A reclusive and elderly aristocrat has broken his silence to wade into the row over public access to the grounds around his Wigan family seat.
Robert Lindsay, the 94-year-old 29th Earl of Crawford, has made a hugely-significant intervention from his Scottish home in the growing dispute over roads being gated shut at Haigh Hall.
The respected peer backed campaigners from the Friends of Haigh Hall Heritage and Open Access for All who have strongly criticised restrictions to access around the 19th-century landmark put in place by Contessa Hotels with agreement from Wigan Council.
He spoke of the long public access to the grounds going back decades and came down firmly against making the area around the Victorian hall private.
It is very rare for the Crawford family to intervene in matters concerning Haigh Hall and represents a real coup for the protestors as they piled pressure on senior politicians who were due to discuss Haigh Hall at this week’s cabinet meeting.
A spokesperson for the Friends’ group said: “It’s fantastic, our little campaign is really building.
“I think what we’ve got back from Lord Crawford is stupendous. For him to say that all the time they lived there people walking past was never a problem is fantastic.
“His line about people being deprived of their rights of access just nails it. That’s exactly how we see it as well.”
Lord Crawford responded speedily to the group’s correspondence, with the letter to his house in Fife being dispatched earlier this month and the reply coming back around 10 days later.
He said he backed the idea of Contessa Hotels running a boutique venue there but is deeply concerned about gates being shut to keep visitors away when events are taking place.
In his letter he said he was “most fully sympathetic” with the group’s demand to keep open unrestricted access to the grounds and expressed disappointment that due to age and health he was unable to help more fully or directly.
He wrote: “I had read with pleasure the news that Haigh Hall had been purchased by Contessa Hotels. This seemed a very good use for the building. I hope the hotel prospers.
“I am though sorry to read that the hotel has created an obstruction to impede people’s use of the pathway leading past the Hall.
“The paths in the lower woodlands and alongside the Hall up to the Stable were all well used routes when I lived at Haigh Hall and until 1950 when my family sadly had to leave Lancashire.
“I don’t believe my family ever felt any worries about the numbers of the public using the path running alongside the house or ever wished to restrict their numbers.
“I have never heard of any problem arising at all. I wonder what problems are being caused today to the hotel.
“To try to make the area around the Hall private would in fact deprive the general public of their very long standing rights of access.”
Ahead of an update on Haigh Hall which is due to be heard at Thursday’s cabinet meeting the borough’s senior politicians received a long letter from the campaign group setting out their concerns.
Protestors said they wanted clarity over how the 2016 deed of variation restraining Contessa from building structures that would “prevent, hinder, obstruct or restrict access” to pathways tallies with the cabinet’s November 2018 decision that public access via an alternative route was acceptable.
The group has said it does not believe the alternative panoramic path is suitable or safe and also sent cabinet members details of the number of complaints that have been received since the protests began.
Campaigners have also stressed they are pleased with Contessa's investment in the hall and the money Wigan Council has used on improvements to the country park, with their worries solely relating to the question of access.
Paul McKevitt, deputy chief executive of Wigan Council, said: “We spoke to Lord Balniel, the Earl of Crawford’s son, at the time of the transfer and explained the plans for Haigh Hall which he was very supportive of at the time.
“We believe the transfer has been the best option to help bring about investment in Haigh Woodland Park which has benefitted residents and brought people from outside the borough to visit all of the attractions the park has to offer.
“Haigh Hall and in particular its grounds are still open to members of the public with a number of routes offering access to the hall itself and the surrounding area so it is not the case that the public have been impeded in access.
“We are in the process of assessing an application to add a public right of way at Haigh Woodland Park and our teams are reviewing the submission.”