As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have, because of the covid pandemic, been doing a lot of walking recently. As a result I have discovered a lot of public footpaths and bridleways in the immediate neighbourhood, some of which are much more well-trodden and accessible than others.
The one of the left only became visible after I hacked back the vegetation 🙂
I’ve always been an advocate of the “great outdoors” albeit, as a child, having to be occasionally chased outdoors by my parents when they thought I had been reading too much 🙂 There is plenty of evidence that contact with nature is good for our mental and physical health (e.g. Hartig et al., 2014; Shanahan et al., 2016; Lackey et al., 2018) and this had never been more evident since the global pandemic locked so many of us into restricted areas. I’m very lucky, I’m stuck in a small hamlet in a rural area of Staffordshire.
My walking area
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, walking in the countryside became a popular and inexpensive form of recreation for less well-off city dwellers. The popularity of this activity led to the formation of several local walking or ramblers groups. Access to the countryside was, however, frustrated by the activities of landowners who taking advantage of the Enclosure Act, fenced off their land and often took ramblers to court for trespass. In 1932, Benny Rothman, of the Young Communist League, frustrated by this, organised a mass trespass of Kinder Scout in the Peak District (regarded by the government as an act of civil disobedience). As a result this of this and with support from leading politicians of the day, a number of new public rights of way came into being, including, the, to me, iconic Pennine Way. More recently, the Country Side Rights of Way Act of 2000, has reinforced the concept of the right to roam and the UK now allows more access to the countryside than most countries of the World. Note that the Scandinavian countries are even more liberal when it comes to the freedom to roam, something that I was immensely grateful for when doing fieldwork in Finland, as I often found myself stumbling into someone’s back garden while hunting down bird cherry trees in the winter gloaming 🙂 We are fortunate in the UK, that there exists a well-mapped, and in many cases, well sign-posted, 260 000 km of public footpaths and bridleways available to use.
A well maintained example of public footpath ‘furniture’. The footpath itself in this case has not been reinstated by the farmer and is not very visible.
I suspect that most people, even those that use public footpaths and bridleways are unaware of who is responsible for
marinating (left this in so that Emily’s comment makes sense) managing this remarkable network, so here goes.
The Highway Authority (via the local council) and the landowner (or occupier) are the two bodies with the most responsibilities. Parish councils have some duties, but not all are compulsory and the people who use the paths and bridleways are also expected to follow some simple rules. I’ll go through what these are, one by one.
The Highway Authority via the local council must:
keep the surface of the public path network in good repair and control vegetation (other than crops) growing from it maintain bridges over natural water courses, including farm ditches
signpost rights of way from metalled roads and provide additional signs and waymarks as necessary along the route
protect the public’s right to use and enjoy rights of way
secure the removal of obstructions, including ensuring that paths over cultivated land are reinstated and marked out after they have been disturbed
ensure that there are no intimidating notices that would deter the public from any paths
As far as I can tell, although for example, Staffordshire County Council in which I live, has a department that deals with footpaths and bridleways, councils are not very proactive in any of the above, relying on members of the public to report any issues. For example, there are several signposts in the village in which I live that are in very poor condition, and yet in the seven years I have lived in it, the only ones that have been repaired are the ones that I have notified the council about. The take home message here is, don’t assume the council will do something about of their own bat, you need to report it, don’t assume that other users will. Even some of the most used paths in my area have broken stiles and when I logged on to the council site, I found that I was the first person to report them, despite some of them having been in disrepair for a couple of years.
provide a minimum 25% contribution towards any costs incurred by a landowner in maintaining stiles or gates on public rights of way
One of the formerly obstructed and broken stiles that I reported last year. Now much more usable.
Next, the landowners. According to the Staffordshire County Council web site, “The vast majority of landowners fulfil their legal duties to keep paths on their land open, safe and accessible by keeping routes clear and maintaining stiles and gates, but some don’t. The majority of the 2,000 calls we receive every year is about problems on private paths.” All I can say is that those of us living where I do are very unlucky in that the local farmers are either not aware of their responsibilities or are deliberately ignoring them. I have listed their duties below with a commentary base donmy personal experiences over the last eighteen months.
The landowner or occupier of land must:
keep rights of way clear of obstructions
Hollow laughter on my part!
cut back vegetation encroaching from the sides and overhanging the path, so that it does not inconvenience the public or prevent the line of the path from being apparent on the ground. (On bridleways, horse riders should be allowed 3 metres [10 feet] of headroom)
Again, not much signs of this – I take a pair of secateurs with me on my walks
ensure that all field-edge public paths are never cultivated
The two examples that I know and use, were both cultivated this year and the previous one
ensure that cross-field footpaths and bridleways are cultivated (i.e. ploughed or disturbed) only when it is not convenient to avoid them and are properly reinstated after disturbance
keep paths clear of crops to ensure that they do not inconvenience users
Not something I have seen in the local area – all reinstatement is done by users walking over the ploughed field. Our local landowners are not exactly the best “stewards of the countryside”.
Two examples of paths not reinstated after cultivation by the farmer – Luckily these are well used by me and others so soon became apparent.
maintain any stiles or gates on a public path in a safe condition
Again, ample evidence that landowners are not very proactive in doing what they are supposed to
ensure that bulls are not kept in a field crossed by a path unless they do not exceed 10 months old or are both not of a recognised dairy breed and are accompanied by cows or heifers
I’m not sure what they mean here by recognised dairy breed. Do they mean pedigree herds or just recognisable breeds? Many of the fields I crossed last year were stocked with dairy cattle accompanied by bulls. Also, several fields that I had to cross last year were stocked with fair sized bullocks, although they may have been under 10 months
ensure that any warning notices are displayed only when a bull is present in a field
I have seen no warning notices in the local area, not even for electrified fences
never keep any animal which is known to be aggressive in a field to which the public has access
I haven’t been chased yet, followed by curious bullocks, which can be a bit intimidating at times, but not chased. I do know that some of my neighbours with less agricultural experience than me, avoid using paths when the fields are full of livestock.
ensure that no misleading signs are placed near rights of way that might discourage access.
I am happy to report that I haven’t seen any of these in my area.
Another stakeholder with somewhat fewer duties, but with a very important role to play is youjr local Parish council. They can do any of the following.
maintain any footpath or bridleway within its area which is maintainable at public expense
I guess this will depend on their budget
erect lighting on any footpath or bridleway. Although the number of public paths likely to require lighting is small, lighting can be important on paths leading to a village or bus stop for example
erect notices, with the consent of the landowner, on or near a footpath or bridleway, warning of local dangers
create new footpaths and bridleways by agreement with the landowner over land in their own and adjoining parishes if satisfied that the creation would be beneficial to all or, any part of, the parish or community
This would be very useful and welcome
signpost and waymark public paths on behalf of, and with the consent of the highway authority. A highway authority can give permission for other persons such as parish councils to erect and maintain signposts on its behalf
Again this would be very useful and welcome in our area – I am, however, not sure if their budget could cover it.
provide seats and shelters at the side of public paths
These would be very welcome – so far none in our immediate area 🙂
You the user
Finally what about me and other users? As a user of public rights of way you have a duty to treat the pathways and surroundings with respect.
“The public’s right over a highway is a right of passage. Path users must keep strictly to the line of the path and must not loiter.
This one is a bit odd, does it mean that you shouldn’t have a picnic sitting on the actual path or stand still at a particular viewpoint?
On public rights of way, you can:
Take a pram, pushchair or wheelchair if practical
Take a dog (on a lead or under close control)
Dog owners are one of my bête noires. Thankfully most that I meet, either have their dogs on a lead or if not, hurriedly put one on. There are, however, a few whose definition of under close control, differs markedly for mine. I don’t consider dogs that rush up and jump up at you as being under control, no matter how much their owner tells you they are just being friendly. That also goes for those dogs that hurtle towards you and then run round and round you barking. It might also be nice if dog owners didn’t let their dogs defecate on the footpath but a good distance away from it. Some people bag it up, which as the bags are plastic is not that environmentally friendly, especially if they don’t actually take it home with them.
I often wonder about dog owners 😦
Take a short, reasonable detour to get round any illegal obstruction.”
Sometimes this latter instruction is not that easy especially as in one case the farmer had blocked the stile, with barbed wire so I had to try and find another way to regain the path which meant walking across some of his crops.
I have now found eight of these – while they may not have been public rights of way, they did once allow access to the fields. They are also, indicators of the way in which over the last fifty or sixty years, fields have been enlarged by the removal of interior hedges to cater for ever larger farm machinery.
Lines of trees such as those in the middle of fields are usually an indicator that there was once a hedge and that two fields have been combined into one larger field – hence the presence of defunct gates hidden inside roadside hedges.
Those gates that have survived have then had to be enlarged to cater for the larger machinery.
What can you do to help?
The UK government has set a deadline of 1 January 2026 for all historic paths to be registered for inclusion on official maps. You, as a footpath user can use existing paths and petition your local Parish Council or County Council for new paths to be registered. Very importantly, make sure that you report obstructions to existing paths when you come across them. Don’t expect others to do so, the more of us who report blocked paths and broken stiles, the more chance there is that they will be unblocked and repaired. Also go to your local council web site and download the footpath map of your local area. You will be surprised at how many there are, and how many have been hidden by the landowners. We need to make sure that these hidden gems are revealed.
If you want to protect and enhance our public footpath network, please consider joining the Slow Ways project, their aim is to create a network of walking routes that connect all of Great Britain’s towns and cities as well as thousands of villages. You can find out more here.
Enough writing, time to get out and do some walking.
Hartig, T., Mitchell, R., de Vries, S. & Frumkin, H. (2014) Nature and health, Annual Review of Public Health, 35, 207-228.
Hey, D. (2011). “Kinder Scout and the Legend of Mass Trespass” (PDF). Agricultural History Review, 59, 199-216.
Lackey, N.Q., Tysor, D.A., McNay, G.D., Joyner, L., Baker, K.H. & Hodge, C. (2019) Mental health benefits of nature-based recreation: a systematic review, Annals of Leisure Research,
Shanahan, D., Bush, R., Gaston, K., Lin, B.B., Dean, J., Barber, E. & Fuller, R.A. (2016) Health benefits from Nature experiences depend on dose. Scientific Reports, 6, 28551