Rodney Legg, the author of the most recent history of Wincanton, leaves behind a rich legacy of books, images, and writing on the history of Somerset and Dorset. He was also an indefatigable walker and effective campaigner in opening up, preserving and drawing attention to the natural richness of the countryside that surrounds us.
Sitting in his private storehouse of books, photographs, memorabilia and pre-Christian celtic stone heads deep in the National School Building at the top of North Street, Rodney Legg has since 1982 been working away at what he loved most right here in Wincanton.
He described himself as an “author, publisher and environmental campaigner”. What comes as a shock is to discover that Amazon takes ten pages to list all the 101 books he has published, and that is only a small part of his prodigious output for Rodney has also been an indefatigable walker and preserver of footpaths and rights of way both here and for miles around having researched, trod, described, photographed and published a total of 750 country walks.
Rodney Legg was born in Bournemouth in 1947. He liked to say he was proud to belong to ‘one of the commonest names among the Dorset peasantry’, having presented to Dorset Archives letters home from a Wareham relative – John Hardy – who was transported to Australia in 1834. Another relation, Edward Legg, gave evidence against the Tolpuddle Martyrs at the same Lent Assize in Dorchester.
Rodney followed in this radical tradition, having been summed up to his evident satisfaction by the editor of the Blackmore Vale Magazine Fanny Charles as the ‘arch-scourge (then and now) of politicians, governments, the military, and the Establishment in general’. The Guardian feature writer Patrick Wright called him ‘a one-man Dorset cultural institution’.
After going to the Primary School in Charminster, Rodney attended Wincanton Secondary School, leaving with five O-levels at the age of 16. Thus ended his formal education but it was only the start of a life of relentless exploration, study, research, photography and writing.
In 1963 he joined what was then the Commons Society, becoming a committee member in 1973, and treasurer when it was re-vamped as the Open Spaces Society in 1985. He went on to serve as Chairman from 1989 to 2009. The OSS is the oldest environmental society in the country and is dedicated to “protect, increase, enhance and champion the common land, village greens, open spaces and public rights of way in England and Wales, and the public’s right to enjoy them.”
Rodney’s early career was in local journalism and publishing and it took him to Essex, but his abiding passion for Somerset and Dorset, its history, archaeology and natural environment drew him back here. Always something of an individualist and a maverick he set about carving out for himself a unique career. This involved setting up his own Dorset Publishing Company from 1971 and the Wincanton Press from 1982. He also lectured on journalism at Weymouth College and then Bournemouth Institute through the 1980s. More recently he was a part-time lecturer on editing and publishing for the Media School at Bournemouth University. In the national media he produced occasional environmental features for The Countryman and The Guardian. More prosaically he has been behind the Wincanton Directory, always taking the cover photograph.
From 1967 he launched a series of high-profile personal campaigns in and around Dorset which achieved access across ten square miles of the Army’s Lulworth Ranges, also to Thomas Hardy’s Max Gate house, and Winston Churchill’s observation bunker at Studland. He founded the Dorset County Magazine in 1968 and still writes for its Dorset Life successor. He was also the founder editor of magazine titles Dorset and Purbeck, between 1995 and 2001, combining his skill as a writer with considerable ability as a photographer.
He was for some years in the 1990’s a member of the Council of the National Trust, first as an appointee and then as an elected member. He was sharply critical of the secrecy and lack of democracy which pervaded the National Trust, arguing that the trust should publicise all its land on Ordnance Survey maps, open up illegally-blocked paths on its land and allow public access wherever possible, as well as purchasing land, rather than stately homes, for public enjoyment. As a member of the Access Review Working Party he was able to influence policy when it published its report Open Countryside in 1995. He has produced his own hardback books on National Trust Dorset and a Dorset National Trust Guide, together with a paperback study of Victorian ‘common roots’ in National Trust Centenary.