The Dukes of Hazard (or how the gentry plan to trip up walkers)


They thought it was all over. After more than a century of determined protest, an army of unassuming folk finally believed they had won the right to walk, hike and ramble across hitherto out-of-bounds estates in the most beautiful parts of Britain. But they are going to have to wait a little longer yet. Britain's rich and powerful landowners are fighting back.

They thought it was all over. After more than a century of determined protest, an army of unassuming folk finally believed they had won the right to walk, hike and ramble across hitherto out-of-bounds estates in the most beautiful parts of Britain. But they are going to have to wait a little longer yet. Britain's rich and powerful landowners are fighting back.

The Countryside and Rights of Way Act may have come into effect in January 2001 but before it could be implemented every piece of mountain, moor, heath and downland had to be definitively mapped to show the right-to-roam areas. Now landowners are using the complex appeals process to object to the new maps.

This week the fight for the right to roam will recommence in the unlikely setting of the Holiday Inn, at Ashford, Kent, where government planning inspectors will hold the first official hearing into nearly 1,000 formal appeals against the new maps for walkers.

The objectors include the Duke of Westminster, the richest person in Britain and one of the country's largest landowners. He is worth an estimated £4.9bn. Others in the first wave of appeals include the Hon Michael-John Knatchbull, a godson to the Queen, as well as hundreds of small farmers and landowners among whom the stiffest resistance to the Countryside and Right of Way Act 2000 is thought to lie.

Mohamed al-Fayed, the Harrods boss and owner of the Balnagown estate in Scotland, and Peter de Savary, the owner of Skibo castle, also in Scotland, have joined the campaign against open-access legislation, which is now moving north of the border. Ramblers, however, received more comforting news from Madonna who, despite earlier reports, has now denied having any objection to walkers at her Ashcombe estate in Wiltshire.

The unexpected deluge of objections comes from just two English regions, the South-east and "lower North-west", which are the first to be mapped by the Countryside Agency. They will involve hundreds of 90-minute hearings in front of an inspector and at least two public inquiries. Six more maps are to follow.

The Duke of Westminster has lodged seven objections to access at his 19,500 acre Abbeystead estate in Lancashire's Forest of Bowland. Walkers view the right to visit the Bowland hills as one of the greatest prizes from the 2000 Act.

Some are mounting technical objections to a mapping process that even the Government accepts was flawed. Countryside campaigners say that others are being deliberately obstructive.

Ministers have promised that the first maps of the South-east will be ready by the summer of 2004, followed by maps of the lower North-west – including Lancashire, Staffordshire moorland and the Derbyshire peaks – in the autumn.

However, walkers are concerned that the weight of appeals will blow the project off course. The Ramblers' Association (RA) in West Yorkshire estimates that up to half the appeals lodged so far are from landowners "trying it on". The RA, Britain's biggest walking society, is now braced to attend hundreds of hearings. The Government's planning inspectorate has had to hire 13 new inspectors to cope.

Kate Ashbrook, the chairwoman of the association's access committee, warned that deliberate appeals could set back the right to roam still further. "A lot of appeals would frustrate the process because the timetable for implementation is tight. We all want to see implementation in 2004. But it will be much more difficult if there are a lot of appeals."

Ian Brodie, the director of Friends of the Lake District and an author of guidebooks to the Lancashire hills, said that many of the appeals relate to exactly the type of rough countryside that walkers hope to use – often on the "intake" fields of the lower slopes – the ones that provide access to the fell tops.

The Duke of Westminster says that farmland has been incorrectly mapped. "The maps assume that certain areas of land are open moorland," said a spokeswoman. "In fact they are let to tenant farmers and are used for grazing and lambing."

There are also cases where the provisional maps seem to threaten genuine hardship. At Leonardslee Gardens, near Horsham in Sussex, for example, free access to ramblers will mean the owners are unable to charge entrance money for the gardens itself. Robin Loder, who has spent thousands of pounds restoring the property and relies on income from visitors, is spending thousands more on legal bills for a public inquiry in August.

Chris Smith, a keen walker and one of the Labour MPs who has led the campaign for the right to roam, said: "I hope that it will largely be a matter of genuine appeals rather than people trying to frustrate the system. I also hope that the relevant staff to deal with the appeals will be in place because we have been waiting for more than 100 years for a right to access to open country. I don't want to see it delayed for too much longer."

The Landowner's Lament

In rain-washed woodland late in May

I hear a voice beside me say:

"Good morning Squire! A chancy day

The path's not marked. Is this the way?"

The Devil gives out blue Kagouls

To ramblers in satanic schools

And bellows till they understand

Their mission, to invade this land

The land my father, man and boy,

Protected, so they might enjoy

Its beauty, though a fair way from it

Not close up, by walking on it

For rambling is the Devil's chore

He skulks abroad with Karimoor

And tucks his trousers in his socks

Then waits by stiles or lonely rocks

To show the hordes across my land

The arrows on these posts his brand

He arms his consorts for their task

With flapjacks and a thermos flask

So while I keep my curtains closed

The legions of the Great Unhosed

Gawp anvil-jawed across at me

When I am taking morning tea

I ask myself how I can keep,

With Christ and all his saints asleep,

The heritage of this great nation

Faced with recent legislation

Favouring peasant over plough

The dogs go to the country now

And ramblers' runes are set in stone

But mine is still the Right To Moan

By Martin Newell, 'IoS' Poet in Residence

Walking with the enemy

By Janet Street-Porter

What could be more pathetically predictable than these last-ditch attempts by landowners to deny people who indulge in this country's most popular pastime – walking – access to the countryside? Of course, some of the objections will be perfectly reasonable. But, sadly, a vociferous minority of farmers, the most heavily subsidised people in Britain, have long regarded anyone who puts one foot in front of the other as the enemy.

I have walked the length of Britain and talked to dozens of ordinary hill farmers. For many, life is harsh, with little or no financial return, and the sad fact is that their future lies not in raising sheep but in becoming custodians of our wilderness areas. It is in that spirit that I appeal to them to welcome walkers and to help make the Countryside and Rights of Way Act a reality.

Walkers bring money into the rural economy, to bed and breakfast establishments, pubs, cafés and shops. Often, the people who pollute the countryside are the farmers themselves, surrounding their smallholdings with disintegrating plastic bags and rusting machinery.

It is farmers who allow pollutants into streams and rivers, not walkers. Unlike those on trail bikes and in off-road vehicles, ramblers make no noise and disturb no wildlife. In areas with free access, like the Lancashire moorland in Bowland, owned by United Utilities, the number of birds of prey has actually increased.

When the water companies were privatised, access to huge parts of the English countryside fell into private hands. I appeal to the shareholders of these companies to ensure that they do not block the free access now enshrined in law. The number of people who will actually walk on uncultivated land will be small. But the relationship between those who own land and those who want to come and enjoy it must enter a new, more constructive phase.

Janet Street-Porter is the vice-president of the Ramblers' Association

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