Tricky paths at Tetsworth

I returned to Tetsworth in Oxfordshire last Sunday (19 January) for my second bird-survey for the River Thame Conservation Trust.  Last time, on 17 November, I found and reported a number of problems on the public paths.

On the north-west side of Tetsworth there is a group of fields, mostly given over to horses.  These fields are crossed by a network of paths.  I took a different route from last time to get to the Ordnance Survey square (SP60Q) in which I do the bird recording.  I soon came to the first problem, a fence with no stile on footpath 22 at grid reference SP 684018.

28 Jan 20, FP382-22 E end

Non-existent stile at eastern end of footpath 22

The path across the field was strewn with tapes which were a nuisance and strictly speaking an obstruction.  I ducked under them.

30 Jan 20 offputting tape

Tape across the path

At the western end of this path, where it joins the bridleway across the M40 (grid reference SP 682018), there is a locked gate.  I had to scramble over the fence.

29 Jan 20, FP 382-22 W end locked gate

Locked gate

I have reported both to Oxfordshire County Council.

As I crossed the M40 I looked hopefully for the kite-aping sea eagle reported in the Guardian.  Sadly it was not to be.  No doubt if I had seen one, the British Trust for Ornithology website (where I record my findings) would have challenged its authenticity.

At Goldpits Farm the stile was in the same appalling condition as before.  The county council says it has contacted the landowner but he or she has done nothing.  However, there was some compensation because I heard, then saw, a bright yellow siskin near the top of a tree.  I rarely see them around here so that was a bonus.

The day was misty and cold with the sun breaking through.  It was a pleasure to be out in it, although there weren’t many birds early on.

31 Jan 20 bright morning

Heading for Joiner’s Farm. In November this hedgerow was full of linnets and chaffinches. In January there were very few birds here

The stile near Oxhouse Farm had also not been fixed and was even more dangerous than before, practically collapsing as I struggled over it, and I was scratched by barbed wire.  I have asked the council to give this priority as it is now dangerous and been told that an officer will make a site visit.

32 Jan 20, Oxhouse Farm stile

Treacherous stile

I negotiated the stile and walked up the ridge-and-furrow field towards Tetsworth where I saw a large, mixed flock of noisy fieldfares and redwings.

I was surprised to discover that I had seen or heard 25 species in all, compared with 20 on my November visit.

Posted in Access, Birds, British Trust for Ornithology, Obstructed path, Public paths, walking | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rambling around Rushden

Once again it is the Ramblers’ Areas’ AGM season and as a trustee I have opted to attend a number of them.  My first of the season was the Northamptonshire AGM on 1 December 2019, held in the scout hut at Rushden, 16 miles to east of Northampton.

This time it was the Area’s 20s-40s group‘s turn to host the AGM.  I arrived in time for a five-mile walk from Rushden, led by Tim who was reading the map from his phone.  A longer walk, which was well attended, had started earlier.

We crossed Rushden Town Council’s elegant Hall Park,

1 Hall Park

Hall Park

then found our way through a maze of housing estates to a bridleway which runs along a strip of woodland on the south-west edge of Rushden.

2 Path along edge of town

Bridleway on the edge of Rushden

This took us to the Irchester Road, which we followed past Knuston Hall to the railway line, the Midland line from St Pancras.  We crossed this and then took a path with wide, flat views to the south-west

4 flat land

Flat country

and then under the railway.

3 under the railway

Under the railway

We followed the railway then turned east, along the county boundary, to Wymington, in Bedford Borough.

5 county boundary hedge

Following the county boundary

From here it was a short walk on roads back to Rushden.

6 Rushden sign

Back to Rushden

As we entered the main part of the town we passed the site of the last working blacksmiths.

7 plaque

A T Ginns & Son, the last working blacksmiths


8 The Smithy

The Smithy







I also had a good view of the church, which Pevsner considers ‘a very grand Perp parish church’.

9 church

Rushden parish church

Later I looked at the map and realised that we had not followed definitive routes over the fields but rather had walked along field boundaries.  The reason was probably that one of the paths was definitive in Bedford borough but stopped at the Northamptonshire boundary (grid reference SP 945653).  An application must be made to Northamptonshire County Council before 1 January 2026 when the definitive map is closed to the addition of certain paths.

Back at the scout hut there were welcome tea and cakes, organised by the 20s-40s group, Then we had the AGM.  There were only 26 people there (many on the two walks had slipped away) but it was good to see a number of younger members from the host group.  The Area has some excellent volunteers but, as is so often the case, we need more.  During the meeting one of the members of the 20s-40s volunteered to run the website, which was very encouraging.

We mourned the loss during the year of two brilliant Northamptonshire stalwarts, Bob Coles and Maurice Tebbutt.  Bob’s wonderful displays, which he created when he was Area publicity officer, were on show.

10 Bob's display

One of Bob’s display panels

I had taken part in many of these campaigns and was amused to see a photo of a much-younger me being interviewed by Radio Northamptonshire in 1995.

Radio interview

Radio interview

The Area does good work defending paths and open space, in a county which is severely short of money.  I admire its stoicism in the face of such adversity.

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A magical landscape

On 10 November 2019 over one hundred campaigners for the South Downs National Park  gathered at Ditchling village hall to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the confirmation of the national park.  

1 Ditchling village hall

Gathering at the village hall

It had been a long campaign, culminating with the then environment secretary, Hilary Benn, signing the order at Ditchling tea rooms in East Sussex on 12 November 1999.


Hilary Benn signs the confirming order. Photo: South Downs Society

There were displays of photos from the campaign.

4 displays


Tony Whitbread from the Sussex Wildlife Trust welcomed us all and we saw a video of a feature from BBC South East Today about the campaign.  We remembered with affection the late Paul Millmore who was so active in the campaign, and died shortly after the park was confirmed.

2 Paul Millmore

The late Paul Millmore, interviewed on BBC South East

We also remembered Len Clark, who died last September aged 103; in his quiet way he was at the heart of the campaign with his wise advice and steady hand.

Ben and Len 2

Ben Fogle, former president of the Campaign for National Parks, and Len Clark at a South Downs campaign event

Robin Crane, who was chairman of the South Downs Campaign of 160 organisations throughout its existence, gave a brief summary of the campaign, from the Countryside Commission’s refusal to designate the park in 1997, followed by the campaign’s meeting with the environment minister Michael Meacher in March 1999.  Then, at the Labour Party conference in September 1999 John Prescott, deputy prime minister, called on the Countryside Commission’s successor, the Countyside Agency, to designate the New Forest and South Downs national parks—Labour’s one hundredth birthday gift to the nation, which raised the political temperature.

Firle Beacon

Firle Beacon, East Sussex

Robin said that the first paper to the Countryside Agency board was flawed, and the Campaign for National Parks hastily wrote a letter to the chairman, Ewen Cameron, explaining this.  The agency board then visited the area and at its meeting the following day unanimously agreed that the South Downs did meet the criteria for a national park and that the process of designation should proceed.  There then followed the long public inquiry, the risk of a ‘chalk only’ national park, the battle to include the Western Weald and the eventual victory. 

He said that it was fortunate that the Countryside Agency’s initial consultation omitted Liss in East Hampshire from the park because this incited Margaret Paren, who lived there, to get involved, and she had proved a powerful advocate.

web campaign

South Downs rally on Harting Down, West Sussex, to call for the inclusion of the Western Weald in the park. 8 July 2007

Margaret Paren, who had chaired the national park authority since its inception in April 2010, spoke.  She described some of the work of the park today: landscape-scale thinking; farm clusters to develop innovative approaches to farming with whole-estate plans; the dark skies initiative, and planning in partnership with high-quality design.


Butser Hill, Hampshire

Lord (Steve) Bassam, former Labour leader of Brighton and Hove Council, read a letter from Hilary Benn who, due to the general election, was unable to join us.  Hilary said that confirming the park was ‘One of the things I am most proud of in my time as a minister’.  When he told his officials he was going to visit the park before approving the boundaries they were very worried that he might talk to someone and be unduly influenced.  However he did visit, and he decided to include almost all of the designated area, including Ditchling.  ‘It is a special, magical landscape and long may it remain so,’ he wrote.

Steve and Margaret then unveiled the plaque which will be displayed outside the Ditchling tea rooms where the signing took place on that historic day.

3 PlaqueThis year we celebrate the tenth anniversary of the South Downs National Park Authority, and Owen Plunkett is organising an event at Midhurst on Saturday 28 March at which I shall be speaking.  See you there!

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Last post for Bob

On his ninetieth birthday in September 2019 I dedicated a tree to Bob Coles in the Woodland Trust’s Stoke Wood, the closest trust property to his home in Little Harrowden, Northamptonshire.  My words for the certificate were To dear Bob, to celebrate your ninetieth birthday and a lifetime of campaigning for ramblers. With love from your admirer, Campaigner Kate.  Bob’s son Mick had said he would like a tree because he loved woodlands. 


With Bob at his ninetieth birthday celebration

I last saw Bob at the event organised by the Ramblers Northampton Group to dedicate a gate to former activist Maurice Tebbutt, a dear friend of Bob’s.  We walked over the field and back together.  I treasure that last memory of Bob—for he died suddenly the following week.

3 heading for gate

Arriving at the gate with Bob Coles

I have written about Bob a few times on this blog, most recently to celebrate his birthday.  With his dogged defence of paths, access, trees and hedgerows in Northamptonshire he was a true stalwart who loved his countryside and knew so much about it.  He was stubborn, indefatigable, tireless and determined but also the sweetest and most generous man with a delightful sense of humour.  Nothing was too much trouble for him, whether it was banging in a waymark post (which earned him the sobriquet Posty Bob) or leading a protest walk.  I recall interrupting his Sunday lunch to ask him immediately to check  an access site for a journalist who was planning a story for the following day.  Bob went at once and reported back.

Beacon Hill, Sep 1998

Northamptonshire Ramblers’ walk on Beacon Hill, near Edlesborough in Bucks, Sept 1998. We later won access here under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. Bob is in front, to the left of the sign.

It is planned to install a gate as a memorial to Bob on a footpath in Little Harrowden when I hope to say a few words in memory of Bob.  Sadly, I could not be at his funeral at his beloved Little Harrowden church on 27 November.  Mick has sent me his eulogy.  I reproduce some of it here, as a beautiful tribute to a much-loved friend.

Some of Mick’s words
Dad was born in 1929 in Little Harrowden, the second child of Sidney and Gladys ‘Millie’ Coles.  At the age of six and three quarters Dad joined the cub scouts, until he was allegedly thrown out.  No reason was given but there is a good chance even then that it was for being unable to be quiet.  He was also a keen ornithologist, and starting to learn his carpentry under the tutoring of his father who was also an extremely skilled craftsman.  He was initially educated at the village school just behind this church where he met his lifelong friend, the recently-departed Harvey Buckby.  Dad’s first job was as organ pumper in this church.  He and his brother Geoff carved their initials into the back of the organ.

1 carving

Bob’s initials, carved in Little Harrowden church

Growing up in the village was perfect for Dad.  There were so few restrictions on children in those days and, along with his other friends, he enjoyed many adventures in the surrounding countryside.  They knew every nook and cranny, where all the birds’ nests were and how to hide from farmers if necessary.  The only rules were that he had always to be in sight of Orlingbury church tower and be back in time for tea.  Dad loved football and was a very good goalkeeper playing for the village youth and adult sides as well as several Wellingborough teams and his station in the RAF.

His early teenage years coincided with the Second World War and the influx of evacuees from Walthamstow, which swelled the population of children in the village dramatically. Dad always recalled the fear in some of their faces when they first saw farm animals and realised this was where the food came from.  What they lacked in countryside skills they evidently made up for in their ability to fight, as he found out on a few occasions.

Bank Hill, Great Harrowden

Great Harrowden from Bank Hill. Photo by Bob Coles

He talked about the day a German plane was shot down between Finedon and Irthlingborough and he and his friends rushed to the crash site on their bikes to see what bounty they could get.  He came home, to horrified looks from his parents, with a bandola of live ammunition slung over his shoulder.  Grandad took this off him immediately, removed the detonation caps and gunpowder, and then allowed him to show it off around the village.

National Service
Dad ended up at the new technical college in Wellingborough where he continued his education while starting a carpentry apprenticeship with the builders, Browns of Wellingborough.  His National Service was put off until he finished his City and Guilds in which he received high-level passes, after which he joined the RAF and was employed in the workshops and as goalkeeper for the station team.  When he came to the end of his National Service he had been earmarked as having potential for officer training and was sent to see the station commander.  He was not too keen on this course of action as he had other plans but he need not have worried because he was immediately discarded when he failed to identify the aircraft standing outside the main gate of the station.

He met his future wife Betty on 6 March 1946, in the annex of the ladies’ toilets at Wellingborough Technical College where they were both studying.  (Mick spoke about Betty at her funeral in January 2019, about which I wrote here.)  They were married in 1954 after Dad had qualified as a teacher.

Five years later they purchased the plot of land in Little Harrowden where they lived for the rest of their lives.  Dad, with a little help from his father and friends, built his own house.  Mum always reminded him, as we all did, that he had never finished it.  It took him two years to build the house to a point where we could move in.  He might have completed it quicker if he hadn’t spent many mornings delivering the papers for Nan and Grandad who owned the village shop.  He also lost many Saturday afternoons being cajoled into playing football. Not only did he build the house but he also made most of the furniture and fittings.


The house which Bob built in Little Harrowden, taken from the cover of a calendar which Bob made for me this year

Dad started his teaching career as a woodwork teacher at Stamford Road Boys’ School in Kettering before moving to the Westfield School in Wellingborough which then became Sir Christopher Hatton.  He was a successful teacher and head of the craft department. 

He retired at 55 and for him life was only just starting. He took up a role as tree warden on the parish council, was then encouraged to join full time and eventually followed in the footsteps of his mother and great uncle when he became chairman.  He served the parish in many capacities for over 30 years.  He was a governor of the school and a committee member for the village hall, and continued to be the go-to person for village history and facts up to the day he died.

Buccleuch bridleway KA and Bob Coles 13 April 1998

Obstructed bridleway GT13 at Little Oakley, on the Duke of Buccleugh’s estate, in 1998. Bob is behind.

However this was still not enough for Dad.  After many years of walking all around Britain he became an active member of the Ramblers with which he held many roles including Northamptonshire Area publicity officer and latterly life president.  He was always so proud of the Ramblers’ work and liked to think that he along with many friends helped to keep the footpath and bridleway network open.  Some of the letters he wrote to the local press on countryside issues were legendary and he was always disgusted when they were edited.  He was a popular, knowledgeable and kind leader of walks, always being generous with chocolate and other treats as the seasons dictated.

He was also a founding member of the Finedon Pocket Park which was the first to be opened in Northamptonshire.  He spent many hours working with his fellow volunteers clearing walkways and building steps, stiles and bridges many of which are still going strong today.

Betty Coles

Betty Coles

Throughout his efforts Mum was always by his side and was overjoyed when as a reward for his unstinting dedication to the things he held dear he was made an MBE in 2007 for services to the community.  This was undoubtedly Mum’s proudest day.

Mum and Dad were together for 73 years and married for 64.  They lived in the village they loved, in their dream home for 56 years and shared so many good and bad times. Dad loved his life, and his greatest loves were Mum, his family and the village and he was a credit to them all.

Dad, we miss you more than words could express and decided to send your cap with you on the coffin in the hope that you won’t lose it this time. He was famous for leaving it in shops, pubs and anywhere else he went.

As Mum would say, be careful on those stairs, especially as they have added a few stiles especially for you.

A life very well lived.  Bye bye Bobby.

Bob Coles, 19 September 1929 – 8 November 2019


Bob steps down as Ramblers’ publicity officer for Northamptonshire in 2007 after 31 years


Posted in Access, campaigns, Obituary, Obstructed path, People, Public paths, Ramblers, Walkers Are Welcome Towns, Woods and forests | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Shield of the moor

Twenty years ago today, on 4 January 2000, Sylvia (Lady) Sayer died aged 95.  She had been my friend and champion for nearly 30 years (I describe our meeting here), and in the ensuing weeks I wrote a number of obituaries and tributes.  This is a combination of them.

Stand on a summit on central Dartmoor and look around you.  It is still largely wild and free.  For that we owe a deep gratitude to Lady Sayer, who devoted over half a century to defending Dartmoor’s wildness.

Sylvia Sayer 21 May 1983

Sylvia Sayer, speaker at the Dartmoor Preservation Association’s centenary AGM on 21 May 1983

She was born in Edwardian Plymouth, of an upright, middle-class family.  Her great-grandfather owned Cattedown Wharf in old Plymouth harbour, her grandfather on her mother’s side, Robert Burnard, founded the Dartmoor Preservation Association in 1883, and her father was a naval surgeon who was at sea a great deal.  The joy of her childhood was the regular visits to Huccaby House on Dartmoor, which Robert Burnard leased from the Duchy of Cornwall.

There Syl and her sister Phyllis found freedom and happiness, away from the starched rectitude of the Plymouth household.  As she wrote in 1973:

It was a place of strong and potent magic: no children were ever happier than we were there.  To be told we were ‘going to Huccaby’ was to be seized with a kind of mad joy; to leave it was a cruel banishment…for me the Huccaby magic is still there and I can forget today’s packed cars and milling people around Huccaby Bridge, the car park in Huccaby Meadow and the litter floating in the Dart, and I’m back as a small grandchild staying at Huccaby House, with the lovely rushing voice of the river and the scent of the rhododendrons and pines blowing in at my bedroom window.  And tomorrow would be bringing another wonderful Dartmoor day.

So granite was in her blood (centuries before coming to Dartmoor, her mother’s forebears had farmed on Bodmin Moor).  In 1981 she wrote*:

As you approach Dartmoor’s heights from the cultivated Devon lowlands the centuries fall away faster than the mileage until finally you arrive in the landscape of the Bronze Age; and sometimes this brings a kind of involuntary recognition that you have been here before—a long time before—and here are your roots, this is your tribal land.

When Syl and her husband, Guy Sayer, discovered Cator, a tumble-down cottage near Widecombe, in 1928, they bought it for £150 and lived there until the end of their lives: Guy died in 1985.



In 1930 they had twin boys, Oliver (Oz) and Geoff, who grew up at Cator.

Oz and Geoff

Oz and Geoff

It was after the war that Syl became deeply involved in the protection of Dartmoor.  She played an important role in the establishment of the national park in 1951 and was a member of the park committee from 1952 to 1957 when she resigned in protest at the committee’s failure to uphold national values (it was then a subcommittee of Devon County Council, under the thumb of a small group of aldermen).  The final straw for her was when the chairman, Sir Henry Slesser (the Devon County Alderman and former Solicitor-General), used his casting vote in favour of china-clay mining.

Waywarden's hut Nov 73

With Guy, exploring a waywarden’s hut soon to be destroyed by china clay tipping at Lee Moor, November 1973

At that time Dartmoor faced a multitude of threats, not only from china clay but also from the expansion of military training, a TV mast on North Hessary Tor and ploughing and enclosure of open country, to name a few.  And the threats continued over the ensuing years.

In 1951 Syl became chairman of the Dartmoor Preservation Association and built it up from only 140 members to the effective pressure-group that it is today.  In 1973 she retired from the chair and became patron, jointly with Guy.

Hawson Cross 1952

Hawson Cross near Buckfastleigh, restored by the DPA in 1952. Syl is to the right of the cross

With other devotees of their parks, such as Gerald Haythornthwaite in the Peak District, Syl served on the Standing Committee on National Parks, now the Campaign for National Parks.  She was a member of the Commons Preservation Society (now the Open Spaces Society) committee (but generously gave up in 1978 so that I could take over), and worked closely with the Ramblers’ Association, of which she was a vice-president, to get a better deal for Dartmoor.  She ensured these national bodies were represented at Dartmoor’s many public inquiries, some of which lasted for months.

Gt Mis Tor from White Tor

Great Mis Tor from White Tor on western Dartmoor

Syl did not care what people thought about her, so long as she did the right thing for Dartmoor.  She battled calmly, courteously and effectively, with steadfast support from Guy.  There were many who must have dreaded the beautifully written envelope dropping through their letter box: she never typed, but her copper-plate handwriting was her hallmark.

In 1967 she walked on Ringmoor Down on south-west Dartmoor, right under the military helicopters, to expose the danger to walkers and riders of the gun-dropping activities.  And she would march across the northern Dartmoor military ranges during live firing to ‘exercise her common rights’ of grazing and cutting peat.

SS under helicopter

Photograph from the Times of Syl on Ringmoor Down, on 21 February 1967

Ringmoor Down painting

Syl’s 1968 painting of the gun-dropping exercises on Ringmoor Down.











How she hated those who would destroy the moor or who put parochial interests first.  An arch-enemy was Peter Mills, MP for West Devon, who played an ignominious role in the destruction of the West Okement valley by the Meldon reservoir—when he was knighted, Syl immediately knighted her donkey, Erastus.

Sir Ronald Brockman, chairman of the national park committee in the 1970s, earned her obloquy when in June 1975 he called the police to remove Syl and her friends from the public gallery.  She had protested loudly at the meeting at being falsely represented by him to members of the committee with no opportunity to reply.

14 Jun 75 WMN cropped

The police were called, Western Morning News 14 June 1975

Another was Alderman Wilkey, whom she described in The Meldon Story, on 4 March 1970, the day that work on the reservoir began, as a little Water Board Napoleon, incongruous in the Dartmoor scene in his black Homburg hat and overcoat, Mr Wilkey posed for the photographers and celebrated his moment of triumph by pressing a button and blowing up a tree.

Wilkey at Meldon

Mr W H Wilkey posing for photographers at Meldon (from The Meldon Story)

The Meldon battle was bitter and unjust.  Syl ended The Meldon Story with a despairing observation:

The effect on the younger generation of the methods of present-day misgovernment is alarming but inevitable.  When they utterly despair of a fair hearing or a just decision, they tend to stop talking and reach for the nearest brick.  And who can blame them?  Certainly we do not.  We well know that the provocation to lawlessness often starts in Whitehall.

And there was the collection of officials who visited the proposed Swincombe reservoir site in the late 1960s, about whom she wrote in Wild Country: national asset or barren waste (1971), illustrated by a drawing:

There they all stood, on the rim of a great natural amphitheatre, looking out across the wilderness; a group of good worthy citizens in Homburg hats and raincoats and pointed town shoes.

Just a barren wilderness’, said one stout alderman to another ‘and a perfect site for a reservoir’, and I think he voiced the opinion of the majority of that particular party.  But a minority of those present felt—and said—that he could only have produced that remark out of a totally barren mind.

Little men

Syl’s drawing of the visit to Swincombe.

She could write a cutting letter.  Here is her correspondence with Sir Henry Studholme in The Times in August 1971 when the above-mentioned Swincombe scheme was being revived.  He wrote that it made no difference to the Swincombe valley whether it became a reservoir or not—it would be equally free and inspiring.   Syl riposted:

Fortunate Sir Henry Studholme who seems able to persuade himself that a huge artificial dam, roads and associated structures are objects of wild and natural beauty, and that by some modern miracle people are able to walk on water.

At public inquiries she was fearless in her cross-examination of those who proposed to damage the moor, and was never caught out when she herself was questioned, because her preparation of the case was impeccable and her knowledge of the moor unparalleled.

She was also an artist, though with little time to devote to it, such were the pressures on Dartmoor: at meetings she would sketch those round the table to a perfect likeness.

Widecombe drawing by SS

Syl’s drawing of Widecombe church; the borders represent the inhabitants from 1066 to 1949, the roundels are local scenes, and there is much else intertwined here

Because she was so outspoken and made many enemies, her human side tended to be overlooked.  She was exceptionally warm, kind and humorous with a large and close family (five grandchildren and, at the time of her death, seven great grandchildren) and a multitude of friends whom she welcomed to Cator where there was always a roaring fire and a good tea.

Apple-tree 16 Aug 1975

Three generations of Sayers on the Cator apple-tree, 16 August 1975

Apple-tree 1977

and in 1977









Syl was tremendously courageous and resourceful.  Shortly after she married Guy in 1925, he was stationed in Hong Kong.  She could not bear to be parted from him and so she travelled to China and persuaded the Shangai Times to let her follow him up the River Yangtze (where a battle was raging), as an artist to record events, at some personal danger.  More recently, in 1983, when she had a cancerous problem with her eyelid, she opted to have her eye removed.  With her black patch, she looked as fearsome as ever.

Moth in her ear
One summer evening, when Guy was reading to Syl in bed as he normally did, a moth flew into her ear and did not fly out again.  Unable to budge it, and unable to sleep because of the fluttering torture in her head, she got up and wrote Dartmoor letters all night, including one to the Telegraph, so as not to waste time when she couldn’t sleep.  The next day the doctor flushed out the moth and she was delighted to find it was still alive.

Syl came from a middle-class family, and she took on the establishment in the days when it was not fashionable to do so.  In 1983, when Prince Charles as Duke of Cornwall invited her to Kensington Palace to celebrate the launch of the Duchy’s management plan for Dartmoor, she refused because the Prince showed no sign of telling the military to stop using Dartmoor for live firing.

GBS & SS plaque

The newly-installed memorial in Huccaby chapel

It was Syl who devised a plan in 1975 to save the unromantically-named ‘Area Y’ on Shaugh Moor, south-west Dartmoor, from being used by the china clay company as a giant clay-waste dustbin.  This is a magnificent stretch of moorland with a rich palimpsest of ancient monuments.

In 1966, the Devon County Alderman (and former Solicitor-General) Sir Henry Slesser, whom Syl had opposed on the park committee in 1957, decided that she was right after all.  He wrote a collection of Dartmoor ditties called ‘This Barren Waste’.  The first is about Syl.

Defensor forestae
There’s an eloquent Dame
(I won’t mention her name)
Who toils for the Moor’s preservation.
Explosions from mortars
And reservoired waters
Call forth her most dire indignation—
Over-planting of trees—a tax dodger’s wheeze—
Has suffered a grievous ‘exposure’
While motors on highways
Which penetrate byways
Have caused her most deep discomposure.

To all who would menace the Moor
Her responses are drastic but sure—
While commercialists fear her
The ‘ramblers’ revere her
For she is the shield of the Moor.

Syliva Rosalind Pleadwell Sayer, 6 March 1904 – 4 January 2000


* From an essay, Wild landscape: Dartmoor—the influence and inspiration of its past, published in Our past before us: why do we save it? Edited by David Lowenthal and Marcus Binney (Maurice Temple Smith Ltd, 1981).

Posted in Access, campaigns, common land, common rights, commons, Dartmoor, Devon, National parks, Obituary, Open Spaces Society, Public paths, Ramblers, wild country | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

On new year’s day every bird counts

On the first day of the year I start again with recording every bird species I see or hear.  So I am delighted to see any bird, however common, for the first time in the year.  Welcome blue tit, great tit, blackbird, robin and even wood pigeon!

On 1 January this year I managed 18 species.  The first, as last year, was the wood pigeon, in my garden.  On my run I picked up some larger birds which I could see without stopping: red kite, buzzard, rook, crow and jackdaw.  Then Chris and I went for a walk around Cowleaze Wood, Oxfordshire, where I ticked off a few more, including a shaggy raven.

Below Cowleaze

Below Cowleaze Wood, heading for the Wormsley valley

We headed out on the Oxfordshire Chiltern escarpment and through part of Aston Rowant national nature reserve.

Escarpment, Beacon Hill

Beacon Hill on the Chiltern escarpment

Here I found wren and marsh tit.  There are still many common species as yet unseen, but it was a reasonable start to the year.

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My bird year 2019

It didn’t feel like much of a bird year, but when I counted up I was surprised to discover that I had seen 116 species (four more than last year) and heard (without seeing) three: Cetti’s, grasshopper and wood warblers. This was in England and Wales: I have not counted those I saw in Peru.

However, there were some pretty common species I didn’t see or hear: snipe, barn owl, golden plover and kingfisher, to name a few.

The year started well with a female crossbill on my River Thame Conservation Trust survey on 12 January.  I have only seen them once before around here, at Cowleaze Wood in 2010.


Crossbill on treetop at top of Kingston Hill in Oxfordshire

There were curlews bubbling on 22 March, when I walked with my visually-impaired friend Marika Kovacs before breakfast from Edale youth hostel in Derbyshire.  We were there for an event to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949.


Curlews were bubbling near Edale

Another excitement for me were the jangling corn buntings below Lodge Hill in Bucks on a bright May morning.

3 bunting spot

The bunting sat on the wire

With help from a professional birder with a strong telescope, I saw my first Caspian gull on Spade Oak Lake at Little Marlow in Bucks in March.

Gulls 2

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

I made two visits, in April and May, to lovely White Wood on Dartmoor, where I heard wood warblers but didn’t see any; however I was rewarded with pied flycatcher, redstart, tree pipit and siskin.

8 track

The track through White Wood

Ring ouzels were secured on my early walk up Tavy Cleave on Dartmoor on 28 April, with a cuckoo and whinchats.

2 ouzel on rock

Ouzel on a mossy rock on the edge of Tavy Cleave

I saw sand martins on the River Plym on Dartmoor in May, and in Cardiff Bay in July.

5 sand martin hole

Sand martins seemed to be nesting in the hole just above the greenery in Cardiff Bay

I made a number of visits to Otmoor in Oxfordshire, where I gathered a good collection of water birds and warblers, as well as a bittern and the increasingly elusive turtle dove.  On my visit on 5 May I listed 44 species.


The turtle dove was in the tree on the left.

On two walks with Marika Kovacs I heard a mistle thrush sing (here and here), thanks to Marika identifying it for me.

23 M. top of tree

The mistle thrush is in the centre of the picture at the top of the tree near Woollas Hall below Bredon Hill in Worcestershire

In Aylesbury I saw my only peregrine of the year, which is nesting on Pooley’s Tower.

Pooley tower

Pooley’s Tower from the car park where I saw a peregrine overhead

I was beginning to despair of seeing a spotted flycatcher.  Then on 9 July, while I was running up the road, I saw one perched where I had seen one last year, on the wires by Turville Valley Farm in Bucks.

Turville Valley Farm spotted flycatcher site

Spotted flycatcher site at Turville Valley Farm

High in the Yorkshire Dales, at Arten Gill, I saw a whinchat carrying food on 21 July.

Arten Gill

Arten Gill viaduct


My only red grouse of the year were around the Nine Standards Rigg, near Kirkby Stephen in Cumbria.

Nine Standards Rigg

Nine Standards Rigg

And on a walk around Canvey Island I saw waders including black-tailed godwits and sanderling.

8 Black-tailed godwits

Black-tailed godwit on Canvey Island

The last bird to go on the list was a sparrowhawk; it swooped into my back garden on 19 December, probably extracting a small bird, leaving the feeders swinging and an eerie hush.


My back garden

Happy new year, and happy birding to all my readers.




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