In a conflict of classes that would have undoubtedly amused Geoffrey Chaucer, a wealthy landowner went to battle against local villagers today in an attempt to keep them off his property – footpaths said to have been trodden by the very pilgrims who inspired the 14th century poet's Canterbury Tales.
At a public inquiry held at Adisham Church of England Primary School in Kent, Timothy Steel, the former vice chairman of the prestigious stockbroker Cazenove, came up against the likes of 73-year-old David Leidig and grandmother Mary Mackenzie, who insisted they had enjoyed the rich flora and fauna of tracks for more than 20 years, giving them the legal right to ramble there freely.
In a conflict that stretches back eight years, the villagers say they have been blocked by barbed wire and padlocked gates from three footpaths and a bridleway, and even chased off the land by gamekeepers on quad bikes. Upon submitting more than 100 testimonials to Kent County Council, the authority found in their favour.
But today, at the start of the three-day public inquiry, the legal team representing Mr Steel, 58, who has owned most of the land since 2001 and lives near Teynham in Kent with his wife Sophia, daughter of Viscount Hawarden, said that granting public access to the woods could harm it as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), where willow warblers, green woodpeckers and grey partridge live among a variety of orchids and butterflies. Existing footpaths already provided ample service to the local community, they added.
Maria McLauchlan, the county's public rights of way definition officer, insisted that Natural England had raised no objection to granting public access rights and it was not a "relevant consideration". The county council, she said, was satisfied "on a balance of probabilities" that pedestrian rights have existed over the routes for the requisite period of time and that the orders should be confirmed.
Mr Steel's opening statement said he became aware of rare instances of people using the routes in 2001 and instructed his gamekeeper to tell anyone straying from designated public paths to stop.
"He is a conscientious landowner whose top priority since purchase of the woods has been not just the preservation, but the enhancement of the area's natural beauty including the conservation and development of rare bird populations and plant cultivation," it continued.
It added that through the placement of signs along the routes and the actions of the landowners themselves, their staff and gamekeepers, it was clear there was never an intention to dedicate the routes as public rights-of-way.
Mrs Mackenzie, who has lived in the village since 1927, told the inquiry she had noticed signs from time to time but "we don't take any notice of them". Protest organiser David Leidig said previously: "I used to walk my dogs there almost every day, then suddenly there were gamekeepers driving around on quad bikes chasing people away."
Planning inquiry inspector Heidi Cruickshank said she would examine the evidence to decide whether the routes have been publicly used for at least 20 years to confirm whether a right of way exists.
She added: "I cannot take into account issues such as desirability of the route in my decision. Mention has been made of the designation of the site as an SSSI. However, this is not a matter I'm able to take into account and there will be no point in raising it as part of the inquiry."