In the late 1970s, the Ramblers Association decreed that there should be many more RA rambling groups in Devon, bringing to an end a longstanding area walks programme that had concentrated on explorations on Dartmoor.
The happy band of walkers that had been brought together by these area walks faced being split up and scattered among several groups. These Dartmoor walkers did not take this threat lying down.
Despite her great age Miss Hilda Biscoe of Throwleigh, first secretary of the Devon Ramblers, pioneered the idea that there should be a new RA group for Dartmoor walks.
She approached me and asked if I would set one up. There was no doubt that there was lots of support.
I approached two other veteran ramblers, Phyllis Waldron of Lustleigh and Vera Barber of Wembury, and they agreed to join me on a steering committee to undertake the initial work. We already had the backing of the Devon Ramblers chairman Ron Vinnicombe.
I immediately sought the support of Lady Sayer, Dartmoor’s best known conservationist, who happened to be the president of the Ramblers Association in the county. She became an enthusiastic supporter of the idea. I seem to recall that she made a personal contribution towards the costs of setting up the new group.
Originally we wanted to call the new group the Dartmoor Group, but there was opposition to this from RA bodies, so it became instead the Moorland Group of the Ramblers Association. A well supported inaugural meeting was held at the Brown Cow restaurant, then in Queen Street, Newton Abbot.
The group produced a walks programme and began its role of protecting public rights of way and fighting threats to Dartmoor. If memory serves me correctly Vera Barber became the group’s first chairman, and Phyllis Waldron its treasurer. Over the next few years I held various posts, including secretary, walks secretary and footpaths officer.
The Moorland Group took a tough line on Dartmoor issues; fighting to preserve access, opposing the conversion of open moorland, a real threat to parts of Dartmoor in those days, fighting the closures and diversions of rights of way, and seeking to end damaging military training in the National Park.
I remember one particular row over access when the National Park Authority published a walks guide which had the temerity to suggest that ramblers should ask permission to walk through moorland newtakes. This led to a vitriolic correspondence between the park officer on one side and myself and Lady Sayer on the other. It was through such battles that the freedom that walkers enjoy today was achieved.
To save unnecessary journeys it was agreed that most committee meetings were held during or after walks. I recall that the first was held sitting with our backs to the drystone wall across the River Dart from Laughter Hole House. But generally the committee allowed the officers to get on with the job. Walks were held every Sunday and sometimes on other days as well, with every part of Dartmoor being visited in the course of the year, some at night.
A great many excellent walks leaders came forward and I always thought the Moorland walks programme was second to none in innovation and exploration, with many themed walks to give a focus to rambles.
As with all such ventures the original crowd faded away. Sadly, some older members died, others found new interests or took to walking Dartmoor alone. I left the Moorland Group in 1984 to pursue fresh adventures, but the Moorland Group itself carried on and survives in a different way today, alongside a profusion of other walking groups.
But I do think that something has been lost in the decades that have followed. Groups these days tend to have too many members who are happy just to follow the leader, not wishing to explore the Moor on their own, bringing these gained experiences to the group by volunteering to be leaders themselves.
Similarly too few ramblers are committed to defending access, protecting public rights of way, and fighting threats to the National Park. And that is a pity, for in many ways Dartmoor is the most endangered and exploited National Park in Britain.
I think back now to that generation of Dartmoor ramblers that are no more. When I lead a group on the Moor today I look back at my party half expecting to see the companions of yesteryear.
Those from a time when Dartmoor was less crowded, when ramblers all knew each other, and when fighting to preserve Dartmoor was a crusade and not a chore.