meant that she spent far too little time on her artwork.

Cooked, served and eaten
The sections of the Bayeux Tapestry which she reproduced on the kitchen wall were those of meat being cooked, served and eaten:  hic ministraverunt ministri hic fecerun prandium (here the servants have served (the meat), here they have a meal).  Syl strayed slightly from the original, framing her scene with trees.  Her initials are visible at the foot of the right-hand tree.

It is a lovely work and I do hope that her successors at Cator have preserved this unique creation.

You can compare Syl’s painting with the real thing below.


The real Bayeux Tapestry scene 42. By Image on web site of Ulrich Harsh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


The real Bayeux Tapestry scene 43a. By Image on web site of Ulrich Harsh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Path reporting in Glos

It’s Ramblers’ AGM season again and many of my weekends are taken up with visiting Areas.  I welcome this because I learn so much about what Ramblers’ volunteers do for paths, access and helping people to enjoy walking.

Last Saturday I was in Gloucestershire, at Norton village hall, on the A38 about three miles north of Gloucester.  The meeting was a fairly standard AGM but it was made more interesting by short talks which punctuated the proceedings.  This was the idea of Bernard Gill, the chair.  It worked well and I shall recommend this to other Areas as a way of keeping people’s interest during the AGM.

8 On top of Cleeve Common

On top of Cleeve Common, the highest point in Gloucestershire, November 2017

We heard from Mike Hillier, walks coordinator of the 20s-30s group (a subgroup of the Gloucestershire Walking Group for younger members).  He explained how the members communicate through WhatsApp and how experienced leaders help new ones.  Mike works hard at this, despite having a full-time job, and the walks are well attended.

Reporting problems
A bit later in the meeting the Cleeve Group footpath secretary, Martin Thornley, demonstrated two ways of reporting path problems.  You can use the online map on Gloucestershire County Council’s website, or the Ramblers’ Pathwatch ‘app’ with the advantage that you can log the problem on site and take a photo, and the app sends it to Ramblers’ central office.  Reports are forwarded every fortnight to the county council and the Area footpath secretary.

We were able to put this into practice on the afternoon walk, led by Derek Hughes of Gloucester Group.  We set off on a path heading east from the A38 (Norton footpath 34) and soon came to a crossing with Norton footpath 33.  There was no waymark on the stile, and one was needed as we were turning north onto a cross-field route which was not well reinstated.  Bernard Gill took a photo and sent a report using the Pathwatch app.  As I do not have the app on my phone, I made a note to report it later.

x2 walking towards Priors Norton

Norton footpath 33 across the fields north to Priors Norton. A waymark is needed at the junction with footpath 34.

We walked up to Priors Norton church, part of which dates from the thirteenth century.  It is known as ‘the disappearing church’ because it is built just behind the brow of a hill and, when seen from the A38, it appears to sink into the hill.

x4 Priors Norton church 1

Priors Norton church

Then we walked down to the A38 and, after crossing it, found that the signpost for the path we were to follow (Norton footpath 5) was leaning over and would shortly be hidden by vegetation.  Another report was sent via Pathwatch.

x10 A38 & Norton FP5 & BW41

Signpost supposedly marking Norton footpath 5 and bridleway 41 where they leave the A38 (grid ref SO 864 244)

We walked over fields and eventually came to the River Severn at Wainlode, with a view across to Barrow Hill with a clump of trees on top.

x14 Wainlode 2

From Wainlode, looking NE across the Severn to Barrow Hill

Just by the river is the Red Lion pub, a fine building.

x15 Red Lion Wainlode

The Red Lion at Wainlode

We walked back on the lanes, passing through Bishops Norton with its pleasant village green.  When I later reported the path problems to Gloucestershire County Council via its website I was pleased to discover that its map had a layer showing registered village greens.  Bishops Norton village green is VG25.

x16 VG25 Bishops Norton

Bishops Norton village green

Posted in Access, campaigns, Obstructed path, Public paths, Ramblers, walking | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment