Cyclists ride to war over forest limits

Rights of passage: Residents threaten to disobey medieval court in dispute over pathways
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The Independent Online
The middle classes of the New Forest are revolting. Laws set by the Forestry Commission and the ancient Verderers' Court to limit the freedom of cyclists in the forest have so angered residents that they are planning a campaign of civil disobedience.

A new cycle routemap, about to be published, will confine cycling in the New Forest, in west Hampshire, to 10 small designated areas. The present cycle routes total 150 miles, but this will be reduced to 43 miles. Those planning to disobey the Forestry Commission risk pounds 500 fines for cycling outside approved paths.

Susan Achmatowicz, a resident of the New Forest and the owner of the bicycling touring business Country Lanes, said: "The commission say the forest is under pressure from cycling, that there is erosion, that the wildlife are in danger. But I don't buy that. We've asked for documentary proof, but they don't seem to have any."

The commission said: "Our joint policy [with the Verderers] is that cycling should be confined . . . to a level which we feel will limit its effect on the overall environment yet still provide the fresh air and exercise which the cyclists seek."

However, objectors say the plans may increase the use of cars. With the designated "pockets" not linked and beginning and ending at official car parks, they claim car use is being sanctioned.

Ms Achmatowicz, a Canadian who came to Britain 13 years ago, said: "The existing network of 150 miles of gravelled tracks provide a useful link between the forest's villages. Horse riders, walkers and cyclists have all used these tracks. Now, unconnected, this makes them practically unusable."

Parish councils in the forest appear to agree with her and residents have said they will simply break the law. One said: "Many . . . think this is an outrage. We aim to still use the old paths. If this means the courts fill up with people refusing to pay fines, then this will be tested as far as we can take it."

The question of who actually makes the laws in the New Forest is at the centre of the dispute. The 93,000 acres of woodland and heath which con- stitutes the forest was declared a royal hunting ground by William the Conqueror in 1079. In 1992 the forest was given the unofficial status of a national park. However for those who live in and use the forest the Court of Verderers is the dominant legal authority.

The court is the second oldest in the land after the coroners' courts. It has met since Norman times and sits once a month at the Verderers' Hall, in Lyndhurst, Hampshire, hearing mainly planning and animal welfare matters.

The self-electing court is the direct descendant of the Court of Swainmote, established during William the Conqueror's reign. Although not a court of law and with no powers to fine or imprison, the Verderers' is nevertheless taken extremely seriously. The court consists of 10 Verderers accompanied by "agisters" dressed in dark green jackets, boots and breeches.

The court also represents the Commoners of the New Forest. Numbering only 150 of the 30,000 residents of the New Forest, the Commoners, through birth, have a right to make a living from the land, and graze ponies and cattle.

In 1994 the Forestry Commission, without consulting the Verderers, issued an authorised cycle route map. The medieval court was furious and the dispute over who had authority over the forest arose.

Some residents believe the new map, with its tighter restrictions, is the court flexing its muscles to show it is still in charge. But for Ms Achmatowicz, lack of consultation is also a matter of some anger. She said: "There was . . . not much public consultation - in fact there was none. This is nuts."