Wrangling over the final link in England’s longest continuous bridleway, the South Downs Way, comes to a head this week with the final days of what may be the last public inquiry into a much-disputed section of the route.
A gap in the 161km path, which stretches from Winchester to Beachy Head at Eastbourne, means people using the path currently detour along 4km of road, including the busy A32, and a further 1.7km of alternative bridleway between the villages of Exton and Warnford in Hampshire’s Meon Valley.
Riders are incensed that English Nature, Hampshire County Council and the Countryside Agency want to route them via a “second-rate” path that will disrupt the shooting estate it crosses, and cost the public purse thousands in compensation to the landowner.
The council claims that horses will have a negative impact on the proposed route favoured by locals, which is 2.8km long and passes over Beacon Hill, land owned by English Nature. However, local people dispute this, citing other cases, such as nearby Butser Hill, where horses have been proved to cause no damage to a similar path.
Sue Montila, chairman of Hants and West Sussex Borders bridleway group, says: “In 1992, the secretary of state for the environment made a creation order to establish a bridleway to complete the missing link. But the inspector at the time refused, saying alternative routes were available.
“The county council then made four creation orders, two footpaths and two bridleways, to establish the missing link. The inspector must decide next week which of the routes, if any, he will agree to. But I don’t see why horse riders should be routed via a different, second-rate path.”
Both potential footpaths and one potential bridleway cross the nature reserve and have stunning views in keeping with the rest of the South Downs Way. The second possible bridleway crosses the shooting estate.