Michael Dower, doyen of the countryside

Michael Dower, an important figure in British and European rural policy, died last November aged 88. His friend and colleague, Adrian Phillips, wrote an obituary for The Times but sadly it was not published due to ‘a lot of competition for space around Christmas’. Adrian has kindly agreed that I can publish the obituary here. Adrian was, among much else, Director General of the Countryside Commission from 1981 to 1992.


Being born into a family whose name is associated in the public mind with formidable intellect and high moral values can be an intimidating start in life. Michael Dower had to contend with this on both sides. He was the grandson of the Labour Education Minister, Sir Charles Trevelyan MP, whose daughter Pauline was a committed campaigner for national parks; and the son of John Dower, the author of the post-war blueprint for national parks in England and Wales. Michael, who died on 7 November 2022 just short of his 89th birthday, met this double challenge. His Dower and Trevelyan ancestors would have been proud of his achievements as one of the most important actors in shaping British countryside and rural policy over many years, and with a big influence in Europe later in life.

He had to be kept apart from his father as a child because John Dower suffered—and eventually died—from TB. But Michael got to know the Trevelyan family home at Wallington well, and enjoyed the austere delights of the Northumberland countryside around. This, and his parents’ values, helped shape his career.

Wallington Hall from the north. © Christopher Hilton, Creative Commons Licence.

All through his working life, there were both intellectual and practical threads. Thus, with university and national service behind him (his chief memory of the latter was rescuing people and cows from the East Coast floods of 1953), Michael first made a name for himself nationally at the Civic Trust, organising working parties of young people to demolish wartime eyesores and thus pioneering what we now know as conservation volunteers. It was at one of their camps that he met his wife, Agnes (Nan) Done. In 1967, he wrote Fourth Wave, a report on the wave of car-borne leisure, which was seen as a threat to landowning interests and traditional hiking and hostelling.  Michael argued that the pressures unleashed by a newly-mobile urban population would destroy the very countryside people had come to see: this line of thinking led to the 1968 Countryside Act, with its focus on country parks as honeypots to draw the crowds away from more sensitive places.

Michael, Nan and their three small boys moved to Devon in 1967, when he set up the Dartington Amenity Research Trust. DART was a rural think tank with a reputation for quality, timeliness and value for money. Its most important client was a government body, the Countryside Commission: so good was DART, that the commission struggled to avoid giving it all the contracts. However, writing reports did not satisfy Michael’s wish to do practical conservation work. He alighted on a long-forgotten place on the River Tamar called Morwellham (emphasis should be placed, Michael insisted, on the last syllable) that had once been an important port to serve local copper mines. He developed it into a pioneer of tourism based on industrial archaeology: it is now part of a World Heritage site.

It was at DART that Michael realised that he was more than countryside protector. He certainly believed in protecting wildlife, the landscape and the history and archaeology within it, but he was equally committed to supporting the rural economy and rural communities. He advocated ‘sustainable rural development’ long before those ponderous words became fashionable.  His synoptic view of the countryside was an intellectual standard he applied to all his work. He was the last man to want to labour in a silo.

Given his parents’ interests, it was no surprise that Michael would want to enter the national park world at some point. The opportunity arose in 1985 when he was appointed as the national park officer at the Peak District, England’s first national park. At that time, there were signs around Bakewell saying: ‘Abolish the Peak Park’. Michael relished this challenge. He got alongside the malcontents and listened to their complaints. Within two years, half the park’s farmers were benefitting from a pioneering grant scheme for environmental care, and the park’s rangers were being deployed to help farmers and visitors resolve their differences.

Grindslow Knoll in the Peak District National Park

His synoptic approach went beyond farming. He encouraged small businesses to market goods as made in the park; created a showcase for Peak District artists that flourishes to this day; set up a Peak Park Trust to revitalise derelict historic buildings; and supported affordable housing for local people. Truly Michael was ‘Mr Peak Park’.

Michael as Peak District National Park Officer

He moved from local to national in 1992, taking over as Director General of the Countryside Commission, which was based in Cheltenham in John Dower House (which had been named for his father). He was now able to deploy his approach at an England-wide scale. The annual reports of the commission of that time are full of accounts of innovative schemes, from the National Forest in the English Midlands to pioneer work on agri-environmental projects. Perhaps it was all too much for Whitehall: a few years after Michael’s time, the commission was rebranded as the Countryside Agency and then largely swallowed up in Natural England. It is hard to imagine any government these days being ready to give an agency the independence to operate in the way the Countryside Commission did under Michael and his predecessors.

The author, Adrian Phillips, between his two friends John Davidson, his predecessor at the Countryside Commission, and Michael Dower, his successor, both alas now dead. This was taken at a farewell event for John Dower House on 6 December 2010. The property, which had accommodated government countryside agencies since 1974, was to be sold the following year.

Tall, impressively clever, quick minded and fearless, he led both the park and the commission from the front. He demanded a lot of others but even more of himself. He was gifted as a communicator, expressing himself orally with great clarity, and having an unusual ability to synthesise ideas during a conference; and in writing too, he rarely needed to do a second draft as it all came out first time in neatly organised paragraphs.  So, he should have been a gift to bureaucracies, but he did not suffer fools and could be impatient with the workings of local and national government, leading to confrontations with politicians at both levels. In the last few months of his life, he recalled a row with the then environment minister, Michael Howard, who, he felt, had shown indifference to the exciting opportunities offered by the National Forest scheme. Michael could be irked when confronted by those he felt did not share his enthusiasms.

Michael in Dorset.

Well into his sixties, he left the commission in 1996 and embarked on what he called his ‘first retirement job’. Based at the University of Gloucestershire, his canvas now was rural Europe.  Though no great linguist, his force of personality, a skill in finding common ground among divergent views, and a sense of fun (a quality that can transcend generational, language and national divides) made him a very effective designer and leader of several Europe-wide NGO rural initiatives. His energy seemed endless, though as a tall man he hated the cramped seating in aircraft and returned exhausted from his European forays which took him as far afield as Ukraine and Georgia. His reward was not only a number of European alliances dedicated to the welfare of rural communities and the environment, but a bunch of ardent admirers from every corner of the continent, most of whom were less than half his age. A Belgian friend and colleague called him ‘an Englishman for Europe, a believer in European democracy, cohesion, integration, cooperation, and volunteering’. Michael loathed Brexit and felt that much of his work was damaged by it.

Left to right: Michael, his son John, Paul Christensen (former chair of Natural England), and Robin (Michael’s brother), holding a drawing of John Dower senior, at the farewell event for John Dower House on 6 December 2010.

He took up his second retirement job about ten years ago when he and Nan move to the small Dorset town of Beaminster.  Restless for action, he soon became known around town for his love of trees and woodland and for organising schoolchildren and volunteers to plant and care for them. But he was still drawn to the big picture, campaigning for a Dorset National Park and helping to found the Dorset Climate Action Network: its members described him in an on-line tribute as ‘demanding but very generous … a little frightening but marvellously warm’. He was still giving guidance to this group from his hospital bed days before he died.

Michael organising schoolchildren to plant and care for trees.

Michael’s formidable career was made possible by two things. He could always take refuge in painting landscape and flowers, and in creating strange and enchanting artefacts from pieces of wood or flotsam that he found. But mostly he was sustained by the love, patience and cooking of Nan. Because he threw himself into work with an all-encompassing passion, she sometimes had to carry more of the family burden than is right. Only her Yorkshire-born strength made that possible. Her reward was a lifetime with a man of exceptional gifts and seeing their three sons achieve success: John as a film director, Dan as a jeweller, Alex as an actor.

One of Michael’s home-made Christmas cards: Dartmoor from above Dartington, 1980.

Colleagues will remember Michael Dower not only for his daunting intellect but for singing all the verses of On Ilkla Moor Baht’at with gusto, coming out with (painful) puns in meetings and offering limericks (of varying quality) to conference audiences in need of cheering up. Friends will remember his loyalty and his home-made Christmas cards, each with an individual message and a pressed leaf chosen for its autumn colours.

Michael Dower, 15 November 1933 – 7 November 2022


About campaignerkate

I am the general secretary of the Open Spaces Society and I campaign for public access, paths and open spaces in town and country.
This entry was posted in Access, National parks, Natural England, Obituary, Peak District, planning, rural services, Woods and forests and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Michael Dower, doyen of the countryside

  1. histman says:

    Thanks for this fascinating item. I am reading the biography of his father at the moment so this blog post is timely. I wonder if his son John has been involved in the reparations for slavery initiative which has received some publicity recently.

  2. My friend Roly Smith has written to Adrian Phillips:

    This is just a short note to thank you for the perceptive and moving obituary to Michael.

    I was really sad to hear that The Times couldn’t find space to include your obituary for such an important figure in British countryside conservation and policy. So I was glad to see it broadcast through Kate’s blog, as it certainly deserves to reach a wider audience.

    As you know, Michael was my boss for several years at the Peak District National Park, and in a long working life, I can safely say that I never worked for a more supportive and inspirational leader. As you say in your obituary, Michael really turned things round at the Peak District National Park, in terms of its relationship with the local population. Where previous bosses regularly turned down opportunities to speak to local groups and organisations, Michael always accepted, and with his superb gift for elegant public speaking, added to his innate charm and good humour, he gave the Park a human face, converting many to the cause. As I was his Head of Information Services, Michael was a dream leader to me, allowing me to advise him on press releases and many other public offerings. This also applied to all his senior officers, whom he trusted implicitly and supported wholeheartedly to members in committee and board meetings. He was one of a kind, and members of the Escape Committee (retired employees of the PDNPA) often still speak about him with warm affection.

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