When I was preparing to write this post I was expecting that I would be expressing disappointment and frustration about the two footpath closures in the area: the Green Chain Walk through Woodlands Farm and the path between Shooters Hill and Academy Place. However events yesterday suggest that there may be grounds for cautious optimism that the Woodlands Green Chain dispute can be resolved.
The latest issue of Ramblers‘ South East Walker newspaper suggested that the dispute was continuing in the same vein as before. There is an article by Des Garahan, Campaigns Officer for Inner London Ramblers, thanking readers for responding in support of the campaign to reopen the path, and asking for further evidence of use of the path before 1992 to help get it established as a public right of way. However the paper also printed a letter from a Rambler suggesting a more flexible approach, and saying that she “would gladly walk an alternative route if it meant that the farm were to be preserved as it is now”.
I had also heard from the farm that they had attended the Inner London Ramblers AGM with the intention of putting their case, but they “experienced hostility and rudeness, and were, for the most part, prevented from saying anything to the meeting.” Well, as least they tried to have an open discussion about the issues. Later the farm e-mailed me stating their position:
We are writing to you to update the position with regard to the Green Chain route across Woodlands Farm. As you know, the present claimed path across the farm is neither a right of way nor a permissive path, legally it has no status. We fully accept that it is the widely advertised route of the South East London Green Chain Section 3 and Woodlands Farm has always been extremely anxious to resolve this problem as soon as possible. We feel that if we accept the current claimed route across Woodlands Farm it will result in serious damage to the character of the farm, a severe curtailment of our actives and threaten the viability of the whole project.
Since 1996 many hundreds of volunteers at Woodlands Farm have worked tirelessly a derelict urban wasteland into a very popular and successful city farm of high wildlife and biodiversity value. We are naturally saddened and very anxious that the current campaign by Inner London Ramblers and the Green Chain Working Party to establish a public right of way across Woodlands Farm with 24/7 access could kill the Woodlands Farm project stone dead. The reasons for saying this are set out in the attached documents and these have appeared in our newsletter.
Put briefly, if a right of way were established along the route of the present claimed Green Chain, two of our largest hay meadows would be open to all and sundry with no restriction. In the past, as you know, this has resulted in arson, burglary and attacks on our livestock and threats to our staff and volunteers. We’ve been able to reduce this anti-social behaviour by locking the gates at Dryden Road and Bellegrove Road. The Woodlands Farm Trust has a perfect legal right to do this.
In order to facilitate the Green Chain Walk we have offered a perfectly feasible and enjoyable diversion, along an existing public footpath at Hillview. The WFT would then provide a permissive footpath across a short section of the farm to the Dryden Road gate, which could then be unlocked and left open. See attached map. This strategy of a diverted footpath meets with the approval of Blackheath Ramblers and North West Kent Ramblers.
As you reported previously, the 2012 AGM of the Woodlands Farm Trust voted unanimously for the Board to resist the efforts of Inner London Ramblers and the Green Chain Working Party to impose a new footpath across our fields. If there is no settlement this can only result in prolonged and costly litigation and to what end? Our proposed diversion is only 100 yards east of the current claimed footpath. Woodlands Farm Trust will resist any attempt to impose a new footpath on us and for the reasons we have stated, we feel we are now fighting for our lives.
Dr Barry Gray (Chair)
Maggie Jones (Vice Chair)
Things seemed to be escalating yesterday (Saturday) morning when I saw this tweet:
— walking class hero (@walkngclasshero) March 9, 2013
Oh dear, I thought, that doesn’t sound like it will lead to an agreement between Ramblers and the Farm that will get the path reopened. However later in the day I received this update from Maggie Jones, Vice Chair at the farm:
A few farm Board members and volunteers met the 4 people from Ramblers this lunchtime at the Oxleas Café. After much discussion and explanation of the Farm’s position they agreed not to leaflet today and to take consideration of the Farm’s position.
And there was also this update on twitter:
Shooters Hill leafletting postponed following lengthy impromptu ultimately constructive open air meeting with woodlands farm representatives — walking class hero (@walkngclasshero) March 9, 2013
So some positive developments, and cautious optimism that the dispute can be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, but still a little way to go before the gate is reopened permanently, I guess.
I heard that the other footpath closure in the area, the MoD’s closure of the path between Shooters Hill and Academy Place is looking less optimistic. An attempt to ascertain whether the footpath was a right of way by contacting Greenwich Council, yielded this response:
As a Metropolitan Borough Council, Royal Greenwich is not required by law to hold definitive records or information pertaining to ‘Public Rights of Way, By ways, or Bridlepaths. However I can confirm to the best of my knowledge that the footpath you are referring to is private and is not a public right of way.
According to Ramblers’ Put London on the Map campaign there is an oddity in the law which means that footpaths in London do not have the same legal protection as footpaths in other parts of the country. London Boroughs do not have to maintain definitive maps of rights of way, and so nearly all of them don’t do so. This makes it difficult to find out if a path is a right of way. Justin Cooke, Senior Policy Officer at Ramblers told me in an e-mail:
But if it turns out it is MOD land and use of the path has always been by permission, i.e. they allowed it but never granted anyone a right to use the path in doing so, then they would have the right to close it as they have done.
I should stress that Ramblers haven’t given up on the issue and it has been passed on to their local volunteer for the area for further action.
There’s one other avenue to follow up: local MP Clive Efford is a keen supporter of Ramblers, as he said in an e-mail about the 80th anniversary of the Kinder Scout Trespass which included the photo below. I’m looking forward to his response to a request for support in getting the path reopened ….