Ramblers’ campaigner and champion Dennis Nisbet would have been 100 on 17 April. He died in 2010 aged 89.
Dennis was familiar with the countryside throughout his life. He was born in Southend, Essex, and had an idyllic childhood. His widow Joy writes that he enjoyed seemingly endless days in the pastures around the River Crouch where he would swim and row boats from the family houseboat.
Similarly, in Shropshire, where his maternal grandmother lived from 1920, he spent many happy holidays roaming the hills and dales near her home. Here he developed his lifelong interest in flora and fauna.
At school Dennis was bright and matriculated at 15 years with distinction in German and credits in English language, English literature, French, history, arithmetic, and electricity and magnetism. At 17 years he secured higher school certificate with credit in German, history, English and French. However, university was not considered and he began work in ICI administration in 1937.
There followed an unhappy time with the beginning of the war in 1939 as Dennis had become a pacifist while still at school, when his ever-lasting interest in politics began. His mother blamed an influential school teacher, Mrs Anderson. Dennis’s attempt to join the forces as a non-combatant in an ambulance division failed and he was directed to work firstly in hospital and then on the land.
From 1942 to 1946 Dennis worked for the Berkshire War Agricultural Committee, and then for a year for the National Union of Agricultural Workers.
Then, from 27 January 1947 to 28 January 1981 he was employed by the National Coal Board, retiring at the age of 60. He joined the NCB at the start of the big freeze: Joy recalls that all the coal was frozen in the sidings outside the mines and that Labour was blamed for the weather.
Dennis and Joy met at the Hammersmith by-election in 1948, both of them having joined the Labour Party in 1945. They encountered each other again on May Day 1949 in Trafalgar Square, became engaged in 1950 and married in 1951. Joy was working as a child care officer for the London County Council. They had two sons, Martin and Andrew (who tragically died last year, far too young), and Joy now has four grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
Dennis stood unsuccessfully for parliament three times: for the Cities of London and Westminster ward in 1953, Paddington North in 1959 and in 1964 Bedfordshire South where he lost by only 339 votes. Joy also stood for parliament, in 1979 and 1983.
In the 1980s Dennis was elected a Labour member of Essex County Council. When the election in 1985 produced a hung council Dennis, with his Labour and Liberal/Social Democratic Party colleagues, managed to persuade the council at last to focus on rights of way and to get tough with path blockers—he called this triumph ‘the October Revolution’.
He was president and chairman of the Ramblers’ Essex Area, and chairman of the South-East Essex Group. South-Eastern Rambler reports that, in autumn 1985, Dennis had surveyed all the public paths on Canvey Island. As readers of this blog know, I walked with the group around the island last November, and there are many paths!
He was at the forefront of the long campaign to create the Hadleigh Castle Country Park in south-east Essex. It was opened in May 1987. John Rostron has posted a photo on a website about Hadleigh country park. It is captioned: Opening of Hadleigh Castle Country Park in 1987. The Hadleigh Castle Country Park was a long time in gestating. Much of the drive for its establishment came from Councillor Dennis Nisbet, seen in this image at the opening ceremony. The park was officially opened at this event by Sir Derek Barber, chairman of the Countryside Commission. However, I have shown Dennis Nisbet as I consider he was the one worthy of illustration!
Representing the Ramblers, Dennis fought a path-rationalisation scheme at Canewdon in Essex in 1991, and won.
He also helped the Ramblers and Open Spaces Society to defeat the pernicious Ombersley rationalisation scheme in the former Hereford and Worcester, a plan involving the mass diversion of over one hundred paths.
Dennis’s grandmother died in 1957 aged 93. He inherited the family house in Church Stretton in 1982 from his aunt, and he and Joy moved there in 1992 after his aunt died. Dennis was elected secretary of Shropshire Ramblers and later countryside secretary.
He is particularly remembered for the path he claimed to the top of Ragleth Hill, then forbidden land (although subsequently it became access land under the Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act 2000), and for the Nisbet Way, between Church Stretton and Little Stretton. While a councillor for Church Stretton Parish Council Dennis persuaded the council to take over a piece of land called Coppice Leasowes, an area to the north of the village containing a varied terraine and numerous different habitats. It was designated a local nature reserve in 1998.
In 2004, Dennis became the first landowner to dedicate land to public access under section 16 of the CROW Act, at Lurkenhope Wood on the Shropshire border near Knighton, with spectacular views of the Shropshire Hills. He then passed the land to the Shropshire Wildlife Trust. This generous gift is a fitting memorial to Dennis and his work for walkers.
Dennis was immensely hard working and committed to every task he took on—he wasn’t a quitter. We are so fortunate that he chose to volunteer for the Ramblers and to campaign for paths and access. He was a member of the Ramblers’ national executive committee (now board of trustees) from 1990 to 1994.
In the words of Eugene Suggett, senior policy officer at the Ramblers, Dennis was ‘a politically-adroit and inspiring campaigner’. I echo that.
Dennis Nisbet, 17 April 1920 – 16 Jan 2010