Britain's ancient footpaths could soon be lost forever

Campaigners have five years to record a sprawling network of paths – but the pandemic is thwarting their work.

Britain's ancient footpaths could soon be lost forever

Footpaths are a feature of the British landscape that millions use daily, but few think about twice.

In England and Wales, access to the vast majority of land is restricted. The public has access to some of these places via footpaths: an ancient network connecting the public to nature, the landscape and our predecessors on these islands.

These footpaths are now in danger. In 2000, the government passed the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act, requiring all paths to be recorded. The argument was that a legal record would provide certainty about where paths exist and allow local authorities to keep them in usable condition.

The reality is that, in five years’ time, many of these footpaths will be wiped off the map forever. Campaigners refer to it as “the Extinguishment”.  The deadline for footpaths to be recorded was set for 2026, and any footpath or bridleway created before 1949, which is not recorded on a “definitive” map, will at that point cease to legally exist.

Unless, that is, a member of the public comes to its rescue. With researchers estimating that every county has hundreds of unrecorded public rights of way, it is clear that a colossal task lies ahead.

With the extinguishment of these footpaths comes an enormous reduction in countryside access: while walkers in Scotland have a right to roam, the average person is considered a trespasser upon 92 percent of the English landscape. What freedoms do currently exist could be further restricted by the government's recent proposals to make trespassing a criminal, instead of a civil, offence.

The paths that crisscross the nation hint at a rich history which threatens to disappear with the paths themselves.

Throughout Britain’s past, paths have connected people to the land and each other. Some were created specifically for the exercise of power: the Romans built roads to move armies, while dykes were used to establish tribal boundaries throughout Anglo-Saxon times. Others were spiritual, including prehistoric processional avenues and the “grim roads” used to carry corpses to their final resting places. Many of these routes remain unchanged, a physical reminder of journeys past.

But the Enclosure Movement, which peaked around the late 18th century, changed the public’s relationship to the land forever. This was a legal process consolidating small landholdings into larger farms, shutting the public out from large swathes of the countryside. Later, the popularity of official walking environments, such as seaside promenades and public parks, represented a formalisation which culminated in the waymarked paths and 'open access' areas we have today.

The hurdles to save historic paths are not inconsiderable.

In 2001, the government attempted to tackle the mammoth task of recording missing paths by setting up Discovering Lost Ways. Given a £15m budget, the project was tasked with taking forward the government’s promise to complete definitive maps before 2026.

But a subsequent review found that this government-led mapping project was “not a practical proposition”, and Defra abandoned the work – leaving the task, instead, in the hands of the public.

One of the most prominent initiatives so far is the ‘Don’t Lose Your Way’ campaign, led by the Ramblers.

Last year, with the help of a few thousand volunteers, the walking charity conducted an online exercise comparing the current path network with definitive maps – a massive exercise in “spot the difference”, according to Jack Cornish, the organisation’s lead on historic paths. Through the comparison they discovered over 49,000 miles of potential lost rights of way, highlighting the extent of the challenge.

After identifying a lost path, the next step to saving it is to submit an application, alongside evidence of its historic use, to the local council.

Dr. Phil Wadey, Access and Bridleways Officer at the British Horse Society (BHS) is an expert on this process. He first became involved in access issues when he was 16-years-old, when he wrote to his council protesting the closure of a bridleway he rode regularly after school. “I’m 55 now, so I’ve been doing this for a long time,” he says.

Over the years, he has submitted hundreds of applications for lost paths. He is almost wholly responsible for the backlog in applications currently sitting with Hertfordshire’s council; he estimates that he is responsible for around three-quarters of the county’s 250 outstanding submissions.

But Hertfordshire is not the only county with a backlog. Wadey is concerned that, despite the looming deadline, the government has not granted additional funding to process applications, and councils are struggling to process them at the rate they are arriving. Campaigners are worried: although, in 2000, the government promised to process all applications made before the deadline, resources are already stretched thin.

In an attempt to alleviate the situation, Phil Wadey and Sarah Bucks wrote ‘Restoring the Record’, a book to help people write successful applications.

“We know that there are thousands of paths that need recording. So we thought if we wrote down our expertise and standardised the procedure, then it would be easier for people making applications, and also easier for the decisionmaker to assess applications quickly,” Wadey says.

Before the pandemic, Wadey and Bucks also ran in-person training days to teach useful path-saving skills, from reading ancient handwriting on tithe maps to building a persuasive argument from evidence.

But the pandemic has brought on another obstacle: the closure of record offices. This has prevented some of the research required to find and record lost paths, says Kate Ashbrook, General Secretary at Open Spaces Society.

Early this year, a petition to extend the deadline by ten years gained over 14,000 signatures: enough to ensure a government response, but not a debate in the House of Commons. While it is within the government’s power to extend the deadline, they are yet to do so: “It is very, very frustrating,” says Ashbrook.

However, not everyone supports an extension to the deadline, or even the recovery of lost paths.

The County Land and Business Association, which represents rural landowners across England and Wales, has suggested that the public already has quite enough footpaths to enjoy. “The danger in trying to recover ‘lost paths’ is not only the significant impact on already strained local authorities, but on our already-threatened wildlife and fragile ecosystems,” said its president, Mark Bridgeman, in a statement earlier this year.

Isabella Tree, British author and rewilder, expressed a similar sentiment in a Guardian article: she highlighted the “desperate dichotomy” that arose during lockdown, when the heightened demand for greenspace led to increased damage and disturbance to nature on her family’s rewilded estate in West Sussex.

Tree argued that Britain’s footpaths are in need of renewal, especially where paths connect urban areas to the countryside. She points out the irony of driving to get to a place where you can walk: “Where are the integrated footpath networks, green corridors, road bridges and cycle routes?”

‘Guerrilla geographer’ Daniel Raven-Ellison believes this question can be solved, at least in part, by his new initiative in partnership with OS Maps: Slow Ways.

Like the Ramblers’ Don’t Lose Your Way campaign, Slow Ways is a project to virtually map footpaths – but instead of recording historic footpaths, Slow Ways is creating a comprehensive map of the existing routes linking towns and cities.

The Slow Ways footpaths link around 2,500 settlements across Britain.

Raven-Ellison believes that this mapped network would benefit people’s health through increased walking, and also help to alleviate the climate crisis by removing cars from the road: “We should be able to walk between neighbouring settlements; and if we can’t, then something is probably wrong,” he says.

During the first lockdown, Slow Ways recruited 700 volunteers who, in the space of a single month, recorded 7,000 routes stretching for over 60,000 miles across the UK.

The power of collaboration, says Raven-Ellison, is not just that “many feet make light work”, but also in the diversity of opinions and values that go into the project: while most walking websites are great for the majority of people, some will need more detailed information about a route, from its physical barriers to the presence of livestock.

The next stage of Slow Ways is to test and review the routes that have been mapped; this stage of the project will officially launch once Covid restrictions lift.

Raven-Ellison, however, is most excited about the part that comes after that: “The final stage is really about the routes becoming established in all kinds of different ways,” he says. “How will artists and storytellers use them? Who will create the narratives around the routes, to make them part of our collective imagination and culture?”

At The Ramblers, Cornish has seen abundant examples of this creative potential in action. Although the majority of path applications use evidence such as tithe, enclosure and Inland Revenue maps, there is no limit to what evidence can be used; he has seen applications based on cinefilm from the fifties, old photographs, and even extracts from Virginia Woolf’s diaries.

“It’s amazing to see what happens when volunteers get the bit between their teeth,” Cornish says. “I think there’s something about leaving a legacy. Because these paths, in theory, will be there forever. It’s like the old saying about planting a tree; you’re doing it for the next generation.”

On your next walk, think about the footpath you are using. Is it officially recorded? If not, would you miss it, if it were gone?


Image credits: Olivier Rouge, Free-Photos, Eric Rayner, Slow Ways

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