The Nar Valley Way is one of Norfolk’s flagship footpaths, traversing an uninterrupted 33 miles of the county’s ancient woodland and open green pastures.
Or almost uninterrupted.
Any ramblers reaching the tiny hamlet of Newton by Castle Acre will find their way impeded by an unsightly 4ft barricade made from wooden stakes. To deter any intrepid walkers from attempting to scale the structure, the poles have even been smeared with greasy anti-climb paint, with nearby signs warning them they are being monitored on CCTV.
This rural rampart blocking around 150m of the footpath is the result of an extraordinary legal row in the village which has raged for 30 years and this week culminated in a two-day public inquiry, chaired by a government inspector.
The palisade was erected by Sine Garvie-McInally, a former Norfolk County Council (NCC) solicitor who lives in a charming cottage next to the Nar Valley Way, as a way to stop the path being used. She claims it is has never officially been recorded as a public right of way and that this cannot now be done, retrospectively, because the route passes too close to her home and infringes her right to privacy.
Norfolk County Council – Garvie-McInally’s former employer – have ruled that it is a registered path, which has been in use for centuries. The Planning Inspectorate has now been called in to settle the dispute for good.
A much-trodden path
The dispute started in 1993, when Garvie-McInally and her family moved in to the village. She told NCC – where she worked at the time – that she did not believe there was a registered public right of way, despite it being included in many publications over the years – including those published by the council – showing the Nar Valley Way route.
As the row rumbled on, Suffolk County Council was asked to get involved, to avoid a potential conflict of interest between County Hall and its senior lawyer. NCC accepted it was not a public right of way – although it had long been used as one – as it had failed to document it as such when rights of way were reviewed in 1968. It considered officially designating it as one, using a ‘modification order’. However, this option was ultimately never pursued. The path’s status remained in limbo, while walkers and horse riders continued to use it.
In an unrelated development, the local landowner put up a series of posts across the path in 2000, to prevent motor vehicles from travelling down it. There were no complaints about access to the route until 2019, when a group of horse riders objected to the county council about the posts. At this point, Garvie-McInally revived her objections to the path and put up her barricade in August 2020. This triggered the Norfolk Ramblers Association to apply for a ‘modification order’ to have the path registered as a public right of way.
NCC agreed to do so in 2021, on the basis the track had been used for hundreds of years. But Garvie-McInally objected to the decision and appealed to the Planning Inspectorate – which adjudicates on such matters – claiming that because the path was not registered as a right of way when the Countryside Right of Way (CROW) Act came into force in 2001, it cannot be added retrospectively.
This left the battle lines drawn for this week’s hearing at nearby Longham Village Hall. Garvie-McInally’s case rests on the claim that the path lies on ‘excepted land’ under the Act, which means public access is restricted “within 20 metres of a dwelling” in order to protect the homeowner’s right to privacy.
She told the hearing: “I’m doing what I can to protect my home – this order would break my statutory right to privacy. People can see straight into my windows from the path. Men walking on the path have urinated outside my garden. I have suffered harassment and had rude comments and gestures made at me.
“If the decision goes the other way I will have to sell this house as I would not be able to live in quiet enjoyment.” She said antisocial problems worsened after the issue was highlighted in a local parish magazine.
Once a highway, always a highway
But locals and ramblers say the route has been used for hundreds of years and have produced maps dating back to 1774 showing this. They hope this body of evidence helps justify making the path a public byway through the legal maxim – ‘once a highway always a highway’. The National Ramblers Association is helping the cause and has brought in Ros Emrys-Roberts, an expert in rights of way, to argue their case.
The disagreement has caused a rupture in the community, with locals feeling frustrated. The barricade blocks a 150m section connecting the Nar Valley Way from West Lexham to a road that leads to Castle Acre. Locals say it is a safe and well-used route that connected the two villages and allowed people to avoid a busy road.
Julie Whales, 67, who lives in nearby Great Dunham, said: “We’ve walked, cycled and horse ridden this route for numerous years and my husband has used it since he was a young lad. I can’t believe somebody would like to take away access people have had for hundreds of years, a route which provides access to many villages in the county.”
Helen Breach, an artist who lives in Castle Acre, said: “I’ve been using this track for 40-odd years and finding this historic route blocked seems an unfriendly action. It spoils people’s enjoyment of the countryside and seems selfish and not very community-minded.”
A permissive path has been created through scrubland adjacent to the previous route since the barricade was put up but people have complained it is not suitable for all and it is prone to flooding.
The two-day hearing was chaired by Dr Paul Freer, from the Planning Inspectorate, an agency of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. He will now consider his verdict and will then announce whether the barricade must go.
This is a Local Democracy Reporting Service article.