There are strangers walking in my garden

Ramblers may win the right to use a 50-yard path that appears on no map. One man isn't happy. Roger Dobson reports
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The Independent Online
It is one of the most treasured, peaceful views in Wales. Shelley, who passed the spot on many occasions, was captivated by the beauty of the River Dee as it meanders under old stone bridges in the shadow of the hills looming over the Vale of Llangollen.

Here, too, is Thomas Telford's remarkable canal aqueduct towering 200 feet above the river, a lofty highway for multi-coloured canal boats lazily cruising through the spectacular scenery.

But the rural peace of this part of North Wales has been shaken by a row over a 50-yard footpath, whose outcome in the Court of Appeal has implications for thousands of landowners, and which is a foretaste of tussles that may arise from Labour's planned right-to-roam policy.

The Llangollen path does not appear on any footpath map, and anyone who bought the property it crosses would have had no warning it was there.

On one side of the Llangollen divide is Graham Bromilow, an architect and owner since 1983 of an old water mill by the Dee which he has restored and which has won an architectural award.

On the other side is Gordon Emery and the Ramblers' Association. At the heart of the dispute is the footpath - or alleged footpath, depending upon your point of view - through Mr Bromilow's garden and his new outbuildings down to the Dee.

The saga of the hole-in-the-wall path surfaced 11 years ago when people began complaining to Gordon Emery, a volunteer worker with the Ramblers' Association, that the path was blocked and they couldn't use it.

"I had more people getting upset about what they called the hole-in-the- wall path than any other, and I couldn't understand why," he says. "It was literally a hole through the wall down to the river - there was no sign, no gate, no stile, and the path did not appear on any maps.

"We found there had been a huge number of people using the path. They used to use the path to do baptisms on the river bank, and we have pictures of these events with hundreds of people taking part."

Mr Emery got together 126 people supporting claims that it was a path and had been so since at least 1811, but two local councils refused to accept it and eventually the Welsh office was called in to decide. It too concluded that there was no path.

But Mr Emery and the Ramblers persevered and went to the High Court, where the Welsh Secretary was told he had made the wrong decision. The Welsh Office appealed - but now the Court of Appeal has rejected the challenge, with a ruling which means that the Secretary of State for Wales, now Ron Davies, has to think again. The Welsh Office also has to pick up the legal bill.

"One of the crucial issues that has been clarified by the court is that the test that a path 'reasonably exists' means reasonable on the part of any person, not simply the decision makers," said Mr Emery.

From the other camp the picture looks very different. Graham Bromilow points out: "We carried out all the usual legal searches, of course the local councils were consulted, and there was no record at all of any right of way.

"I bought with the knowledge that there wasn't a public right of way. I renovated the property extensively and almost 10 years after I bought it, I received notification from Mr Emery about an application for a public footpath through my garden and through outbuildings which I had by that time built with planning permission.

"The previous owner has confirmed that no one was ever allowed on to this stretch of land without permission. Permission to gain access was always by personal request. This local area was also the subject of an official footpath review in the 1980s and no claims were made then to include this as a footpath.

"Had I known there was a public footpath I probably would not have bought the house. Who do I have recourse to, the local authority? Who do I claim compensation from? Do the Ramblers buy this path from me?"

A Welsh Office spokesman declined to comment, but the Welsh Secretary is likely to ask the councils to think again, and there may be a public inquiry.

But the case has implications far beyond Llangollen. John Trevelyan, deputy director of the Ramblers, says: "This is an important case nationally. The judges have strengthened the hand of those who want to protect paths they believe to be public rights of way, by requiring orders to be made wherever there is a reasonable claim that a public right of way exists. There are thousands of paths up and down the country which have yet to be claimed."