Campaigners who have stepped up their battle against restricted access to Wigan's jewel-in-the-crown leisure facility have attracted an avalanche of support
The friends of Haigh Hall Heritage and Open Access to All group has put up a petition demanding the public have an unfettered right to use the grounds at the 19th century landmark building run by Contessa Hotels.
The protesters want the main entrance route from the north of the hall listed as a public right of way. And the call has attracted massive backing, with more than 1,400 people signing the petition in little more than 24 hours.
Access has been a flashpoint for months as Contessa has put a gate and picket fencing across the route which it shuts when there is an event on.
Campaigners say the council has not done enough to enforce the conditions of the lease, which specifically prevents access being restricted, and the matter is therefore being taken further.
It has also slammed the alternative route Contessa wants visitors to take during events, saying it is utterly unsuitable for wheelchairs, prams and buggies or anybody with mobility issues.
A spokesperson for the Friends group said: “We want the route dedicated as a public right of way on the grounds it has been used for more than 20 years. We were very happy with the development of Haigh Hall and the work on the courtyard and the park but we were incredibly concerned when the gates started to be locked.
“We complained to the council but their response very much stated it didn’t feel it was a public right of way. We believe it is.
“We’ve set up this petition and have had tremendous support. There seem to be three main areas of concern.
“The first is preserving heritage and memories. People visit the hall every year and release balloons in memory of loved ones from the same spot or have always visited. It is part of our culture.
“There is also concern that people are being treated differently and illegally in many respects.
“The path they are calling the alternative route isn’t fit for people who may be a bit wobbly on their legs or children who need to be pushed in chairs. It’s not safe.
“The third issue is how we got to this stage without proper consultation and engagement.”
The petition quotes the Earl of Crawford’s letter to Wigan Corporation in 1947, just before its sale, saying the hall and plantations have been placed “at the disposal of all our neighbours” and these benefits “should be available for the public to an even greater degree than hitherto.”
Concerns have also been raised about traffic on the road up to the hall which campaigners say spoils the beautiful view from the plantations.
An application has now been submitted to the local highways authority for registering of the route on the definitive map.
Private land can be open for the public to use if it has been used without challenge or complaint for two decades or longer.
Penny McGinty, assistant director for corporate contracts and assets, said: “Since the hotel was leased to Contessa we’ve been able to invest more than £3m back into the area. Since then, many thousands of people enjoy Haigh Woodland Park regularly and do not experience access issues within the park or the hotel grounds.
“The lease allows the hotel to install gates as long as an alternative route is in place.
“The current alternative route is past the children’s play area and along a panoramic path, which boasts great views of the borough.
“In addition, as a result of our ongoing discussions with the hotel operator last year, the gates will now remain open unless there is an event taking place.
“Despite this, we are aware that a petition to turn the path into a public right of way is being circulated within the community. As the local highway authority, we will deal with the application in line with standard procedure.
“Haigh Woodland Park remains extremely popular with visitors from the borough and beyond, with a range of outdoor activities and number of pathways that are accessible for users of all kind due to the mix of terrain within the park and woodland.”
The campaign group wants residents to fill in the survey detailing their long and unhindered use of the paths around Haigh Hall.
To sign the petition visit www.thepetitionsite.com