CONTROVERSY surrounding a fenced-off piece of historical land in Ramsbottom has generated “a great deal of feeling” within the community, a public inquiry has been told.

The claim was made during Tuesday’s opening speech by Andrew Todd, president of Ramsbottom Heritage Society.

The society is spearheading a campaign to have Church Fields registered as a town or village green — an application which is being opposed by the land owners, Peel Investments (North).

At the beginning of the three-day inquiry at Ramsbottom Civic Hall, the public was told that the aim of the hearing was to effectively establish whether Church Fields, closed off by Peel in April, 2011, had been used “as of right” for sporting and leisure pursuits by a “significant number of inhabitants” for at least 20 years.

Inspector Alan Evans, who had earlier visited Church Fields on his own, said: “I will write a report summarising the evidence and submissions and at the end will recommend to the council to accept or reject the application.”

Bury Council will make the final decision.

Mr Todd said: “On the one hand, Ramsbottom Heritage Society contends that this site, central to the town of Ramsbottom, has been its communal open space for at least 200 years and valued as such because the 19th century core of this neighbourhood comprises terraced housing without gardens.

“Church Fields has, in the legal phrase, been used without force, without secrecy and without permission longer than anyone can remember.

"In contrast, Peel claim that his land has effectively been managed as part of a working farm until 2004, and at least since 1977.

"It has, they claim, been fenced, roped off, grazed and supervised on a daily basis throughout that period.

"And the intensity of this pastoral use has made any recreational use unlikely and unpermitted.”

On Tuesday, several witnesses gave evidence, taking issue with a statement from James Linton, the principal witness for Peel, that the land had been used for grazing between 1977 and 2004 and that trespass warning signs had been put up alongside a nearby public footpath.

Linda De Ruijter, of Earl Road, Ramsbottom, said she had walked on Church Fields daily with her dog between 1994 and 1998.

Asked if during that time she had witnessed any animals grazing, she said: “I have never seen any sign of horses.”

She said she was never challenged or stopped from using Church Fields or told she had to get permission.

“There was no one to ask. I assumed the land was there for everyone to use,” she said.

David Carroll, of Bolton Road West, Ramsbottom, said he had used Church Fields from 1967 to the present day, with a break between 1994 and 2001.

He said he never saw horses grazing or trespass signs.

“Everyone I knew used to congregate there,” he said Asked for his response after the land was fenced off, Mr Carroll replied: “I was a bit surprised and wondered who had done that and why.”

The inquiry is scheduled to finish today.