Britain's Footpaths and Bridleways are an essential part of our history.
Help keep them open for country walks
The original lines of Britain's ancient pathways should be preserved, not only that we might find access to the heart of our countryside, but so that we might do so in the footsteps of our ancestors. Britain’s network of public footpaths and bridleways might be eccentric to the bureaucratic eye, but it does serve a good purpose as a way of accessing the land without trespassing.
We are fortunate that there are so many footpaths and bridleways - the first the domain of walkers only, the latter that of walkers, cyclists and horse riders. These are now marked on the Ordnance Survey maps and on the Definitive Maps of rights of way kept by local authorities. They are, in law, part of the Queen’s Highway, just the same as a country lane, urban road or motorway. But our right of way network is probably the most undervalued, certainly the most underfunded, recreational resource in Britain, given that it is open to all.
These paths offer excitement and adventure, often hidden behind a stile or shooting gate. In a delightful little essay on footpaths, the Victorian country writer Richard Jefferies entices us in the exploration of these old paths ‘always get over a stile’ is the one rule that should be borne in mind by those who wish to see the land as it really is - that is to say, never omit to explore a footpath, for never was there a footpath yet which did not pass something of interest.”
How did such a delightful and often quirky network of paths come about? Fortunately these old routes were not designed by bureaucrats emerging with, at best, the tacit approval of landowners. Paths were forged around our landscape by people, which is why we have ancient ridgeways across the landscape’s highest ground, mostly in use for thousands of years. Routes were defined by the need to avoid marsh and dense woodland. Here are the ways taken by our prehistoric ancestors as they journeyed for trade with neighbouring tribes or to the sea in search of salt. In the centuries that followed the ridgeways facilitated the movement of armies. In Saxon times Alfred the Great defeated the Danish invaders by his knowledge of paths that were aged even in his time. Drovers moved their animals to market along these wild and lonely drove routes, their fires burning like beacons in the night as they rested at traditional stopping places. To follow a ridgeway, as many walkers and riders do today, is to walk in the very footsteps of British history.
We have paths that follow the sections of Roman roads bypassed by modern roadmenders, green lanes wind through our forests and pastoral landscapes, some sunk deep into hollow ways with the tread of generations of passers-by. In the vicinity of towns and villages might be found the paths along which our rural ancestors travelled to church or local markets. Here are the wider ways that once echoed to the horns of stage coaches in those heady days before motor traffic demanded straighter routes. Such paths are an important part of our social heritage and should never be taken for granted. They are as much a part of Britain’s story as our village churches and prehistoric monuments.
Yet there are those who want this quaint and important network sanitised, revised and destroyed. Some landowners remain hostile to these outlets for recreation and access. Landowning organisations persist in seeking to have the rights of way network “rationalised”. Council bureaucrats seek to stamp their unimaginative control over the idea of any paths that do not fit into their brief of easily-controlled and inexpensive “recreational routes”. Why, they argue, would anyone really want to walk the way that local people went to church, or in the footsteps of medieval pilgrims or cattle drovers? Why not straighten the paths, divert them round the edges of the fields they pass through and steer them away from farming hamlets? Why not close some paths altogether?
These arguments should always be resisted. We should no more tolerate the destruction of our historic rights of way network than we would the crashing down of Stonehenge or the Tower of London. Do we really want to be the last generation capable of walking in the footsteps of our ancestors? It is the duty of all of us to preserve Britain's rights of way network for future generations.
You can help to keep open this wonderful network of footpaths and bridleways. Please walk our paths as often as possible, reporting any problems to your local council. Support the work of the Ramblers and the Open Spaces Society - they always need volunteers. Oppose path closures and diversions that are not in the best interests of walkers. Tell your Member of Parliament and local councillors that money spent on paths is beneficial to the local economy, as it attracts walkers to your area.
Let me know of any public rights of way blocked or under threat in your area.
Click on the Contact Me page to get in touch with news, information, etc.
Seek Out and Save Our "Lost" Paths
Did you know that many old country paths, some very well used but not recorded on the Definitive Map, will be lost for ever after 2026 unless they are claimed now?
This was decreed in the worst clause of the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act.
After 2026, all of these old paths will be extinguished, become private property with walkers and riders banned. Once this happens, there will be no chance of getting any of them back.
Now, 2026 might seem a long way away, but it is nothing in the scale of time it takes to get these paths recorded as either footpaths or bridleways on local Definitive Maps.
So now is the time to take action. Please think of your own immediate neighbourhood, look at paths and tracks which are not currently on the map, but which are clearly used. These may be field paths, green lanes, walks through woodlands and across open countryside. Dig out your Ordnance Survey maps and look for paths and tracks that are not marked as public rights of way. Seek out these lost paths in your favourite walking areas.
Send all information, including photocopies of maps if possible, to the secretary or footpaths officer of your local group of the Ramblers (addresses on their websites) or to the Ramblers head office (address below).
Please do everything you can to help today, to save these lovely old tracks from annihilation. Recording and saving these old paths before they become lost paths is a project crying out for volunteers.
The Ramblers 2nd Floor Camelford House, 87-90 Albert Embankment
London SE1 7TW, UK
Tel +44 (0)20 7339 8500
Fax +44 (0)20 7339 8501
I admit, it had never been claimed as a right of way, though it should have been. But generations of people used it, strolled down its few dozen yards to enjoy the high Devon hedgerows and the lovely views.
People enjoyed walking its pleasant length. They did no harm by walking that way.
Until recently there was a gate.
But last Sunday, when I walked that way, a high fence topped by barbed wire – that ugly symbol of the British countryside – had replaced the gate.
Such is the way we are losing many of the routes our ancestors strolled.
The threat to public paths and YOUR right to walk in our countryside is under the greatest threat for a generation. Below is a press release from the Open Spaces Society. If you love walking and our countryside please do join the OSS and the Ramblers. Your Country Needs You!
LANDOWNERS PLAN PUBLIC-PATH GRAB
The Open Spaces Society,(1) Britain’s oldest national conservation body, has condemned the Country Land and Business Association’s (CLA) plans for public paths as ‘an attack on our historic path heritage’. The society was responding to the CLA’s report The Right Way Forward published today (23 February).
Says Kate Ashbrook, the society’s general secretary: ‘The CLA’s talk about “modernising” the access system is a lightly-veiled promotion of their own selfish interests.
‘The CLA wants landowners to have powers to move ancient highways when it suits them, away from farmyards, gardens or businesses. There is no mention that paths were there long before these modern activities. It’s the activity which should accommodate the path, not the other way round.
‘Our paths have existed since time immemorial. Yet too many are abused by cropping, ploughing and obstruction, all too often by landowners and their tenants. The CLA is big on what the local councils and path users should do—signposting, waymarking, good behaviour, etc. It doesn’t mention landowners’ bad behaviour in blocking paths, planting crops on them, and intimidating users with big gates and CCTV cameras.
‘The CLA advocates permissive rather than legal paths but these flexi-paths are not in the public interest. People need to be certain of where they can go; in other words, the path must be a public highway. Then they know it can’t be stopped up or moved without due process, and that the highway authority has a duty to maintain it. Permissive paths can come and go with no protection. They may suit landowners but not the users.
‘The CLA wants a fixed width for the myriad of paths with no defined width—but the CLA’s proposed widths are mean. Users need the space to pass each other comfortably and not be squeezed up against barbed-wire fence or sprouting hedge.
‘The CLA reneges on an agreement it reached with other interests only two years ago. It calls for an immediate halt to claims for ancient paths, revoking the age-old rule “Once a highway always a highway”. Yet it signed an agreement with users and local authorities [Stepping Forward] which called on government to introduce measures to simplify and speed up the process for claiming paths. Ministers are still considering these, and must implement the proposals before there can be any halt to the opportunity for the public to claim ancient routes for the map.
‘The CLA uses weasel words like “simplifying” and “modernising” the system. But most of their proposals cut the protection which the system provides to the users.
‘What we need is for landowners to respect public paths, and acknowledge that the paths were there first, and for government and local authorities to recognise the immense public, health and economic benefits of the path network and to invest in it, in the interests of all,’ says Kate.
Notes for editors
1. The Open Spaces Society was founded in 1865 and is Britain’s oldest national conservation body. It campaigns to protect common land, village greens, open spaces and public paths, and people’s right to enjoy them, throughout England and Wales. www.oss.org.uk
The Open Spaces Society
25A Bell Street
Henley-on-Thames RG9 2BA
The Open Spaces Society is a registered charity (no 1144840) and a company limited by guarantee, registered in England & Wales (no 7846516).
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The Open Spaces Society in your will
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Public Paths Mean Money
The Country Land and Business Association need a lesson in basic economics with their plans to rationalise our public paths network.
For if their ridiculous strategy ever came to fruition, they would severely damage the very rural economy they claim to be representing.
Walking in the countryside is Britain’s biggest participant activity, bringing more money into hard-pressed rural communities than other recreation. Without the presence of walkers, pubs, shops, hotels, gear shops, bed and breakfast establishments etc. would suffer a major financial hit – many would close. Unemployment would increase in rural areas where there are few other jobs.
Walkers put billions of pounds into Britain’s economy every year. Taking that away would lead to a massive recession for countryside businesses.
Take away the wonderful British path network and why would the ramblers continue to visit the countryside? Forced on to walkers “motorways” - paths designed by bureaucrats rather than by the evolution of history, forced on to busy roads perhaps? Historical routes lost for ever?
It would cause the death of country walking as we know it.
Real rural businesses should tell the CLA to get lost!