Twenty years ago today, on 4 January 2000, Sylvia (Lady) Sayer died aged 95. She had been my friend and champion for nearly 30 years (I describe our meeting here), and in the ensuing weeks I wrote a number of obituaries and tributes. This is a combination of them.
Stand on a summit on central Dartmoor and look around you. It is still largely wild and free. For that we owe a deep gratitude to Lady Sayer, who devoted over half a century to defending Dartmoor’s wildness.
She was born in Edwardian Plymouth, of an upright, middle-class family. Her great-grandfather owned Cattedown Wharf in old Plymouth harbour, her grandfather on her mother’s side, Robert Burnard, founded the Dartmoor Preservation Association in 1883, and her father was a naval surgeon who was at sea a great deal. The joy of her childhood was the regular visits to Huccaby House on Dartmoor, which Robert Burnard leased from the Duchy of Cornwall.
There Syl and her sister Phyllis found freedom and happiness, away from the starched rectitude of the Plymouth household. As she wrote in 1973:
It was a place of strong and potent magic: no children were ever happier than we were there. To be told we were ‘going to Huccaby’ was to be seized with a kind of mad joy; to leave it was a cruel banishment…for me the Huccaby magic is still there and I can forget today’s packed cars and milling people around Huccaby Bridge, the car park in Huccaby Meadow and the litter floating in the Dart, and I’m back as a small grandchild staying at Huccaby House, with the lovely rushing voice of the river and the scent of the rhododendrons and pines blowing in at my bedroom window. And tomorrow would be bringing another wonderful Dartmoor day.
So granite was in her blood (centuries before coming to Dartmoor, her mother’s forebears had farmed on Bodmin Moor). In 1981 she wrote*:
As you approach Dartmoor’s heights from the cultivated Devon lowlands the centuries fall away faster than the mileage until finally you arrive in the landscape of the Bronze Age; and sometimes this brings a kind of involuntary recognition that you have been here before—a long time before—and here are your roots, this is your tribal land.
When Syl and her husband, Guy Sayer, discovered Cator, a tumble-down cottage near Widecombe, in 1928, they bought it for £150 and lived there until the end of their lives: Guy died in 1985.
In 1930 they had twin boys, Oliver (Oz) and Geoff, who grew up at Cator.
It was after the war that Syl became deeply involved in the protection of Dartmoor. She played an important role in the establishment of the national park in 1951 and was a member of the park committee from 1952 to 1957 when she resigned in protest at the committee’s failure to uphold national values (it was then a subcommittee of Devon County Council, under the thumb of a small group of aldermen). The final straw for her was when the chairman, Sir Henry Slesser (the Devon County Alderman and former Solicitor-General), used his casting vote in favour of china-clay mining.
At that time Dartmoor faced a multitude of threats, not only from china clay but also from the expansion of military training, a TV mast on North Hessary Tor and ploughing and enclosure of open country, to name a few. And the threats continued over the ensuing years.
In 1951 Syl became chairman of the Dartmoor Preservation Association and built it up from only 140 members to the effective pressure-group that it is today. In 1973 she retired from the chair and became patron, jointly with Guy.
With other devotees of their parks, such as Gerald Haythornthwaite in the Peak District, Syl served on the Standing Committee on National Parks, now the Campaign for National Parks. She was a member of the Commons Preservation Society (now the Open Spaces Society) committee (but generously gave up in 1978 so that I could take over), and worked closely with the Ramblers’ Association, of which she was a vice-president, to get a better deal for Dartmoor. She ensured these national bodies were represented at Dartmoor’s many public inquiries, some of which lasted for months.
Syl did not care what people thought about her, so long as she did the right thing for Dartmoor. She battled calmly, courteously and effectively, with steadfast support from Guy. There were many who must have dreaded the beautifully written envelope dropping through their letter box: she never typed, but her copper-plate handwriting was her hallmark.
In 1967 she walked on Ringmoor Down on south-west Dartmoor, right under the military helicopters, to expose the danger to walkers and riders of the gun-dropping activities. And she would march across the northern Dartmoor military ranges during live firing to ‘exercise her common rights’ of grazing and cutting peat.
How she hated those who would destroy the moor or who put parochial interests first. An arch-enemy was Peter Mills, MP for West Devon, who played an ignominious role in the destruction of the West Okement valley by the Meldon reservoir—when he was knighted, Syl immediately knighted her donkey, Erastus.
Sir Ronald Brockman, chairman of the national park committee in the 1970s, earned her obloquy when in June 1975 he called the police to remove Syl and her friends from the public gallery. She had protested loudly at the meeting at being falsely represented by him to members of the committee with no opportunity to reply.
Another was Alderman Wilkey, whom she described in The Meldon Story, on 4 March 1970, the day that work on the reservoir began, as a little Water Board Napoleon, incongruous in the Dartmoor scene in his black Homburg hat and overcoat, Mr Wilkey posed for the photographers and celebrated his moment of triumph by pressing a button and blowing up a tree.
The Meldon battle was bitter and unjust. Syl ended The Meldon Story with a despairing observation:
The effect on the younger generation of the methods of present-day misgovernment is alarming but inevitable. When they utterly despair of a fair hearing or a just decision, they tend to stop talking and reach for the nearest brick. And who can blame them? Certainly we do not. We well know that the provocation to lawlessness often starts in Whitehall.
And there was the collection of officials who visited the proposed Swincombe reservoir site in the late 1960s, about whom she wrote in Wild Country: national asset or barren waste (1971), illustrated by a drawing:
There they all stood, on the rim of a great natural amphitheatre, looking out across the wilderness; a group of good worthy citizens in Homburg hats and raincoats and pointed town shoes.
‘Just a barren wilderness’, said one stout alderman to another ‘and a perfect site for a reservoir’, and I think he voiced the opinion of the majority of that particular party. But a minority of those present felt—and said—that he could only have produced that remark out of a totally barren mind.
She could write a cutting letter. Here is her correspondence with Sir Henry Studholme in The Times in August 1971 when the above-mentioned Swincombe scheme was being revived. He wrote that it made no difference to the Swincombe valley whether it became a reservoir or not—it would be equally free and inspiring. Syl riposted:
Fortunate Sir Henry Studholme who seems able to persuade himself that a huge artificial dam, roads and associated structures are objects of wild and natural beauty, and that by some modern miracle people are able to walk on water.
At public inquiries she was fearless in her cross-examination of those who proposed to damage the moor, and was never caught out when she herself was questioned, because her preparation of the case was impeccable and her knowledge of the moor unparalleled.
She was also an artist, though with little time to devote to it, such were the pressures on Dartmoor: at meetings she would sketch those round the table to a perfect likeness.
Because she was so outspoken and made many enemies, her human side tended to be overlooked. She was exceptionally warm, kind and humorous with a large and close family (five grandchildren and, at the time of her death, seven great grandchildren) and a multitude of friends whom she welcomed to Cator where there was always a roaring fire and a good tea.
Syl was tremendously courageous and resourceful. Shortly after she married Guy in 1925, he was stationed in Hong Kong. She could not bear to be parted from him and so she travelled to China and persuaded the Shangai Times to let her follow him up the River Yangtze (where a battle was raging), as an artist to record events, at some personal danger. More recently, in 1983, when she had a cancerous problem with her eyelid, she opted to have her eye removed. With her black patch, she looked as fearsome as ever.
Moth in her ear
One summer evening, when Guy was reading to Syl in bed as he normally did, a moth flew into her ear and did not fly out again. Unable to budge it, and unable to sleep because of the fluttering torture in her head, she got up and wrote Dartmoor letters all night, including one to the Telegraph, so as not to waste time when she couldn’t sleep. The next day the doctor flushed out the moth and she was delighted to find it was still alive.
Syl came from a middle-class family, and she took on the establishment in the days when it was not fashionable to do so. In 1983, when Prince Charles as Duke of Cornwall invited her to Kensington Palace to celebrate the launch of the Duchy’s management plan for Dartmoor, she refused because the Prince showed no sign of telling the military to stop using Dartmoor for live firing.
It was Syl who devised a plan in 1975 to save the unromantically-named ‘Area Y’ on Shaugh Moor, south-west Dartmoor, from being used by the china clay company as a giant clay-waste dustbin. This is a magnificent stretch of moorland with a rich palimpsest of ancient monuments.
In 1966, the Devon County Alderman (and former Solicitor-General) Sir Henry Slesser, whom Syl had opposed on the park committee in 1957, decided that she was right after all. He wrote a collection of Dartmoor ditties called ‘This Barren Waste’. The first is about Syl.
There’s an eloquent Dame
(I won’t mention her name)
Who toils for the Moor’s preservation.
Explosions from mortars
And reservoired waters
Call forth her most dire indignation—
Over-planting of trees—a tax dodger’s wheeze—
Has suffered a grievous ‘exposure’
While motors on highways
Which penetrate byways
Have caused her most deep discomposure.
To all who would menace the Moor
Her responses are drastic but sure—
While commercialists fear her
The ‘ramblers’ revere her
For she is the shield of the Moor.
Syliva Rosalind Pleadwell Sayer, 6 March 1904 – 4 January 2000
* From an essay, Wild landscape: Dartmoor—the influence and inspiration of its past, published in Our past before us: why do we save it? Edited by David Lowenthal and Marcus Binney (Maurice Temple Smith Ltd, 1981).