Car ban considered for ancient country roadway: An inquiry beginning today could set a precedent for the future use of 'green' roads. Oliver Gillie reports

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THE RIDGEWAY, an ancient unmetalled road crossing the downs in Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Wiltshire, may be closed to cars and motor cycles on Sundays and bank holidays, depending on the outcome of a public inquiry which opens today. It is the first inquiry of its kind and may set precedents for the use of other green lanes and byways that criss-cross the countryside.

The Ridgeway was probably used in neolithic times, thousands of years ago, when the barrows and campsites bordering the road were built. Now four-wheel vehicles and heavy agricultural equipment have dug deep furrows in places. On Sundays the road sometimes becomes congested with traffic - walkers competing with motor cycles and cars for space.

Jack Hartley, a rambler, said: 'There is no rule of the road. The cars and motorbikes weave about looking for the best way through. In some places there are bottlenecks and the traffic can be dangerous for walkers, especially in wet weather when the surface is slippery.'

The inquiry, chaired by Michael Davies, a Department of Transport inspector, will be held in Swindon and is expected to last about two weeks. Some 600 objections have been filed to the traffic regulation order proposed by the Department of Transport, coming from a variety of individuals and groups, including motor sports organisations and Berkshire County Council.

The Ridgeway stretches for 85 miles between Overton Hill on the A4 in Wiltshire to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire, but the proposed order only affects the first 40 miles, to Streatley, on the river Thames in Berkshire. This section passes some of the most extraordinary neolithic monuments in Britain: the stone circles at Avebury, the Uffington White Horse, Barbury Castle and Wayland's Smithy. It has been designated a National Trail for people on foot, horseback and pedal cycle.

One problem is that there is no official speed limit on the road. Vehicles may achieve high speeds on some smooth stretches and then have to brake suddenly when they come to a rutted stretch. The Sports Council and the Land Access and Recreational Association, a motor sports interest group, has proposed a voluntary limit of 25mph.

The Department of Transport and the Countryside Commission have concluded that some regulation of traffic is necessary. They wish to exclude non-essential vehicles on Sundays and bank holidays, making an exception for agricultural vehicles and disabled persons' vehicles - a compromise that has the support of the Sports Council. It is the first time the department has suggested a Traffic Regulation Order for an unsurfaced road.

However, motoring organisations, which are represented by the Land Access and Recreational Association, consider that the proposed order is unnecessary and will prove to be unworkable. A spokesman, Alan Kind, said: 'The motoring organisations have been running a voluntary restriction which has worked well. We have asked members not to use the Ridgeway on summer Sundays and bank holidays. A traffic regulation order will not work because it does not prevent the use of scrambler bikes which are not road vehicles. The police know they cannot get successful prosecutions to prevent use of scrambler bikes so they won't bother. We have tried to discuss these problems with the Countryside Commission but they aren't interested.'

(Photograph omitted)