On Saturday 10 June, friends of the late Ian Mercer gathered on Dartmoor to celebrate all that he gave us. They came from many parts of the country, and many parts of his varied and rich life.
I helped to organise the day, with Kevin Bishop, Dartmoor National Park Officer (the post Ian held for 17 years), Andrew Cooper of Devon Wildlife Trust and Rob Lucas of the Field Studies Council (Ian was president of both organisations). We had arranged a choice of walks in the morning and a gathering at Princetown at lunchtime, with a further walk in the afternoon.
With Sue Goodfellow, who worked for over 30 years as the national park authority’s ecologist and latterly as Director of Park Management and Director of Conservation, I led a walk from Venford Reservoir car-park to Bench Tor, and down into White Wood following the ‘pipeline route’ (which takes water from the reservoir towards Paignton). Other walks on offer were to Fox Tor mire (but not across it!) at Swincombe, and Lynton’s Quarry near Two Bridges.
All the walks were related to Ian’s interests and achievements, but ours was the most popular with over 40 joining us including many of Ian’s and his wife Pam’s relatives.
The day was not promising. I had driven across Dartmoor from the west in mist and rain. But it cleared slightly as I reached Venford, and we did not let the weather affect our plans. In fact the sun glimmered through the gentle rain and the mist hung over the hills creating a rare ethereal atmosphere. The rain was sufficient to make photography difficult, with constant drops on my camera lens as you can see from my photos here.
Although Sue and I were billed as joint leaders, Sue did most of the leading and explaining, in a low-key and informative manner.
This was truly Ian’s walk; along the way we remembered his work as a naturalist, a geographer, Dartmoor National Park officer and chairman of the Dartmoor Commoners’ Council. Sue explained how Ian was ahead of his time: 40 years ago he was thinking about the relationship between farming, landscape and access and putting this into practice. The Dartmoor National Park Authority bought Holne Moor in 1975 and Ian became Steward of the Manor of Holne, a role of which he was very proud.
As we strolled up the slope of Bench Tor we stopped to listen to Holne commoner Phil Cleave on the importance of grazing to regulate the vegetation, for landscape, access and archaeology. The commoners had a great respect for Ian and his ideas for management of the commons.
Peter Beacham, chairman of the Devonshire Association and former historic buildings officer for Devon County Council who had known Ian for 50 years, spoke about Ian’s appreciation of the historic landscape of Dartmoor. Ian facilitated pioneering work on Dartmoor’s ancient field boundaries, known as reaves, by Andrew Fleming on Holne Moor in the late 1970s. Under Peter’s gentle tuition, Ian also learnt the value of the moor’s historic buildings.
We reached the top of Bench Tor. The mist hung over the valley, but we could just see the outline of the slope on the other side of the River Dart with its plunging oakwoods.
Sue, Pam and I had recced the walk in April on a glorious day when the visibility was wonderful, as you can see in the two photos below.
Today was different but no less lovely.
Then we followed the slope down to White Wood, with its twisted oaks and mossy rocks. I saw a tree pipit and knew that Ian would have been pleased. He used to lead dawn-chorus bird-walks here and he put up nestboxes for pied flycatchers.
Sue pointed out experimental research plots which Ian had fenced in order to study the effect of the removal of grazing, and charcoal-burners’ platforms which were studied by Nick Atkinson, Ian’s successor as park officer.
We returned to the car-park and then headed to Princetown as the weather deteriorated. We met in the ballroom at the Duchy Hotel, which is leased by the Dartmoor National Park Authority, with food provided by Justine Colton of Tor Royal. It was a fabulous gathering of people many of whom had not seen each other for some time, and I was glad that we had all been issued with name-labels as it made the meeting and greeting so much easier. We could have chatted all day. How Ian would have loved it.
Kevin Bishop welcomed us all and spoke about Ian.
He explained that the ballroom was being named the Ian Mercer Room.
Then he invited Pam to unveil the intepretation panel which briefly tells Ian’s story.
Other speakers were Geoff Hearnden, former chairman of the Devon Wildlife Trust; Fiona Reynolds, former chief of the Campaign for National Parks, CPRE and the National Trust; David Butterworth, the Yorkshire Dales National Park Officer; Rob Lucas, chief executive of the Field Studies Council; Tom Mercer, one of Ian’s sons; and Maurice Retallick, Dartmoor commoner and long-standing member of the Dartmoor National Park Authority. All had tales to tell, some very funny, of Ian at work, in the pub and with his family.
I wound up with my own memories of Ian and invited the 100+ friends and colleagues of Ian to raise their glasses as I gave his favourite toast:
May you live long and die the same length. May heaven bless you and the devil miss you and balls to the girl who wouldn’t kiss you.
Thank you Ian, your memory lives on in those many individuals and organisations whom you influenced and inspired more than you ever knew.