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On 12 June a band of 60 walkers joined the Action for Access protest walk to highlight the unfair banning of public access to open downland in the new South Downs National Park.
The land is at Breaky Bottom, on the chalk escarpment between Brighton and Lewes in East Sussex, owned by Peter Hall of Breaky
Bottom Vineyard. It has been mapped as land where the public has the right to walk, but Natural England has endorsed the landowner’s desire to ban the public from most of the site—merely because there is a tiny, disused chalk-quarry at one end of it.
Mr Hall has won a restriction order to keep the public out, on the limp excuse that walkers are at risk from the disused chalk quarry. He has recently erected new fencing right round the area and subdivided it into paddocks. All he needed to do was to put about 70 metres of fencing around the quarry to comply with the requirements for making access land safe for the public.
The walkers, who included members of the Ramblers, Red Rope, the Land is Ours, Action for Access and the Open Spaces Society, erected a symbolic fence around the quarry to show how easy it is to make the land safely accessible to the public. Our general secretary, Kate Ashbrook, and author Marion Shoard spoke to the gathering.
Said Kate: ‘It is outrageous that we are banned from this lovely site. The access land on the downs is pitifully sparse in any case, and some of the land which was mapped is inaccessible. Breaky Bottom is the entry point to a delightful but very under-used part of the downs, and is only a short distance from the South Downs Way. The views are wonderful—indeed the landowner exalts the beauty of the area as a marketing device for his wine.
‘Natural England should have refused the restriction order, and Lewes District Council, the enforcing authority for the quarry, should, under the Mines and Quarries Act 1954, order Mr Hall to erect a safety barrier around the steepest part of the pit. That would be in accordance with Natural England’s statutory guidance for restrictions on access land. But it appears that the guidance is now being ignored, to the detriment of the public,’ Kate argued.
‘Originally, the Countryside Agency, Natural England’s predecessor, refused to make any restriction, but the landowner appealed and won the right to close the land. The restriction has come up for review and this time Natural England has renewed the restriction with only a small modification.
‘So our protest is to put pressure on Natural England, Lewes District Council and the landowner to make safe the chalk pit and open up the land for public access and enjoyment’, Kate concluded.