Forbidden Britain: Platoon of walkers marches into battle over blocked path: Veteran ramblers are locked in combat with landowners over the rights of passage along a bridleway in the Blackdown Hills

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The Independent Online
RUBY the Rottweiler and a platoon of veteran ramblers called the Geriatric Commandos are bracing themselves for a showdown along 400 yards of muddy bridleway in the Blackdown Hills north of Axminster, east Devon.

The dispute focuses on a bow- shaped lane, once part of a cross- country link between the villages of Smallridge and Membury, where the irresistible force of the access lobby - walkers and horse riders - has met resistance from the immovable object of hostile landowners.

The Geriatric Commandos, cutting edge of the local Ramblers' Association, are armed with bits of old carpet for crossing illegal barbed wire. Their leader, Eric Mawer, a nimble 65, reckons that 139 of the 311 public paths in his Blackdowns sector of outstanding natural beauty are being obstructed by farmers.

The green lane now under siege near Membury has an old barn straddling and effectively amputating the path at its western end. The blockade has been reinforced by an old caravan jacked up on a carpet of rusty cans. The lid of a cess pit completes the scene of desolation.

Last week, in apparent defiance of a public inquiry a year ago, the Trenchard brothers, of High Lea farm, who own the land, had stiffened their shield against intruders. Three new lines of barbed wire fence - strung out two days earlier - confronted Mr Mawer as he tried to negotiate the old lane. 'It's absolutely illegal and they know it,' he said.

Ruby the Rottweiler, a recent acquisition of the Trenchards, surveyed visitors from her look- out post in the barn. Michael Jenkins, bridleways officer for the county council, when told of developments at High Lea farm, said council solicitors would be consulted when the authority's footpaths sub-committee meets today. 'The situation's obviously getting worse rather than better,' Mr Jenkins said. 'Clearly it can't continue in this unsatisfactory manner.'

Mr Mawer, who retired to Devon 10 years ago, said: 'Devon County Council were taken to court to clear this highway but did nothing about it for three years. Then Zara Bowles, of the British Horse Society, took them to court and got permission to do the work and bill the council for pounds 5,000 . . . Mrs Bowles had cleared the path before the public inquiry into the council's application to extinguish the bridleway on the grounds that it had been unused for 50 years and was impassable.'

Mr Mawer said the Blackdown Hills had a 'very enclosed society', with many of the farming families related to each other.

Alleged vilification of hikers and riders was a constant theme during the public inquiry last summer. The government inspector in rejecting closure of the path, said in his report that allegations of intimidation 'must be left to the police to investigate'.

The issue of access has been complicated by the fact that one of the Trenchard brothers, David, a builder, ran a clay pigeon shooting range across one part of the disputed bridleway for 30 years until it was closed down by a court order earlier this year, after neighbours complained about the noise. He is appealing against the ban later this month.

The Trenchards have also been involved in a long-running dispute over another path, a permissive footway, once used by local quarry workers and 'established' as such in 1936. This path is also barred to easy public access by a padlocked steel gate.

George Trenchard, who farms the 30 acres of High Lea, declined to discuss the issues. But his brother, David, said he had evidence that the disputed bridleway had been closed at one end in 1812 by its then landowner.

Mr Trenchard said that the three barbed wire fences across the bridleway followed old fence lines and were designed to stop livestock straying into the muddy lane until the council replaced them with proper riding gates. He said the Rottweiler was there to guard the old barn-cum-workshop after recent break-ins.

'We've been made out to be all sorts but we'd rather live peacably,' said Mr Trenchard, whose family has farmed High Lea since 1929. 'We've said they could have their footpath if they'd leave out the nonsense of the bridleway and they've said they want the bridleway as well.

'I can't see the sense in it. They say they want to ride round in a circle with another bridleway but there's only been three horses along here since October. There could have been a sensible solution, but I don't see one any more to be quite honest so we've got to become as awkward as they are.'

(Photograph omitted)