Thirty years at OSS

On 2 April 1984 I became general secretary of the Open Spaces Society (OSS).  As I write this, exactly 30 years on, I am listening to the supreme court case on a village green at Whitby, North Yorkshire.  I certainly could not have envisaged then that it would be possible to watch a court case live on my computer!

I was appointed to the OSS because I was a campaigner and the committee reckoned such skills were needed. I followed some distinguished lawyers—Paul Clayden and Ian Campbell were my immediate predecessors.  Knowledge of the law of commons, greens and paths is important to the OSS, but the skills do not necessarily have to be vested in its general secretary.  I had until then been the (unpaid) secretary of the Dartmoor Preservation Association.

First day
My diary records that on that first day I arrived early at the office in Henley-on-Thames, only to find I couldn’t get in because I hadn’t yet got keys.  So I had to loiter in our rather gloomy passage until someone arrived.  Things improved after that!

I was particularly busy in those first months.  Not only did I have the new job and all the work associated with that, but also I was fighting the Okehampton bypass.  This threatened to desecrate the northern boundary of the Dartmoor National Park.  Because it  involved the exchange of open space, it had been referred to special parliamentary procedure.  I was already working for Anthony Steen, MP for the South Hams, who was piloting the Dartmoor Commons Bill through parliament, to become an act the following year.  Later in 1984 I attended the public inquiry, objecting to path closures on the Larkhill military ranges in Wiltshire; this entailed many trips to Devizes.

Attic office
The Okehampton bypass battle enabled me to get my first picture in the Times, on 19 November 1985.  My partner Chris Hall cleverly suggested that the press release should report that the campaign was co-ordinated from my ‘attic office’.  It worked, and the Times photographer visited the attic office for a photo.

Coordinating the Okehampton bypass campaign from my attic office. Photo: Times Newspapers

Co-ordinating the Okehampton bypass campaign from my attic office. Photo: Times Newspapers.

In 1984, life was exciting for commons.  The Common Land Forum, a gathering of all the interests in commons, had just started its work—it did not reach agreement until 1986 when its report, advocating access to and management of commons, was published  It was signed by the OSS and Ramblers, Country Landowners’ Association and National Farmers’ Union, among others.  It was another 14 years before we got the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 giving us the right to walk on all commons in England and Wales.

Then there was little prospect of registering land as village greens.  During my time here that has developed into a major area of work, we have seen countless greens registered and open spaces saved for local people, and countless court cases clarifying the law.  The current Whitby case is almost the last in the line of such cases, for the government has now made it much more difficult to register land.

I have probably had the most fun in my work on public rights of way.  It has been immensely rewarding to get illegally-blocked paths reopened, and when the land was associated with a famous name, publicity was that much easier.

Here are some examples

  • Wormsley estate on the Buckinghamshire/Oxfordshire border (Paul Getty) 1986;
  • Waddesdon estate, Buckinghamshire (Rothschilds) 1986
  • Althorp estate, Northamptonshire (Lord Spencer), 1987
  • Burwarton, Shropshire (Lord Boyne) 1987,
  • Great Barrington, Gloucestershire (Charles Wingfield) 1987
  • Fawley, Staffordshire (JC Bamford) 1993
Ridiculous ladder-stile is an obstruction on Fawley footpath 21, Staffs

Ridiculous ladder-stile is an obstruction on Fawley footpath 21, Staffs.

  • Hidcote Gardens, Gloucestershire (National Trust) 1989
Unopenable door marked 'private' obstructed footpath HEB 8 in HIdcote Manor Gardens in May 1989

Unopenable door marked ‘private’ obstructed footpath HEB 8 in HIdcote Manor Gardens in May 1989.

  • Kilnholme, Cumbria (misleading notice on land owned by the environment secretary Nicholas Ridley) 1989
  • Henley Regatta, Bucks (marquee over footpath) 1990
Altercations at Henley regatta, 1990.

Altercations at Henley regatta, 1990.

  • Framfield, East Sussex (Nicholas van Hoogstraten) 2003
Framfield footpath 9 before the obstructions were cleared

Framfield footpath 9 before the obstructions were cleared.

  • Luckington, Wiltshire (Andrew Sells, then prospective chairman of Natural England) 2013.

There have been many path-change proposals where the OSS has been the sole objector, or one of few, and we have saved paths from diversion or extinguishment—at Sydmonton, Hampshire (Andrew Lloyd Webber); Hilmarton, Wiltshire; Oundle School, Northamptonshire; Manaccan, Cornwall; West Wittering, West Sussex (Keith Richards’s land), and Langham, Essex, where Colchester Borough Council was promoting a rationalisation scheme for blocked paths.  We saw them all off.

With the late John Barnard in September 1993, looking at Langham footpath 44 where it leaves Langham Lane, then completely blocked.

With the late John Barnard in September 1993, looking at Langham footpath 44, then completely blocked where it leaves Langham Lane.

And of course there was the infamous Ombersley rationalisation scheme, involving over 100 paths in Worcestershire (then Hereford & Worcester) which, with the Ramblers, we finally defeated in 1997 after a 15-year battle.  For the society much of the work was done by our excellent and indefatigable local correspondent Edgar Powell.  He dubbed the scheme Omrat, a well-deserved name.

Twenty years ago, to celebrate my first decade, I led a walk in Chesterton, Warwickshire, and came across an illegally-blocked path.  It was necessary to remove part of the obstruction so that the group could pass in safety.

Removing part of an illegal obstruction at Chesterton, Warwickshire, April 1994

Removing part of an illegal obstruction at Chesterton, Warwickshire, April 1994.


In the last 30 years we have issued 1,675 press releases—not bad when, for the first half of that time we had to photocopy, stuff, address envelopes and post.  Issuing a press release was a day’s work.  We got a fax machine in about 1992, but that didn’t make the process much quicker at our end.  Similarly, in 1984, we addressed all the envelopes for Open Space by hand.

The great thing about the OSS is that it can act swiftly; it is not bogged down in bureaucracy, so we can take on a range of battles at short notice.

However, our role in the protection of commons and greens remains unique.

On 2 April 1984 I issued a press release announcing my appointment, with the headline ‘Young campaigner for old organisation’.  I declared: ‘I intend that the Open Spaces Society will put the 1½ million acres of common land on the map.  Our principal aim must be to generate public awareness of the enormous value and vulnerability of commons and thereby to protect them from being preyed upon by voracious farming and forestry interests.  The Open Spaces Society will bring commons into the public arena and champion their cause in the corridors of Westminster.’

History will judge whether we achieved that aim.

The photo which accompanied my first press release on 2 April 1984

The photo which accompanied my first press release on 2 April 1984.



About campaignerkate

I am the general secretary of the Open Spaces Society and I campaign for public access, paths and open spaces in town and country.
This entry was posted in Access, common land, Dartmoor, green spaces, Henley-on-Thames, National Trust, Open Spaces Society and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Thirty years at OSS

  1. ossjay says:

    You must be the Tony Benn of rights of way with all those diaries. As well as protection of green and commons, OSS is uniquely representative of all highway users, and not one single type. I think we should ask for your Part 2, with other users on horse, in cart, on cycle, “diff-abled” … and then there’s equipment types who use the ways like surfers, anglers, foragers, baby-walkers, wood-carvers for a start. There’s few, if any, like CampaignerKate and no organisation with such inclusive reach as OSS. Long may both continue.

  2. Mo Richards says:

    Very well done, keep going – you are still needed!

  3. George Laurence has asked me to post this message on his behalf.

    I first met Kate Ashbrook in connection with the Dartmoor Commons Bill in Parliament nearly 35 years ago. I have had many opportunities since to observe why she is rightly regarded as this country’s foremost campaigner for preservation of our open spaces. Kate has always understood the paradox that for precious things to be preserved, it is always necessary to be ready to fight fresh battles and if necessary to ensure that old principles are reasserted in the context of present-day conditions. She has not hesitated to use the courts and Parliament in pursuit of her aims, always alive to the fact that a country’s institutions are there for a purpose – to serve the people and to assist them in pursuing causes for which a proper, intellectually honest, case can be made. I join with her many other supporters and admirers to congratulate her on her 30th anniversary and to wish her continuing strength and resolve for many more years of service to the Society.
    George Laurence QC

  4. John Varley says:

    Congratulations Kate! An amazing campaigner, an amazing story – you have championed the access cause persuasively and passionately. I have learnt a lot and admire your single-mindedness! You have made a difference and influenced how both the general public and land owners and managers think about access which is key. Best wishes.

  5. Roly Smith says:

    Congratulations on your 30 years at OSS, Kate. Thank goodness we still have campaigners like you willing to stick their heads above the parapet and fight for the rights of ordinary people to walk freely in and enjoy the countryside. Typically, you don’t make much in your blog about your successful personal prosecution of Nicholas van Hoogstraten for blocking the footpath round his estate in East Sussex in 2003. That was a landmark case which took a lot of courage on your part to see to its successful conclusion. I first met you at CNP when you were secretary of the Dartmoor Preservation Association. I can think of no finer tribute than to say you have proved a worthy successor to your mentor, Sylvia Sayer. She would be proud of you. Thanks for your unfailing support for our Mass Trespass celebrations, and keep up the good work!

  6. David Parry says:

    Kate: Can I add my thanks and admiration for the job you do in circumstances I know to be straitened and stressful? I don’t think many people realize what precious assets our rights of way and open spaces legislation are and how important it is to protect and promote them. If we could get a think tank to put a value upon them, I think we might find yours is a bigger portfolio (with very much lower expenses) than many a cabinet member’s.

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