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Forbidden Britain: Ramblers given hard hats as building site blocks footpath: A golf course is being built across the line of the Oxfordshire Way, and walkers are likely to be diverted. Stephen Goodwin reports

LOBBERSDOWN HILL is not the place it was. For walkers following the Oxfordshire Way from the Cotswolds, it was a tranquil spot to draw breath and take in the imposing line of the Chilterns escarpment. Heading north-west, the view is of rolling farmland, unsung in terms of bureaucratic countryside designations, but quintessentially English.

Attempt the walk this summer, and on top of Lobbersdown Hill you will have to put on a hard hat and thread your way through a building site. The hill is now the focus of a pounds 20m golf course development, and the luxury clubhouse is being built slap across the Oxfordshire Way.

Nitto Albion Co Ltd, the Japanese developer, hopes the course will attract major tournaments - the parent company owns the Turnberry course in Scotland - but its attitude to the footpaths and bridleways which cross the 260-acre (105-hectare) site has angered ramblers' organisations.

With planning permission granted, the company submitted its application to divert and close paths in December 1990. But by starting work on the two-storey clubhouse before the diversions are confirmed it appears to have jumped the gun.

Guidance to developers from the Department of the Environment includes a strict warning not to go ahead with any work which would obstruct a right of way. This year when Oxfordshire County Council realised what was happening on Lobbersdown Hill, Nitto was ordered to 'reinstate' the paths.

The Oxfordshire Way is now picked out by wooden posts rising through bulldozed hummocks. Just beyond the putative 18th hole the walker is confronted by a notice which begins: 'The Oxfordshire Way continues directly through the clubhouse.' Hard hats are taken from a wooden box and a 'guide' is on hand to oversee safe passage between the scaffolding, down the stairs and out through the basement. Last weekend there was some queuing for hats.

Work is almost completed on a bridge to carry a bridleway across one of the artificial lakes on the course.

At a public inquiry yesterday, the Ramblers' Association and the Open Spaces Society, Britain's oldest conservation body, put their objections to an inspector appointed by the Department of the Environment. He can either confirm the proposed closures and diversions himself or refer the issue to the Secretary of State - at the earliest, a decision could take two months.

The odds are Nitto will be allowed to divert the Oxfordshire Way to the south of the clubhouse on what the RA considers an inferior line, divert a bridleway, extinguish two other footpaths and create a new one. This last, meandering, line was dismissed by Jo Bird, chairman of the Oxfordshire RA, as 'a sop'.

'Poor little footpaths are so vulnerable. It is so easy to destroy them. That is why they need us to defend them,' Miss Bird said. By pursuing Nitto all the way down the legal road, ramblers hope to make other developers more careful.

Alex McMillan, a Nitto director, said the company's first priority had been to keep the best possible relationships with amenity groups, the local community and local authorities. 'We have complied with every request we have had.'

He said the bridleway would have an 'all-weather' surface and claimed the scenic view from the Oxfordshire Way would be preserved. 'We are not trying to take anything away from the ramblers. We are trying to get a reasonable compromise.'

Mr McMillan would not speculate on the possibility that the diversion away from clubhouse might be refused. 'That's hypothetical at the moment,' he said.

To join 'The Oxfordshire', as it will be called, will cost a five figure sum. Having parted with that kind of money, members will not want to share the bar with muddy-booted ramblers following a chalk line of the Oxfordshire Way across the carpet.

(Photograph omitted)