Britain's Rights of Way

Discovering your Local Footpaths

Posted by Mark Armstrong 18th February 2014

I recently finished reading Mike Parker's "The Wild Rover - a Blistering Journey along Britain's Footpaths", an enjoyable exploration of the history of land access and ownership through his own travels along Britain's footpaths. I will be exploring some its topics in our blogs over the coming months.

Britain has a network of rights of way through every landscape, connecting every town and village. There are 150,000 miles of off road rights of way with over 6,000 square miles of 'right to roam' access land.

In England and Wales public rights of way are paths on which the public have a legally protected right to pass and re-pass whereas in Scotland any route that meets certain conditions is defined as a right of way and there is a general presumption of access to the countryside.

These paths can take a variety of forms, stemming from their historical use and how they have been affected by man's changes to the environment through development of towns and roads. In England and Wales a public footpath is a path on which the public have a legally protected right to travel on foot. Public footpaths often form a dense network of short paths, offering a choice of routes to many different destinations. Most footpaths in the countryside are hundreds of years old. In creating our Wonders of Wessex Walk from Salisbury in Wiltshire to Shaftesbury in Dorset we came across, for example, a track that went from Chilmark to Ebbesbourne Wake and marked the boundary of Swallowcliffe parish, boundaries that seem to have changed little since they were described in 940. The walk included Buxbury Hollow and a path through the top of Swallowcliffe Wood, both marking the parish boundary.

Footpaths are shown as dashed green lines on Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 Explorer maps. But they have only been marked on OS maps for the last 50 years and less than that in their entirety. As Mike Parker puts it "The orange-covered Explorer maps...have become the walker's best friend, as they are at the smallest possible scale where field boundaries can be shown, an essential help on the many occasions when the dotted line on the map refuses to reveal itself on the ground." Many paths will criss-cross fields where ploughing will instantly remove any signs of previous walkers' footprints.

In his book, Parker tells us of a time when he decided to do an audit of the state of the rights of way by walking the paths covered by a circle of 3 miles radius from where he lived. Despite the fact that he had walking his dog every day for nearly a decade, he discovered footpaths and bridleways that he'd never seen before: "There were old holloways and green lanes, paths bumping down through woods and tell-tale darker lines of grass winding their way across fields that I'd never clapped eyes on before. It was nothing short of thrilling." Within 3 miles of his back door he had walked nearly 70 miles of rights of way: "I found lakes, woods, views and neighbours that I never knew existed."

At High Point Holidays we plan out our self-guided walking holidays, so you get the combination of the thrill of discovery with the guidance to take you on the rights of way that do justice to the surroundings.

The right of access on a public footpath normally only extends to walking, whereas a public bridleway is a way over which the public have right to also travel on horseback or to lead a horse. These are shown as long green dashes on OS Explorer maps. Byways, however, are tracks over which the public have a right to travel by vehicle but which is used by the public mainly for the purpose for which footpaths and bridleways are used. The public's rights along a restricted byway are to travel either on foot; on horseback or leading a horse; or by any means (e.g. bicycles) other than mechanically propelled vehicles (e.g. cars.) There are also permissive pathswhich aren't public rights of way, but whose use by the public is allowed by the landowner.

On our Wonders of Wessex walking holiday you will come across all of these types of rights of way. Helping to create this holiday was a good way for me to discover and re-discover some of the landscape close to my childhood home.

If you are keen to start walking more, in 'The Wild Rover' Mike Parker's suggests having "a look at the map of your own back yard and, unless you live in the middle of a big city, there will be dozens of rights of way too within your own 3 mile radius."

Another great idea that comes from his year of travelling the UK is being dropped off 3 days away from home, and then just walking back. "Beg a lift, take the train or bus, and land 2 or 3 days' walk away from home. Turn back, and start walking. Stay in a B&B only ten miles from your front door. See your own back yard in a completely new context. It's the ultimate staycation - and a great way of realising too that for a good walk, you really don't need that much Stuff."

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Wild Rover

Buxbury Hollow

swallowcliffe wood

Public Footpath

Restricted Byway

Permissive Access

Permissive Access Wiltshire Downs

Byway Ox Drove