Kate Ashbrook was allowed to wield the boltcutters. Photo: Andrew McCloy

Kate Ashbrook was allowed to wield the boltcutters. Photo: Andrew McCloy

The reopening of Framfield footpath number nine may not sound much like milestone in the struggle for walkers’ access.

But today is the 10th anniversary of the East Sussex route’s unblocking – a date that marks the end of one of the bitterest and most protracted modern battles between walkers and a landowner.

Kate Ashbrook reminded us of the significance of 10 February 2003, which saw the veteran campaigner wield a pair of boltcutters to unlock gates that were unlawfully barring the route.

Ms Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society and president of the Ramblers, said: “It had been blocked by Rarebargain, a company associated with property tycoon Nicholas van Hoogstraten who had condemned ramblers as ‘riff raff’ and ‘scum of the earth’.

“Surrounded by film crews, photographers, broadcasters and journalists, we witnessed and celebrated the demolition of the barn, padlocked gates, container-sized refrigeration units and barbed-wire fence which had ostentatiously prevented the public from enjoying the ancient path for so many years.”

Hoogstraten, a controversial and notorious property developer, was once described by a judge as ‘self-styled emissary of Beelzebub’.

The path had remained blocked for 13 years.

Ms Ashbrook said: “Since I had taken East Sussex County Council to the court of appeal over its failure to act, and won, I was allowed to wield the boltcutters in the first blow for freedom.

“This was the culmination of a long campaign.

Kate Ashbrook wields the boltcutters 10 years ago

Kate Ashbrook wields the boltcutters 10 years ago

“It was a victory over a landowner who had intimidated walkers, the highway authority and the police; and over a highway authority which had failed in its duty to ‘assert and protect the right of the public to the use and enjoyment of the highway’.

“Because of the difficulties and unpleasantness associated with the path, ESCC left it obstructed for years and then, caving in to the landowner, processed a diversion order around the obstructions instead of removing them.

“Prosecutions of Rarebargain, first by the Ramblers and then by me, resulted in orders against the company to remove the obstructions, and fines and costs totalling £93,250 which were never paid.

“I took ESCC to court for diverting instead of clearing the path, and won in the appeal court with a judgment which reprimanded the council for ignoring the fact that the obstructions were wilful and that the magistrates had ordered their removal, and for flouting its own policy on the diversion of blocked paths.”

But the Ramblers president warns that walkers and outdoor enthusiasts must not rest on their laurels.

“Hoogstraten and his successors were blatant lawbreakers,” she said. “Others are more insidious.

“Whether they plough up and plant crops on public paths, or erect intimidating gates and CCTV cameras, they are effectively deterring lawful users. There are still plenty of mini-Hoogstratens around.

“Where persuasion fails, we must be ready to use the courts and publicity to free our paths, as we did at Framfield a decade ago.”

Kate Ashbrook’s news and views can be seen on her blog.

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