A new kissing-gate at the top of the 158-metre Cobstone Hill above Turville, Bucks (grid reference SU 768 915) , welcomes walkers who want to roam freely along the ridge-top once more. The plaque says Freedom to roam: freedom to think, in Latin to make it more intriguing.
When Cobstone Hill, in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, was confirmed as access land under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 in 2005 (see earlier blog), and indeed before, we have wandered freely along the summit of the hill, stepping easily over the dilapidated fences.
Last September, I saw estate workers renewing the fences on the hill with fierce and shiny barbed-wire, as well as clearing scrub and lopping branches off mature trees.
I queried this with Natural England, since the hillside is a site of special scientific interest (details here). The reply from Peter Greenslade, lead adviser for the Bucks and Oxfordshire team, was that the landowner, the Wormsley Estate (owned by the oil-rich Gettys), has a higher-level stewardship (HLS) management agreement with NE. Part of this entails re-fencing the area to graze it more effectively and at the correct level.
As the estate had erected a new fence near the windmill, preventing people from walking over the access land along the top of the hill, I requested that Bucks County Council, the access authority, install a gate.
The council asked Wormsley if it would provide a gate as walkers like to enjoy the views from the ridge, but the estate replied ‘no, unless absolutely legally necessary.’ In January 2013 the chairman of the local access forum, on behalf of users, farmers and landowners, repeated the request. The estate said that it had no plan to create new access-points but it was happy to consider allowing another party to install stockproof access there. Bucks County Council then agreed to put in a gate if someone gave it.
Once again I asked NE to intervene. Peter Greenslade said that under the CROW Act landowners are obliged to allow access to certain areas, but not necessarily to facilitate it by adding gates where none previously existed and that the estate was not at fault in this respect. This struck me as sad, since NE advises on access as well as habitat protection. But I could see that the only way to secure the access was to provide the gate myself, which I did under the Chiltern Society’s Donate A Gate scheme. Bucks County Council installed it in July, the Chiltern Society added the plaque—and thus we can walk along the Cobstone ridge once again.
This little saga shows how it is extraordinarily difficult to get access to ‘access’ land when the owner doesn’t wish to provide it. Just up the valley there is mapped access land at Grays Lane Bank, Ibstone, which we can’t get into at all—and Bucks County Council hasn’t the powers to enforce the public right.
Moreover, when public money was given to Wormsley for land management, NE failed even to suggest that it should provide a new access-point where people clearly wanted to walk—demonstrating both the severe shortcomings of HLS and the disorganisation of NE. And the Wormsley estate, which is not short of money, refused to spend a few bob on a gate.
Now the gate is there, I hope that the residents of Turville and surrounding villages—and everyone else—will enjoy roaming—and thinking—on Cobstone Hill.