Property: They beat a path to your door

Would you back the right to roam if you had a public footpath outside your sitting room?

Not every one would relish the thought of being peered at over the garden hedge while enjoying an al fresco summer lunch. A home in the country tends to mean peace, quiet and above all privacy, shielded from the public gaze by acres of land.

But James Laing is used to strange faces popping up. His Berkshire farmhouse is surrounded on three sides by either a footpath or bridle path. Walkers and riders are as much part of his landscape as the animals, and he has few complaints. "They almost always stop and say good morning, and ask what we are doing. They have a genuine interest in the countryside. In every respect, it is an enjoyable experience."

Controversy over the right to roam makes it easy to believe that landowner and public are locked in battle over the use of the countryside. Even though it is an issue affecting mainly large estates with open land, it does make people think twice before buying a property with a public right of access. Some of the footpaths can run close to the main building. In James Laing's case, very close.

"When you get to the top of our driveway, the path comes to within 40 yards of the house, which you can see straight ahead. Then you can effectively walk right through the farm buildings and see the house from the other side over the garden hedge. The land is open there, with no gates or styles. Our main worry is security. We have had three burglaries since we moved here eight years ago."

As the owner of 80 acres of land, Laing, who works for estate agents Strutt & Parker, who are strongly associated with the country, is in no doubt that landowners should be more welcoming, not less. "If we create proper parking areas at the start of footpaths, there will less reason for people to stray on to grazing land. How often do you see one start on a narrow verge in a bramble hedge and with nowhere to park for half a mile? Then walkers roam illegally across fields until they pick up the route path. Worse still, they are likely to block up gateways with their cars.

"My problem is not with ramblers but with motorcyclists. If a group of kids come along whistling and singing, that's great. What I do object to is when a motorbike, which shouldn't be there, spoils our privacy. When they race around on a Sunday afternoon without silencers, the noise is like holding a chain saw. They can be physically and verbally abusive. One took a swing at a guest last summer. By the time the police arrive, they've disappeared."

Nor is it just bikes. Drivers of four-wheel vehicles are equally tempted by the open land. This kind of scenario is why some buyers won't contemplate buying a place where the public have access. As they see it, the public has lost sight of the fact that these paths originally existed for a few villagers to get to work or nip to the pub. Their fear is of numbers and confronting the badly behaved.

At the Exeter office of Knight Frank, Richard Addington is used to buyers from the south-east throwing up their hands in horror. "I try to explain that in Devon we have 3,500 miles of footpaths and, apart from the coastal paths, they are not used much. There isn't the same pressure on them as in the south-east. Local people are more relaxed about it."

Last summer he sold two farmhouses on the coast, both with a couple of cottages and 25 acres. The one that was very private sold for more than pounds 500,000, while the other with a footpath that led quite close to the house, sold under half a million.

"There was a difference of about 15 per cent. The footpath was definitely a large factor, because anything that close to the sea would normally get a good price."

It is not unknown to lose a sale altogether. In Knight Frank's Guildford office, Nigel Mitchell says that the saleability of such properties decreases, even in areas such as Hazelmere. "It's a particular problem where old farm cottages have been converted into a house. One, sitting in the middle of 30 acres, had a footpath running past the sitting room window." At the moment, he has a cottage for sale in three quarters of an acre with a private right of way across it. "If it was a public footpath, it would be far more of a problem."

Some owners enjoy the prospect of running into the public; some of them are farmers. Injured cattle or sheep stuck on their backs have been rescued after walkers have discovered them en route. "They must understand that what is grass to them, is a crop to us." says one. "And stick to the footpaths."

Walking is the only activity allowed since the prosecution earlier this century of an anti-hunt demonstrator. He stood on the footpath waving his umbrella and was found guilty of doing something other than walking. You have been warned.

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