Across the road at Palehouse Common the footpaths were marked with the official little arrows of the Country Landowners' Association (CLA) announcing a "welcome to careful walkers". But over the road the path came to an abrupt end - at a 7ft-high wire fence with three strands of barbed wire across the top.
"Private Property - Keep Out" said the large notice closing off the footpath, which the Ramblers' Association decided on Saturday to make a test case. It will be in the vanguard of the hikers' campaign to force the government to fulfil its pledge to establish a "right to roam".
You might have expected, in the circumstances, a genteel cagouled picket line or even a mass-booted trespass. After all, the local authority map shows a right-of-way exists beyond the barbed wire and the ugly barn which the landowner erected 10 years ago across the path.
But the local walkers have been scared off. There was not a single rambler- with-attitude to be seen. And when I asked the chairman of the local branch of the association to take me to the estate he not only wouldn't come, he wouldn't even speak to me on the phone. "His wife won't let him. She's scared of physical violence," said Paul Rees, the national ramblers' spokesman. "Someone might be sent to get him."
The man of whom everyone is afraid is Nicholas Van Hoogstraten, the oafish millionaire landowner and former slum landlord who specialises in making statements of thinly-veiled intimidation. On the Today programme on Saturday he said of the hikers, darkly: "I'm not threatening these people. It's just that there may be an occasional incident."
His words gain menace from his background. In the 1960s he was sent to Wormwood Scrubs for four years after hiring thugs to mount a hand-grenade attack on the home of a man he claimed owed him pounds 3,000. Certainly he is not the kind of man you would want living next door. But it is also true that this is a reputation he wilfully cultivates. (Does he really expect us to share his view of tweedy walking types as "riff-raff", "the unwashed" and "disgusting people who don't have any stake in society"?)
It is an unfortunate test case for the ramblers to have chosen. Had they gone for the country's biggest landowner, the Duke of Westminster, they could have had an interesting debate on the political balance between private property and the common good. Had they approached Lord Savile, or some other big wheel in the CLA, they could have thrashed out whether the townies' mass search for rural solitude is inevitably doomed to being a self-frustrating activity.
Instead they have chosen Old Nick - a man in whose name the aristocratic Dutch prefix "van" confers as much dignity as it does when it precedes the word rental. This is a man who has often sought to enhance his own notoriety, giving outrageous quotes to enthusiastic journalists: admitting to "bashing" a few of his tenants, but insisting they were "scumbags" who had it coming; insisting that you had to be "a liar, crook and cheat" to succeed in business; or writing an article claiming he used to beat up his mother. They are claims which he tends to withdraw when challenged on the detail.
The tactic works. At the weekend a member of his local parish council fulminated that he "appears immune from normal planning controls". Buildings appear, public footpaths disappear, neighbours are threatened, enforcement officers are ejected and alterations abound without any input from us."
But fact and myth are entangled here too. Wealdon District Council insists that Mr Van Hoogstraten is subject to planning laws like everyone else: officials are due to rule in the next few days on his request for amendments to the plans for the 126,000 sq ft mansion he calls Hamilton Palace which he is building on the estate overlooking the Uckfield by-pass.
It is said to be the most expensive private house to be built in Britain this century. But despite its pounds 30m price-tag, only half a dozen people are working on it, according to locals.
None of which is to say that Mr Van Hoogstraten is not a nasty piece of work. Only that his nastiness might this time not get him as far as it has before. The decision by the Ramblers' Association to begin legal proceedings has called his bluff. But it may yet take the intervention of local, or even national, government before the footpath is open once again.
Stamp Of A Tycoon
NICHOLAS VAN HOOGSTRATEN has very large ambitions: the palace that he is building on his estate in East Sussex has been designed to last for five millennia.
But this former slum landlord has always thought big. He bought his first property, in the Bahamas, at the age of 16 with money he made from selling his stamp collection.
By 23 he was a millionaire, with 350 properties in Sussex alone. Hamilton Palace, nearing completion on his High Cross Estate, is intended to be the largest and most expensive private home built in Britain this century.
It will include a vast mausoleum to house his remains and a 600ft-long art gallery.
Van Hoogstraten, who owns homes in Cannes, Monte Carlo, Maryland and Florida, already has a place in The Guinness Book of Records. In 1981 he received a tax demand for pounds 5.4m, the largest yet issued by the Inland Revenue.
Members of the public will never be allowed into Hamilton Palace, he has said.
After his death the building will be sealed for ever. He explained: "The only purpose in creating great wealth like mine is to separate oneself from the riff-raff."Reuse content