Rambling Tsar comes to the aid of Madonna

Superstar denies accusations that she is trying to restrict access to ancient footpaths on her Wiltshire estate

Famous for its rural tranquility, the Wiltshire countryside is echoing to a strange new noise. It is the sound of angry protest as "keep out" notices are hammered into place.

Pop icon, sometime actress and now a country landowner, Madonna stands accused of persecuting ramblers and blocking ancient rights of way on her recently acquired estate. Determined to protect her privacy, the singer wants to ban walkers from sections of her Ashcombe grounds, which are due to be opened up under the new freedom to roam legislation.

Now, on the eve of a planning enquiry called to rule on access to her land, she has been given the surprise backing of Chris Smith MP, newly elected president of the Ramblers' Association, and one of the campaigners who led the fight to open up the countryside to walkers.

Mr Smith, the former culture secretary, has come to the pop star's aid, denying that she is bent on closing down the ancient Wessex Ridgeway that runs through her grounds, and supporting her right to lodge an appeal against the right to roam.

"There's been a lot of rather inaccurate reporting about her case," he said last week, in his first interview since becoming president. "You would think she's trying to close footpaths, which she isn't; that walkers are going to be walking close to her house, which they aren't, and that she has personally written to Tony Blair. She hasn't.

"She does dispute a portion of the proposed [right to roam] map. That will be an issue to be decided in the proper way by the inspector."

The Countryside Agency, a government body in charge of implementing the new right to roam, has already ruled that ramblers should not be allowed on to 15 acres of land closest to the house itself. Round two takes place on Wednesday, when an inquiry instigated by the singer will decide whether further tracts of the estate should be kept private, too.

It is little wonder that walkers are keen to explore an area famous for its unspoilt countryside which has also attracted Viscount Rothermere, the press baron who lives in Ferne House nearby.

In a recent interview with Q magazine, Madonna was quoted as saying she had nothing against ramblers. "I didn't have a go at the ramblers. Jesus Christ! I didn't have a go at anybody. To tell you the truth when we bought Ashcombe we did think: 'Oh, there's a path. People are going to be bothering us all the time.' But no one did. I haven't got anything bad to say about the ramblers."

But it seems that message isn't getting through. Sue Lynch and the appropriately named Anna Walker were struggling into their hiking boots in the little car park by the village pond in Tollard Royal last Friday.

"Most walkers are very responsible and they love the countryside," Ms Lynch said. "That 'Keep off my land' attitude is one of the lords keeping the peasants out, rich people being selfish. It's certainly not just Madonna who isn't keen on walkers. She's probably just worried about her pheasants, but she's only going to shoot them anyway."

"The 'right to roam' is fine," said another passing walker. "If the country is opened up for everybody's enjoyment, so be it. And if a footpath has already been used for years it should be left alone."

Walking his dogs up to Win Green is something Richard Morgan has done for years. Last week he was out with his two spaniels, Griff and Moxie. "You can't buy a country house and decide you don't like country people being around it," he said. "I don't think this Madonna should be singled out. It's the same as people who move to the country and complain that the cows make a mess and the chickens make a noise."

Charles Woodhouse is the chairman of Ashmore Parish Council. "I know the land very well, and farm part of it that used to be part of the estate," he says. "I'm speaking just as myself when I say I feel there are enough rights of way for people to use, and I don't have much sympathy for the right to roam."

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