Ramblers barred from Kipling's wooded Weald

Sussex walkers are angry over loss of access to 'state' land, writes Stephen Goodwin
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A padlock and a new galvanised gate bar the way to woodland just south of Rudyard Kipling's home in the Sussex Weald, which local people have for years enjoyed for quiet recreation.

For Clive Mackie, a retired chartered accountant, the barrier and warning signs put paid to 13 years of walking in Blackbrooks and nearby woods.

About as far from a "militant rambler" as an ex-secretary of the Institute of Actuaries is expected to be, Mr Mackie did not resort to trespass or wire cutting.

In fact he was more perplexed than angry. For this appears to be Forestry Commission land and the state-owned body has been making much of its policy of allowing the public a "freedom to roam" over its land.

"I am slightly angry," Mr Mackie said. "This was a popular place for local people. I used to walk here a couple of times a week."

Blackbrooks is part of the Commission's 630-acre Burwash forest holding and typical of the countryside Kipling had in mind when he wrote of "the wooded, dim, / Blue goodness of the Weald". The author's home, Bateman's, is about a mile to the north.

The concerns of walkers, however, are better summed up in the opening line of another Kipling verse: "They shut the road through the woods ..."

The Keep Out notices are being cited by the Ramblers' Association as a further example of the loss of public access to state forests. Privatisation is the usual RA villain, with access often being lost when woods are sold. The Commission is required to sell 15,000 hectares of land a year and to help monitor dwindling access the RA's assistant director, David Beskine, has compiled a 34-page atlas of all land held by the Commission.

However in the case of Blackbrooks and neighbouring Coombe wood - where Mr Mackie also walked when it was not too muddy - the history is more complex. Though the woods are leased by Forest Enterprise - the arm of the Commission which actually farms the trees - the freehold and shooting rights are held privately. Last year the freehold was sold by British Gypsum to Newcoombe Estates, a company with a keener shooting interest.

At the old entrance to Coombe wood, the Forest Enterprise name has been cut down and a sign reads "Sporting rights reserved - Not open to the public". At Blackbrooks, the Forest Enterprise name and logo still heads the board, but it ends: "No public access".

A Commission spokesman admitted it was rather at odds with the walker- friendly policy. "If the situation had been different and we had owned all the rights the woods would still be open. But the new owners increased the shooting on the estate and we have had to put up signs for public safety."

This does not impress the RA. "This is a case of achieving what they want under the guise of being helpful," said Ross Urquart, the RA's footpaths secretary for East Sussex.