Rod Johnson has walked around Ash Ranges all his life. On a few days each month, the ancient woodland is closed to the public so soldiers from Aldershot barracks can practise at the firing ranges.
But for half a century Johnson, like many residents of Ash Vale, has been able to walk the ranges when the red flags are down, showing the soldiers are elsewhere.
That changed last year when the Ministry of Defence’s Defence Infrastructure Organisation decided to permanently close the ranges to the public for the first time since the commons were granted to the armed forces in 1876, on the proviso that they remained open to the public when not in military use.
Now Johnson and other campaigners say the MoD has become increasingly heavy-handed in enforcing what they call an illegal closure.
Lo scorso mese, two military police officers turned up on the 76-year-old’s doorstep with a letter asking him to come to a police interview to discuss allegations of criminal damage to fencing around the ranges.
“I think they’re trying to scare us,” Johnson said. “It’s harassment.”
Other dog walkers and cyclists continue to use the closed-off area in defiance of the closure, and Peter Corns of the Save Our Spaces campaign says several have been approached by MoD marshals telling people they could be arrested for trespassing.
“I still walk my dogs on the ranges every day,” Johnson said. “I’ve walked the ranges since 1960. My girls cycled on the range road to school. I learned to ride a motorbike. People fly kites, they go tobogganing in the winter. The scouts, the guides, the brownies – they use it too.”
The allegation of criminal damage is galling for Johnson, since he has reported vandalism and fires he spotted while walking on the ranges.
The campaigners say they are baffled as to why the ranges have been shut. Two other firing ranges in the 1,400 hectare reserve, Stoney Castle and Henley Park, remain open, but they are further away and inaccessible for older and disabled people, including Johnson’s wife Heather, who uses a mobility scooter.
“I asked them if they could put a disabled gate in the fence for her to get through,” Johnson said. “If she had enough battery, we could make it along the roads for miles. Now she can’t get up here at all.”
The DIO built a path around the perimeter of the barbed wire fence, but it often floods and is too narrow for Heather to use.
The MoD has told the campaigners it is concerned about vandalism on the ranges, forcing training to be cancelled, and public safety.
“Vandalism has actually gone up since they closed the ranges,” Corns said. “There’s no one around to spot anything.”
The Ash Ranges reserve is just about visible from the top of Caesar’s Camp, on the other side of Aldershot. The iron age hill fort looms over Training Area B6, an area of bucolic beauty covered with gorse, bracken, heather and sundews that thrive in the sandy soil.
“Since lockdown started, the number of people coming here shot up,” said Simon Brown, who runs the Trail Action Group – mountain bikers who ride through the woods and heathland. “I can ride for about 50km without leaving the area.”
When the Parachute Regiment was based in Aldershot, soldiers would do lung-busting training runs in full kit and carrying a bergen, or backpack, as they ran to top of the steep slopes. Veterans still visit the place and often bring a stone for a cairn of remembrance for their comrades, Brown said. “I’ve been here all my life. We do a lot of education for riders – if you see soldiers, you turn around and go elsewhere. There’s always somewhere else to go. But the DIO seems to want nobody else here at all.”
Mountain bikers are occasionally given yellow warning notices that state they are breaching bylaws applying to Aldershot and could be arrested and fined. Cycling is not allowed under the bylaws, but Brown believes they are being wrongly applied.
"In 2019 we came to an agreement with the DIO about where we could ride," Egli ha detto. “But they have started trying to get rid of us again.”
The MoD has promised to review the bylaws for more than a decade, Brown said. He fears a review will lead to closure of the whole training area.
That would be a tragedy, Egli ha detto. “More than 11,000 people come here. It’s a place you can come to shed the baggage of life.”