Rambling free: the lure of Britain's countryside explained as right to roam is ring-fenced at last

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The Independent Online

For more years than many can remember, the low road through Lancashire's Trough of Bowland has provided tantalising glimpses of a forbidden land.

For more years than many can remember, the low road through Lancashire's Trough of Bowland has provided tantalising glimpses of a forbidden land.

The fields that climb up from it reach towards some of England's most rugged, windswept uplands; a land of lonely gritstone fells, merlin, lapwing, peregrine falcons and Britain's only nesting hen harriers. But those who chose to walk up from the babbling river Wyre are guilty of trespass if they ignore the three designated footpaths.

Tomorrow, the riches are finally within walking distance of any that want to stride off across the heather in search of them. Bowland is among the first areas opened up to the public by new rights to roam, introduced under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CroW) that creates access to more than 1,000 square miles of land across England.

In National Parks alone, new access land will be the size of Luxembourg. That area will increase by 46 per cent in the Lake District and by 35 per cent in the Peak District, where the famous mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the 1930s led to the creation of National Parks and the modern conservation movement.

But none of the new riches are exciting ramblers quite like the Forest of Bowland. For Ian Brodie, a renowned Lake District walker who has also led the campaign for access to the Duke of Westminster's 19,500-acre Abbeystead estate in Bowland since the Sixties, its seclusion gives a spiritual quality that parts of the Lakes have lost as more visitors have sought them out.

"People who are looking for higher values than mere physical exercise - a spiritual experience - will look for new areas like this," Mr Brodie said. Brian Jones, of the local branch of the Ramblers Association, said the new rights would provide access to peaks with views from Lancashire to Morecambe Bay. "It's the utter absence of human influence up there which makes it so fine," he said.

The conjunction of the vote to ban hunting and the opening of the new right-to-roam areas means the local landowners hardly shared Mr Brodie's enthusiasm yesterday.

"On the one hand, the Government is denying one part of the community access to a sport they have followed for years and on the other opening access to walkers," said Mark Hudson, president of the Country Land and Business Association. Predictably, the rural affairs minister, Alun Michael, has now cancelled plans to join ramblers at Bowland and in the Peak District tomorrow morning, after the Countryside Alliance warned he would be greeted by angry pro-hunt protesters.

Preparations for the new access rights have seen some strong appeals against designation by landowners - most famously, Madonna's appeal over her £9m country estate on the Wiltshire/Dorset border. In Lancashire, landowners remain anxious to dispel any notion that the right to roam is the free-for-all it seems.

"The land managers are more prepared for all of this than the land users," said Sue Harrison, CLBA deputy regional director in the North-west. "We're afraid that people will not realise that this is right- to-roam mapped areas, not right to roam anywhere." The list of permanent exclusions within areas of mapped land show how competing interests will still collide.

No walker may stray within 20 metres of land that has been cultivated since the mapping process, or of dwellings, gardens and other obstacles. A regime of restrictions bars walkers if felling or shooting is taking place. And the biggest fear for both landowners and countryside officers in Bowland is that walkers may risk walking near suckling cows and calves - an action that can, and has, caused serious injury and even death in the past.

Landowners also stress the limits of the recreational activities permitted by the new legislation - walking, birdwatching, climbing and running but not horse riding, cycling or quad biking, except where they are already permitted. Access to pockets of land on smallholdings, which link open access areas, may also prove a problem in some parts of the country.

About 18 months of work and a huge investment has gone into ensuring that access will not bring damage to Bowland. A network of 75 kissing gates will be in place tomorrow to ensure that walkers do not incur damage by climbing over gates and fences. (CroW stipulates that they may only use gaps, gates and stiles to pass from one field to another.)

Tarja Wilson, a Lancashire Countryside Service officer, admitted that it was a delicate balance between competing interests. "Landowners prefer the idea of linear access routes rather than open access, as it's easier for them to manage," she said. "But concentrating the walkers on to footpaths can cause more erosion to the sensitive peat in places."

The Duke of Westminster is more enlightened about the right to roam than some other local landowners and struck a limited access agreement for Lancashire five years ago.

But other estates have been less willing. The Bleasdale Estate, at the Preston end of the forest, has declined to discuss rights until now.

"When we've tried to contact some of them we've had no response," said Mr Brodie. "We've seen thriving parishes turn into private fiefdoms. Nobody lives there because the estates have refused to allow development."

Christopher Brownigg, who has "lost" 1,200 acres to right to roam, did not hide his disgruntlement. "It's a bit much. Joe Public has a right to go where he wants on my land and I don't get to go hunting. These MPs are a world away from reality." But fortified by the new legislation, Britain's ramblers now want the public to make the most of their new-found right.

"We're so accustomed to keeping to the footpaths that the inclination to stride off across a field will not come naturally," said the Ramblers' Association's Paul Bell. "We want people to overcome that inhibition."

OPEN COUNTRY 10 GREAT NEW ROUTES TO WALK THIS WEEKEND

* Hollins Hill, Chrome Hill, Parkhouse Hill, Hitter Hill and High Wheeldon, Peak District (Explorer OL24): South of Buxton in an area of the Peak Park where there is relatively little access land. A series of 'Dragon's Back' hills offering beautiful new walking opportunities, and superb views.

* Bleasdale Moors, Forest of Bowland (Explorer 41): Close to Garstang off the M6. Can be reached via an existing right of way about 2km east or directly off a road running through Oakenclough to the west. A trig point is located at 429 metres providing a good panorama of the surrounding fells. A natural feature called the 'arbour' will be accessible for the first time.

* Marshaw Fell and Hawthornthwaite Fell, Forest of Bowland (Explorer 41): Fine areas of open country that are easily accessible from a road to the north of Bleasdale Moors running through Marshaw.

* Ward Stone and Mallowdale Pike, Forest of Bowland. (Explorer 41): South East of Caton, there are a number of permissives to these fells but that access can be withdrawn at any time. Ward Stone has a trig point and is one of the highest points locally, providing superb views.

* Burn Moor (Explorer 41): Known as the 'forbidden moor', Burn Moor will have access for the first time in centuries. Burn Moor is accessible from two roads and a right of way, and it links with huge tracts of open country to provide magnificent, if challenging, walking.

*Smithills Moors and Winter Hill, Forest of Bowland. (Explorer 287): North of Bolton and providing views over the Manchester conurbation to the Pennines. Historically important, as in 1896 a group of Bolton men marched to the moor to maintain their traditional right to walk across it. The landowner wanted to close access and until recently there was only a footpath across the moor.

* Hallam Moors, Derwent Moors, Ughill Moors, Bradfield Moors, Broomhead Moor, Midhope Moors and Bamford Moors, Peak District. (Explorer OL1): A huge area of open country that will provide a variety of opportunities to explore some beautiful countryside virtually from the edge suburbs of Sheffield. All these moors abound in industrial and social history and offer true wilderness walking away from rights of way.

* Boulsworth Hill, Forest of Bowland. (Explorer OL21): At the western end of the Bronte Moors, Boulsworth Hill offers panoramic views at the boundary of Yorkshire and Lancashire. Located east of Nelson and Burnley, it is easily accessible across open country or from the Bronte Way or Pendle Way.

* Amberley Mount, along a north facing escarpment to Chantry Hill, South Downs (Explorer 121): A linear stretch of down from Amberley to Sullington, that follows the line of the South Downs Way.

* Newtimber Hill, Devil's Dyke, Edburton Hill, Truleigh Hill, Tottington Mount and Anchor Bottom, South Downs. (Explorer 122): A beautiful linear stretch of down, starting near Poynings and ending at Upper Beeding, that is well linked with rights of way. Some of this area has permissive access, but new areas have been added that will provide greatwalks.

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