Image: John Watson

The campaigner fighting for the public’s right to common land

Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, describes taking on landowners and locked gates
July 19, 2023

“It drives me mad,” Kate Ashbrook says, “when a nature organisation produces a magazine, and on the first page you’ve got the editor saying: ‘Well, we’ve got some lovely walks in this magazine and it’s going to be springtime and the May blossom is about to come out…’” She sighs. “Total rubbish—drivel. That’s your frontpage—that’s your window!”

For Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society (OSS), the biggest story in the British countryside isn’t blossom—the place, as she sees it, is a site of struggle. She rails against the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, whose record she says is “littered with broken promises”, for failing to conserve Britain’s historic paths or to defend the public’s right to access common land. Instead, this task apparently falls to the OSS, Britain’s oldest conservation charity.

It’s a sunny June day and Ashbrook—wearing a pink top, pink sandals and pink watch, with a pink phone case—has agreed to show me around the site of a past victory, Dyke Hills in Dorchester-on-Thames. In 2016, the then landowner had begun to narrow the walkways and put up fences that blocked off the dykes. Some Dorchester residents, who had formed a pressure group, “turned up at the office” and asked the OSS to advise them on how to fight this. The society helped them put in an application to widen the rights of way and register the area as a village green—a concept similar to common land—meaning that the public maintained certain rights of access. As we walk on the pathways, which have been made wider once more, she points out Iron Age dykes where people walk and toboggan in winter. The place is “very old”, she says, “and quite special”. 

We’ve traced the law of public access right back to the beginning

Ashbrook, 68, grew up in Denham, a village in Buckinghamshire. Her interest in rural Britain began on a riding holiday in Dartmoor when she was nine. Over the years, friends “peeled off, but I kept going back—I fell in love with Dartmoor as a place.” Later she met Sylvia Sayer, conservationist and chair of the Dartmoor Preservation Association. “She was fearless,” Ashbrook says. “So I just did what she did.”

In 1984, she became general secretary of the OSS. Originally the Commons Preservation Society, it has been running since 1865 and has saved spaces including Hampstead Heath, Wimbledon Common and Epping Forest from development.

The society is currently assisting the Dartmoor National Park Authority with its appeal to allow wild camping on Dartmoor commons, after, in January, Alexander Darwall, a hedge fund manager and Dartmoor landowner, successfully argued in the High Court that the practice was never actually legal. “We’ve traced the law of public access right back to the beginning,” Ashbrook says. “We’re able to show that camping was assumed to be included in the right of access.” The case has not been easy, she admits. People have always camped on the moors. “But of course, finding those people and getting them to say they’ve done it is another matter.” 

There is hardly a rural campaign Ashbrook hasn’t had a hand in. As well as her job with the OSS, she has been a trustee for the Ramblers walking charity for 40 years; as a keen birdwatcher, she carries out bird surveys for the British Trust for Ornithology. “I’m listening all the time, subconsciously,” she tells me. We fall silent for a moment to listen to a warbling in the distance. “I think that’s a young chaffinch.” 

But among all the causes she supports, she keeps returning to access. Recently, while doing a bird survey, she became “fed up with terrible stiles and locked gates”. After she repeatedly raised the issue with the council and put in a notice, it has finally been fixed. With dogged persistence, she’ll keep trying to open the way for other nature lovers. “I’m not imaginative, but I get things done.”