Forbidden Britain: Farmers block a county's neglected old rights of way: Ramblers are campaigning to restore some of Britain's ancient roads. Oliver Gillie reports

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The Independent Online
ANCIENT roads in Warwickshire are disappearing. Farmers are ploughing them up, or blocking them with ditches and rubble, while county officials watch with indifference.

The E2413, near Ladbroke in Warwickshire, was a cart and drove road which should be able to take four- wheel drive vehicles, if not cars. Now it can only be traversed with difficulty by foot, while the E6892, at Charlecote near Stratford-upon-Avon, is being cropped by the local farmer and only the most determined Land-Rover driver would attempt to negotiate it. These roads do not appear on the Ordnance Survey map because they cannot be seen as a feature on the ground and the Survey's philosophy is to produce a topographical map based on what can be observed. Even so there is no doubt about the existence of the roads since they are marked on the county surveyor's own map of the area.

John Hall, a rambler who wants these old roads to be restored, has consulted the county surveyor's map in Shire Hall, Warwick, and traced their route on to his own map. But he was not allowed to take a copy of the surveyor's map. 'First I was told the county road map was copyright because it was based on the Ordnance Survey,' he said. 'Then I obtained permission from the Ordnance Survey to have a copy under the 'fair dealing' rule. But a senior county official told me that I was still not entitled to a copy because I did not live in Warwickshire and was not a local poll tax payer. It is as if they want to keep these old roads secret because they do not want to make any effort to maintain them.'

The E2413 begins in Ladbroke as a tarmac road, Radbourne Lane, which goes up to Woodlands Farm and continues beyond as a broad strip of grass beside a field of wheat. After that the only indication that a road exists is a line of wooden poles carrying a telephone wire. 'The GPO probably chose this route because they thought the line would be easy to maintain,' Mr Hall, chairman of the Warwickshire area Ramblers' Association, said as he approached a thicket of sloe which blocked the road.

He and a fellow rambler, Harry Green, attacked the undergrowth with sticks and pruning shears. They exposed a deep ditch and after penetrating more undergrowth on the other side emerged into a field of wheat with no sign of the E2413.

'There is no way a cart or four- wheel vehicle could get past this ditch without bridging material - this is not acceptable at the lowest level, even as a footpath,' Mr Green said. 'We have been asking the county surveyor to do something about this for the last 10 years. He has acknowledged our letters but he has done nothing.' The rightful route of the E2413 could easily be picked out on the ground from landmarks but there was little or no sign of its existence. The route passed through another wheat field, a 4ft (1.2m) wide bridle gate buried in a thicket of sloe and hawthorn, across a ploughed field, and through a field of oilseed rape.

But on the other side of the field lay an interesting remnant of the old road, a concrete bridge. It marks the point where the E2413 meets the site of the old village of Lower Radbourne which was depopulated in the 15th century to make way for sheep.

'These are medieval roads but they have been used in living memory,' Mr Hall said. 'It is the responsibility of the county to maintain this bridge and the roads. The Highways Act 1980 says that they must be maintained for use and enjoyment. If the farmer grows crops over the road it affects our enjoyment of the countryside very much.'

The E2413 continued without any visible indication through the middle of another field of wheat. A short stretch near Hodnell Manor was recognisable as a road but the way was blocked by lorryloads of rubble. Finally, the ancient road crossed another wheat field and could be seen as a faint line of hard earth in a large ploughed field adjacent to the main road from Coventry to Banbury.

The E2413 is one of 150 E roads in Warwickshire which are not marked as such on the Ordnance Survey. Most are marked as white roads, which are often assumed to be private, or as tracks, because they are still visible as geographical features on the ground. But five have disappeared from the Ordnance Survey. These are, in addition to the E2413, the E2412, also in the parish of Radbourne, the E6892, the E2997 and the E6999 which are all near Stratford-upon-Avon.

'These roads are rights of way but it is the responsibility of the county surveyor to maintain them and he is not interested,' Mr Hall said. 'The surface of these roads belongs to the county but correspondence that the Ramblers' Association has had with David Miller, the Warwickshire surveyor, over the years suggests that he does not accept that it is his responsibility to maintain these roads free of crops and obstructions.'

Faced with the ramblers' campaign there appears to have been a change of heart at Shire Hall. Anne Reilly, for Warwickshire County Council, said: 'In our view a right of way does exist on the route of E2413. The county solicitor is investigating the situation. We may prosecute for obstructing the highway or we may remove the obstacle ourselves and recover costs.'

(Photograph omitted)