John Alexander, who was footpaths officer and then chairman of the Ramblers’ Winchester Group, has died aged 91. But he was far more than a group official, important though such jobs are; he participated vigorously in the national campaign for greater access to the countryside.
His son Peter has provided me with information about his life. John was born in Romford, Essex, in 1923. He was the son of Winifred née Jones, secretary to a cabinet minister, and Henry Alexander, father of the chapel in the art department of the Amalgamated Press. John was 15 when World War II started. He had just matriculated and went to work for the Sun Life Assurance Society. At 18 he was conscripted into the Royal Signals Regiment, serving in Normandy and Germany during 1944-45 and in India after the war.
In 1949 he became a student at Southampton University where he obtained a BA (hons) in history and then a teaching certificate. Later, in 1969, he secured an MA in education from the same university.
In 1951 he married Ivy Hicks and they had three children, Peter, Clare and John. John the elder and Ivy both pursued careers in teaching, and John took early retirement at the age of 55. They moved to Winchester where they lived for the next 16 years. Here they helped build the Ramblers’ Association, with John taking positions as footpaths and access officer and, later, as chairman.
In 2009 they moved to Swyre in Dorset. John was a keen member of the Dorset Socialists. He was taken into Dorset County Hospital on 9 July suffering from cellulitis and died 26 days later. He is survived by Ivy, their three children and three grandchildren.
I recall that John was a firm believer in our cause, and one of the most forceful advocates for the right to roam in the lead-up to the Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act 2000. He would attend our rallies and write countless letters to ministers and MPs, and articles and letters in the local press, always well argued and coherent. We could depend on him to be there and to be our spokesman. Indeed, he believed in much greater rights for the public and saw the limited CROW Act as the first step toward public access to all land.
In April 1996 he wrote an article, Roaming in the Gloaming, which he had intended for publication in the Hampshire Area News, but it was too long for that magazine. I believe it was instead sent to the Hampshire Ramblers’ Groups. This was the year before the Labour government was elected with its manifesto promise to legislate for freedom to roam, and we were preparing for this. In the article John appeals to Ramblers’ members to help provide central office with examples of places in the county where they walked freely, and where access had been challenged.
Overdue and moderate
John wrote that he was a bit disappointed at our AGM to find not all members equally enthusiastic about the inception of this long overdue and really rather moderate campaign for something which has been on the RA agenda for 60 years. In the article he develops the case for freedom to roam on all uncultivated land, quoting speeches made by Chris Hall to the Ramblers’ national council in 1991 (when he was president) and Derek Ratcliffe, a naturalist who believed in access, in the Ramblers’ magazine of spring 1992. Chris had criticised the payments received by landowners ‘using public concern for nature conservation as a cloak for private interest and profit’ and John goes into detail about the payments.
He concludes the article: As an association we have always claimed we are trying to recover our lost freedom to roam in our own countryside. Now is the time to act on our promises and support our national executive in their endeavours. I hope this article, however amateurish and hurried, has shed some light on the issues involved, and I hope you will join me in providing the information required to further our campaign.
New national parks
He argued strongly for the New Forest and South Downs to be made National Parks, long campaigns which were ultimately successful. He was valued by the Campaign for National Parks as one of their speakers, retiring only a few years ago.
I shall always remember John with great affection and as one of the pillars of our movement.
There is an Other Lives in the Guardian, here.
John Arthur Alexander, 4 November 1923 – 4 August 2015