One of the reasons we love living in Ash Parish is how easy it is to access the nature on our doorstep. Ash parishioners, for generations, have been fortunate that they can go onto military land. This is enshrined in a byelaw, last updated 37 years ago, but in existence since 1887.
The law gives the public the right to access this area when the flags are not flying. Earlier this year, the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO), the government agency responsible for managing the Ash Ranges, erected additional fences around the perimeter of the ranges, preventing access to the range floors even when they are not in use. Initially, the reason they gave was to allow training to continue without the risk of spreading COVID-19 to the troops, but they have now stated it is because of vandalism and people not cleaning up after their dogs. The area that has been closed off is the most accessible. The roads, built to improve access for Army vehicles, are the perfect place for those with reduced mobility, families with pushchairs and cyclists, young and old, to enjoy the open space and woodlands. Take Heather, for example. She has lived in Ash Vale for 52 years, and is in her third house in the village. She now suffers from reduced mobility, caused by severe back problems. She has walked on the ranges for over half a century; she wanted to continue this activity. Heather wrote to the Ministry of Defend (MoD) explaining that, when the gates were closed, it was difficult to access the ranges on her mobility scooter. They responded by installing a mobility friendly gate that opened with a special key, available to the disabled community. Heather enjoyed using her new gate, with the improved accessibility it provided, roaming the roads, and making the most of the countryside that is available on her doorstep. Since March, like many in our community, Heather has not been able to enjoy her “walks”. She cannot reach the open gates at the tops of hills and dirt tracks, even with a rugged scooter. The heathland is still open, but access is now very limited. Approximately 3000 people live within half a mile of the entrance on Heath Vale Bridge Road, with only 294 that close to the gate towards Normandy and 916 at the third gate behind Ash Vale station at Furze Hill. If allowed to become permanent, these changes will have a dramatic impact on our community, with groups that regularly use the site, such as scouts and guides, having to travel to similar areas. The MoD and DIO have promised a public consultation on these changes as part of a broader review of the current byelaws. As a community, we need to influence these discussions and ensure that our voices are heard. You can help by contacting our councillors and MP to ensure they know our opinions and concerns. We want full access reinstated this summer, while the consultation takes place so that Heather and others don’t miss out on the opportunity to exercise locally in this beautiful area, especially during this pandemic. To keep up to date and see how you can help, join us on Facebook, search for Save Ash Ranges, or head over to AshRanges.com.
By Carl Cookson