A furious row has erupted in Petworth after South Downs National Park volunteers ‘desecrated’ a holy spring which was believed to be a 16th century place of pilgrimage.
Chairman of Petworth Cottage Museum Gordon Stevenson discovered a 17m bridge being built across the footpath in front of Virgin Mary Spring: “The work is hideously unnecessary,” he said. “It is a waste of public money and it has desecrated a special site of historical and spiritual significance.
“Many people in Petworth traditionally see it as a place of pilgrimage, a holy place where the water is venerated and said to cure just about everything, especially eye complaints.”
“This is part of Petworth’s culture. It is a very meaningful place and I, like many have faith in the holy water.”
He said the Roman Catholic church still fetched its water from the spring and the parish church had an annual Patronal Festival walk to the spot which is set in woodland leading from Sheepdown Lane.
Mr Stevenson said volunteers told him they were building the walkway which consists of four sections, each 4.25m in length, because the path became boggy.
“It doesn’t get boggy there,” said Mr Stevenson, “the water from the spring comes out of a pipe in the bank and goes into a stone and brick basin and then an ancient drain takes the water underground and into the river. As long as the drain is working it’s fine. When it gets blocked with leaves, that’s when the water overflows from the well, but its very rare because people keep the drain clean.”
Miles Costello, a member of the Petworth Society added: “I am very unhappy about this. It seems to have been done without any consultation and without the feelings of local people being taken into consideration.”
Chairman of the society Peter Jerrome added: “I am personally horrified.”
A spokesman for the South Downs National Park Authority said: “The South Downs Volunteer Ranger Service helps partners across the national park on many different tasks. Our volunteers were asked to carry out this work by West Sussex County Council, who have responsibility for footpath maintenance, we understand this was at the request of a member of Petworth Town Council.”
West Sussex county councillor Janet Duncton said she did not believe the bridge was in keeping with the ‘natural and historically used path’.
She said she had contacted rights of way officers at the county council: “I am sure they acted with the best of intentions but now we must try to get it put right.
“My view is that this is not what is needed. Indeed my view is that nothing is needed on this path. It is the countryside after all and walkers surely expect to encounter some muddy patches.
“Let’s hope we can get a sensible conclusion for this very special corner of Petworth.”
Vice chairman of Petworth Town Council Roger Hanauer said: “We did have contact with the county council rights of way department regarding the state of the path. But it has never been flagged up at our open spaces committee that they intended to construct a bridge or anything of that nature. If it had been, I am convinced the sensitivity of this path and the spring would have been flagged up by committee members.
“This does seem to be overkill and we have asked anyone concerned to come to us and if necessary we will approach the county council to try and get the situation resolved. I applaud the efforts of volunteers but in this case it wasn’t thought through sensibly.”
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