Who owns our rich national heritage?
The Ramblers’ Association has recently been inundated with a flurry of reports filed by veteran ramblers complaining about the sudden closure of pathways in the open countryside, which they clearly recall as having been “Crown Colony Property” during the British period. Many of these pathways, which for generations had been used by farmers, goatherds and other humble farming folk, still lead to historical and archaeological sites such as Bronze Age villages and mediaeval settlements, tangible structures that are an essential part of our national heritage. In all honesty, after years of controversy, I humbly ask: Have we as Maltese citizens, supposedly heirs of these sites, lost this inheritance?
In many European countries, pathways become automatically “rights of way” when it can be proved that they had been used by generations of villagers as “green lanes” to access their church, market or communal services. In this regard, local councils play a major role and share the responsibility to ensure that nobody impedes their use.
In England, parts of the “Pennine Way”, which I trekked in my days of youth, originated in mediaeval times. Others, like the Ridge Way that stretches from sleepy Wiltshire to the lush greenery of Buckinghamshire, date back to pre-history.
In our dear little island, who owns acknowledged public paths handed over to us by the British and which had previously belonged to the Knights of St John? The non-existence of a definitive map of the Maltese islands, despite our impassioned pleas for one, gives massive advantages to presumed land owners, a situation that cannot be tolerated any longer as ramblers have to face increased hostility and intimidation. Unless immediate steps are taken to restore to the Maltese citizens the rights of past generations there will be social friction as ramblers and nature lovers are hampered and obstructed in their pursuit of a better quality of life.
There is a wealth of documents at the perfectly preserved National Archives in Rabat relating to government properties in rural areas, particularly The Descriptive Plans Of The Crown Property In Malta And Its Dependencies, and we expect more than lip-service to our pleas for a sense of direction.
The Ramblers’ Association can proudly reveal it was instrumental in giving back to the public picturesque Munxar Point in St Thomas Bay, Marsascala. It managed to rally enthusiastic support from the local council and, by carrying out meticulous documentary research proving that pathways running along this promontory were military property and, consequently, they belong to the state. But the association has neither the means nor the personnel to embark on this laborious task for the Maltese islands.
In the light of the above, there are many queries about the ownership of the pathways in Is-Simblija, that idyllic and iconic agricultural zone limits of Dingli. Is-Simblija is considered by mediaevalists as a hamlet that encapsulates mediaeval life complete with chapel, communal flour-mill, bakery and other amenities for the mediaeval farming community in Wied ir-Rum and the surrounding area. It is a priceless jewel of our tangible mediaeval heritage, professionally and beautifully restored about a decade ago by the government, assisted by EU funds as part of the Aramis Project (Arab mills and irrigation systems).
It is also an essential element of our intangible legacy as this was land confiscated by the Order of St John from a Maltese hero, Giuseppe (Mattew) Callus. Is-Simblija, which also incorporated the mediaeval chapel of Sta Maria ta’ Callus, was subsequently administered by the Venerable Assembly of the Conventual Church of the Order (Veneranda Assemblea), hence Is-Simblija.
A high-powered international conference addressed by academic and erudite professors, focusing mainly on the historical, agricultural and social significance of this unique site was held at a St Julians hotel on February 8, 2003.
On the official opening of Is-Simblija settlement a commemorative plaque and a direction and explanatory map were displayed on site. Yet, on several occasions, members of our organisation have been turned away
In my opinion, the Maltese citizens as veritable heirs of this farming mediaeval community and have a birth right to access the public pathways of this communal site. Furthermore, a document dated October 14, 1621 states that “To the east, the territory was bordered in part by a public path and in part by the garden of Nardo Greg. On the south, it was bordered by a public path”. Regrettably, I could not identify exactly the location of these “public paths”.
While realising the uniqueness and fragility of Is-Simblija mediaeval settlement, I honestly feel this idyllic spot so generously blessed with rich cultural and historical heritage as well as great natural beauty should be carefully and sensitively shared by all, Maltese and visitors alike. It is high time for whoever is responsible to determine whether the paths and edifices that were recently skilfully repaired and restored by government funds, in collaboration with the European Commission through CNR (Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche), are accessible without any harassment.
The author is honorary president of the Ramblers’ Association.
Mr Joe Mallia