Is there a lost right of way over the green space at the front of this picture?
If you tried to block or obscure a public footpath in the East Sussex parish of Ringmer (near Lewes) today you would find Ringmer Parish Council or Ringmer Ramblers on your case in fairly short order. Sadly it was not always so.
Picture, map of Ringmer
A long-lived parish
Ringmer has been a parish for a very long time and, like most Sussex parishes was responsible for nearly all the roads and footpaths in its area until 1894. Unfortunately it is only from 1894 that we have comprehensive minutes of the doings of the parish council. Until the 1960s it was a small place, clustered round the Green and the Church, but rapid expansion followed. It is now one of the largest villages in Sussex. This may account for the increased interest in using the footpaths in the parish. In 1974 Ringmer Ramblers published the first guide to the footpaths in the parish
In 1894 legal responsibility for all highways, including footpaths and bridleways, passed to Chailey Rural District Council, But in practice they, like many other rural district councils, paid little attention to anything other than roads. Chailey was not as bad as Newhaven Rural District, which refused point blank to have anything to do with footpaths at all, but most of the work was still left to the parishes by default. In 1936 East Sussex County Council took over, but that council continued the practice of trying to get the parishes to do the work for many years.
In Ringmer this was a footpath disaster, because the parish minutes show that councillors had little knowledge of the rights of way on their patch. The minutes record numerous mentions of the path from the village centre to Rushy Green, which was always falling into disrepair, and the paths to the church also get a mention.
But apart from this, there is near silence. At one point the councillors were asked about a possible path in distant Wellingham, which was alleged to go down to the river. You can almost see the puzzlement in the minutes. They decided that they didn’t know.
Picture- Was it like this when the parish considered the Wellingham Footpath? (not an actual picture of Ringmer council)
Perhaps the council was frightened of offending the big local landowner, the Glyndebourne estate, which historically owned much of the south of the parish. The estate was and is owned by the Christie family, now famous for the Glyndebourne Opera House that they developed.
This is annoying, because Ordnance survey maps issued at the end of the 19th century show a large number of paths in the south of the parish that are not on the map of rights of way today. They are shown on the map below in yellow
Noblesse n’oblige pas
The council was certainly handicapped by the estate. At one point, finding that they could do very little on the village green without the approval of the estate, they wrote asking if it would give up its rights to the green. The current member of the Christie family wrote back to say that he did not know what rights he had over the green, but he was no inclined to give them up and would come down at the earliest opportunity on foot or on horseback to exercise them.
The Broyle inclosure
Approximate area of Broyle inclosure shown in yellow.
The practice of enclosing formerly common land has caused lots of controversy amongst historians. Common grazing was essential for early English village peasant economies. Taking it away meant that villagers lost their independence and were forced to work for farmers. But it is argued by some that the land was more efficiently used when enclosed. From the 18th century enclosures could be authorised by Parliamentary Act, but much of Sussex was enclosed long before then by informal measures, such as landowners buying up all the common rights.
The Broyle Inclosure of 1767 enclosed a large area of the north east of the parish. It was the first Parliamentary inclosure in Sussex. Rights of Way researchers like inclosure awards because they set out roads, bridleways and footpaths. Most of the paths shown in the inclosure order are on the rights of way map today, but some, on the south of the Laughton road are not. An application has been made to add one of these to the rights of way map but the others are not particularly useful.
To track down Ringmer’s lost footpaths we need to look at two 20th century governments elected on the back rising demands for reform.
In 1906 the Liberal Party had been elected on a huge wave of support for radical change, but it had done little or nothing and by 1909 the party was losing bye-elections and becoming increasingly unpopular. Enter Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd-George and his young firebrand ally Winston Churchill, then president of the Board of Trade and later Home Secretary with a plan to shake things up..
They proposed a people’s budget which would increase income tax and also impose a tax on any increase in the value of land. There was outrage and the proposal was blocked by the House of Lords until the government persuaded the King to agree to appoint enough new peers to get the motion through. The Lords backed down.
At the time land ownership was concentrated in the hands of a small number of landowners who owned large estates, like the Christies of Glyndebourne.
In order to decide the value of the land it was necessary to value it, so the government set the Inland Revenue department the job of valuing every piece of land in the country. The valuation maps drawn up at the time, and their accompanying record books, survive today. But the increase in land value was never taxed. Imagine the effect on property prices today if it had been.
Lloyd George and Churchill had other plans. As Lloyd George put it “I only wanted the valuation”. What he actually wanted was to regulate agricultural tenancies and working condition and to give local councils power to compulsorily purchase land owned by big landowners.
Churchill and land reform
Just how radical the thinking behind the proposals were can be seen a speech given by Churchill in 1909, which starts out:
“Land monopoly is not the only monopoly, but it is by far the greatest of monopolies — it is a perpetual monopoly, and it is the mother of all other forms of monopoly. Unearned increments in land are not the only form of unearned or undeserved profit, but they are the principal form of unearned increment, and they are derived from processes which are not merely not beneficial, but positively detrimental to the general public…………” Marx would surely have agreed.
Land reform was put to one side in the 1914-18 war and after this enthusiasm waned. In the following depression many estates (although not Glyndebourne) were broken up and the value of land fell rather than rose.
The valuation maps and accompanying documents are important evidence of rights of way. Here is an excerpt from the valuation map for an area to the south of Ringmer.
You can see that the each land parcel is given a separate colour and a number in red. There is a large land parcel, Goat Farm, which is given the number 136.
For each of these land parcels there is an entry in what is known as a “field book”. This gives a description of the land and values it.
Landowners could claim various deductions from the value of their land. It looks like Lloyd George was trying to trap them. Did they claim lots of deductions, which would lower the value of their property and could make a later increase in value larger, or did they go for a higher value, which might drop them in it if the government decided to tax the actual value of the land, as opposed to any increase? Fortunately for us, most land owners in Ringmer claimed deductions.
They could claim deductions for any footpaths or bridleways that crossed their land and the field books would record these. But it is not as easy as that. The picture above shows part of Gote Farm. A large deduction was claimed for rights of way on Gote Farm. You can see on the map that there are footpaths shown on the land, which is numbered 136.
But the paths were not drawn by the inland revenue. They were added by the ordnance survey on the map which the inland revenue used. The ordnance survey made clear that the existence of a path on their maps was not evidence that it was a right of way. It can be argued that the deductions were claimed for other paths not shown on the map, or only some of those paths.
So, frustratingly, it has not been possible to use the inland revenue material to claim any rights of way on Gote Farm, but elsewhere in Ringmer some of the land parcels where deductions are claimed are small enough to allow us to identify rights of way and applications have been made to add them to the map.
1945 and a new Labour government
This government was elected on a mandate for change which included the introduction of the National Health Service and contributory social security benefits. The government also passed legislation that said that all rights of way were to be surveyed and recorded on a definitive map of rights of way. County Councils were asked to do the job but, because counties had little local knowledge, parish councils were sent maps and asked to mark on them the rights of way they believed to exist.
As we now know, Ringmer council had little knowledge of local rights of way and in many cases they seem to have asked local land owners or tenant farmers to say where the rights of way were. Not surprisingly the landowners and tenant were ungenerous in the paths they put forward. Many of the paths shown on the 19th century map were not claimed by the parish. In a few cases there are records which suggest that a path was initially claimed, but then withdrawn for some reason that is not recorded.
One path that the council missed was that across the lawn at what is now Glyndebourne Opera house. This path is shown on the 19th century map above and is partly in Glynde and partly in Ringmer. Glynde parish unanimously agreed that there was a right of way on their part of the path, at least until the land agent of the Glyndebourne estate took over as chair of the council, whereupon they unanimously decided that there was not. As Ringmer had no knowledge of the path it was not added to the rights of way map.
And in conclusion
3 applications have been made to add new rights of way to the rights of way map recently, all based on the evidence that I have described above.
Perhaps there will be more.