Outdoor Focus Winter 2017 - Page 3

Wordsmith Kev Reynolds Th e Man with the World’s Best Job Octavia Hill, Champion of the Countryside F www.kevreynolds.co.uk Wimbledon and Woodford, for she believed that recreation and natural beauty should not be the preserve of wealthy landowners, but were everyone’s birthright. She became involved with the UK’s oldest national conservation body, the Commons Preservation Society (now the Open Spaces Society), where she met solicitor Sir Robert Hunter, and later widened her horizon of concern, to fi ght alongside Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley to save the Lake District from rampant development. (Hill, Hunter and Rawnsley, of course, later founded the National Trust.) In London she helped save Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill Fields from being built upon; she campaigned against the destruction of suburban woodlands, and was the fi rst to use the term ‘Green Belt’ as a girdle of protection from urban sprawl. And aft er she’d built a home on the edge of Crockham Hill Common among the greensand hills, she conducted a survey of all footpaths, commons and rights of way in Kent and Surrey, and would encourage visitors to walk the local footpaths equipped with ‘at least a pair of secateurs, probably an old sword, and a pair of pliers’ to dispose of any obstacles in their way. Footpaths, she claimed, were ‘one of the great common inheritances to which English citizens are born,’ but were being lost by what she called ‘judicious planting.’ Today I walk the same footpaths that Octavia Hill walked and fought to keep open more than a hundred years ago. I follow her spirit across Mariners Hill, continue to Toys Hill (‘the fi rst beautiful site in England dedicated as a memorial’) and on to Ide Hill which she described as ‘the breezy hill, wide views, woodland glades, tiny spring.’ Her spirit is in every one of those views that stretch across the great expanse of the Weald, mistakenly considered to be the overcrowded south-east, and she has my undying gratitude that it should be so. On the west-facing slope of Mariners Hill she placed a stone seat in memory of her mother; on the crown of the hill there’s another facing south, a wooden seat this time, weather-stained and drilled by woodpeckers; it was put there to recall Octavia’s companion and fellow worker, Harriott Yorke. On Toys Hill she sank a well for the benefi t of villagers – the view from t he well- head is as exciting as any I know - while Ide Hill has its very own Octavia Hill protected sites with vantage points that never cease to draw an exclamation of wonder. Th e marble effi gy of this diminutive woman lying next to the altar in Crockham Hill’s church, gives no clue as to her stature or status as one of the greatest of all champions of the countryside. Yet her inspiration lives on in what she referred to as ‘the healing gift of space’. Octavia Hill: local saint, national hero, to whose memory we owe so much. or nearly half a century I’ve lived within sight of the Greensand Ridge or, as it’s known in my family, the Kentish Alps. From where I write these words I can just see the crown of Mariners Hill which aff ords a three- county view I’ve gazed on a thousand times or more. Having spent fi ft een years in a tiny cottage on the south-eastern slope of that hill, I’d climb it almost daily whenever I was at home. A few years ago I hung over a fi ve-bar gate near the summit as my heart was trying to get out of my chest and thought: ‘If this is the last view I see, it’s a pretty good one.’ An hour later I was in a hospital bed wired up to heart monitors. Needless to say I didn’t die, but when I do, my ashes will be scattered up there. Mariners Hill is accessible to you and me and to all our grandchildren’s grandchildren thanks to the vision of Octavia Hill. She loved its view of ‘unimpeded land and sky giving delicious sense of space. Imagine the joy of that hilltop with all its view and air;’ she wrote; ‘leave it free for those that love it, and will fi nd joy and peace there for years to come.’ Octavia Hill is our local saint. Buried in our parish churchyard not a mile from Mariners Hill, I like to think she died with a smile on her face, for the day before she drew her last breath in August 1912, she received a cheque that eff ectively secured her favourite hill for the enjoyment of all people for all time. Perhaps best known as one of the founders of the National Trust, her life’s work was social housing and improving the lives of the inner city poor. But to my mind, her most important legacy is the free access we enjoy today to so much of our fi nest countryside. For this extraordinary Victorian woman, short of stature but mighty in spirit, was a tireless campaigner on behalf of those who felt ‘the need of quiet, the need of air, the need of exercise [and] the sight of sky and of things growing [which] seem human needs, common to all men.’ Born in the Fenland town of Wisbech in 1838, Octavia was the eighth daughter of corn merchant and one-time banker, James Hill, but aft er he was declared bankrupt and suff ered a nervous breakdown, Octavia’s mother Caroline took her children to Finchley – then little more than a country village – where the girls were always ‘up in the hedges, leaping ditches and climbing trees’ in all weathers. It was the birth of her love of the countryside. ‘Th ere was always something to see – fi elds full of fl owers, hedges full of one treasure or another.’ Years later, when managing slum properties and working hard to improve both the buildings and the lives of those who lived in them, she remembered the gift s of freedom and fresh air of her childhood, and turned disused graveyards into public gardens so that others could have a place in which to fi nd some form of respite from the joyless drudgery of their everyday lives. She also arranged outings for her tenants to Hampstead Heath, 3