Rodney Legg makes the ODNB

The late Rodney Legg, writer and environmental campaigner and for 20 years chairman of the Open Spaces Society and member of the National Trust council, would have been thrilled to have known he was to feature in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  I was invited to write his entry and it has just been published.  You can find it here by logging in with your library card number.  I have reproduced it below.

Legg, Rodney Frank (1947–2011), writer and environmental campaigner, was born on 18 April 1947 at 21 Easter Road, Bournemouth, the younger son of Edward George (Ted) Legg, cobbler, and his wife, Gladys Norah, née Alexander.  He had a feral, restless childhood. After Summerbee county infants’ school, Charminster, he went to Winton Secondary School for Boys.  When he opted out at the age of sixteen with five O-levels he was already collecting Dorsetiana and visiting antiquarian sites.

Right wing
Legg’s first job was as a clerk at the UK Atomic Energy Authority research establishment on Winfrith Heath, followed by four years as a reporter for the Basildon Standard in Essex.  During this time he became active in the extreme right-wing League of Empire Loyalists, heckling Labour and Conservative MPs and candidates.  By the late 1960s he had moved to London as production editor for the Haymarket Press, but the call of Dorset, whose countryside was being degraded by ploughing and development, was strong.

Fiery Rodney

Fiery Rodney

He returned there with the photographer Colin Graham, and took up the cause of winning public access to Tyneham.  This village had been evacuated by the Ministry of Defence in 1943, with the promise, never honoured, that its inhabitants could return after the war. Legg was the fiery secretary of the fractious Tyneham Action Group, which eventually achieved public access at weekends to the ten square miles of the Lulworth ranges surrounding Tyneham and prevented the land from being ploughed or sold for development.

Dorset cartoonist Danny Byrne captures Rod in action, tackling vegetation to unblock Stinsford footpath 8, near Thomas Hardy's birthplace in Dorset

Dorset cartoonist Danny Byrne captures Rod in action, tackling vegetation to unblock Stinsford footpath 8, near Thomas Hardy’s birthplace in Dorset

When the Dorset Year Book pulled an article by him about Tyneham, Legg decided to produce his own magazine, Dorset—the county magazine, in 1968.  He founded the Dorset Publishing Company in 1971 and Wincanton Press in 1982.  He produced about 125 books, occupying six feet of shelf space, on military history, the countryside, walking, and many aspects of Dorset.  He collaborated with the author John Fowles to publish John Aubrey’s Monumenta Britannica.  He was proud of his sixty letters in The Times on a wide range of topics.

When Kenneth Allsop, the broadcaster who lived in west Dorset, died in 1973 his friends appealed for funds for a nature reserve in his memory, and Legg was enlisted to find that special place.  Fortuitously Baroness Wharton, the owner of Steep Holm in the Bristol Channel, wanted to sell the fifty-acre island to a charity.  Led by Legg and Fowles, the Kenneth Allsop Memorial Trust bought it in 1976 for a mere £10,000.  For the next twenty-five years Legg was the warden there, organizing renovations and weekly boat-trips for work parties and visitors, and serving as an auxiliary coastguard.

Legg joined the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society (subsequently the Open Spaces Society) in 1963.  He became a member of its national executive committee in 1980, treasurer in 1981, and chairman in 1989, a post he held for twenty years.  He was also a member of the National Trust council from 1990 to 2010, serving as the Open Spaces Society’s appointee for most of that time.

Typical pose: National Trust council visit to the Long Mynd, Shropshire. Photo: Jo Cooke

Typical pose: National Trust council visit to the Long Mynd, Shropshire. Photo: Jo Cooke

He was a constant irritation to the trust. In 1990 he used an invitation to speak about the common roots of the society and the National Trust (which leading figures in the society had founded) to lambast the trust’s antediluvian attitudes to democracy and public access, calling the members of the trust’s establishment ‘an elitist club for art connoisseurs’ protecting ‘a prime collection of dinosaurs’ (R. Legg, National Trust Centenary: Common Roots of 1895, 1993).  He argued that the trust should publicize all its holdings on the Ordnance Survey maps and purchase land rather than stately homes. In 1994 he persuaded the trust to open Max Gate, Thomas Hardy’s home in Dorchester.  By the time Legg retired from the council in 2010 he had succeeded in getting much trust land opened up and had gained respect from the council and staff.

New access
In 2004 he won 640 acres of new access land in Dorset and Somerset, including Cadbury Castle, after the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 gave the public a limited right to roam.

The view from Cadbury Castle

The view from Cadbury Castle

Legg was an eccentric: contrarian, idiosyncratic, unpredictable, and outspoken, a determined and feisty campaigner.  He was not, however, a good chairman of the Open Spaces Society, being too involved in the debate and creating division, not harmony.  He used the society’s name to promote his own causes which were outside its remit, such as a blast against the National Trust for allowing the grass to grow over the genitals of the giant carved in the chalk at Cerne Abbas.  He rarely wore a suit or tie, and arrived at formal meetings dressed for a Dorset ramble.  With his impish grin, he was infuriating, likeable, and unignorable.

Green burial 
He died of pancreatic cancer on 22 July 2011 at Musgrove Park Hospital, Taunton, Somerset, and was survived by his companion, Diana Carrolyn (Di) Hooley.  He had a green burial on 30 July on the prow of a hill at Higher Ground Meadow, Corscombe, Dorset, overlooking the countryside he loved. His autobiography, Legg over Dorset, was published in August 2011.

Checking out one of his walks with his trusty secateurs

Checking out one of his walks with his trusty secateurs

P. Wright, The village that died for England: the strange story of Tyneham (1995)   R. Legg, Legg over Dorset (2011)  Western Daily Press (26 July 2011) · Daily Telegraph (28 July 2011) · The Times (30 July 2011)   Western Morning News (3 Aug 2011)  The Guardian (5 Aug 2011)   Bristol Post (6 Aug 2011)   Open Space (autumn 2011) · personal knowledge (2015)   private information (2015)   b. cert.   d. cert.

Dorset RO.

Wealth at death
£766,273: probate, 21 May 2012, CGPLA Eng. & Wales.

Entry: (c.850w) Kate Ashbrook, ‘Legg, Rodney Frank (1947-2011)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, © Oxford University Press 2004-15.  Free permission entry is author’s own.


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, campaigns, National Trust, Obituary, Open Spaces Society, People, Public paths and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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