It was the hottest day of the year so far, 18 August, when I joined the Meopham and District Footpaths Group for its fiftieth anniversary tea-party, hosted by the president Pat Wilson.
Pat is no ordinary president. A sprightly 95 year old, she is still extremely active, opposing path changes, challenging planning applications and claiming routes. She was the founder of the Meopham Footpaths Group and did a huge amount in those early days when the paths were in an awful state, lobbying to get them in order and inspiring others to help. I reckon that if it wasn’t for Pat, Kent would not be the good walking country it is today. She continues to be Open Spaces Society local correspondent for the Medway towns and we are indebted to her.
The day started with a short walk to a kissing-gate with a plaque to Jim Carley, a founder member and former secretary of the group.
The kissing-gate is a fine memorial to such a determined campaigner for paths.
Close by is Steele’s Lane, claimed by the chairman, Ken Dare, with support from Jim and other members of the group after a ‘private road access only’ sign appeared. It was opposed by the neighbouring landowners and there was a public inquiry in September 2008. The order was confirmed in November 2008.
And so to the village hall for Pat’s tea-party – there must have been about a hundred people there, including many of the past secretaries.
There were two cakes, made by the current secretary Barbara Reed, which were cut by Pat.
Ken Dare thanked everyone and then invited me to speak. I had been studying the excellent group displays outside and said that it was wonderful to speak to a group whose origins lay in the battle of Scratch Arse Corner!
I spoke of the value of the group in complementing the work of national groups like the Open Spaces Society and Ramblers; the Meopham members know their patch, campaign for their paths, commons, greens and access land and provide vital ammunition for us to lobby government and local authorities at a national level. It is a truly symbiotic relationship.
The Meopham Group is one of the best: for 50 years it has worked tirelessly, and as Pat Wilson so often says, people today just don’t understand the hard work that went on to ensure that they can now have it so good.
It was great to see Mary Bagshawe, a past secretary, again after nearly 30 years. Her late husband Nicholas led the campaign against the army’s plans to take over the exquisite Luddesdown Valley, adjacent to Meopham, for infantry training and mine laying in the early 1980s. The valley is heavily designated: it’s in the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and it’s a site of special scientific interest, an area of high nature conservation value and a special landscape area. It’s also crossed by the Wealdway long-distance path, which was conceived by the Meopham Group and runs 80 miles from Gravesend to Eastbourne.
The opposition was massive. David Thornewell represented the Open Spaces Society at the inquiry in 1983-4 and I went as an individual to speak about my unpleasant experiences with the military on Dartmoor. Fortunately the inspector threw out the proposals, saying: ‘I am in no doubt that the area is one of particular sensitivity. Above all it has beauty and tranquillity; qualities which in accordance with the relevant planning policies should be preserved and enhanced for the benefit and enjoyment of the public’. What welcome words they were!
The beautiful valley remains unspoiled, and the rare Luddesdown snail, Cernuella neglecta, which certainly helped the campaign, presumably continues to enjoy its habitat in peace.
Congratulations to the Meopham and District Footpaths Group and its vigilant volunteers for keeping their paths and countryside free over the last 50 years.