Ramblers rejoice as high road is declared off-limits

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The Independent Online
Welsh ramblers and farmers are celebrating victory after halting in its tracks one of the curses of the countryside: the four-wheel drive vehicle.

When motorists began using the windswept Golden Road along the ridgeway over the Preseli mountains in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park it provoked a confrontation with walkers, farmers and archaelogists.

The four-wheel drive enthusiasts argued that they were entitled to use the route as it had been a highway since Roman times. Opponents countered that it was nothing more than a bridleway and said its claim to being a Roman road was based on an 18th century forgery.

Now the Secretary of State for Wales, William Hague, has upheld a public inquiry decision which makes it illegal for vehicles to use the nine-mile trail.

The route has been used for more than 4,000 years, but protesters claim the recent arrival of recreational off-road drivers have churned up the ground and caused serious erosion in a sensitive area, which was the source of the blue-spotted dolomite rock used to build Stonehenge.

The remains of Iron-Age forts and neolithic burial chambers have also been found in the area, which is a site of special scientific interest because of a colony of southern damsel flies which live in the wet upland peatlands and heather.

War between the off-roaders and the ramblers' faction was declared in 1991 after Dyfed County Council reclassified the track as a bridleway instead of a road used as a public path. The off-roaders found that the route was clearly marked as a Roman road on the first one-inch Ordnance Survey map of the area produced in the 1830s, and used it as evidence at the subsequent public inquiry.

The inquiry found against them, however, after research by the ramblers proved that the Golden Road's links with Roman times were a forgery dreamt up by an 18th century historian - and then turned into legend by the Victorian antiquarian, Sir Richard Fenton, who was anxious to glamorise Pembrokeshire's past.

Peter Harwood, vice chairman of the Welsh Ramblers Association, said: "We are absolutely over the moon ...These vehicles were leaving ruts two feet deep and once the fragile topsoil is broken next time it rains you get terrific erosion of the undersoil.

"The sudden appearance of three or four of these vehicles crashing and banging and slithering around has made quiet enjoyment of this wonderful place well nigh impossible at times."

Heather James, of the Dyfed Archaeological Trust, added: "This is a spectacularly beautiful and very special place which needs protecting. It's not just a few monuments, there are whole relic landscapes going back to the fourth millennium BC."

National Park officials will erect warning notices this weekend and rangers will carry out patrols to enforce the vehicle ban.