The future of a popular Lancaster green space hangs in the balance as campaigners prepare to fight to protect it from housing developers.
A Public Inquiry to be held next week will decide the fate of Freeman’s Wood, a 25 acre green space – a mixture of woodland and grassland - between St George’s Quay and Willow Lane.
Residents and councillors have been fighting to protect Freeman’s Wood since 2011, when the landowners erected a fence around the site.
The hearing scheduled to take place between August 27 and 30 at Lancaster Town Hall will decide whether to list Freeman’s Wood as a Town Green.
This would prevent developers from building on the land, which local people say they have used for decades for recreation and leisure.
The Friends of Freeman’s Wood & Coronation Field, led by founder member and former Mayor of Lancaster Jon Barry, was set up to fight to keep the land as a community resource.
Reports by residents of trees being cut down on the site led to the city council placing a Tree Preservation Order on the land.
Landowner Lune Industrial Estates Ltd, which is in turn owned by a company based in Hong Kong, appealed against the decision, saying no “reasonable person” would describe Freemans Wood as woodland, but the city council disagreed.
The land is currently designated as urban green space in the council’s Land Allocations Document, and a decision has yet to be made on the planning application. Jon Barry said: “Local people always thought this land was public or common land. There was open access and nothing to say the land was private.
“I would walk the dog and practise my cricket throwing there, along with many other people who enjoyed using this this natural space for recreation and leisure.
“I have taken great interest in this piece of land because of my role as ward councillor but also because of the importance of this place to local people.”
In 2012 Jon applied to Lancashire County Council to have Freeman’s Wood designated as a Town Green, which would protect the site from future development.
He said that the application process was lengthy and there have been hurdles along the way.
The agent for the landowners, Satnam, challenged the way the application was handled, and asked for a Judicial Review, which was only dropped a few weeks ago.
Campaigners say that now that obstacle is out of the way, they have been able to focus on the Public Inquiry – and their case for claiming Freeman’s Wood as the Marsh Town Green.
This means they have to demonstrate that a significant number of local residents have used the claimed area for a variety of purposes ‘as of right’ for over 20 years before 2011.
“Since 2012 we have collected 87 witness statements from members of the community who have enjoyed using Freeman’s Wood for years,” Jon said.
“But we could have collected many more if time and resources had allowed.”
One such witness is Simon Clarke who spent his entire summer holidays as a child playing in Freeman’s Wood in 1978-1982.
“It was like a gigantic adventure playground,” he said.
““We had a tarzan swing and we used to camp out in the woods at night time, with our pop, crisps and biscuits from the local shop.
“We’d camp right next to Glass Island. That was an area of old bottles that we used to root through looking for bottles with a marble in it.”
“Later on when I was 15 or 16, we used to play football matches on the football pitch – it was all impromptu, as we all lived in the area. No one ever told us we couldn’t go into Freeman’s Wood. The name freeman must have come because everybody could use it; free to everybody.”
Christine Gartside’s sons often played sports in Freeman’s Wood there and she enjoyed exploring the land with them.
“One of the things I love about this land is there are lots of different bits to it where people can wander around and kids can have adventures.
“My sons used to go digging for glass bottles in the wooded area known as ‘treasure island’.
“My sons also played golf on the former cricket pitch because it was safer to do it there than near Willow Lane where windows could get broken. Local people from the Marsh used the land a lot – sometimes it was quite busy! There were lot of dog walkers, and picnickers in the summer.
“It was a lovely and peaceful green space.”
Julie Hurtley visited Freeman’s Wood with her children and remembers seeing many wonderful animals and birds including grouse, owls, woodpeckers, hedgehogs, fieldmice, rabbits and roe deer including a “glorious stag”.
Around 2001, Julie says, her son aged 13 helped to build the BMX ramps in Freeman’s Wood.
She said: “Jimmy Doherty, sadly now deceased, with his small sons and local children, spent many hours building and maintaining the ramps.
“He made sure there was something for all children’s abilities and ages.
“The children got a great deal out of this project – working together. I am very proud that my son played a big part in making the Freeman’s Wood ramps.
“Sadly, the ramps were destroyed when the fence went up.”
Sandra Greaves of Willow Lane said: “I’ve been using that land since I was a kid - for over 50 years.
“There used to be football and cricket taking place. We played cowboys and Indians on there.”
Former Steiner teacher Denise Randall used Freeman’s Wood for Class 1’s weekly nature walk. She said: “The area was a wonderful resource.
“The children learned about wildlife and flora in interactive ways and had the feeling of being in a “wild space”.
“It was great for them to run around and play in this cleared area.
“They learned about trees, leaves, bugs, rabbits, mice and birds and edible berries and fruits that could be harvested.
“We collected leaves and seeds for display, nature study, science and craft.
“It was a lovely place to just sit and watch and listen and to point out birds such as jays and woodpeckers, with herons, swans and geese flying overhead.”
Jon said the determination and commitment of local people has been inspiring in the fight to preserve Freeman’s Wood.
He added: “The Public Inquiry gives us a great opportunity to prove that this land has been used by many local people for wide variety of purposes.
“Not only has the community provided us with high-quality evidence, but they have also raised over £17,000 since January in order to pay for a barrister.
“Armed with legal expertise and a wealth of local support, I am confident we have a very strong case.”
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