Known as much for his passion for nature as he was for his writing and television work, Kenneth Allsop made a memorable impact on West Dorset. The Gallery at Bridport Arts Centre is named after him. Fifty years later Tristan Allsop remembers his father.
My father killed himself fifty years ago this year. May 23rd to be precise, one week after the signing of the contract to buy the old Methodist chapel as home for the Bridport Arts Centre, of which he was President, a now defunct title. The Gallery (as the first space to become operational) was named in his honour.
Although best known as a television presenter and writer, his passion, the passion that sustained him for so much of his life and eventually contributed to his suicide, was the natural world. He had a particular love for birds but he was fascinated by, and dreadfully frightened for, all living nature.
He started writing about the countryside for a local newspaper at the age of fifteen, and by seventeen was contributing weekly Nature Walks and Country Diary pieces to the Slough Observer. Several of his novels have birds or animals at their centre, and as he got older, more experienced, and better known, he increasingly used his public profile to campaign, often angrily, against the despoilers of all things natural. His targets included the Army, mining and oil companies, government and the Forestry Commission, amongst others.
If you walk over Eggardon Hill today and look down on the green canopy of ancient woodland fringing Powerstock Forest below, you have him to thank for that. With support from his very good friend Brian Jackman he forced the Forestry Commission (then chaired, appropriately, by a man called Rook) to cancel its tree-felling programme, designed to clear the way for ranked rows of uniform conifers, and preserve the primeval oaks.
But, as David Wilkinson wrote in his biography of my father Keeping The Barbarians At Bay, “his main contribution to Britain’s fledgling environment movement was not so much what he achieved on the ground in Dorset, but rather the steady shift in public attitudes to the protection of wildlife and the countryside that he helped start through his campaigning national journalism.”
His fortnightly column in The Sunday Times educated a weekend readership of millions—far more than the then combined membership of all Britain’s environmental pressure groups—with details of how illegal snares and hawk nets were still on sale to farmers and gamekeepers; or how the Shell oil company was seeking to stave off extended bans on the use of its pesticide products, deadly to birds of prey. He revealed how the government’s Department of Trade was selling off licences to explore for oil and gas in every part of the country, regardless of the environmental consequences of possible future exploitation. And he condemned the Ministry of Agriculture’s forty per cent subsidies to farmers for ripping out hedgerows.
Nationally he made enemies in government departments and big corporations, who in turn put pressure on his employers at the BBC and the Sunday Times. Battling for the environment came at considerable personal cost.
He was a passionate environmentalist, but also a pessimistic one. He wrote ‘money talks: beauty is voiceless’ and although there were other factors in his decision to kill himself, his despair about what we were doing to the planet weighed heavily.
In the weekend before he died, he and my mother travelled to North Wales to watch one of the last five breeding pairs of Peregrine Falcons remaining in Wales (they were effectively extinct in Southern England). In his final letter he described that weekend as being one of the happiest he could remember. He wrote: “The tiercel and falcon, when they ringed up into the bright sky and fell in those tumbling dives down the crags, free spirits, were so right, and everything which we represented—our race which poisons them and shoots them and steals their eggs and young—so wrong. We are the predators and killers, not those peregrines, for they and the few of their kind which survive, but not for much longer, live exalted lives, true to their nature, and we degrade and damage their world which is so beautiful and complex and balanced.”
So what would he make of the world today, 50 years on? There is so much to despair of:
A “biological annihilation” of wildlife means a sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history is under way and is more severe than previously feared,
Two-thirds of global populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have been lost on average since 1970, according to a new report from WWF,
Three-quarters of all land and 40 percent of Earth’s oceans are severely degraded,
The UK’s flying insect population has declined by as much as 60% in the last 20 years alone, and insects could vanish within a century at the current rate of decline.
He would have been overjoyed to know that there are now 1500 breeding pairs of peregrines in Britain, but would without doubt have continued his campaigning and articulate outcries against the stupidity and cupidity of man. He had always hammered home the message that those who had been given formal stewardship, on the public’s behalf, for Britain’s landscapes and wildlife could not be trusted to do the job—either through their incompetence, lack of resources, complacency or corruption. It was, he warned, ultimately our responsibility to do something about it.
So he would have been much heartened by the awareness and engagement by the public in today’s environmental conflicts. Membership of the RSPB has increased almost tenfold since the early 1970s to over one million, while the National Trust has grown by a factor of sixteen, to well over five million. And, although he could not have foreseen this, Britain, when part of the EU, was obliged to introduce tougher environmental legislation: higher air and water quality standards; measures to protect wildlife; and requirements for developers to assess and make public likely impacts on the environment of their plans and projects.
Maybe he would no longer have felt quite so alone and unsupported.