The Diners Club money in damages was used to buy 3 mixed leaved woodlands in the Chitern Hills near my home, around 95 acres in all. My approach was to buy poorly managed woodlands, if possible with a good variety in age and specie. Cleaning the woodland to allow commercial trees to develop value gave me exercise, peace of mind; and a few quid in the pocket from log sales.
Ramscote or Ramscoat Wood was historically the most interesting, filled with ancient features as the land progressively moved from field and pasture to woodland over the centuries following the Black Death. The woodland was long and thin and landlocked; and set on a steep hill side: a total of 56 acres in all. It had last been ‘farmed’ in the 1940s. With ‘no-one around’ for years, neighbouring landowners had extended their boundaries, fenced off the rights of way and become intransigent to change. There was a lot to do. It was difficult to pull out logs along the slope in the mud of winter. The nearest exit point was the best. Inevitably, it was the neighbour, reputed to use his lawyer most freely, who fired the first gun. A writ of tresspass landed on my doormat.
I had driven down a leafy, green lane designated as a bridlepath, as easy access to the part of the woodland we were working at the time. Bridlepath in the UK means at least a bridlepath, not a bridlepath or less. The writ was from the owner of the subsoil. As it turned out, he preferred a road past his house rather than my occasional use on a bridlepath!
Under the Act of 1949, Local Authorities gave all community rights of way clear designations. One choice was RUPP or ‘road used as public path’. Buckinghamshire County Council, however, preferred not to use this designation, leaving the local householders to fight it out in the courts themselves. It was either a road, open to all traffic, or a bridlepath or a footpath. Ramscote Lane, now seldom used for vehicular traffic, became a bridlepath.
Our lawyers sent letters to each other. Costs mounted. I rapidly became too involved to turn back. If I went on, I had to win. Going to court is always a gamble even though, through intelligent application, you can improve your odds. The cost of losing after 10 days in the High Court had to be put out of the question. I took 3 months off work to build the evidence. A small argument with my lawyers put me in the hands of a wonderful lady solicitor, Rosemary Jeffries. The ability to challenge points of law and fact with my lawyer set me off on the right track in preparing the case.
The road transport industry came into being in the UK after WW1 when army trucks were released to form the basis of the new road transport industry. The filigree of minor roadways across the countryside, that once linked the major roads, fell into misuse as local tradespeople increasingly parked up their horsedrawn wagons for good.
If you look at a map of Chesham, you will see the town is set in a valley surrounded by ridges: Hawridge, Chartridge, Ashridge and so on. Trucks navigating from one ridge to another had to go down one ridge to the town and up another to their destination. This was obviously far too far for a horse and cart which was able to move directly across country between destinations.
To prove an ancient roadway, you have to prove ‘user’, that is people who have either driven down the road or seen people driving down the road. I spent days in the maps rooms of the County Council and the British Museum and found maps of every description going back over 300 years, like the OS maps that even showed the position of major trees in the 1800s and the Tithe Map (1836) which defined the ancient tithes to be paid for use of the land. But I had to find the ‘users’. This was now around 1987 so I needed memories that went back as far as the 1920s, people now in their 70s and 80s.
The local poeople all supported me. They hated the way ‘newcomers’ had moved in and tried to change all the old rights of way. As one old lady said: “When I lived here as a girl, none of these house had even been built. Now they want to change everything.” I ended up with 12 of these sworn statements or affidavits, 4 or whom had even died before trial and whose affidavits became Civil Evidence Statements. One old lady, determined to give her affidavit from her bed in hospital where she was receiving a check up, in fact died in the same early morning of her appointment. God bless her.
Gradually the pieces started falling into place. One long-time local, walking through the woods while I was working there, commented that we had cut down the old ‘gantry tree’ used during the war to load timber onto the lorries and which had navigated the same ‘roadway’ past the plaintiff’s house. Then there was that exceptional local historian, Dr Arnold Baines. It was his research that showed the fields at the bottom of the hill were the common fields for the village at the top of the hill, Bellingdon. Some acre pieces were still there to be seen. Clearly horses and carts and ploughs were moved via Ramscote Lane which ran through the centre of the woodland.
There are a lot of interesting things to tell you about defining age and use of a roadway. For example, bluebells grow in ancient woodland. You can estimate the age of a roadway by the distance the bluebells have traveled along the hedge. And those hedgerow banks you see either side of a country lane are not a result of digging. It was the thousands of footsteps and wheels that passed between them through the years that wore the earth away between the hedges that formed banks before the road was surfaced.
Let me leave these comments to Mr. Williamson. In my studies on roads and maps, it crossed my mind there must be someone who must know the reasons why roads are where they are, let’s call him or her ‘a historical geographer’. I started phoning around the Universities and there he was, at the University of East Anglia. You can imagine my excitement when I showed him Ramscote Lane and asked him: “Is this a road?” to which he replied: “Yes Philip. This is a road.” His knowledge and his professionalism throughout the cross-examination of his evidence was a deciding factor in closing the door on our opponents.
Here is his c.25 page report – RAMSCOTE LANE, CHESHAM: A REPORT ON ITS ANTIQUITY AND STATUS by T.M.Wiliiamson, MA PhD 16 March 1989
Part 3 of 3 will be available on whatiselling.net 3 September, 2013