TOLPUDDLE reviews the bizarre end-game of Kenneth Allsop . . .
The man in the E-Type Jag who
reinvented rural England
NEXT year marks the fortieth anniversary of the death of Kenneth Allsop, the writer and broadcaster who reinvented rural England. Few under thirty will remember him today, or the scolding columns he wrote for the Daily Mail from his week-ender’s home at Milton Mill in the village of West Milton. His moss-encrusted gravestone in the quiet country churchyard of nearby Powerstock, where he was buried in May, 1973 amid great celebrity pomp, seems to have been abandoned to fall on its face. Isolated from the herds of sleeping villagers of centuries, it stands alone against the churchyard’s stone wall, its simple inscription (“Kenneth Allsop 1920 -1973”) now weathered and barely visible in the slanting evening sunlight. It seems rebuked for its manners by a neighbouring gravestone, a good step away. This one, of dark blue stone, is also simply inscribed – “William Crutchley 1933 – 2007.” Like his father, The Admiral, a VC in the Great War, William “Willie” Crutchley was the squire of many Dorset acres around Nettlecombe village. For a man who seemed incapable of unkindness he hated Kenneth Allsop in that kind of subdued countryman’s way that the gaudy incomer and his noisy followers could never full understand.
Allsop himself, tootling along the lanes in his E-type Jaguar, seemed entirely unaware that his excursions into the rural conservation business were causing offence. He recruited an army of 500 environmental spies, Defenders of West Dorset, dedicated to keeping the scenery tidy for the generalissimo of Milton Mill. Farmers soon learned that they built barns or cut hedges at their peril if DWD’s shock troops disapproved. Media and political celebrities – among them Robin Day and Shirley Williams – flocked to the pool side parties thrown by the BBC’s star reporter on the Tonight news programme. Baroness Williams’ affection and respect remains undimmed to this day. “Kenneth was a very lively talker full of radical ideas, a man of the democratic left,” she told Tolpuddle in an e-mail from this year’s Lib Dem conference. “He could be short tempered, I suspect because he suffered more from pain as a result of losing his leg” – after an RAF flying accident – “than most people realised.”
The old political log-roller is one of very few survivors of an era which saw the countryside undergoing profound social changes – a complete reversal of the 19th century migration of farm workers to the mills and factories of the Victorians’ industrial revolution. Allsop was not the first to entice an urban middle class to colonise and re-invent the notion of blissful village communities; but he was certainly the most effective in his time, a media star driven by a toxic mixture of euphoria and rage against, as he saw it, the muddled clumsiness of ancestral peasants mishandling their rural heritage. One of the first drawn to his hissing candle flame – and an unrepentant survivor of the Allsop doctrine – is Brian Jackman, a former travel writer with the Sunday Times who still regards his old friend as a pioneer conservationist, much misunderstood Old Dorset. He contributes an appreciation from his home in West Milton at the end of this article.
Sixteen years ago nearly a quarter of a century after Allsop killed himself at Milton Mill Tolpuddle set out to examine the Incomer Syndrome and its effect on the wider rural community. Many of its disciples are long gone but their influence lingers across the ghost village communities of silent holiday cottages created by the Big City gadabouts. One of Allsop’s operational strengths was the creation of his Dorset Defenders brigade It ensured continuity of the Cause even when its supremo was away. His followers never quite got over the bizarre routine of taking a string of orders down the phone, then stepping into the next room and seeing the boss pop up on Tonight on television. DWD’s luminaries included Brian Jackman, the late Dr Mike Hudson, a local GP who practised in Beaminster and Rodney Legg (who died last year). Legg was chairman of the Open Spaces Society and author of 125 local history books. He always wore a pair of footpath clearing secateurs, sheriff’s pistol-style, on his hip, even on the London Tube. All footpaths were war paths in Rodney’s book. All four were townies. Allsop, a Yorkshireman, had been brought up in Uxbridge; Dr Hudson and Jackman had gone, contemporaneously, to neighbouring schools in suburban London. Legg was from Bournemouth. “We all had an intense hatred of suburbia,” Dr Hudson told me. The GP was dazzled by Allsop’s famous friends and would do anything to please him. He once gave himself a hernia pulling young Forestry Commission conifers on Powerstock Common, an ancient forest. Brian Jackman helped entrap a local snare maker for an exposé story by Allsop in the Daily Mail. And they all had a high old time campaigning against Admiral Sir Victor Crutchley’s decision to allow oil prospecting on the family’s estate.
When Tolpuddle met the admiral’s son, Commander William Crutchley, at Mapperton Manor, the family seat, in 1996 the squire’s dislike for Allsop and his busy crusaders was palpable. “Father knew Allsop was a journalist out for publicity and one didn’t want to give him any scope for it really,” he said. “Local people were probably surprised father supported the drilling it but it was shortly after the fuel crisis and he agreed to the exploration because he felt the country needed to find its own oil. He felt it was his duty to see it was extracted with out damaging the countryside. He used his lawyers to take out a document which made the oil company fully responsible for any damage. He used to go up there every day and sit with the American who was running it because they’d both fought in the Pacific during the war.”
Allsop’s DWD decided to shiver the Admiral’s timbers with a mock funeral of his oil project. Tactics were organised by a loose-canon right-wing Tory MP, Victor Montague, the former Lord Hinchinbrooke. Rodney Legg, who had been briefly engaged to Allsop’s daughter Amanda, was there to stiffen DWD’s resolve. In his Mail column Allsop denounced those “with the sniff of money in their nostrils.” What he didn’t mention was that his own car, a gas-guzzling E-Type Jaguar had got stuck in a ditch on its way up to the drilling site. It was rescued only after the broadcaster’s farmer-neighbour, Michael Rudd, dispatched a tractor to pull it clear. The tractor’s driver had been hand-picked. Mr Rudd said later, with relish, that he was one of the most truculent in Dorset. “I personally think it was all very much over the top to be so militant against it,” he said. “He tried to prove that the drill holes, which were all deep along our lane here, interfered with his water supply at the Mill, which was a load of rubbish. He arrived here and took it over as his own piece of country without much thought of the people. I think we felt that he was making use of Dorset, to write about it, to make money out of it.”
The late Harry Poole, a retired farmer and gifted local historian in Allsop’s day, had his own reasons for disliking the lordly Londoner. “He pinched my stuff out of the parish magazine and printed it the Mail without so much as by your leave,” he told Tolpuddle. “When he died I asked the Mail if I could take over his column but they said they weren’t carrying on with it. Local people didn’t think much of it when they held their mock funeral. We thought if there was oil exploited there that a lot of people who’d left would be able to come back because there’d be the jobs, money to buy the properties they were in because as agricultural workers they’d never had the wherewithal to have their own cottage.”
Michael Rudd, who was famous locally for his nurturing of barn owls, was not the only farmer to resent Allsop’s lectures in the Daily Mail. John Samways, who ran a dairy herd near the Mill, remembers the broadcaster’s sharp tongue on the Loders road one day complaining that the hedge he was cutting interfered with birds nesting. “It wasn’t really a hedge as such,” Mr Samways told me. “It was really a tall bank growing over and touching traffic. The county council were always on to us about it, so it had to be kept down. I explained to him we weren’t cutting every hedge off in the district and the birds still had plenty of nesting places to go to. Another thing was that we we’d got planning permission for a Dutch barn and he complained about that overlooking his house. He put us in the Daily Mail about it the following week. But it hadn’t been put there to be left empty. It’s full of hay to this day. Well, he obviously wasn’t a true countryman otherwise he’d have known fodder’s got to be kept dry.”
It was the business of the animal traps that really put paid to any ambition Allsop may have had to be accepted by “real” Dorset people. Two elderly brothers ran the business from Misterton, north of the Beaminster tunnel. Allsop persuaded his ally, Brian Jackman, to buy a gin trip from the pair so that he could expose them in his column. When I talked to Squire Crutchley about the episode years later he was still incredibly angry about it. “A very naughty thing to do I think,” he said. ” They were very nice, widely-respected old chaps, dear old things. That sort of behaviour would completely damn Allsop in the minds of most country people.”
Talking to local people all those years back it struck Tolpuddle even then that Kenneth Allsop had no idea that his writings and activities could possibly cause offence or ridicule. Milton Mill is built in some way like a fortress. Backed by a steep bank up to a lane on one side and cut off on the other by a swift running leat (which Allsop often thought locals were trying to pollute) it would be hardly surprising if its owner did not feel at times that he was under siege. Safe inside its natural congress of earthworks and moat he spent hours in his book-lined study composing new testaments to the beauty of wildlife and the awfulness of peasants rinsing milk churns near his leat stream. Brian Jackman once said he loved “the freshness of Ken’s metaphors and the way his copy fizzled with adjectives.” One reviewer of his work said it reminded her of “Evelyn Waugh’s William Boot (“Feather footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole.”) where the imagery is rich and the reader is liable to overdose and reach for the Milk of Magnesia.” She quoted an example of Allsop’s prose: “the gigantic hulk of Haggerdown filled the sky, a green-skinned swordfish lunging to impale Poorstock’s shoal of cottages” She also noted how few real people – apart from Blyton-esque characters like “Bob the game-keeper”, inhabited his work. Could it really have been that Kenneth Allsop found the countryside depressing? Tolpuddle remembers an old friend, the photographer John Miles, visiting Milton Mill once evening, getting no answer at the door and working his way round the building to a lighted window. He chinned himself up to the ledge and saw Allsop sitting alone at a candle-lit table looking desperately fed up.
The truth may be that Allsop, like many week-enders who followed him into the rural good life in the years ahead, needed an audience to envy and congratulate him for what he was doing out in the sticks. The Independent used to call these eager incomers Aga Louts. Even Brian Jackman once used the phrase. There’s no doubt, however, that Allsop always seemed at his most confident when throwing parties for his admiring London friends. In 1996 Tolpuddle talked to one of his guests, the writer Ruth Inglis, who recalled one such “Gatsby-style” bash with 75 guests. Mrs Inglis regarded her host as a pioneer. “Ken was one of the first cerebral journalists and authors to proclaim their passion for the as yet unspoiled English countryside by living in it and using London as the workshop,” she said. “A passionate environmentalist I sometimes had the feeling that he believed he had to anchor himself to there in order to personally protect the landscape. He could be fierce with locals who hacked away at their hedgerows, clipping them back so that the complex ecological life of insects and birds they sustained was decimated.” Mrs Inglis became lyrical about the way the house welcomed its guests under the “unostentatious but tasteful supervision” of Allsop’s wife, Betty. “The light was soft, the swimming pool shimmered with its poolside urns and single, bosomy stone Aphrodite, giving it a half -Greek half-Hollywood air. In the dripping south-western evening air a band of people hugged Betty’s Aga stove to dry off. while Ken played Jelly Roll Morton records, a true Yorkshireman who loved jazz and US slang and grungy Manhattan.” She noted Allsop’s other guests, “a motley crew of the brilliant and famous” – Robin Day proclaiming loudly over his wine and sounding oddly Australian, Shirley Williams defending her Labour party to “a red-faced local Tory,” Henry Williamson, ultra right-wing author of Tarka the Otter and the broadcaster Daniel Farson.
Allsop remains an enigmatic figure – a perfectionist who once lost his temper because his Christmas Yule log had failed to crackle, a revisionist who couldn’t settle for his own revisionist rural paradise, a media star whose careless power frightened country people, and yet (a final paradox) a man who would have hated to miss his own celebrity funeral with Julian Bream on guitar and the wind-blown Bishop of Salisbury at his grave side.
Only recently – using a revolutionary new digital process known as deep mapping – have academics begun to get a clearer picture of the complex geo-political forces that define territories and the way their inhabitants react inside them. One of the world’s leading authorities, a lecturer at Kings College in London who has led seminars about deep mapping in America, actually grew up in a West Dorset village and is familiar with the so-called Aga Lout syndrome. “The relationship between an outsider’s view of something like the countryside and the desire to control it speaks to very deep psychological notions of territory and inner insecurity, or lack of it,” he told Tolpuddle. “It’s all in deep mapping.”
His views chime perfectly with those of a local woman, who got to know and like Allsop’s wife Betty. and who put it rather well talking to Tolpuddle at the time. “I mean he had a big house, plenty of money and he couldn’t understand that in those days it was a very farming community and people were pretty poor. I think that was it: everyone wanted to keep the countryside looking good but they all realised they had to make a living out of it as well. In a way he was a very 19th century sort of person, part of the Romantic revival and seemed to forget where he was, if he ever knew. People round here thought he hadn’t a clue about real life.”
See also: “Kenneth Allsop’s book; a warning.”
BRIAN JACKMAN pays tribute to an old friend
SOME things never change. The Georgian mill house where Kenneth Allsop spent his last years still stands wrapped in a dream of the past. Grass still grows in the middle of the lanes down which he used to cruise in his E-Type Jaguar, and Eggardon looms untouched on the eastern skyline, watching over the landscape he loved above all others. But now, 40 years on, one wonders what he would have made of the way in which Dorset has evolved since his untimely death in May 1973. Undoubtedly his campaigning achieved some notable victories, not least in persuading the Forestry Commission to abandon their plans to smother Powerstock Common in conifer plantations. He was one of Britain’s first true environmentalists and no one can one doubt the impact of his acerbic style when writing in defence of the natural world at a time when the conservation movement was still wrapped in swaddling clothes. Naturally left-of-centre in his political outlook, he never shirked an opportunity to berate the government of the day and was relentlessly critical of the big beasts of industry – the multi-national oil and power companies and the barons of agri-business who he singled out for their cynical exploitation of the countryside. Today, despite campaigning for their burial, the power lines Allsop railed against still march across the West Dorset AONB on their monstrous pylons, and new threats appear with every passing year. What, I wonder, would he have made of the alien invasion of Himalayan balsam now spreading like wildfire along every stream and riverbank? As for the current standing of his own profession, the events leading up to the Leveson Inquiry must have left him turning in his grave. For me, one of the cruellest things about his passing was that he never lived to see the peregrine falcon return to its ancestral eyries on the West Dorset cliffs, or the otter make its dramatic come-back right across the country. In Allsop’s day, both species had been all but wiped out by organo-chlorine pesticides. Through his long friendship with Henry Williamson, the otter was a grail to him, as was the peregrine, his favourite bird. His was one of the voices that were instrumental in banning the most insidious of these agricultural poisons and the response was immediate. Given half a chance, nature always bounces back, and that’s what the peregrines and otters did – but sadly their revival came too late for Allsop to see them on his home patch. A couple of years ago, one fine autumn day in mid-afternoon I watched an otter swimming down the mill leat that runs right through Allsop’s old garden; and the year before I discovered a pair of peregrines breeding just a few hundred metres further downstream. Ironically, with a fine sense of disregard for Allsop’s views on the National Grid and its cat’s cradles of power lines, they had taken up residence on top of a pylon.