John Newnham, who died in January at the age of 76, was the Ramblers’ field officer in the 1970s and 80s, and subsequently rights-of-way officer for Shropshire County Council. At his funeral at Emstrey Crematorium in Shrewsbury on 20 February, where his coffin was decorated with spring flowers and one of his well-worn walking boots, I learnt much more about him.
I was one of five speakers, and I talked about John’s early years with the Ramblers. I have already written about him here, when I sent a message for John’s retirement as chairman of the Shrewsbury Group, and the Ramblers gave him a certificate, last November.
John was appointed as the Ramblers’ field officer in the summer of 1970 to form groups and thus increase the Ramblers’ influence and membership. John would go to a town where there were only a few, apathetic, members and within a few months he would be holding a group formation meeting. His groups had a high success rate.
Michael Bird wrote about John’s work in his history of the Ramblers’ Midland Area. Peter Ayling from East Yorkshire and Derwent Area has delved into the archives and found some appreciative quotes in the Area’s annual report for 1974-75. Geoff Eastwood, Area secretary, wrote: ‘Throughout part of the past year our national field officer, John Newnham, has worked hard in this area forming the much-needed local groups in our peripheral regions.’ The report notes that Driffield, Ryedale and Scarborough Groups were all formed by John that year.
One of John’s greatest achievements was the jubilee walk around England, to celebrate the Ramblers’ fiftieth anniversary in 1985. John had the idea and executed it. The route was 2,032 miles, including 1,643 miles of long-distance paths, and it was organised as a 181-day relay. It ended with a boat ride on the River Thames from Putney to Westminster. There the Ramblers delivered to Number Ten two commemorative books with 9,000 signatures of those who had taken part and a message for the Prime Minister. This called on the government ‘to ensure that protection of the countryside and freedom of access to it are given the high and urgent priority which they deserve in national policy’.
John organised the walk leaders, the branded minibus and the insurance. He coordinated the 181 stretches of the walk and was general troubleshooter. Two walkers, the late Michael Singleton and Heather Kent (the latter was at John’s funeral), walked the whole route, and John helped them with their arrangements.
There were some fraught and amusing occasions, such as when 60 walkers crowded onto the ferry to Hayling Island which had a maximum capacity of 53 and it nearly sank, and when the group came to the Tyneham military range in Dorset and were accused of being from CND.
John never sought credit or publicity, but the event was a testament to his grit, determination and organisational ability.
John’s parents were Pat and Hetty Newnham. He was born in Oxford and moved to Lewes in East Sussex at the age of nine. He loved the outdoors and rarely came straight home from school, usually finding a more interesting route. Throughout his life he focussed on the things that interested him, and he never stopped learning.
When he left school he became a bank clerk in Lewes before joining the Ramblers, and after the Ramblers he joined Stanfords, the map shop then in Long Acre. After that he moved to Shrewbury and worked in the rights-of-way department at Shropshire County Council. His colleague Lucy Macfarlane talked about the fearless way he tackled landowners about their responsibilities on paths, and how he was threatened with a gun and head-butted by rams. The Guardian quick crossword was a lunchtime tradition, and John always completed it. After he retired, he made sure that the council staff continued to be kept busy with his path reports, and he soon became the Ramblers’ Area footpath secretary.
John loved literature, music and the theatre. Sue Jones of Shropshire Ramblers spoke fondly of accompanying John to cultural activities, and a visit to Dymock, the poets’ haunt in Gloucestershire, where they walked the Daffodil Way. She read us Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, a moving and appropriate choice.
Roy Howells and Peter Greeve from Shrewsbury Group told of many adventures with John, his bus and rail rambles (he strongly believed in using public transport), and visits to Cornwall, the Lake District, Yorkshire and Wales, and further afield to Mongolia, Iceland, Italy, Spain among many countries. Roy recalled sharing a room with John and being woken at 4.30am when he tuned in to the Open University; he gained a BA from the OU.
While he was still working for the council he was known by the Ramblers as John Oldham, so that he maintained a separate identity.
His friends spoke of his culinary skills and his ability to identify and cook fungi (although his guests needed some reassurance before eating them); and his love of plants and of music (especially Vaughan Williams and the late Beethoven string quartets). He was a member of the Green Party and could have been a candidate but decided it would interfere with his walking. We were told that his expertise was in walking and definitely not driving, nor computers.
For ten years he was chairman of the Shrewsbury Group and was tireless in his work for the committee. He produced local walks guides and his most popular one was 20 walks in and around Shrewbury, published seven years ago and still selling well. For this he won a Ramblers’ national award. This book encourages people to walk locally and to help keep the paths open. In his roles with the council and the Ramblers, John played an important part in the improvement of Shropshire’s paths.
He was an avid listener of the Archers. The celebrant, Christine Jolly, told us that Helen Longworth (who plays Hannah Riley) sent her respects, and Louiza Patikas (Helen Archer) sent condolences and ‘warmest wishes from Bridge Farm’. We were played out by the theme tune from the Archers. John would have loved it.
John had a dry sense of humour. When he knew he did not have long to live he said ‘Well at least I won’t have to worry about Brexit’.
He asked for his epitaph to be: Here lies John Newnham. He thought he knew his mushrooms.
John Newnham, 2 January 1943 – 11 January 2019