Twenty years ago today, Saturday 8 April 1995, I was elected chairman of the Ramblers—the youngest ever and the first female. But it was a close contest.
I had been vice-chairman since 1993, and in the normal course events would have become chairman three years later in 1996. The nominations were normally made by the board of trustees (then known as the executive committee) and ratified at the association’s annual general meeting, now known as general council. The chairman was elected each year for a maximum term of three years, and Alan Howard, a long-standing committee member and Ramblers’ activist, had been elected in 1993.
There were members of the committee who felt that, because I was general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, I would have a conflict of interest if I did both jobs. They had warned me that in 1996 they would not back me as chairman if I was still working for the OSS.
As it turned out, I never had to make the choice.
A couple of days after the March committee meeting, at which the committee had again nominated Alan Howard as chairman, Alan resigned. He was a man of great principle and a firm advocate of public transport. He had been horrified to learn that the Ramblers had accepted sponsorship from Vauxhall cars for its Yearbook. Nothing could persuade him to change his mind as the Ramblers were not prepared then to pull out of the sponsorship (although it did later fall through).
Alan wrote in his resignation letter ‘ … I cannot possibly continue to chair an organisation which in any way (however low key) promotes a mode of transport responsible for such an immense amount of social and environmental damage, and the killing or maiming of so many thousands of people each year’. He asked that any ‘ripples’ caused by his resignation should die down as soon as possible with no recriminations on either side.
Four weeks later, as vice-chairman, I was chairing general council (it actually changed its name from national council to general council that year) and, because Alan had resigned after the closing date for nominations for the chairman, we had to obtain council’s agreement to suspend the standing orders and run a special process for the elections. There was no time for me even to think about my position with the OSS (and in fact, it has never presented a problem).
I was proposed on behalf of the executive committee by Geoff Eastwood and seconded by Geoffrey Williams. David Grosz, then chairman of the Ramblers’ Scottish Council, was proposed by Cath MacKay and seconded by Kate Walsham.
Vice-president Gerald McGuire ran the proceedings, inviting us each to speak for up to three minutes before the secret ballot. I won by only 11 votes—71 to 60. David Grosz was then elected as vice-chairman in a competition against another committee member, Des Whicher.
I became chairman at a really exciting time for the Ramblers. We were gearing up for the campaign for freedom to roam on open country in England and Wales, having spent the last five years establishing how it would work and drafting legislation, with much help from Paddy Tipping, then Labour MP for Sherwood in Nottinghamshire. Freedom to roam and the landowners’ opposition to it were much in the press.
The minutes of the meeting record my closing speech, I talked about local government reorganisation and our relationships with government agencies, quarrying in national parks and new roads. I warned that as the Ramblers grew, ‘it must not become flabby’. I said that Janet Street-Porter, in her presidential address, and Paddy Tipping, in his speech at the dinner the previous evening, had referred to access as a basic human right. These two speakers between them reached large sections of the community. The Ramblers had friends in useful places to help us pursue our access campaign.
The minutes of my speech continue: ‘To meet these threats, it was vital that the Ramblers should present a united front. Often it was necessary to say no, and members must never think that to say no was a negative act. To protest against what was thoroughly wrong was always a most positive attitude.’
I recall that as I was chairing the meeting on the Sunday morning, I signed off the press release which Dave Beskine, who was leading the access campaign, and I had drafted earlier. In those days of course there was no email, but the Ramblers’ press officer, Sue Bond, got busy faxing it out with the result that, shortly after the meeting ended, photographer Ashley Coombe from the Independent arrived at Warwick University to cover the story. This was only the start of the publicity.
That press release was one of the most successful that the Ramblers ever produced, it led to massive national, regional and local publicity, and it ran and ran—I was interviewed throughout 1995 on the strength of that release. I think it was probably the reference to Princess Anne, in the first paragraph, that did the trick:
RAMBLERS’ NEW CHIEF HITS OUT AT LANDOWNERS
Ramblers have elected as their new chairman Kate Ashbrook, fierce critic of anti-access landowners, who was at Benenden with Princess Anne.
It then spelt out my four-point pledge to ‘lead a new crackdown on those landowners and farmers who persistently and illegally block public paths’; to ‘ensure that the task will be made as difficult as possible for landowners who want to muck about with the historic route of ancient footpaths and shift them around to suit their own convenience’; to ‘win for the public the freedom to roam over mountain and moorland and for ever do away with the offensive “private” and “keep out” signs which so mar the British landscape’ and to ‘work tirelessly to extend to the whole nation the opportunity to experience quiet and peaceful walks in the countryside, already the most popular outdoor recreation’.
There’s still a long way to go of course, and only this year the Ramblers’ general council approved a ten-year ‘vision’ which includes many of these elements.
We battle on!