Ruth Colyer died ten years ago this month at the age of 95. This is the article I wrote at the time for the Blackmore Vale Magazine and for Open Space. Ruth was a volunteer for the Open Spaces Society and a member of its executive committee from 1968 to 1986. For half a century she fought tirelessly to preserve the ancient rights of way and common land of Dorset.
Ruth was born Ruth Reddaway, the only daughter of William Reddaway, a Cambridge head of house (Fitzwilliam College), and his wife Kathleen, a graduate of Girton. She had four brothers, which may account for her ability to hold her own in an argument. Ruth read modern languages and economics at Girton, where she met Cecil Colyer, whom she married in 1936. They had four children.
In 1952 Cecil, a noted designer and craftsman, was appointed to run the woodwork department at Bryanston School and they moved to Shillingstone in Dorset. Here Ruth became involved in the battles to protect public paths from obstruction; in 1968 she joined Rodney Legg at the start of the Tyneham Action Group which fought to return the lost village to its inhabitants.
Ruth was always surrounded by paper. Rodney Legg, who was for 20 years chairman of the Open Spaces Society [and who died only four months after Ruth], wrote: ‘I became Ruth’s bag-man on trips to London. That was a leather holdall weighed down with six months’ issues of the Western Gazette which she proceeded to annotate and then rip apart on the train, literally, as she resisted my attempts at mechanising the procedure with a pair of scissors. I was also entrusted as filing clerk and map archivist, though dealing with Ruth’s concept of paperwork was an impossible challenge and frustration for someone whose first job was in a civil-service organisation and methods office.’
Rod continued: ‘“The poor paths”, as she called them, were Ruth’s passion and obsession. They were at once her adrenalin and migraine. The situation often seemed desperate as we fought for them at a time when Dorset County Council was landowner controlled. Ruth moved me in, up the valley, by finding my first Dorset home—then known as Bere Marsh Cottage—and gave me lists of people to interview.
‘To Ruth, finding and proving footpath rights was never enough, as she cajoled me to claim everything as a byway, with horse-riding and motorist rights. This united potential allies, including conservationists and residents, into joining farmers and the gentry in resisting everything we tried to do.’
At the end of the 1960s the Commons Registration Act 1965 required that all common land had to be registered in a far-too-short three-year period. Ruth claimed everything she could, thereby saving many areas of common but unfortunately her enthusiasm ran away with her and many of her claims had to be abandoned for lack of evidence and fear of court action.
Ruth also fought against the Beeching cuts, and her persistence helped to save the Salisbury-Exeter and Westbury-Weymouth rail lines from being closed.
Said Rodney: ‘As a visionary, she had her moments, such as persuading the National Trust at an annual general meeting to buy something of what little remained of Dorset’s virgin downland as a memorial to Thomas Hardy. The trust forgot to do anything but Ruth then shamed it into invoking Hardy’s name for the appeal that went on to save a wonderful sweep of the Cranborne Chase escarpment at Fontmell Down and Melbury Beacon.’
Alan Mattingly, Ramblers’ director from 1974 to 1998, commented: ‘Ruth could of course be a demanding and uncompromising person. But she was brave and utterly dedicated to the cause of saving paths and open spaces. She achieved much for the outdoor movement, especially in Dorset.’
In 1989 the Open Spaces Society paid tribute to Ruth’s work by making her an honorary member of the society. She had little thanks in her lifetime from the communities for whom she struggled, but her valuable work in protecting our rights to enjoy the Dorset countryside is not forgotten.
Ruth Colyer, 11 March 1915 – 5 March 2011