A protest picnic is planned as tensions rise between opposing camps over access to historic Haigh Hall.
Regular park users have clashed with Contessa Hotels, the company which holds a long lease for the grade II* listed landmark, after ‘airport runway’ markings appeared along the main drive.
Around 2,000 people have also signed a petition, criticising changes at the hall, which have also seen gates padlocked on the south drive there and the adoption of a planned access road, through woodland and across the miniature railway line, from Higher Lane.
But hotel bosses have issued a robust defence of the new markings, and access arrangements, as they look to create a five-star venue at the former home of the Earls of Crawford.
Campaigners have pledged to stage a “peaceful mass picnic” on the lawns on April 22 as disquiet grows over the issue.
Stjarna Perry, one of the organisers, said: “We may not be able to change anything. But we can show them by coming together that we are disgusted with the way they have chosen to deface the nature and beauty of what was our public land.”
Hotel director Craig Baker said the markings had been introduced to reduce the potential for conflict between park users and guests - after 15mph signs were persistently ignored by guests and pedestrians.
“It is disappointing because this has all been done for the right reasons. The issue here is change,” he said.
Work had been undertaken to create separate footpaths to the hall for pedestrians, he told the Wigan Observer, though one was blocked by a fallen tree over the weekend.
Mr Baker said the pathway complied with disabled access legislation and avoided the need for park users to use a more elevated route nearby.
Extra security had been necessary for the south gates, which the hotel relied upon for deliveries, he added, with the local authority keen to avoid lorries using the main drive.
“The lane markings are all for health and safety reasons. We could put up a million signs saying ‘get off’, This is the only way to let everyone know,” he said.
The hotel manager has spoken of wanting to create a “sense of arrival” for the venue’s guests.
In the near future management expects to have its four-star designation confirmed soon and there are hopes it will soon attain five-star status eventually.
But Andrew Ayres, who launched the protest petition on the website 38 degrees, said: “The approach to the hall is stunning and with the placement of markings the aesthetic has been ruined completely.
“Furthermore these road markings give the impression that cars now have the first priority – which should never ever be the case in a country park where people are trying to enjoy the great outdoors and get away from cars for a few hours.
“There are some great initiatives at Haigh Woodland Park and they should be commended – but this is a disgrace and judging from public sentiment locals and regular visitors are extremely upset and angered by it.”
Several protests have also centred on problems negotiating a way around the locked rear gates, leading to the children’s play area, for pushchair and wheelchair users. One critic likened the markings to an “airport runway”.
The road giving access to the main driveway off Higher Lane, including two give way lines where the route meets the miniature railway tracks, was given consent as part of the planning permission signed off in late summer 2015 by Wigan Council’s development control committee.
In a joint statement, Contessa and Wigan Council said: “Maintaining access for visitors while preserving the hall has always been a key priority for the council, Contessa and the wider Haigh Woodland Park plan.
“Since the hotel was leased to Contessa we’ve been able to invest more than £3m back into the park which has contributed towards the many improvements including the play area, high ropes, the redevelopment of the stables, new visitor centre and adventure golf.
“Without this investment we would not have been able to make all of these improvements which has made Haigh Woodland Park the fantastic leisure destination it is today.
“As the hall is being used for events we need to ensure vehicles and pedestrians are able to access the hotel safely during busy events which is why road markings have been installed on the drive.
“Two new paths have also been built that run parallel to the drive to allow pedestrians a safe route to walk around the hotel.
“While the council wasn’t aware these works would be undertaken this month we have been in discussions with Contessa about how we safely allow pedestrians and vehicles to access the hotel. It was felt road markings would provide a good solution.
“During peak times (like weekends) and when there are events on, the gate at the rear of the hotel will be closed to alleviate any traffic issues.
“Though it’s worth noting pedestrians can still access the hotel and park via the path that runs along the top of the bank from the picnic area to the train station, which not only provides excellent views over the borough but is also the only Disability Discriminaton Act compliant route.
“We are continuing to make improvements to the hotel and the park with a picnic area set to be opened by the summer situated near to the train station.
“We will also be improving signage to ensure visitors are aware of the different areas and access routes to avoid confusion in the future.”
An open day is being planned, once works on the hotel are fully completed, to which members of the public will be invited.ou have your say, page 31