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John Hunter

Historian of the Essex landscape

John Michael Hunter, planner and historian: born Edinburgh 8 January 1932; Assistant County Planner, Essex County Council 1979-96; FSA 1993; twice married (two sons, one daughter); died Thaxted, Essex 2 July 2005.

Essex may have acquired a not entirely fair reputation for blight and vulgarity, but, if its countryside can still delight and surprise residents and visitors alike, it is in part due to the work of John Hunter. As Assistant County Planner with Essex County Council from 1979 to 1996, he was responsible for the Environmental Services Branch, which comprised countryside, historic buildings, urban design and archaeology sections, as well as including the country parks. Under his leadership, the county established an enviable reputation for environmental management and conservation.

With his roots in Thaxted, Hunter was an Essex man, though one with wide horizons. His father, Alec Hunter, was a weaver and designer who became a director of Warner and Sons, which had their factories in Braintree. Visits as a schoolboy to Rome where his cousin John Ward-Perkins was Director of the British School gave the young Hunter an appreciation of classical art and archaeology. He read architecture at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and the Architectural Association, and then worked for the London County Council and Robert Matthew Johnson Marshall. As well as designing his own house in Hampstead, he was involved in Fenwick Place, Clapham, and the new buildings for Bath University.

However, disenchantment with the direction in which architecture was going and an interest in conservation and landscape led him back to the Architectural Association in 1969 to qualify as a planner. In 1971, he joined the Essex County Council Planning Department, then under Douglas Jennings Smith, as principal landscape planner.

This was a time of newly awakened concern about environmental issues. Specific to the countryside were hedgerow removal and prairie farming, resulting in a denuded landscape aggravated by Dutch elm disease. Following a conference, "Landscape in Decline", in 1972, Hunter was instrumental in setting up the county council's Landscape Conservation Programme under which, in co-operation with the Countryside Commission, grants were made available for advice and assistance in restoring tree cover to the countryside, the scheme later being extended to cover ponds, meadows and historic landscape features. Essex was the first county to do this. This laid the basis for an approach to the management of agriculture and the countryside which has been widely imitated and is fundamental to the policies pursued by Defra today.

Another unique initiative was the designation of Protected Lanes, minor roads of medieval or earlier origin. Botanically important verges were identified in partnership with the Essex Wildlife Trust.

A good communicator, Hunter established links with the farming community and was involved in setting up the Essex branch of the Farming and Wildlife Group. In John Tabor of Bovingdon Hall, Bocking, he found a kindred spirit, and the Bovingdon estate was chosen as the Countryside Commission Demonstration Farm on East Anglian chalky boulder clay. Its management showed that agricultural improvement could be reconciled with the conservation of valuable landscape features.

His appreciation of history and archaeology led Hunter to look beyond the superficial features of the landscape and to analyse its evolution and development. As well as being a landscape planner, he was a landscape historian. Fascinated by the potential of archaeology to unlock the hidden secrets of ancient landscapes, he gave great support to the development of the county council's archaeology section. His approach to landscape, his perception of man's relation to it, and some account of what he himself had achieved, can be found in his first book, Land into Landscape (1985). All his main interests came together in the acquisition by the County Council in 1987 of Cressing Temple, a manor with two 13th-century barns and a walled garden which has been redesigned, on his initiative, as an outstanding Tudor garden.

To Hunter, landscape and heritage were the interesting bits of planning, and his approach and leadership were inspirational. If much of this may now seem routine today, that can only be a tribute to how far he was ahead of his time. In retirement, he wrote The Essex Landscape: a study of its form and history (1999), as well as several short historical landscape studies and the recently published pamphlet Field Systems in Essex (2003).

These will be of great value as the county's undemonstrative yet historically rich landscape finds itself under siege from sustainable communities, the Thames Gateway, the second Stansted runway and other threats.

David Andrews