John Hunter 1932-2005
Reprinted from Saffron Walden Historical Journal No 10 Autumn 2005
John Hunter, the noted landscape historian, died suddenly on 2 July 2005, at the age of 73, while tending the garden at his home in Town Street, Thaxted. A memorial service in Thaxted Church was attended by huge numbers of those who worked with him in the many facets of his varied life. His son Richard spoke of how John inherited a love of the folk song tradition from his father Alex who was closely involved with the Thaxted Morris Men.
He attended the University of Cambridge, and became an architect, marrying twice and spending much of his life in London. But in the late 1960s he became disillusioned with London architecture and joined a campaign to save the capital’s heritage of buildings. In 1969 he came out to Essex to become Countryside Planning Officer with the ECC and here found his true vocation.
The Essex landscape became his life’s work and he soon realized that this precious irreplaceable tapestry was being denuded. He recruited a team who shared his vision that the countryside should be respectful of its past and together they surveyed the whole county.
John was involved in instigating the demonstration farm at Bovingdon where old hedgerows were conserved and ancient pasture maintained, an example of stewardship which became a model for the whole county. He also set up FWAG – the Farm & Wildlife Advisory Group. For John, this campaign was not a battle, and he encouraged farmers to see themselves as part of the countryside. All regarded him as a visionary and inspirational mentor and Essex became a beacon of good countryside management. For this the county owes him a huge debt.
This concern for conservation led him naturally into a passion for the past and in the 1980s-90s he was busy researching the history of the Essex landscape, including its listed buildings. He was a past president of the Essex Archaeological Society and belonged to many other groups. He became an authority on the subject, producing two noted works, The Essex Landscape, and Field Systems in Essex, as well as numerous articles. John’s extensive collection of research notes and papers will be donated to a public archive for the benefit of future scholars.
In a second address, Thaxted resident and close friend, Bruce Munro added that the town was much diminished by the loss of John Hunter. With John, one learned a lot and laughed a lot. To go on a walk or a tour with him was to have your eyes opened through his perceptive and observant mind and deep knowledge of so many things.
‘Thinker, sage, countryman, country gentlemen and son of Thaxted’ was Bruce’s summary of this unique character.