Open Spaces Society symposium for The MERL, 8 September 2021

As part of my Open Spaces Society fellowship for the Museum of English Rural Life, I hosted a symposium on open spaces, commons and trespass on 8 September 2021.

merl logo

We had a great range of papers, photography, poetry and campaigns highlighted. I’m grateful to all the speakers, participants and Kate Ashbrook, Sarah Hacking, Nichola Finan from OSS and Caroline Gould, Tom and Danielle from the MERL for helping with the event.

open spaces society logo

Summary of the presentations:

I began with an overview of the Open Spaces Society lantern slide collection, showing how most of the early 20th century slides were taken of landscapes in the south-east of England, and highlighting some of my favourites from the themes of forests, rural idyll and the intrusion of modernity into the countryside.

Ruth Quinn (University of Hull) then followed with a paper about contested ideas of conservation of the rural landscapes in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Saltaire, West Yorkshire. How does heritage preservation deal with working farms and a changing countryside?

Adam Bennett shared his evocative photographs of commons around England. The variety of landscapes, topography, flora and fauna belied any public idea that commons are a homogeneous landscape. Adam’s current project, ‘Common Ground’, can be seen on his website: http://www.adam-bennett.com/#1

Mark Gorman (Newham Heritage) gave the history of the campaign to save Epping Forest in the 1870s. The campaign was distinguished by the working-class involvement, which contrasted with the more middle-class leadership of the Commons Preservation Society. His book about the campaign can be purchased from here: https://www.herts.ac.uk/uhpress/books-content/saving-the-peoples-forest

Dave Toft (Hayfield Kinder Trespass) gave a moving performance of his poem about the Kinder Trespass. Plans for the 90th anniversary of the Kinder Trespass will be posted on their website: https://kindertrespass.org.uk/

Chris Chilton (Winter Hill 125 and Bolton Socialist Club) showed us photographs of the commemoration of the 125th anniversary of the Winter Hill Mass Trespass that had occurred on Sunday 5 September 2021. The day was attended by groups from across the region and from all sorts of communities. He noted Kate Ashbrook’s call to action, that the commemoration was not just a historical piece but had continued relevance for the campaign for rights of way and public access. https://www.facebook.com/groups/811210656375192/

Keith Sands gave the history of the Range West climbers’ trespass of 1991 in Pembrokeshire. He presented new research and contemporary photographs showing the creativity of protest, and a reminder of the long-term impact of military requisitioning of moorland by the MoD. The climbers ironically gave names to particular parts of the routes after phrases or sayings of the police, as an amusing form of resistance. Keith’s article about the trespass is in the current issue of Climber magazine: https://twitter.com/sandskeith/status/1427187351411961856

We then had a practical session identifying some of the missing locations in the lantern slides collection. To help, go to: https://images.oss.org.uk/can-you-help-with-our-research/

near box hill
Open Spaces Society lantern slide, near box hill

Main themes and areas of research emerging from the papers:

1. Why the prominence of forests and trees in the Open Spaces Society lantern slide collection?

The lantern slides are organised in boxes, and there are over a box of slides dedicated to ancient forests and trees. Burnham Beeches in Berkshire feature particularly. It’s obvious why the CPS would then be interested in preserving ancient forests, and be interested in ancient oak trees that were distinctive, for example the great trees in the New Forest. But why so many pictures of individual tree trunks, e.g. in the Burnham Beeches and Epping Forest images, when many were not particularly remarkable individually?

2. Flooding and erosion

There was some discussion about whether the early 20th century images could be used to show landscape change in relation to flooding and erosion in riparian landscapes.

3. The significance of locality and regional differences between commons

Adam’s photographs and the case studies presented by the speakers showed clearly how no commons are the same. Different landowners and commoners have different ideas of what the commons could be used for. A lord of the manor may not want a common to be regulated or developed because of the cost. Differences of ecology and nature preservation are also significant.

What were other countryside preservation and amenity groups elsewhere in the UK doing while the OSS focused on south-east England?

The impact of military requisition on public access and nature conservation also differs across the country.

Discussion on the chat and further links and reading:

There was a very lively discussion over the chat, with many useful links and further reading to be shared.

The OSS Online Exhibition at The MERL, exploring the history of the Open Spaces Society and the invaluable work it continues to do today: https://merl.reading.ac.uk/explore/online-exhibitions/open-spaces-society/

https://merl.reading.ac.uk/communities/community-projects/commons-re-enchanting-world/


The main exhibition page: https://merl.reading.ac.uk/event/the-commons-re-enchanting-the-world/


Dr Katrina Navickas’ blog, Mapping the Lantern Slides, on The MERL website: https://merl.reading.ac.uk/news-and-views/2021/06/open-spaces-society-fellowship-2020-21-mapping-the-lantern-slides/


Felicity McWilliam’s blog, Contested Countryside: Commons & the Cold War: https://merl.reading.ac.uk/news-and-views/2020/06/contested-countryside-commons-cold-war/

MERL Blog: merl.reading.ac.uk/news-and-views/2020/01/revealing-archives-open-spaces-society/

Shane Ewan has also written about flooding as a part of urban environmental history: https://www.leedsbeckett.ac.uk/staff/dr-shane-ewen/

The Thames Conservancy Archive at the Berkshire Record Office was recently catalogued for anybody working on the history of rivers.

Hedgerows: https://www.cpre.org.uk/resources/hedge-fund-full-report/

The DEFRA Magic Map: https://magic.defra.gov.uk/MagicMap.aspx

Wokingham District Veteran Tree Association https://www.wdvta.org.uk/

Simon Thurley’s Monuments Men is a good account of the development of Scheduling (introduced 1882), Matless (Landscape and Englishness) on attitudes to landscape conservation and there was a lead-up pre-war to 1947 act which introduced listing. Go to Historic England website.

Lionel Brett’s book ‘Landscape in distress’ was still bemoaning roadside advertising

Common Ground did a lot of work attempting to make the local, ordinary places ‘special’ by recognising the huge gulf between national designations and local cultural association and therefore importance. Parish Maps, Apple Days and other celebrations were part of that toolbox. Conservation rather than Preservation made the switch for developers easier.

Nicola Chester’s new book ‘On Gallows Down’, which addresses various aspects of commons and enclosure from a personal and a nature-writing perspective.
https://nicolachester.wordpress.com/on-gallows-down/

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/14472168-the-hamster-of-hampstead-heath

Dr Keren Jones (Hon Sec of Landscape Institute) has an interesting story on owners v commoners on www.terroirlandscape.net

Ewan Maccoll’s ‘moving on song’ comes to mind in connection with travellers being thrown under the bus:

Relating to rights of access but with swimming water, here’s a podcast on the legacy of Waterlog by Roger Deakin.
https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00051dl

Map of potential lost rights of way which need to be claimed before 1st January 2026: https://dontloseyourway.ramblers.org.uk/

Further Reading:

David Matless, Landscape and Englishness (Reaktion Books, 2001): http://www.reaktionbooks.co.uk/display.asp?K=9781861890979

Marianna Dudley, An Environmental History of the UK Defence Estate 1945 to the Present (Continuum, 2013): https://research-information.bris.ac.uk/en/publications/an-environmental-history-of-the-uk-defence-estate-1945-to-the-pre

Paul Salveson, Will Yo Come O’ Sunday Morning: https://wcml.org.uk/wcml/en/whats-on/events/paul-salveson-talk-will-yo-come-o-sunday-mornin–the-1896-battle-for-winter-hill/

John Withington, Flood, Nature and Culture, published by Reaktion Books, 2013: https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/F/bo16826611.html

Paul Readman, Storied Ground (2018)

Booking now open for Open Spaces Society online symposium at the MERL, 8 September

near box hill

Booking is now open for my online symposium for the Open Spaces Society and the Museum of English Rural Life on 8 September. Free, all welcome.

Go to the MERL website for more information and to book: https://merl.reading.ac.uk/event/whose-landscapes-open-spaces-society-symposium/

PROGRAMME (TBC):

Session 1: 2pm-3pm

  • Introductions and welcome from The MERL and OSS
  • Katrina Navickas (The MERL OSS Fellow), ‘The Open Spaces Society lantern slides collection at The MERL’
  • Ruth Quinn (University of Hull), ‘Cows not campus: open space preservation in the ‘bufferzone’ at Saltaire World Heritage Site’

3pm: virtual coffee

Session 2: 3.15pm-4pm

  • artists’ showcase – artists and poets show their work on landscapes and open spaces
  • Mark Gorman (Newham Heritage), ‘Saving the People’s Forest: the commons preservation campaign and Epping Forest’
  • David Toft (Hayfield Kinder Trespass) and Chris Chilton (Winter Hill 125), ‘Commemorating the Winter Hill Mass Trespass’
  • Keith Sands, ‘The 1991 Range West Mass Trespass’

Session 3: 4pm-4.30pm

  • find the location challenge – get access to the lantern slide collection and do some geo-location with Street View and old maps!
  • round up and close

Past Tense on enclosure in Norwood

Cissbury Ring, Sussex

Visited here on 9 May 2021

cissbury ring
cissbury ring
worthing speakers corner
Worthing speakers’ corner

call for submissions for Open Spaces Society symposium, 8 September, hosted by MERL now open

Wednesday 8 September 2021, 2pm-5pm , online

Hosted by The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading


The Open Spaces Society is Britain’s oldest national conservation body, founded in 1865 as the Commons Preservation Society. https://www.oss.org.uk/


The OSS collection at The Museum of English Rural Life includes over 1000 lantern slides from the period 1900 to 1940, and late 19th century legal case material from their campaigns to keep footpaths and access open to commons and other sites of natural beauty. For more information on the collection, go to: https://merl.reading.ac.uk/collections/open-spaces-society/

As 2020-21 OSS Fellow at MERL, Dr Katrina Navickas is working on the contexts and connections of this archive material.
These are some of the central themes arising from the images: ● Access to river and waterway towpaths ● Woods and sylviculture – ancient woods and Forestry Commission plantations ● Amenity and natural beauty in landscape preservation ● A North-South divide in preservation priorities? ● Prioritising people or nature in preservation? ● Rural modernism, urbanism and infrastructure

Symposium and call for submissions:

This half-day symposium will explore these themes and sources from the OSS collection. It will offer a range of short talks, discussion, and an opportunity to engage with the images in a ‘find the location’ challenge. It will be of interest to historians, cultural geographers, landscape conservationists, and anyone seeking to know more about the OSS collection. Contributors can draw on a wealth of related material in the MERL Library and Archive.

Learn more here: https://collections.reading.ac.uk/collections-overview/themes-and-strengths/landscape-environmentand-rural-life/


We are now calling for short papers or creative submissions, especially in response to the themes outlined. The focus is on countryside preservation and access in 20th century Britain, but comparative and international perspectives are also welcome.

There is space for up to 5 papers of 15 minutes each, plus practical and creative workshop sessions on the image collection.


To offer a paper or creative response, contact:
Dr Katrina Navickas, k.navickas@herts.ac.uk by 1 July 2021. For more information on the project, see https://historyofpublicspace.uk/my-oss-fellowship-at-merl-2021/

For updates, follow @katrinanavickas on Twitter. Booking details will be available via The MERL and Eventbrite soon.

Open Spaces Society fellowship at MERL update 6

I’m gathering together the main themes of the lantern slides in the OSS collection for the forthcoming exhibition.

The boxes are organised by type of landscape, but this also lends to geographical regions too:

  • Boxes A and B – mix of North Downs, especially Box Hill and Leith Hill, and Surrey commons
  • Box C – metropolitan parks and commons, especially Brockwell Park and Peckham Rye
  • Box D – parks and commons in London continued, mainly commons, especially Wimbledon and Streatham commons and Kenwood/Hampstead
  • Box E – Burnham Beeches, Hampstead Heath and Kenwood in bulk, mostly of trees
  • Box F – Rivers, predominantly the Thames, mainly Berkshire, some of the river Avon, Wye, Lea, Dee and then individual pictures of other rivers
  • Box G – more Hampstead Heath and Wimbledon Common
  • Box H – Pilgrim’s Way through Hampshire and Kent, including many of Canterbury Cathedral; mostly street scenes and buildings
  • Box I – Ancient Forests – mainly New Forest and Epping Forest, also Ashdown, Hainault, Savernake and Sherwood
  • Box J – Examples of obstructions, stiles, fences, signposts, and a few examples of the work of the CFPS in removing obstructions and mass trespass
  • Box K – random pictures, from old paintings to bridges – not sure there is a theme
  • Box L – county landscapes from B to Y – examples of type of landscape for each county, though not all counties are represented
  • Box M – stock types of landscape, village scenes and nature, including some that look posed by actors? Several posed at Castle Combe, Wiltshire and St Mary’s abbey, East Malling, Kent.  Also portraits of the leading figures in the preservation movement, including Octavia Hill and Sir Robert Hunter. 

Many of the Surrey commons images are of sites that had been preserved, and I suspect the purpose of the slides were to illustrate talks celebrating the work of the Commons and Footpaths Preservation society in their campaigns, showing their main successes. There are many in the ownership or conservatorship of the National Trust or the City of London corporation commons.

hampstead heath sign

Themes:

These are some of the main themes emerging:

  1. riparian access to the Thames
  2. a changing landscape and the intrusion of the modern
  3. ancient woods and forests
  4. downlands
  5. the materiality of obstruction

Linked archives:

I’m also compiling a list of archives in other repositories related to the OSS collection at MERL. Here are some of the most relevant so far – if you know of any others for the period 1900-40, do let me know.

Surrey History Centre:

1621 – Sir Robert Hunter, National Trust solicitor and chair of the CFPS, papers (link)

Parliamentary Archives:

FCP – the main collection of the Commons Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society, forests and commons papers (link)

for example FCP 2/382-386 – Surrey commons – Coulsdon and Banstead, 1930-3

London Metropolitan Archives:

CLA/077/B – Epping Forest conservators papers

CL/PK/1/131 – LCC Green Belt scheme – Surrey, 1936-7

I am also reading this book, which has a chapter on the Commons Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society and the National Trust:

Desmond Fitz-Gibbon, Marketable Values: Inventing the property market in modern Britain (Chicago University Press, 2018): https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/M/bo28907929.html