Ten years ago today, on 10 February 2003, Framfield footpath 9 in East Sussex was freed after 13 years of illegal obstruction. 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.
Since I had taken East Sussex County Council (ESCC) to the court of appeal over its failure to act, and won, I was allowed to wield the bolt cutters in the first blow for freedom.
This was the culmination of a long campaign, which is described on my blog here. 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.
The company went into liquidation. Fortunately the liquidator agreed to reopen the path and, with a refreshingly relaxed attitude to health and safety, let the Ramblers loose on the site to win maximum publicity for our cause.
The high-profile reopening of the ‘Hoogstraten path’, backed by a court of appeal judgment that highway authorities must carry out their statutory duties to remove obstructions instead of seeking diversions around them, certainly helped our cause. But all is not yet sweetness and light.
Hoogstraten and his successors were blatant lawbreakers, 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.