Rodney Legg (1947-2011) and Dorset Life
A personal memoir by John Newth
Published in September ’11
In early 1987 I turned down an offer to relocate to London when the company for which I worked was sold to a London-based group. To stay in Dorset was an easy decision; how to support myself and a young family was more problematical. The solution I coveted was to take over Dorset – the county magazine (as it then was), which Rodney Legg had started nineteen years before as a young crusading journalist. Over lunch at Holbrook House, near Rodney’s Wincanton office, I was delighted to shake hands on a deal by which he let me have the title in return for a year of full-page ads for books he was publishing under his Dorset Publishing Co. imprint, and for a guarantee that he could continue to contribute to the magazine. The latter condition I was more than happy to accept, because I was well aware what assets both he and his name would be.
We toasted the deal with the first of many bottles of red wine that he and I were to share over the years. Apart from a brief hiatus in the 1990s, there was a constant relationship between Rod and the magazine, which was re-named Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine after the acquisition of the Dorset Life title in 1992.
This relationship continued until 29 July this year when Joël Lacey, my – and thus Rod’s – successor as editor, called him to discuss his 2012 contributions to Dorset Life. Instead of hearing the solitary word ‘Newsdesk!’ with which Rod habitually answered the phone, it was news of his death earlier that morning that Joël heard.
Over the years, our readers have benefited from Rod’s trenchant and perceptive views on current matters of interest in Dorset, from his matchless eye for the route of a walk and from his astonishing knowledge of the byways of the county’s history. His love for Dorset was profound and, like his considerable (and often underestimated) intellectual gifts, shone through everything he wrote. He was a challenging author to edit: he always wrote too much for the available space, but deciding what to cut was often agonising because it meant leaving out such good material. This problem was often compounded when, shortly after one had edited a piece, a post-card bearing Rod’s unmistakable handwriting would arrive in the office, offering an amendment or, just as likely, additional text for the piece in question.
The subjects he covered ranged from T E Lawrence and the Powys family, through shipwrecks, to how he spent Christmas. Then there were the quirky little things; for some writers, the tattooed skin flayed from an attempted murderer and stored in a bottle would have remained a ghoulish object. For Rod, however, it was an opportunity for research, for an article in July’s Dorset Life and to appear on Channel 4’s ‘Four Rooms’ programme, where he unsuccessfully tried to sell gruesome relic.
Rod was one of the magazine’s most popular contributors, supplying the texts to accompany Clive Hannay’s illustrations of Dorset villages, and his mix of history, walking and photographs ‘Legging it in Dorset.’
Just as he always carried a pair of secateurs when venturing into the Dorset countryside, to open up any overgrown rights of way, so Rod cut through anything he saw as threatening what he believed Dorset should be.
The magazine itself was primarily founded as a weapon in his first and best-known campaign: to return Tyneham to the villagers who had been evicted in 1943. Both as an individual and for twenty years as Chairman of the Open Spaces Society, he worked successfully for the ‘right to roam’ – in his role within the society, he personally identified and claimed 700 acres of open country across the West Country as access land under new legislation.
He was quick to identify anything that might damage the county’s heritage or the rights of individuals within it; a landowner who wanted to knock down an ancient cottage or who dealt shabbily with employees would have the formidable challenge of Rod’s opposition to face.
Unsurprisingly, such single-minded commitment did not always make Rod popular; that hiatus in our relationship came when I discovered from someone else that plans were well-advanced for the launch of a competing magazine, with Rod as editor. The idea of telling me himself simply had not occurred to him.
When Rod spectacularly fell out with that magazine’s owner, Peter Shaw – in a spat that reached the national press – Shaw was quoted as saying: ‘The trouble with Rodney is that he has an ego the size of a twenty-ton truck.’ That was wrong Rod’s actions were not egotistical. nor were they malicious or devious; he was simply pursuing single-mindedly the path towards what would serve best the things about which he cared so passionately.
During his time as a member of the Council of the National Trust, he often criticised its decisions, sometimes to Trust employees. This did not endear him to fellow-members of the Council, one of whom, Helen Brotherton, the effective founder of the Dorset Wildlife Trust, could hardly bear to have his name mentioned in her presence.
When he retired from the Council of the National Trust, Rod was rather revealingly quoted as saying: ‘I feel I’ve achieved something by campaigning for public access across a whole raft of [the National Trust’s] once virtually secret and unknown properties. These days, with Dame Fiona Reynolds and Sir Simon Jenkins in charge, it’s like kicking at an open door.’
One senses that, in addition to the freely accessible footpath, it was to the ‘closed door’ that Rod’s walking boots were irresistibly attracted.
As author of well over a hundred books and countless articles, his output was prodigious, but just as he told Sue Weekes (now a contributor to Dorset Life), in the 1980s when she was taking a journalism course: ‘It takes more than statistics to make a story.’ Rod’s gift was putting in the human element – the melancholy and the whimsy.
Such was my respect for Rod’s talents and my liking for him as a person that our relationship, if leaky at times, never foundered. Dorset will be a duller place for his absence, Dorset Life will miss him and so shall I.