National Trust criticised by family of Sheringham woman who died in gorge plunge

The National Trust has been criticised by the family of an 82-year-old Norfolk woman who fell to her death in a gorge from a woodland footpath in front of her horrified sister and daughter-in-law.

Sigrid Smith, from Sheringham, had just arrived at the Trust's site at Watersmeet on Exmoor in Devon, when she tripped over a stone embedded in the path and then, as she tried to regain her balance, tripped over a tree stump and fell over a cliff edge into the river below.

The inquest in Exeter heard that no warning sign or barrier was in place where she fell because the Trust did not deem it a dangerous enough point to warrant any.

And more than a year on there are still no warnings apart from a small sign on a 'visitor's board' at the very top of the path and another at the bottom of the gorge.

While accepting the verdict of accidental death, her children claimed it took pressure from them months after her death on June 23 last year for the Trust to start looking at any possible health and safety changes, including removing the stump that she tripped over. It is now reviewing its practices on the site near Lynmouth.

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Tim Smith, Mrs Smith's son, said after the inquest: 'As a family we have severe reservations about the way the National Trust handled the situation after the event, knowing what our concerns were.'

Bernard Smith, his brother, added: 'Nothing that can be done now will bring back someone that we loved dearly. We hope that the legacy she leaves behind is to tighten up certain health and safety that need to be addressed in the light of our experiences since.

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'The evidence the Trust produced suggests anything but thoroughness. That is the one thing we find very strange in this age of paranoia in terms of health and safety.'

Stephen Mulberry, the Trust's property manager for north Devon, told the inquest that the organisation was carrying out a review of safety across the area and was producing a new visitor safety plan, likely to come into force by the winter.

He said the review might result in new warning signs being erected but that 'the conditions of the footpaths might not be changed'. The path in question had been resurfaced in 2008 and was due to be done again in the next 18 months to two years.

Recording the verdict of accidental death, Mr Salter said he was happy that the Trust was taking steps to improve safety through the review that was taking place. But he urged it to consider whether more signs warning of the steep drop should be erected.

The National Trust issued a statement after the inquest, saying: 'The Trust views visitor safety at all its properties to be of the highest importance and seeks to learn lessons from any incidents in terms of improvements that can be made.

'The Trust remains confident that it maintains an appropriate balance at its properties between a natural state of affairs and the need to guard against hazards.'

Mrs Smith was a well-known Sheringham guest house owner for 45 years, having come to the UK after the second world war and married an Englishman, Arthur Smith.

She was also a stalwart of twinning links with Otterndorf in her home country of Germany, initially drafted in to help translate letters but going on to play a leading role, as secretary and organising the Pufferwagen fundraising catering caravan. She also led the local Girls Brigade for many years, and was a helper at the town's carnival.

Her family's grief was exacerbated on July 5 last year when Sheringham Town Council buried her in the wrong grave.

A plot at Sheringham cemetery had been bought next to her husband, along with others for the rest of the family.

But, when the day of the funeral came, they were left fuming after their much-loved mum and grandmother was buried in the plot which had been reserved for her daughter, Jackie Fuller.

In October, her body was exhumed and re-buried in the correct grave.

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