Baring of teeth over roaming English heath

In this sleepy village, hikers claiming an ancient right to wander where their fancy leads them are up against a formidable challenge.

Multimillionaire Nicholas van Hoogstraten, who owns a huge property nearby, insists that "ramblers are riffraff who have no right to trespass on my land."

The determined ramblers are threatening legal action to gain that right. The outcome could decide what happens on 135,000 miles of pathways around Britain.

Unlike the United States and several European countries, Britain has long had a permissive attitude toward people who want to stroll through land they do not own.

In some parts of the country, including the scenic Lake District in northern England, hikers' rights are protected. In others, the "right to roam" is rooted in centuries-old custom, rather than law.

The hikers appear to have the support of Prime Minister Tony Blair, who wants to curb the territorial instincts of landowners like Mr. van Hoogstraten.

To make his point that ramblers are unwelcome, the tycoon has ringed his estate with razor wire.

Where official survey maps show the start of a public footpath, he has erected a steel gate, and beyond it a barn surrounded by heaps of old refrigerators, car batteries, and other junk.

These barriers lying across the marked pathway are enraging the ramblers.

Last week, Kate Ashbrook, president of Britain's Ramblers' Association (RA), accompanied by two members of Parliament, several county councilors, and more than 50 hikers, deliberately committed what van Hoogstraten considers trespassing but that she regards as upholding the right to roam.

Ms. Ashbrook says the ramble through the fields of van Hoogstraten's High Cross Estate will be followed by court action to make such walks legal.

Van Hoogstraten maintains that his "precautions" are necessary to prevent public access to what he calls Hamilton Palace. He is referring to his future home, a massive structure, still only half-built, that will cost an estimated $49 million.

His challenge to the hikers is receiving nationwide attention because public access to private land has suddenly become a hot political issue.

An opinion poll carried out last August showed that an overwhelming majority of people favor freedom to roam, with 85 percent of those questioned agreeing that the government should "give legal freedom to walk over mountains, moors, heaths, downs, and common land, subject to common-sense restrictions to protect the environment, crops, and animals."

Mr. Blair is said by officials to be "watching closely" the battle between van Hoogstraten and the hikers. If van Hoogstraten is forced to give ground, the government will be emboldened to carry out a promise to legislate.

But many British property owners have other ideas. The Landowners' Association, which represents farmers and the owners of large country estates, says it will fight any move to force them to open their land if they don't want to. The landowners complain that hikers often trample fields and leave gates open, allowing animals to wander loose.

Framfield seems an unlikely place for a clash of wills. Its 13th-century stone church of St. Thomas Becket, edging Palehouse Common, breathes tranquillity. The surrounding fields and pastures are spread out across hills that roll on for miles in all directions.

At first the local council appeared to have difficulty accepting that anything important was at stake in the confrontation. The council had argued that it lacked the funds to take van Hoog-straten to court, and that anyway there had been few complaints from the public.

Now the attitude of rambling supporters appears to be hardening.

Andrew Bennett, a Labour member of Parliament who chairs the House of Commons environment committee, took part in last week's hike. He says, "It is outrageous that this path should be shut. It is down on the map and there can be no argument about it."

Fellow Labour MP Des Turner adds, "These rights of way have been fought for for generations. If they get their way, characters like van Hoogstraten will run a coach and horses through the law and destroy it."

If the owner of High Cross estate loses his battle, and the government finally decides to act, British ramblers can look forward to a hiking bonanza.

But there are plenty of other paths to be cleared. Ashbrook says that in England about 25,000 miles of pathways are illegally blocked. "There is a 90 percent chance of meeting a difficult or impassable path on a randomly chosen two-mile walk." In Wales, 46 percent of the 25,000-mile public-path network is obstructed by barbed wire or has been plowed over by farmers.

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