Twenty years after I helped to save the path through Sydmonton Court, close to Watership Down in north Hampshire, from closure, I returned to find that it was as lovely as ever.
The music millionaire Andrew Lloyd Webber bought Sydmonton Court, to the east of the footpath, in 1974. It is an eighteenth-century, grade II listed building. He bought the remainder of the estate in 1992.
He would have known that there was a path running down the drive with Sydmonton Court and the church (later his private theatre) on one side and Sydmonton House (office, studio and guest accommodation) on the other. He would have known too that his family and VIP guests would have to risk mingling with walkers on the path.
Nevertheless, he bought the property and then tried to move the path well out of the way, along field edges to the west, with only a distant view of the lovely nest of buildings. The Open Spaces Society, our activist Dave Ramm and others objected and there was a public inquiry in February 1996. Sir Andrew, though absent himself, had a pricey line-up of estate managers, traffic engineers and security men headed by a leading QC from the planning bar, Jeremy Sullivan. They told the inspector, Mr R J Amblin, all about the ‘serious risk to the security of the property’ but fortunately he decided that the loss to the public, in particular the close views of the listed buildings, outweighed the gain to the landowner. The proposal was rejected.
Twenty years later the path still runs through the property on its old, direct line. There are plenty of private notices and CCTV cameras, but it is as peaceful and pleasant as ever.
I walked the path last Sunday with my friends Drusilla and Mary, on a round from Ecchinswell. Beyond Sydmonton we climbed up onto the downs with breezy views in all directions. We stopped for lunch on the iron-age hillfort on Ladle Hill, with Watership Down to the east and Beacon Hill to the west.
Then we followed grassy paths across ploughed fields, left by a farmer who understands the law that cross-field paths should not be disturbed when it is reasonably convenient to avoid doing so.
We took the old way back towards Ecchinswell,. It was a lovely circuit in the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.