6PM UPDATE: We’ve walked this path for generations, public inquiry into Snettisham beach access hears

The public inquiry sitting at Snettisham Memorial Hall. Picture: Ian Burt

The public inquiry sitting at Snettisham Memorial Hall. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: IAN BURT

Villagers have walked a disputed coast path for generations, a public inquiry heard today.

Chalet owners claim there has never been a right of way past their properties next to the sea wall at Snettisham. Signs have been placed along the route, claiming it is private and walkers have been told to leave.

But Snettisham Parish Council claims the route, from the beach car park to the RSPB reserve, has been regularly used by villagers and visitors to the coastline, and should be officially designated a public right of way.

As the inquiry opened at the Memorial Hall today, John Trevellyan, who is representing the council, said hundreds of pages evidence supplied by objectors to the path should be rejected because they had been submitted after a 'clearly notified' deadline.

But government inspector Peter Millman, who is chairing the inquiry, said he would consider the evidence. He added: 'I think it's important for me to have all the relevant evidence to ensure I come to the right decision.'

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Mr Trevellyan said he expected to call 17 witnesses, while Nigel Farthing, for the objectors, said he would be calling eight.

Mr Millman said he would apply two legal tests to their evidence. The first would be whether people had used the route as a right of way without interruption before it was brought into question whether it was a right of way.

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He said the second issue would be when the right of way was brought into question and while the parish council would state this was in 1999, the objectors said there had been notices dating back to 1960.

'There appear to be very clear conflicts of evidence like whether there were notices along the route,' he said.

Opening the council's case, Mr Trevellyan said: 'I will confirm it's the parish council's position that the date when the right of way was brought into qestion was 1999.'

He added that meant that the 'relevant period' when it came to access was from 1979 - 99.

Barbara Devonshire-Ward said her father bought a property on the beach in 1956. She said she had used the path regularly since then.

'Between 1979 and 1999, I used the order route on at least a weekly basis between June and October,' she said. 'I do not recall any difficulties until three or four years ago, when comments were made while I walked along the beach.

'I never considered it was private. I walked along there, I was never stopped, I was never accosted, I thought it was my right to do so along a well-worn path.'

Under cross examination by Mr Farthing, she said the only sign she could remember seeing was an old iron sign, which simply said 'private', before new signs appeared around 1999 or 2000.

Mike McDonnell told the inquiry he had owned the Shepherd's Port caravan site since 1990, which had 175 plots. He said his tenants began complaining of problems using the path around 2010.

'One of the reasons people choose to have caravans in this part of the world is it gives them access to an open, unspoilt beach,' he said.

'My tenants never said they'd had any problems before 2010.

Carolyn Culey, whose father bought a caravan at Snettisham in 1959, said: 'Snettisham Beach has always been a very special place for me. As a beach resident of over 50 years, I'm certain that the bank has always been used as a public footpath. Before the signs appeared, you regularly saw people walkin along the bank.'

Eric Linge, who celebrates his 84th birthday tomorrow, said he had been born in Beach Road in 1930 and lived there until 1963.

'I and my friends were regular visitors to the beach,' he said. 'We went swimming in the summer, collecting samphire, butt raking in Wolferton Creek before that was silted up.

'For all these activities, we used the pathway along the beach and at no time were we told we shouldn't use it.'

David Kitt, who owns the Beach Park Caravan Site at Snettisham, said his father bought a bungalow on the beach in 1970, which was one of two on the seaward side of the disputed route.

'We used to walk down the order route either to gain accesss to the beach further down or visit friends further down the route,' he said. 'My family have never considered there to be anything wrong in doing that.'

Mr Kitt, now 55, said he owned 29 caravans and nine chalets by the beach.

'Many of our clients have dogs and they like to walk them along the beach and the order route,' he said.

He added in recent years, people had been 'actively discouraged' from walking along what had been a well-worn path.

Cross-examined by Mr Farthing, Mr Kitt said the path had always been a clearly defined route.

Earlier Eric Langford, chair of the parish council, said there was 'overwhelming support' within the village for the oath being designated a right of way.

Norfolk County Council applied to have the beach path formally designated a public right of way in April 2013. But some chalet owners objected, triggering the public inquiry.

Warning signs are still in place at either end of the disputed section saying that the path is private.

Last month more than 1,000 turned out to walk the route, to show support for the campaign. Hundreds more villagers and holiday home owners have responded to an appeal by the parish council and submitted written statements, saying that they have used the path across the beach for years.

The hearing continues, with more witnesses on behalf of the parish council tomorrow, at the earlier time of 9.45am.

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