Forbidden Britain: Aristocratic allies found in row over footpaths: As ramblers prepare for Forbidden Britain Day tomorrow, Stephen Goodwin reports on a battle over footpaths on an estate in the South-east

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THE activists of the Ramblers' Association are not normally given to praising the landed aristocracy but in the deceased fourth and fifth Marquesses of Camden the association's Tunbridge Wells group believe they have formidable allies.

Tomorrow - the Ramblers' Forbidden Britain Day - the group will walk the lanes that bound the Camdens' former Bayham Abbey estate in Kent and East Sussex - 4.25 square miles of classic weald country. They would rather be spared the foot-bruising tarmac and traffic by walking through the estate, enjoying its woodland tranquillity and perhaps catching a glimpse of deer.

But while the ramblers believe there is strong evidence that a number of routes on the estate are public paths, most of the landowners are adamant that no rights of way should be granted.

News of tomorrow's intended demo-walk resulted in a letter to the association from solicitors acting on behalf of three landowners, threatening legal action against it and individual ramblers, should any set foot on estate paths.

The landowners seem to have got hold of the wrong end of their big stick as the Kent ramblers had already published plans for the event making plain that there would be no trespassing. The use of the trespass weapon is a matter of some controversy even within the association, with some arguing that it is counterproductive. The view of the Kent group was that trespass might be fine 'up North', fighting to get on the moors, but was going a bit far for Tunbridge Wells.

Kent and East Sussex county councils have the Bayham Abbey footpath claims 'in hand'. But bureaucratic wheels grind slowly, with officials faced by a legal thicket every bit as impenetrable as the brambles and bracken growing on some of the Bayham paths beyond the 'Private Property - No Entry' signs.

The finest of these paths is the Old Coach Road, once part of the carriageway from Pembury to the 13th-century ruined abbey - in the care of English Heritage - and on to Lamberhurst. It is marked on old parish tithe maps, with the Pembury map of 1849 describing it as a 'parish road'. After the Camdens paid to build a new road to the south of the estate - the B2169 - a bar was put across the Old Coach Road once a year to keep it private, but an affidavit secured by the association states that people continued to use it as a footpath.

Still more convincing, in the opinion of the Ramblers' Association, is evidence that, under the Finance Act 1909-10, the fourth Marquess was allowed a deduction of pounds 200 from the pounds 71,275 value of the estate for land tax purposes because of 'public rights of way'. His successor, the fifth Marquiss, repeatedly declared a willingness that the public should walk the estate paths and offered to execute formal documents to this effect. But the offer was never taken up by the then Tunbridge Wells Rural District Council, and withdrawn when the estate went up for sale in 1976.

Dave Wetton, a Ramblers' Association campaigner who is organising the Forbidden Britain Day walk, hopes that it will 'gee-up' the county councils. An officers' recommendation is expected to go before East Sussex highways and management sub-committee within six months, but Kent is only just beginning to investigate the path claims. Mr Wetton said: 'All we want is for walkers to have the right to walk on legally reinstated, long-established footpaths in a very scenic area safely away from the dangers of a busy road network.'

A decision by either council to designate the coach road or other paths as rights of way would be stoutly resisted by landowners. John Parkman, who owns 63 acres at the heart of the estate, said the association was trying to turn the clock back 150 years. His property, which includes a stillwater trout fishery, is up for sale and expected by his agents to fetch more than pounds 700,000. The sales literature does not mention the right of way claim.

Mr Parkman said: 'The Ramblers' Association has obviously been infiltrated by an extremely militant group. The routes they have chosen to seek to reopen have been closed to the public for well over a century. The whole thing is just ludicrous.'

He emphasised that he had no objection to 'responsible walkers' and had granted access to groups who had asked. But like other landowners - the estate includes two commercial pheasant and deer shoots - he feared that granting rights of way would make life easier for poachers. 'We don't want a situation in which every loiterer, every roisterer, every layabout, can claim that he has a right to be there while poaching on our land.'

(Photograph omitted)