Ian Mercer: national-park giant

Ian Mercer, the first Dartmoor National Park Officer and the first chief executive of the Countryside Council for Wales, has died aged 83.  He has been a great influence in national parks and countryside policy, upland farming and natural history for the last 50+ years.  

I wrote this obituary which was published, with a few amendments, in The Times on 24 September.

Ian Mercer: elder statesman of the national park movement who could identify every song in a dawn chorus.

‘The British Isles are divided by a line running from the Tees to the Exe.  To the right they grow wheat and beans, to the left mist and sheep.’  So geographer and naturalist Ian Mercer would tell geography students.  He was able to communicate his love of the natural world with clarity and enthusiasm.  He was a great man, in every sense, from his physical form to his personality, intellect and influence.

It was as such a student himself, in 1952 at Birmingham University, that Mercer, a Black Country boy, first visited Dartmoor and was intrigued by its rock formations.  After stints with the Field Studies Council in Shropshire and Surrey he was to return to Devon seven years later with his first wife Valerie to run the council’s new Slapton Ley centre on Start Bay.  In those unregulated days their visitors experienced freedom and adventure, a tonic after the gloom and struggle of the post-war years.  Mercer taught them about landscapes and habitats, and to identify everything that lived there.

Succession of firsts
After Slapton, Mercer’s career continued as a succession of firsts: county conservation officer for Devon (1971-3), chief officer of the Dartmoor National Park (1973-90); chief executive of the Countryside Council for Wales (1990-95) and secretary general of the Association of National Park Authorities (1996-2001).  He loved all his jobs and said that he was the happiest man he knew.

At Dartmoor he was the first of the new generation of national park officers created under the Local Government Act 1972.  He was soon regarded by his colleagues as a leader, with his intelligence, innovation, and ability to resolve problems.  In those days the national parks were beholden to their county councils for money.  Mercer persuaded Devon County Council to fund the park’s vital legal representation at public inquiries—even when the two were on opposite sides.  For decades Dartmoor had been a hotbed of conflicting needs, views and personalities.  Mercer would listen, understand, and remain on speaking terms with everyone.  He brought changes to the stodgy, annual national park conferences, turning them into workshops focusing on the big issues facing the park family.


Ian at his desk at the national park office

These were the early days of management planning and agreements between park authorities and farmers to protect landscapes, when there was public money for such things.  Mercer took delight in paying a farmer’s son to maintain old granite walls; he learnt that curves are quicker to build than corners—which is why Dartmoor walls have so many bends.

His greatest triumph was the ground-breaking Dartmoor Commons Act 1985; private legislation which set up a governing commoners’ council while giving the public the right to walk and ride the commons.  This guided subsequent national legislation on commons and public access.  Mercer was held in such esteem by the commoners that they invited him to chair the commoners’ council in 2004, a post he retained until 2013.


Ian at the 25th anniversary celebrations of the Dartmoor Commoners’ Council in August 2011. Photo: John Waldon

The foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001 had a devastating effect on Devon’s economy, and Devon County Council asked Mercer to chair a public inquiry into the handling and aftermath of the disease.  His report concluded that the government’s handling of the crisis was ‘lamentable’, and gave comfort to the hundreds of Devon farming families whose lives had been torn asunder.

ian-with-crook-croppedMercer deplored the schism between nature and landscape conservation caused by the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 which created separate bodies to oversee these disciplines.  It was therefore appropriate that he should be appointed in 1990 as chief executive of the newly-formed Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) which, for the first time in Great Britain, brought nature, landscape and recreation together—though it cannot have been a foregone conclusion that a panel of Welsh people would appoint an Englishman.  Mercer invented Tir Cymen (roughly translated as ‘a well-crafted landscape’).  This paid farmers for positive management of their land to benefit wildlife, landscape, archaeology and geology—and provide public access; it continues today as the Glastir (farm management) scheme.  Despite the attempts of Welsh secretary John Redwood to destroy CCW, Mercer enjoyed his time in Wales, dubbing his native country ‘our powerful eastern neighbour’.

Back in Moretonhampstead, Devon, when his five-year Welsh contract ended, Mercer became Secretary General of the Association of National Park Authorities.  By now the elder statesman of the national park movement Mercer would speak with passion and force to authority members (many of whom were appointed by councils), who promoted local interests at the expense of national.  Relishing a hostile audience, he explained the role of park members, with persuasion and humour to excellent effect.

Mercer collected offices: he was president of the Field Studies Council and the Devon Wildlife Trust for decades, chairman of the South West Uplands Federation, vice-president of the Campaign for National Parks and convenor of the elite Symonds Club to name a few.  He was made a CBE for ‘services to the environment in Wales’, an honorary professor of rural conservation practice at the University of Wales and a Fellow of the Royal Agricultural Society.


Ian with his New Naturalist book. Photo: copyright Andrew Cooper

He is survived by his youngest brother Nicholas (an architect), three of his four sons—Jonathan who has Down’s Syndrome, Tom an aquatic ecologist and Dan, a builder; the fourth, Ben, died in 1997—his wife Pamela to whom he was married for 40 years, stepdaughter Julia, a linguist, stepson James, an educational consultant, six grandchildren and four step granddaughters.

Scholarly work
Mercer wrote the second edition of the New Naturalist’s Dartmoor, a 400-page, scholarly work.  In the introduction he said: ‘Despite spending three-quarters of my working life as a rural public servant … I have always been a geographer.’  His enthusiasm for landscape and wildlife, and his ability to identify every song in a dawn chorus, have inspired thousands—and England and Wales have benefited from that rural public servant’s work, undertaken with vision, integrity, humour and a love of his job.

Ian Mercer CBE, conservationist and naturalist, was born on 25 January 1933.  He died of cancer on 20 September 2016, aged 83.


Ian on Ter Hill, Dartmoor

See also my tribute in the Western Morning News here, story in the Daily Post here and blogs by Matthew Kelly here and Adrian Colston here.


Posted in commons, Countryside Council for Wales, Dartmoor, National parks, Natural history, Obituary, wild country | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Piddington path-check

Day 1
Our local Ramblers try to check every path in our territory at least once a year. The Ramblers Buckinghamshire, Milton Keynes and West Middlesex Area appoints path checkers who take on one or more parishes and walk the paths, record their condition and report problems to the highway authority (Bucks County Council, Milton Keynes Council or the London Boroughs of Brent, Ealing, Harrow, Hillingdon or Hounslow).

This year I took on Piddington and Wheeler End parish as it had become vacant.  This is in Bucks and the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, to the west of High Wycombe and about three miles from home.

The parish is bordered by Bledlow-cum-Saunderton and Radnage to the north, Stokenchurch to the west, Lane End to the south, and High Wycombe and West Wycombe to the west.  It has been created fairly recently from part of West Wycombe Rural parish.


On the parish boundary, looking east to West Wycombe

I had walked some of these paths in 2009-10 when I was doing the British Trust for Ornithology’s bird atlas, but it was good to focus on one parish and to walk all the 28 routes.  It took me about 14 hours to cover them all, spread over four visits.  I had to walk some routes more than once to reach other paths.  I was surprised by the variety of paths and scenery in such a small area.


Footpath 25 through Great Cockshoots Wood

Piddington is a small settlement to the south of the A40 on the side of the hill.  Wheeler End is a scattering of houses around the common.


Wheeler End common

The first day, 10 July, I walked north of the A40 which splits the parish in two.  I made a big circuit, heading north along bridleway 17 to the top of the hill, over to Bottom Road, and back in a loop taking in some paths in Radnage.  I stopped frequently to cut back vegetation with my secateurs.  However, this on footpath 25 was too much.   The adjoining headland path is clear but the definitive route goes between the hedges


Footpath 25, overgrown

On bridleway 17 I found a fallen tree blocking a bridleway.  I reported this and was pleased to find by 28 August that it had been removed.


Bridleway 17 blocked by fallen tree









There were a number of difficult stiles.


Stile on footpath 26 – not to British Standard 5709

The path on the ground and on the definitive map do not tally at Ham Farm.


Footpath 24 on the map goes through the gates but instead is directed over the stile.

I ventured into Radnage parish and, with the agreement of the Radnage path-checker, reported an extremely overgrown path at Green End Farm.


Radnage footpath 27

There were examples of good practice, such as footpath 23, the most northerly path in the parish, which has not been ploughed and is now a wide, clear route over the fields.


Footpath 23 looking south west

It was good to see the patch of access land to the left of the pylon on the slope near Chawley Manor Farm; the Ramblers fought for this under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act.


As I walk my parish I am also thinking about routes which may have been omitted from the definitive map, or recorded at the incorrect status as I shall in due course want to research these.  If I can gather sufficient historic or user evidence I shall apply for them to be added to the map.  I felt that footpath 28/1, with its wide sunken route between Old Dashwood Hill and Ham Farm, should probably have a higher status.


The sunken route of footpath 28, surely higher status than a footpath?

Later I filled in the form for our group footpath secretary, listing the paths I walked (these are divided into sections or links between junctions with other paths; some only have one section, some as many as four) and using codes to describe problems.  The most frequent were difficult stiles, overgrowth and missing waymarks.

I reported problems to Bucks County Council using the website. You get an acknowledgement and number to track progress.  Annoyingly the website frequently says a matter is ‘resolved’ when it is not at all, I suspect that just means that the council has passed it on to someone to deal with.  And then it doesn’t tell you when it has actually done it.  So I know I shall have to go round and check again.

That was my first day out, a lovely sunny afternoon in July.  I shall report my other visits in future blogs.


View south west from footpath 24.


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Relaunching the Sussex Border Path

On Saturday I cut my second Sussex ribbon this year.  In May I relaunched the 35-year-old Vanguard Way near Ashdown Forest; this time I relaunched the Ramblers’ Sussex Border Path at Wivelsfield in East Sussex.


Cutting the ribbon on the Sussex Border Path. Photo: Lionel Pringle

The 137-mile path embraces the two counties of East and West Sussex, starting at Thorney Island in the south, travelling north then east to end at Rye; it wanders briefly into the adjoining counties of Hampshire, Surrey and Kent.  The Mid Sussex Link follows the boundary of East and West Sussex.

The route was invented in the late 1970s by pioneers Ben Perkins and Angus Mackintosh, and they produced a guidebook.  In the first booklet they described parts of the route near Northiam and approaching the final section along the River Rother as ‘an obstacle course’, but things have improved since then.


Ben Perkins and Angus Mackintosh, the intrepid creators of the Sussex Border Path. Photo: Phil Casemore

Now the Ramblers care for the route and Sussex Area’s West Sussex Footpath Secretary, the energetic Graham Elvey, has got the route up to scratch for the relaunch and found 40 volunteers, some from adjoining counties, to keep an eye on short sections.

The route is waymarked, the old waymark having been replaced by more recent directional ones.  The next phase of waymarks will have yellow surrounds so they show up better.  The bird on the waymark is a martlet, West Sussex County Council’s symbol, a sort of house martin without feet.


The top waymark is the old design.

On Saturday I cut the ribbon close to Wivelsfield before we set off on a four-mile walk, much of it in the rain, following the Sussex Border Path through West Wood.  Back at the village hall we raised a glass to all the volunteers who have worked so hard to ensure this path continues to mark the boundary of these fine counties.


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The Archers: fiction or fact?

I was surprised to find that The Archers’ storyline has become news.  On Friday night the BBC radio news  announced that the outcome of Helen and Rob’s trial would be announced on Sunday (tonight).  Is this really news?

The programme will be one hour long and will feature some well-known actors and actresses.  Is this really news?

Some of the real news over the summer has been more like fiction, but I don’t believe that fiction should be presented as news.



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The Viking Way at 40

On 5 September, Lincolnshire Ramblers celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Viking Way.  This 147-mile route runs from the Humber through Lincolnshire to Oakham in Rutland.  It was opened at Tealby on 5 September 1976 by John Hedley-Lewis, the Deputy Chairman of Lincolnshire County Council.

Brett Collier, long-standing path campaigner in Lincolnshire and president of the Ramblers’ Area, wrote of the beginnings of the Viking Way in the Area’s spring 2004 newsletter.

Hedley-Lewis was the first chairman of the new Lincolnshire County Council when Lindsey, Kesteven and Holland were combined.  He was also our Ramblers Lincolnshire Area President.

The Viking Way Route would not come into being in 1976 without his active support. Tom Dagwell, Nev Cole and I were in on the initial recces on Saturdays since we were all employed during the week.  It was Chris Hall who came up with the suggested route title of the Viking Way. He later became National President of the RA. [In fact, Chris thought that the Viking Way should run from the Scottish border down the Viking coast to London.  Lincolnshire County Council was keen for it to become an official long-distance path (now known as national trail), linking with the Wolds Way and Norfolk Coast Path which later became long-distance paths.  Unfortunately this never happened.]

Church of All Saints, Walesby

All Saints church, Walesby. Copyright David Wright and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Hedley- Lewis was dying of cancer and we were under some pressure to get the Viking Way into being while he was still alive and later we could sort out any problem parts of the route.  It took another 20 years to unscramble some sections!  Hedley-Lewis was still alive when the route was opened but too ill to attend the ceremony.

As part of the opening day ceremony I led a walk from Belchford to Fulletby to near West Ashby where we were met by ‘the chain gang’ (half a dozen local mayors).  Mr Ward from Fulletby Top drove alongside us cursing and telling us in a loud voice that there was a perfectly good road to walk down to West Ashby!  I did not know at the time but the route of the current Viking Way from Fulletby top to West Ashby is a 60-foot-wide inclosure award.  No wonder he was worried.

Jubilee Walk
I walked a short stretch of the Viking Way in August 1985.  This was part of the Ramblers’120px-The_Viking_Way_Marker 50th-anniversary Jubilee Walk around Britain.  Ramblers’ Areas each organised the walk in their territory, and a baton was passed.  The idea was to highlight blackspots on the way, with speeches and press releases.

As a member of the executive committee, I was invited to make a speech at the start of the stretch from Tealby south to Donington-on-Bain. I spoke on the bridge over the river, before we headed off to Ludford.  I criticised the state of paths in Lincolnshire and reported a recent decision by the Ramblers’ National Council (AGM) to remove the requirement from our constitution that members must sign an undertaking to observe the Country Code. (We replaced it with a requirement ‘to respect the countryside, especially its beauty and wildlife, and to promote access to it on foot’.)

This was because it was impossible to ‘keep to public paths across farmland’ when the paths were obliterated by crops,  to ‘use gates and stiles’ when they were obstructed with barbed wire or not there, and to ‘leave crops alone’ when the crop was planted across the path.  Lincolnshire was a prime illustration of these problems for its paths then were in an appalling state: it was the right place to release this news.

The story was in the Daily Telegraph the next day.

Country Code press cutting Aug 1985 shorter

Brett Collier had explained to me that too much of the Viking Way zigzagged around field edges where public paths had been diverted, away from the direct, cross-field routes.  The map of the section we walked, between Tealby and Ludford, demonstrates this clearly: the Way looks like a staircase on the map.

A gem of this walk is the Ramblers’ church at Walesby, high on the Wolds (don’t let anyone tell you Lincolnshire is flat), with its Ramblers’ window donated by local ramblers and cyclists in 1951.  It depicts Christ in the cornfields with the text: And it came to pass that he went through the cornfields on the Sabbath Day.  In Lincolnshire he would surely have found his path blocked.

Walesby Ramblers' window

The Ramblers’ window in Walesby church, © Copyright Christine Hasman and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The paths are better now, and the route has been improved, with less of it along roads. The Viking Way is a great tribute to the hard work by the Ramblers with the support of the county council.

I shall be back there for the Walkers Are Welcome annual get-together, based on the three Walkers Are Welcome towns of Caistor, Horncastle and Market Rasen.  The event is preceded with a walk on the Viking Way and I shall raise a glass to those pioneering Ramblers who invented it.


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Return to Challacombe Farm

The other day I called on Naomi Oakley at Challacombe Farm, near Postbridge on Dartmoor.  I had last visited 34 years ago when it was run by Peter and Min Cullum.

Now their daughter Naomi is in charge with her partner Mark Owen.  On a July afternoon it was a tranquil place, and I learnt how they manage the farm to benefit flora and fauna, archaeology and public access.

12 view from pond

View across the valley from near the pond

We sat by the pond and watched a mass of swallows swooping across, catching insects on the wing.  5 pond and hand-reared lamb

The British Trust for Ornithology had counted 600 fledged swallows from nests here in the last five years.

8 swallows' nests

House martins’ nests under the eaves

Then we strolled along the bridleway to Headland Warren, where the (mostly absentee) owners discourage people from using the official route past the old farmhouse and try to get them to walk round, with a permissive path sign endorsed by the Dartmoor National Park Authority—shame!

1 permissive path sign


We walked determinedly through on the ancient way.  Then we climbed up onto Challacombe Down, with its prehistoric triple stone-row and field systems.

2 stone row

We had a good view down to Soussons forestry plantation which has been mucked around with by the Forestry Commission so that it is even more of an eyesore with a bare patch in the middle.

3 Soussons

Naomi is employed by Natural England and Mark is the South West Coast Path National Trail Officer.  They run the farm as well as carrying out these demanding jobs; they are impressively hard workers.  Naomi is also a minister’s appointee on the Dartmoor National Park Authority.

7 Naomi

Naomi Oakley

6 Scarlet











The 300-hectare farm is mixed livestock, mainly beef and sheep: they have are over 100 Black Welsh Mountain and Wensleydale sheep and about 50 cattle, mostly Welsh Blacks. They end up hand-rearing quite a few lambs, which is more hard work!

14 cattle

The animals are grazed extensively making use of the common rights which go with the farm.  There are some improved fields which produce winter fodder, so the farm is self-sustaining.  It is species rich, with a good piece of wetland along the valley.  One field, which to me did not look promising since it was well grazed and covered in dung, was a scheduled site for waxcap fungi.  They also have a good selection of butterflies.

The farm is part of a wonderful ancient landscape, with the stone row and lynchets and the mediaeval settlement.

10 mediaeval hamlet

Part of the mediaeval village

You can keep in touch with their activities via their Facebook page.

11 farm

The bridleway past the farm

My previous visit, in 1982, was rather different.  I was then secretary of the Dartmoor Preservation Association (DPA).  The farm is a tenancy with the Duchy of Cornwall.  In 1981 the tenants applied for an agriculture and horticulture development scheme involving the erection of three barns, silage pit and sheep-handling area, fencing and pasture renovation.  There was a bit of a row, since much of the area is a scheduled ancient monument (because of the prehistoric field systems and lynchets and the medieval village) and it is open country where the public was accustomed to roam freely (no Countryside and Rights of Way Act then giving us rights to roam).  We were concerned that the archaeological landscape and access would be damaged.

4 ancient landscape

Ancient landscape of Challacombe Down

Correspondence flowed between the Duchy, Department of the Environment Ancient Monuments Secretariat, Council for British Archaeology, Prince Charles, Michael Heseltine (Environment Secretary), the Countryside Commission, Dartmoor National Park Committee and many others.  Sylvia Sayer reminded the Duchy that in 1963 there was an agreement between the tenant and the Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments not to disturb the lynchets.  We feared the agreement would be breached.  Unfortunately, the Dartmoor National Park Committee approved the scheme.

The Cullums invited the Open Spaces Society to visit and the OSS asked me to go, which I did on 28 November 1982.  I reported to John Higgs, secretary of the Duchy, that there was plenty about which we did not agree but that ‘we parted on good terms’.  My file and the DPA Newsletters do not conclude the story so I was uncertain what happened, but Naomi confirms that it didn’t go ahead.

That was a long time ago and it’s good to see Challacombe so welcoming to people and wildlife and in such good heart.

9 sign


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Parliament puzzle

On Saturday 27 August the town of Kenilworth in Warwickshire celebrated the 750th anniversary of the siege of Kenilworth Castle, when Henry III’s army was fighting for control of the castle from Simon de Montfort’s rebel supporters.



Kenilworth castle

The Open Spaces Society (OSS) owns 15 acres of meadow in Kenilworth, adjacent to the A429 Coventry Road.  It is called Parliament Piece and it is possible that Henry III held his parliament here in 1266.  There is no evidence either way, but it is nice to think that the parliament may have sat here.


Parliament Piece

As part of the celebrations on Saturday the OSS had a stand alongside other organisations on Abbey Fields, and one on Parliament Piece with the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust which manages the land to promote wildlife and public access.


Jean Macdonald (OSS) and John Kendall (WWT) on the stand on Parliament Piece

Parliament Piece was given to the society in 1986 by the late Miss Helen Martin of The Spring, an adjoining farm.  Miss Martin was an interesting and unusual person and I am sorry that I never met her; she died aged 80 in 1988.  She was a generous benefactor.  The family wealth came from her brother Jack’s Smirnoff vodka business (he is said to have invented the Bloody Mary among other cocktails) and she gave millions to nearby Warwick University.

She started a trust with a personal donation of £5,000 and eventually contributed £28 million in today’s prices to the university. All her donations were anonymous and no building was named after her until after her death.  In 2010 the university opened the Helen Martin Studio in the arts centre, in recognition of her love of the arts and especially classical music.

When I last stayed at the university for Ramblers’ general council in 2013 and went on my early-morning run I came upon a sculpture and bench on the cycle route between Kenilworth and the university.  I photographed it, unaware that the figure on the left is Helen Martin with her much-loved poodles.  The others are Edward Langley Fardon, a pioneer of bicycle design, from Stoneleigh and James Kemp Starley, the Coventry inventor of the modern bicycle.

Portrait bench

Portrait bench on the cycle track

The bench is a ‘portrait bench’, of which there are a number on this route (known as Connect2), each with three, life-sized effigies of local people selected by the community. They are made of hard-wearing Corten steel.

On Saturday I met one of Helen Martin’s employees; he used to drive the tractor, and he spoke of her with affection.  He said that she was immensely generous and offered to pay for the education of her employees’ children.

Parliament Piece is a fine legacy of Helen Martin’s philanthropy, a peaceful spot enjoyed by walkers, runners, dog walkers and naturalists.  The OSS has leased it to Warwick District Council to be cared for alongside its other open spaces.

We shall probably never know whether there really was a parliament here—but it’s fun to speculate as we wander over this beautiful meadow.




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