NO-HEADLINE

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The Independent Online
Whether or not a headless ghost stalks the valley road, as local legend claims, Woodchester Park, near Stroud, is a fascinating place. The three-mile, heavily-wooded cleft cuts so deeply through high-lying farmland that anyone walking along it has the sensation of being lost in an ocean of trees: waves of forest, rising steeply to the horizon on either hand, seem to shut off the outside world.

Until last year, the valley was private property, and most of it was closed to the public. Then it was bought by the National Trust, which last week opened it to all.

The throwing-open of a hitherto secret valley naturally excites apprehension among people who have known the place for years. It also raises the question of what should be done with the few wild tracts of country remaining in Britain: should the public be excluded, so that nature can reign undisturbed, or should people have free access?

Woodchester is unique not only in its topography. It also boasts an extraordinary country house in the form of the Mansion, begun in the 1850s, abandoned unfinished 10 years later, never completed, and never properly inhabited except by bats. For more than a century the Mansion, also, was in private hands, beautifully built out of Cotswold stone in French Gothic style, but gradually decaying. In the 1980s it was offered to the National Trust, but rejected, on the grounds that the expense even of stabilising it would be prohibitive. Parts of the house would have collapsed had not Stroud District Council courageously stepped in and bought it, with the help of a grant from English Heritage. In 1988, the Council leased it at a peppercorn rent to the Woodchester Mansion Trust, a group of volunteers.

Since then this body has made sterling efforts to save the building, raising money by opening it on selected weekends and putting in hand the most urgent repairs. The group's hope now is that the national lottery will provide a large part of the pounds 3m needed to make the whole structure safe.

The present situation is thus a curious one. The Mansion, owned by the Council, run by volunteers, and closed to the public most of the time, stands in the middle of the park now owned by the National Trust and open every day of the year. Another problem is that the valley is the scene of the country's longest-running badger experiment, in which staff of the Central Science Laboratory are trying to determine whether or not bovine tuberculosis is transmitted to cattle by badgers.

Yet fears that the Trust would wreck Woodchester have so far proved unfounded. A new car-park has been skilfully tucked away in a field above the woods, and only pedestrians are allowed down the gravel track. At the point where the valley opens out, a sweep of poor trees has been removed and the ground restored to parkland - a substantial improvement. Miles of waymarked paths have been established, and a good start made on the colossal job of thinning the woods.

The result of all this work is that visitors can walk for hours on well- graded paths, starting along one which passes directly behind the Mansion on a level with the bat-haunted bell-tower. They can see down on to the five artificial lakes (previously invisible) which lie in chain along the valley bottom, and watch buzzards wheel overhead.

Anomalies remain. The gamekeeper, though supposed to keep down pests such as rabbits and grey squirrels, is not allowed to fire his gun - for safety reasons - while members of the public are about. The research workers now have to hump their cage-traps, with hefty live badgers in them, over the barbed-wire fences put up to keep people out of sensitive areas. Locals are worried that visitors' dogs will course the resident roe and barking deer. Walkers fetch up outside the Mansion, disgruntled to find it closed.

All the same, it is surely right that the public should have access to such a large and beautiful area. There is no good reason for keeping it closed. With access carefully controlled, I cannot see that wildlife or environment will suffer.

Yet I also know, deep down, that something has been lost. Gone for ever is the wonderful isolation in which the valley was once shrouded, the sense of mystery, the other-worldliness, the feeling that you if you went down there in the autumn dusk you really might meet a headless figure in 18th-century costume gliding silently along the dusty track that skirts the lakes.

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