Len the living legend

Every blog I have so far written to celebrate a friend’s centenary has been posthumous.  This one is different.  Len Clark, loved and admired by the amenity movement, is 100 today—and very much still alive!  From his home in Farncombe, Surrey, he keeps his finger on the pulse and reads everything which comes his way.

Len and FoBI visited him a few weeks ago with Fiona Reynolds, former director-general of the National Trust and author of The Fight for Beauty (which Len has read).  I arrived first and Len said to me:  ‘We run two seminars here, one on the fight for beauty and the other on the future of the Labour Party’.  We were just settling in to a discussion about the Labour Party when Fiona and her husband Bob Merrill arrived.

Len has been a pillar of strength to, and wise critic of, numerous organisations: the Youth Hostels Association, National Trust, Campaign for National Parks and the Open Spaces Society (OSS) for instance.  So often we have turned to Len for advice and he never fails us.

I first met Len in 1978 when I became a committee member of the OSS and Len was the Commons Liaison Officer, a roving researcher.  He travelled England and Wales on his motorbike, exploring commons and ferreting out the issues which affected them.  This was the time when commons seemed to be in the doldrums after the Commons Registration Act 1965 and the long-awaited second-stage legislation for management and access was clearly not going to happen in a hurry.

Len wrote reports of the commons in each county with evocative descriptions.  His comment on Wiltshire is typically sardonic:  A large county with very little common land, which may explain, charitably, the somewhat surprising response to the basic enquiry made to the county solicitor who said: ‘The objective of the registration of commons is to sort out ownerships etc so that the land may be enclosed and brought into production.’ Little wonder that the county is not in favour of a general right of public access to commons.

And his comment on the Carmarthen commons on and around the Black Mountain which ‘are in three groups of registrations (reminiscent of the opus numbers of the Beethoven string quartets, early, middle and late)’.

Black Mountain

Northern downfall of Black Mountain from Waun Lefrith. Copyright Trevor Littlewood and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Len helped to develop the case for comprehensive legislation on common land.  His work was one of the catalysts for the formation of the Common Land Forum in 1983, of which he was the secretary and which two and a half years later published a report—though legislation was still a long time coming.

His motorbike also came in handy when he was on the properties committee of the National Trust:

When the trust’s land agent, Peter Mansfield, began to string together a succession of headlands, farms and abandoned industrial sites [for National Trust acquisition] in the 1980s, he often found his colleagues and the committees sceptical or straightforwardly obstructive.  However, he also found powerful allies in … Len Clark, who would come down on his motorbike whenever there was the prospect of a piece in the jigsaw coming up for sale, and who could be relied on to swing any committee with an irresistible mixture of understatement, modesty and an understanding of the feelings of the ordinary trust members and supporters.1

Len was keen for the National Trust to acquire countryside rather than stately homes, and he was particularly excited by the opportunity to buy the Abergwesyn Commons, 16,000 acres in mid Wales.  A committee member is said to have observed: ‘If Len wants it, we had better let him have it’—which fortunately they did.

Abergwesyn Common

Abergwesyn Common, copyright Roger Whittleston and licensed for resuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Various writers have commented that Len was just what the National Trust needed (unlikely though it may have seemed among the rich and titled), and that ‘his instinct for getting to the heart of a problem and his wise advice, laced with witty comments, continued to be much in demand’ even after his retirement from the various committees.2


Winkworth Arboretum near Len’s home in Surrey. Len has swum in the lake.

Len was born in London but soon began hiking in the Chilterns (inspired by a series of walks in the News of the World).  He left Highbury Grammar School at the age of 16 to work for London County Council moving through various departments.  But his main leisure pursuits were walking, youth hostelling and classical concerts.  He is a socialist, a pacifist and a Quaker.  His early years are described in his book Out of the Wind, recollections of a sheltered life—a modest title for an insightful and fascinating book.

Book cover


South Downs Campaign
The campaign to make the South Downs a national park was revived in the early 1990s and Len was at its heart, having served on the Sussex Downs Conservation Board.  He worked tirelessly with the South Downs Campaign, a consortium of organisations, and eventually they achieved their fabulous goal.  When Hilary Benn announced his intention to confirm the national park at the Weald and Downland Museum in March 2009, Len was there. Hilary was astounded to learn that Len had been present in the public gallery at the second reading of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Bill in 1949—and that it was his first evening out with his future wife Isobel.  As Len has written, ‘a sort of symbolic pledge to our common concerns’.

Polesden Lacey

A party for Len at the National Trust’s Polesden Lacey, with friends from throughout the movement.  November 2008. Isobel is on the left.

Len writes of his first encounter with the South Downs, in about 1939 when he was on a solo trip to Sussex staying in youth hostels.  After a solitary supper he climbed to Chanctonbury Ring and was struck by the breathtaking view.  He has never forgotten the experience.

Chanctonbury Ring

Chanctonbury Ring from the south east, seen against the evening sky. Copyright Stefan Czapski and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

I cannot do justice to Len in this small space.  I urge you to read his blog, for he has embraced the computer age. It is full of aperçus and is a great read.

Len from book cover

This story made me laugh, of his days on the Landscape Advisory Committee of the Department of Transport when they provided him with accommodation in a hotel in Cheltenham:

Not having been familiar with hotels (rather than youth hostels!) I assumed that the card hanging on my doorknob indicating breakfast requirements was to assist the catering staff in preparation.  I duly completed it and had left it on the handle before going down to breakfast.  On return I found a second breakfast awaiting me—room service!

Happy birthday Len.  Thank you for all you have given to so many of us in your long life—and may you enjoy many more birthdays.

F, L and K

Visiting Len with Fiona Reynolds in July

1 The National Trust, the first hundred years, Merlin Waterson (1994)
2 From Acorn to Oak Tree, 1895-1994, Jennifer Jenkins and Patrick James (1994)


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, commons, National parks, National Trust, Open Spaces Society, South Downs and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Len the living legend

  1. Robin Rane says:

    Very many thanks Kate for a superb tribute to Len Clark, who will undoubtedly receive it with his characteristic modesty. Not many people have an opportunity to read their own obituary! He was a wonderful friend and wise supporter of the South Downs Campaign. Sadly I have been immobile for months and unable to visit Len, but the acquisition of an automatic car should now help.
    Robin Crane

  2. Len’s old friend John Templeton writes:

    Many thanks for your excellent blog which I read with great interest. I too first met Len in about 1978 when he was chairman of YHA’s Countryside committee and had organised a weekend conference at Hawarth YH on the subject of development pressures on the countryside, which attracted my interest. There John Archer encouraged to join YHAs South Region Countryside Committee. Some tjme in the 1990’s Len invited me to a meeting of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board and later still suggested I might be interested in joining him on the South Downs Campaign.

    There is just one inaccuracy in your blog that I should point out: Len wasn’t in fact present at the Ditching meeting in 2008 where Hilary Benn signed the designation order! This momentous event had been arranged at very short notice and at 8.30am at Ditching tearooms. I had by then moved down to Chichester and was intending to drive up to Ealing that very day for lunch with Ealing Council friends, calling in for coffee with Len en route. I duly drove over to Ditchling for the ceremony, and told Hilary that I was about to visit Len and my Ealing friends. Hilary sent his best wishes to Len and also to my Ealing friends as he had been an Ealing councillor before being elected an MP. ‘My happy hunting ground’ he commented. I then drove across to Godalming to tell Len about the ceremony, and on to Ealing in time for lunch- a day I shall always remember!

    [I have since corrected the blog, Kate.]

    Len had however been present at the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum some months earlier at which Hilary had announced that he was minded to approve the designation of the South Downs as a National Park’ And together with Isobel, Len was also present at the ceremony in February 2010 at Chichester Festival Theatre at which a friend of mine, Michael Woolley, then LIb Dem Mayor of Chichester, and incidentally a Quaker, formally declared the South Downs Campaign ‘to be well and truly closed!’ This was symbolic as the County and District Councils both based in Chichester had led their abortive campaign to prevent the creation of the SDNP! But the Lib Dem Chichester City Council had been quietly supportive of the SDC. A few weeks later, the Mayor led a celebratory walk from Chichester up Centurion Way into the National Park, with coffee in Lavant village hall.

    I have many other memories of Len, driving him to and from various SDC meetings and key events during the Campaign, and our lengthy conversations during our journeys. I also often dropped in for coffee at ‘Leveret’ with Len and Isobel and up to two years ago Len still visited Sussex on the 70 bus to Midhurst and (connections permitting) onto the 60 for Chichester, Bognor, Pagham or Wittering for a breath of fresh air. We sometimes met for coffee at the restaurant at Chichester Cathedral where he enjoyed the Tuesday lunchtime concerts.

    The history of the SDC urgently needs to be written up while memories are still clear. And I am looking forward to Volume 2 of Len’s memoirs! I feel privileged to know him so well, my oldest friend.

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