Vixen Tor. Photo: Paul Englefield CC-BY-2.0

Vixen Tor. Photo: Paul Englefield [CC-2.0]

The owner of a Dartmoor crag at the centre of a long-running access row has lodged an appeal against a council decision to create two rights of way on the land.

Vixen Tor has become a cause célèbre for climbers and walkers. Denied status as access land under right-to-roam legislation, outdoor campaigners believed they had won a partial victory in March last year when Devon County Council made the decision to dedicate two footpaths as rights of way.

Now, the British Mountaineering Council has learnt that owner Mary Alford is appealing against the ruling and a new public inquiry is set to take place this autumn.

Vixen Tor was a popular climbing crag and also a destination for local walkers until Mrs Alford took over the land. The Alford family bought granite outcrop in 2003 from the Windeatt Estate which, they say, owned the site for about 200 years. They said there was mention only of a permissive footpath.

A BMC statement said: “The area around the crag was provisionally mapped as open access land under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, but the landowner contested this and won her appeal during a public inquiry in 2005.

“Since then various parties, including the BMC, the Ramblers and the Dartmoor National Park Authority, have tried to negotiate an access agreement with the owner – all to no avail – and access to the crag has been banned ever since.”

The Ramblers and BMC then campaigned for the dedication of public rights of way on to the land, though this still didn’t address the issue of climbers’ rights.

The BMC said: “Devon County Council considered the evidence and recommended the definitive map should be modified to this effect. However, BMC has learned the landowner has appealed against the decision, and the case will be heard at another Planning Inspectorate public inquiry in autumn 2010.”

The BMC says those supporters who submitted evidence in 2007 may be asked to attend the public inquiry.

It said: “Naturally, the BMC will continue to push for a dedicated public right of way to the tor, and you may also have the opportunity to get involved.”

Eugene Suggett, Ramblers’ senior policy officer, said: “The Ramblers are delighted that in March 2009 Devon County Council found there was enough evidence of past public use to justify the making of orders granting our application to add to the definitive map footpaths leading to the summit of Vixen Tor.

“As was always likely, the landowner has objected, with the result that the county council is obliged to submit the orders to be determined by an inspector appointed by the Secretary of State.

“We suppose that this will result in a public inquiry, at which we will be legally represented if that seems appropriate.

“We were not much surprised by the objection. Landowners often do object in these circumstances.”

Mr Suggett said the organisation would look at Mrs Alford’s evidence and consider instructing their lawyers if necessary. “There will be only one opportunity for this matter to be examined,” he said, “So it deserves to be properly sifted.

“There is antiquarian evidence which suggests the ways were regarded as public historically, and there are user evidence forms which suggest that the public have used the ways as of right without interruption for upwards of 20 years recently, which in our view raises the statutory presumption of dedication under section 31(1) of the Highways Act 1980.”

Asked if the Ramblers would attempt to have Vixen Tor declared open access land in any forthcoming review, Mr Suggett said: “We will certainly be looking at the issue again to see if the land qualifies for designation. From what we recall, it was only marginally disqualified last time round.”

In April 2008, the Ramblers’ then chair Kate Ashbrook addressed a gathering of 200 people at the site, to protest at being excluded. She said at the time: “It just shows how much people want the freedom on Vixen Tor.”

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