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Vicar Seeks Reopening of Ash Ranges for ‘Views That Uplift and Inspire’

Published on: 7 Dec, 2020
Updated on: 9 Dec, 2020

The Rev’d Neil Lambert with campaign spokesman James Morgan-Yates

By David Reading

A mass protest outside the main gates of the Ash Ranges has been hailed an unqualified success by the organisers.

Almost 100 local people, including families with children, turned up to voice their opposition after the Ministry of Defence closed a large part of the ranges used for public recreation for nearly 170 years.

The highlight of the peaceful demonstration was a service of prayer conducted by the Rev’d Neil Lambert, vicar of St Mary’s, Ash Vale.

In March this year, the MoD closed 12 per cent of the range, saying they had serious concerns about public safety and vandalism. The residents have been battling to overturn that decision, putting pressure on the MoD, Surrey Heath MP Michael Gove and Ash Parish Council.

A post on the campaigners’ website says: “Our MP, Michael Gove, has sat on the fence rather than help the constituents who voted for him to have a seat in parliament, and our local councillors continue to operate in a shroud of secrecy and promise attendance at meetings, only to send apologies on the day.”

Campaigners line up to join the protest. Close grouping was discouraged and face masks were compulsory.

The campaigners’ spokesman, James Morgan-Yates, said: “The event was a total success. The number of people who turned out on a cold Saturday afternoon far exceeded what I was expecting. We had more than 100 people showing their support for the campaign.

“The Rev’d Lambert’s service was great. To top it off we had an MoD policeman hiding behind the gatehouse. Unfortunately, he refused to come and say hello. My experience of the police has always been that they want to interact with the public. I guess he was acting in accordance with MoD policy, refusing to converse with the public.

A picture of Nigel Manning, chairman of Ash Parish Council, was tied to the gates of the ranges to express the campaigners’ frustration with the council.

“Three members of Guildford Borough Council, Caroline Reeves, James Steel and David Reeve, all Lib Dem councillors from town wards, were present, but none from Ash Parish Council, despite being invited.”

Protesters were invited to express their feelings by tying photographs depicting people’s enjoyment of the ranges on the main gate.

During the service, the vicar spoke passionately and with good humour.

The Rev’d Neil Lambert, vicar of Ash Vale, preached from a makeshift altar.

Afterwards, he said: “Ash Ranges have long been a place not just for physical recreation and emotional rest, but also for spiritual wellbeing.

“As a vicar, I see people who are bereaved, lost, heartbroken or seeking, and it is for them in particular that I want to defend this important local space, as well as for the community as a whole.

“Often I speak with people who are spiritually lost, not sure what they believe, and may not even say they have a faith, but they pray in their own way when they are in nature, and appreciate creation for the glorious thing that it is, finding healing, solace, joy and peace in the great outdoors.

Protestors listening to the Rev’d Neil Lambert, vicar of Ash Vale.

“There are places here that have been families’ favourite walks for generations, that really mean something, spaces that lend themselves to prayerful walks, views that uplift and inspire, exceptionally beautiful places that are accessible to those with disabilities who can’t otherwise get out. This is what I am defending.”

He added: “The Church has long been called to be a voice for the voiceless, and to stand up for those who are being unfairly treated. I hope that by standing with the people of Ash Vale and the surrounding areas, our local church can help the people to be heard and make a real difference.”

A statement from Surrey Area Ramblers read: “The people who lose out most are local leisure walkers. People living in Ash Vale who just want a short walk, either through reasons of fitness or of time, are now denied the opportunity.

Children made it clear what the closure means to them

“The action by the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (of the MoD) is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. We will be lobbying MPs in Surrey and beyond for an outcome that better balances the concerns of the MoD with the enormous amenity value of this part of the ranges.”

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