Pat Wilson, who celebrates her 97th birthday today (5 February), was once described by Don Lee at an Open Spaces Society AGM as the society’s ‘most cherished vice-president’. For the last 20 years she has been the society’s local correspondent for the Medway towns and before that, for very many years, she was the Ramblers’ footpath secretary for Kent.
I think I first met Pat in 1984 when I was invited to help the campaigners against the military’s proposal to commandeer 6,000 acres of magnificent countryside at Luddesdown in north Kent. As the secretary of the Dartmoor Preservation Association I had some experience of dealing with the military and I gave evidence at the public inquiry, at which Pat played a significant part. Thanks not least to her, the application was rejected.
Pat and her husband Peter returned from British Honduras in 1949 and Peter got a job as Kent County Council’s forestry officer in Maidstone. They lived with Pat’s sister in Aylesford and Pat went house-hunting by public transport. After quite a long walk from the bus stop she came across a cottage appropriately named Wildwood in Priestwood, Harvel, near Meopham.
When she first lived at Wildwood Pat knew little about public paths, but in 1961, a landowner blocked the footpath (now numbered NS232) between the delightfully-named Scratch Arse Corner and Luddesdown. Pat was furious. The path was barricaded with corrugated iron, chain-link fencing, barbed wire and more. Pat had to claim it for the definitive map and she learnt on the job. She won and the path was cleared, although it took over a year.
A great ally was Arthur Skeffington, barrister and Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington, who lived in the Old Vicarage, Meopham and was an expert on rights of way. He provided much help and support, and the Meopham group was launched from his house in 1962. Later, as parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, he piloted the Countryside Act 1968 through parliament, ensuring that it gave highway authorities a duty to erect signposts where paths leave metalled roads.
In the early sixties more than half the 80 paths on the definitive map for Meopham were impassable. Pat believed rightly that the best way to get them open was to encourage people to walk, and the Meopham Group did just that.
Pat has saved countless paths and open spaces. Just recently she claimed over 120 urban alleyways in Rochester, Chatham and Gillingham which shamefully were never put on the definitive map. It was her brilliant idea to use manhole covers to demonstrate the existence of public rights.
Pat is a legend who has altered the course of path history. Her name is inextricably linked to legal cases which have clarified path law in the public interest. Pat instigated two far-reaching Ramblers’ cases in Kent: Gravesham BC v Wilson and Straight (QBD)  and Ramblers’ Association v Kent CC (QBD) (1990). They concerned path changes in the magistrates’ court. They require the magistrates to apply tests relating to the public interest when determining path closures or diversions and have been quoted and used to good effect many times in defence of public paths.
As for modern technology, Pat is digitally and electronically savvy as anyone half her age. She sends emails and attachments with gay abandon. She continues to appear at public inquiries and strikes the fear of god into the opposition. She is apparently indestructible and certainly indefatigable. She doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘retirement’. As we walk through Kent and Medway we can feel certain that, were it not for Pat’s persistence, determination and hard work, path-users would be much the poorer.
Thank you Pat, and happy birthday!