Walking Class Heroes – Kate Ashbrook

A life-long campaigner for public paths and open spaces and a firm fixture at the Ramblers, Kate Ashbrook was particularly active in seeing the CROW Bill through Parliament. This is the second excerpt from the new book Walking Class Heroes, in which the lives of 20 pioneers of the Right to Roam are examined.

An older woman, standing by a gate, smiling

The bright spring morning of Thursday 20 April 1972 was a day that was to change the life of Kate Ashbrook, campaigning general secretary of Britain’s oldest national conservation body, the Open Spaces Society.

That was the day she first met her mentor, lifelong friend and redoubtable Dartmoor champion Lady (Sylvia) Sayer. It was a close friendship which was to last for nearly three decades, and one which schooled Ashbrook to becoming one of the most effective and outspoken campaigners for access rights in Britain today.

The meeting took place at Old Middle Cator, Sayer’s ancient, thatched, granite Dartmoor longhouse, near Widecombe-in-the-Moor. She had first seen Sayer in action the previous year, at a public meeting called about the proposed Swincombe Reservoir on southern Dartmoor.

‘I sat at the back of the crowded hall, feeling increasingly angry as speaker after speaker condemned lovely Swincombe as a useless bog,’ recalls Ashbrook. ‘Then, to the shame of the assembled company, Syl stood up and spoke with courage and eloquence about the value of wild country for our wellbeing. I knew then I must campaign for it. I also knew that I must meet her.’ 

Ashbrook continued: ‘I can still picture that first meeting, in the small, dark sitting-room, with Syl and her husband Guy, their son Oliver, his wife Janet and three granddaughters. I can recall the Cator smell: the welcoming hearth in the centre of the cottage generated warmth and the aroma of damp wood and peat.’

Learning to be tough and fearless

At the tender age of 17, Ashbrook had already joined the Dartmoor Preservation Association, of which Sayer was chairman, a post she had held since 1951. She retired from the chair in 1973 to become a patron.

Black and white photo of a young woman cutting barbed wire

Cutting the wire across a footpath at Pensax in Worcestershire, 1989, at a Ramblers' rally.

Ashbrook added: ‘It was Syl who taught me how to be a campaigner. I emulated her style and learnt that it is vital to be tough and fearless, never to start by compromising or you give away too much, and never to give up.’ 

And it was Sayer who gave Ashbrook her initial introduction to the national conservation and access scene. She invited her to take her place on the committee of the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society (later to become the Open Spaces Society) in 1978, and the Council (later Campaign) for National Parks in 1983. Sayer also persuaded Ashbrook to go to the Ramblers Association’s general council as a Devon Area delegate in 1982, which enabled her to be elected to the executive committee that year.

Black and white photo of a woman talking to two men, holding papers

Marching through the marquee, blocking the Thames-side footpath at Henley Regatta 1990, photo by Bucks Free Press.

Early life 

Ashbrook was born in 1955 and brought up at Wrango, a gracious Queen Anne house in the centre of Denham, an unspoilt village deep in the south Buckinghamshire green belt. Her father, John (known as Jay) was an American born in Wisconsin who met his wife Margaret Balfour when she was in the Land Army during the Second World War. They married in 1948. Her father sold food to US bases over here, later moving into publishing.

The second born, Ashbrook was educated at Benenden School in Cranbrook, Kent, and at Exeter University, where she gained a Bachelor of Science honours degree in biology. She later did part-time work for Anthony Steen, MP for South Hams, who was sponsoring Devon County Council’s Dartmoor Commons Bill. The bill, which passed into law in 1985, provided public access on foot and horseback to much of Britain’s great southern wilderness of Dartmoor.

Ashbrook was a committee member of the Dartmoor Preservation Association (DPA) for 10 years between 1974 and 1984, and honorary secretary between 1981 and 1984. She became president between 1995-2011 and has been a trustee since 2011.

While she was with the DPA, she helped persuade the china clay companies to give up their 50-year-old consents for damaging quarrying and waste dumping on Dartmoor, without claiming any compensation. Ashbrook joined the Open Spaces Society as general secretary in 1984.

The infamous Hoogstraten case

Perhaps the action Ashbrook will be best remembered for was when, acting in a personal capacity, in 2002 she won an Appeal Court ruling (R (Ashbrook) v East Sussex County Council) condemning East Sussex County Council for its failure to remove illegal obstructions from Framfield Footpath 9 – the infamous ‘Hoogstraten’ footpath.

In February 2003, Ashbrook was invited to wield the bolt cutters to free the footpath after 13 years of illegal obstruction. It had been blocked by Rarebargain, a company associated with the millionaire property tycoon Nicholas van Hoogstraten, who had publicly condemned all ramblers as ‘riff raff’ and ‘scum of the earth.’

It was the culmination of a long campaign and a victory over a landowner who had intimidated walkers, the highway authority and the police. It was also a victory over a highway authority which had failed in its duty to ‘assert and protect the right of the public to the use and enjoyment of the highway.’

A woman holding baulk cutters, cutting a chain to a large gate

Opening the 'Hoogstraten' footpath, Framfield 9 in East Sussex, Feb 2003

Youngest chair of the Ramblers

Ashbrook became the first woman and youngest-ever chair of the Ramblers Association between 1995-8, between 2006-9 and currently between 2018-21. She was vice-chair 1993-5 and 2017-8 and has been a committee member or trustee since 1982 (except 2012-6, when she was president). She was chair of the Ramblers’ access committee from its inception in 1997 and, since 1991, of the access working party and access panel which had preceded it. These committees were concerned with drafting and promoting the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act freedom to roam legislation.

The right to roam

On behalf of the Ramblers, Ashbrook was particularly active in seeing the CROW Bill through Parliament, as she followed all the debates in both Houses and in committee, promoting amendments and providing briefings.

Ashbrook was chair of the Campaign for National Parks between 2003-2009, vice-chair between 1998-2003 and 2016-9, and committee member or trustee between 1983-2019. She was also a member of board of the Countryside Agency from its inception in 1999 until its sad demise in 2006.

A woman standing at a lectern, speakingAshbrook has been a regular speaker at the annual Spirit of Kinder events, which are held in celebration of the 1932 Mass Trespass. At the 2014 event held at Sheffield Town Hall, she eloquently expressed her feelings about the need to continue the right-to-roam campaign post-CROW.

‘The CROW Act of 2000 was an important milestone, but we still have much to achieve,’ she said. ‘And it’s become harder than ever. We have a government which is obsessed with development, money comes before everything and green spaces everywhere are at risk.

‘There is plenty of evidence that walking and outdoor recreation are good for the economy and for our health and wellbeing. The growth in Walkers Are Welcome Towns demonstrates that local businesses know that it helps to welcome walkers.

‘The evidence on health is overwhelming – it makes sense to transfer money from the Health Service into paths and access provision. Yet our paths are in crisis. Councils are now so desperate they seem not to care that they have a legal duty to maintain public paths.’

She added: ‘There is plenty we can do to ensure that our rights are not undermined. We must show that open spaces, paths, access and freedom are vital human needs not luxuries. ‘We are not a fringe group, we are mainstream,’ she concluded. ‘We change lives and we save lives.’

Campaigner Kate – as she is known on her blog – still manages to keep an eagle eye on any threats to our rights to access the countryside, and long may she continue to do so.

Kate has been general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, Britain’s oldest national conservation body, for more than 35 years. She is also chair of the Ramblers and patron of the Walkers Are Welcome Towns Network.

Win!

Walking Class Heroes: Pioneers of the Right to Roam by Roly Smith (Signal Books, £9.99) is out now and we have ten copies to giveaway, just visit our Front Foot competition and enter before 28 February 2021

Magazine of the Ramblers