Sir John Johnson, former chairman of the Countryside Commission, died on 15 October aged 88. He cared deeply about landscapes, paths and access.
A former diplomat, John was appointed to chair the Countryside Commission from 1 April 1991 by the then environment secretary Michael Heseltine. He was an inspired choice. John threw himself into the work. He lived in Amersham in the Buckinghamshire Chilterns and loved his local landscape and paths. But he was also happy to tramp all over the British Isles, his long legs taking him at a pace with which it was hard to keep up.
Series of walks
I took advantage of the fact he lived locally, and established a series of walks with Ramblers in Bucks and adjoining counties. Our first walk in May 1991 was around Bledlow in Bucks, below the Chiltern escarpment, because we wanted to show John the problems of paths in the Vale of Aylesbury which were not marked out across fields or reinstated through crops.
The following spring we took a train to Malvern and, with Worcestershire Ramblers, walked the Malvern ridge. A topic of conversation was no doubt the impending path-rationalisation scheme at Ombersley in Hereford and Worcester, which the Countryside Commission ought to have opposed but did not.
That autumn we were hosted by the Northamptonshire Ramblers in the ironstone country around Everdon.
In summer 1993 we met the Leicestershire and Rutland Ramblers at Woodhouse Eaves for a walk on which we would have discussed access to High Sharpley, a granite outcrop in Charnwood where the DeLisle estate was challenging our freedom to roam.
And in February 1994, we met in Barton-in-the-Clay in Bedfordshire, and were led by the brilliant path-campaigner Mike Clarke.
John also supported the Open Spaces Society’s annual Beating the Bounds event, held on Rogation Sunday. In 1992 he joined us at Chorleywood Common in Hertfordshire, and allowed a policeman to bump the head of his granddaughter Elizabeth on one of the boundary stones. That could not happen today.
John believed firmly in the Countryside Commission’s Recreation 2000 scheme, whereby all public paths were to be in order by the turn of the century. One initiative was the Parish Paths Partnership (P3) through which the commission funded parish councils to do work on paths—in those days the commission was far better funded than its successor bodies. Bucks County Council was a strong advocate of P3, perhaps because of John’s local encouragement.
In 1994 the Secretary of State for Environment, John Gummer, threatened to merge the Countryside Commission with English Nature, a battle we fiercely fought and won. John continued in post until 1 October 1995 when he was succeeded by Richard Symonds, who displayed less interest in public access. But John stayed on the scene and was a great champion of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
In 2001 John became chairman of the Chilterns shadow conservation board, established under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. In July 2004, as a board member of the Countryside Agency (the Countryside Commission’s successor), I interviewed candidates for the new Chilterns Conservation Board. In marched John for interview, and proceeded to cross-examine me! I had gently to explain to him that he was the one being interviewed. Of course we appointed him and he then became chairman until 2010.
And he was quite a campaigner. In November 2010 the Buckinghamshire, Milton Keynes and West Middlesex Ramblers had a rally at Wendover in protest against HS2 which will inflict serious damage on the Chilterns.
John spoke eloquently at the rally and then joined us on a walk to nearby Coombe Hill.
Ever courteous and gracious, John had a streak of steel when it came to defending the things he held dear, and it was wonderful to work with him. He is missed by those many organisations he worked with—the Chilterns Conservation Board, Chiltern Society, Friends of the Lake District, Long Distance Walkers Association, Ramblers and Youth Hostels Association, among many others.
John Johnson, 6 September 1930 – 15 October 2018