Are any of your local footpaths in danger of becoming lost?

Sector Dartmoor Park Ranger Ella Briens with a new fingerpost sign that was part of a signposting project around Lydia Bridge, South Brent, earlier this year. © DNPA

By Mike Rego

The county of Devon has over 3,500 miles of footpaths and trails, comprising 3,108 miles of footpaths managed directly by Devon County Council and some 450 miles managed by Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA). Yet according to the Ramblers Association, there are at least another 49,000 miles of lost or missing footpaths in England and Wales, with over 9,000 miles in the South West of England. Devon has 2,949 miles of these, making it the top county in England and Wales for lost or missing footpaths.

This matters, because back in 1999, the Government proposed a new right of access on foot to certain types of land designed to create a new statutory right of access, which became known as the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. The Act incorporated modernisation of the public rights of way system, which includes bridleways and byways as well as footpaths. It also reinforced nature conservation legislation and management of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The major implication of the Act was that local authorities were required to produce a Rights of Way Improvement Plan for their area based on the needs of public use and landowners, and recorded on the Definitive Map which, in the case of Devon, is freely available online via the Devon CC website.

So far so good, but when the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was established in 1949 as a result of increasing interest in the countryside from environmentalists, naturalists and ramblers in the 1930s wanting greater access and more protection from urban development, every council and local authority was required to create a definitive map of all rights of way in their area. The task of identifying them was then devolved down to Parish Councils. Due to the sometimes arcane and lengthy legal processes that can be required to record a right of way, this work has never been finished, and still continues to this day. But under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, all footpaths, bridleways and byways created before 1949 cannot be recorded after 1st January, 2026, as the Definitive Map will then be closed to claims for further historical rights of way. (Existing rights of way cannot be removed.)

Whilst this is not a problem for much of Dartmoor, which is Open Access Land, towards the National Park boundaries and beyond, ‘in country’, it is potentially a much more important issue according to Andrew Watson, DNPA Head of Recreation, Access & Estates. The major problem arises from footpaths (and bridleways and minor tracks) that are still in regular use, or perhaps no longer in use but have had historical access as routes, but are not recorded on the current Definitive Map. If not recorded as rights of way on the Definitive Map after 2026, they will no longer be protected by law to provide access. In simple terms, this means that a landowner could legally build a wall or gate across a route or even plough it up and block access, even if it has been in regular use.

An additional problem relates to tourism and leisure use. Most footpaths date back to antiquity and are linear, from point A to point B. These perhaps began as animal trails, gradually evolving into hunting trails, then maybe with settlements developed adjacent to water crossings or prominent defensive points, leading to further trails connecting settlements, some becoming drovers’ routes for driving livestock to market, or perhaps leading to local significant landmarks, such as a church, a mine or a farmstead. But most leisure walkers typically want to start and finish at the same location, without having to resort to roads, particularly if walking with young children or dogs, or are not local and so reliant on car transport to reach a chosen location. The footpath network on and around Dartmoor National Park makes an important contribution to tourism the local rural economy. Whilst there are many excellent guidebooks to both Dartmoor and Devon featuring circular walks, many people prefer to determine their own walking routes, and a good network of accessible footpaths is essential to achieve this, but this could become increasingly difficult after 2026 if potentially connecting footpaths no longer have the legal status of being protected rights of way.

Rights of way in England and Wales are unique legally by comparison to most other countries, as they are legally classified as public highways, and so bridleways, byways and footpaths that are classified as such come under the same general legislation and protection of the Highways Act in the same way as do motorways, A-roads, B-roads and suburban roads.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Andrew Watson comments that access to footpaths has become increasingly important to our health and mental well-being, with the National Park seeing a significant increase in local public usage of established footpaths on and around the Moor particularly by children and dog walkers. Many people have had enforced leisure time and regular outdoor exercise has been seen as an effective way to relieve the monotony of Lockdown and reduced social interaction.

The Ramblers Association, Britain’s biggest walking charity, has been at the forefront of the drive to register as many footpaths as possible before the 2026 deadline and in February this year launched a mass ‘citizen geography’ project as part of their Don’t Lose Your Way campaign. So far the campaign has been highly successful, recruiting thousands of volunteers searching 154,000 one-kilometre map squares using the Ramblers’ bespoke online mapping site and finding over 49,000 miles of historic paths compared to initial estimates of only 10,000 miles, with more than a fifth – over 9,201 miles – in the South West.

Jack Cornish, the Ramblers’ Don’t Lose Your Way programme manager, states that: “The amazing response we had from the public to help us search for missing rights of way just goes to show what an important place our path network holds in the hearts of so many of us. By getting the most useful of these paths back on the map, we will not only be saving a little bit of our history, we’ll also be able to improve the existing network, creating new and better walking routes, enabling more of us to more easily enjoy the outdoors.”

In harmony with DNPA’s observations, recent research by the Ramblers found that following the initial COVID-19 lockdown in the spring, 60% of respondents to an online survey by YouGov Plc stated that more or better walking routes near where they live would improve their quality of life.

The Ramblers’ crowdfunding campaign received a major kickstart in the form of a generous contribution of £10,000 from Cotswold Outdoor which, as Jack Cornish states: “Recognises the huge benefits of being able to easily get outdoors and access nature”.

The Ramblers’ online mapping site, developed with the generous support of Ramblers Walking Holiday Trust and Don’t Lose Your Way, also supported by the People’s Postcode Lottery, is the starting point for volunteers, researching historic evidence and submitting applications to local authorities ahead of the 2026 deadline.

One local volunteer for the Ramblers is George Coles, aged 78, a retired director of a software company formerly of Bovey Tracey but now living overlooking the South West Coast Path In Brixham, and Chairman of the Dartmoor Way Steering Committee. Back in 2000, George and a walking companion, Michael Owen, tried walking the then 86-mile Dartmoor Way, but couldn’t find it on the ground because it wasn’t waymarked, despite EU funding to put it on the maps, so they went into the DNPA headquarters to raise the issue and walked out tasked with defining it. In 2020 the Dartmoor Way was waymarked and extended to 107 miles, complementing the 95-mile Dartmoor Way Cycle Route.

George joined the Ramblers Moorland Group thirty years ago, leading for them this year and in previous years, and until this summer was a regular walker with the group every Sunday typically walking some twelve miles, but admits that although he can still do the distance, the pace has become a bit much of late. For George, like many, walking is an escape from the routine and stresses of daily life, and he says that the recent COVID-19 restrictions clearly demonstrate the benefits of exercise and the pent-up demand for walking.

Whilst George is still actively walking, he is also involved in defining a lost footpath in the Holne Bridge area of Dartmoor that connects to Ausewell Wood, recently purchased by the National Trust and the Woodland Trust; currently not accessible by public right of way, and closed to public access for many years. George explains that whilst the Ramblers Association will be applying to have the original ‘lost’ footpath in this instance classified as a right of way it is by no means a simple process, but involves a lot of deskwork research rather than walking to unearth historical evidence from old maps, county record offices, historical documents, etc, for its existence and past usage. If required, the Ramblers Central Office can provide legal support for a submission, but normally the local Ramblers group will submit the application with all supporting documentation to the relevant county authorities for inclusion on the Definitive Map. The Ramblers Association are keen to stress that they do not wish to be combative in opening up rights of way simply for the sake of it, and strive to work in harmony with local landowners as well as potential users. Similarly, local authorities are not keen to open up old footpaths haphazardly, partly because of funding requirements, but also respecting the wishes of landowners.

Whilst Devon CC has responsibility for maintaining strategic cycleways such as the Granite Way and the Wray Valley Cycle trail, DNPA manages the rights of way within the National Park on behalf of Devon CC including permissive paths and works with the landowners from a current annual budget of some £43,000 to cover basic maintenance of gates, styles and finger posts as well as drains and any other infrastructure. No small task, this typically entails replacing over 100 finger posts a year, not to mention installation of new signage, all typically in timber so as to be in harmony with the protected environment of the National Park. DNPA also meets the cost of overheads for such as rangers, vehicles and contractors for tasks such as drainage installation and vegetation management, with assistance from voluntary wardens and local community groups, as well as receiving important contributions from the likes of Parish Councils, and volunteer groups such as the Ramblers Association and the British Horse Society.

Despite claims that the 2026 deadline was designed partly as a money saving exercise, it has actually increased the burden on local authorities but it does give a degree of certainty to the public and landowners, as well as protection if owning or buying a parcel of land – the land management may not always work in harmony with the attendant rights and access that a right of way entails. Discovery of an ancient footpath being considered for inclusion as a right of way on the Definitive Map could render the land impracticable for certain farming practices and lower the land value, as well as increase the liability insurance and funding requirements for land management.

Once a right of way is established, the land owner has a duty of care to the public using it and is responsible for the general maintenance and keeping it open, essentially in a partnership with DNPA and the Rangers to ensure access is maintained. In the case of Dartmoor National Park, the local rangers are essentially the go-betweens in negotiations between the landowner, the local community and the DNPA in trying to match the needs of the landowner with that of the general public. However, landowners do also need to recognise that the land has a right of public access, and to this end within the National Park, DNPA do work in conjunction to provide gates and signage to maintain a network with easy access. With an increasingly older population, this may involve replacing styles with gates to improve general access.

Devon CC are usually receptive also to pleas for help with funding, contributing to overheads as well as material costs. Andrew Watson of DNPA states that whilst volunteers are always appreciated, in the case of lost footpaths within the National Park to be considered for inclusion on the definitive map, the best approach is to take on the project through the Ramblers Association, which is spearheading the campaign to meet the 2026 deadline. Recognising that it can be a lengthy process to evaluate applications for inclusion on the Definitive Map as a public right of way, applications submitted by the January 1st 2026 deadline will still be considered, even if they have not yet been accepted. The Ramblers Association, however, is also campaigning to have a further five year extension to the deadline, in the light of the additional ‘lost footpath’ miles that their volunteers have identified.

Sadly not every footpath user is always respectful of the land around the footpath. Regular or increased public access may inevitably lead to increased litter and disturbance to livestock and crops, and despite assistance with funding and maintenance, some land owners may not be keen to have a right of way in its historical position. In 2004 the singer Madonna and her husband Guy Ritchie fought with only partial success to prevent a large part of their 1,370 acre Ashcombe estate on the Dorset-Wiltshire border being declared ‘open country’, citing a lack of privacy with some of the land being too close to their mansion, despite already maintaining several pathways and a section of the Wessex Ridgeway across their estate.

2020 has been an unusual year, and one in which many people have re-discovered walking as a readily available and cheap form of exercise as well as a relief from the constraints of lockdown and social isolation. Many people have re-discovered the open countryside and their local footpaths, either defined public rights of way or otherwise. One man who has been working to promote the use of footpaths in general is Dan Raven-Ellison, a former geography teacher who describes himself as a guerrilla geographer and creative explorer.

Dan Raven-Ellison has started a new project called ‘Slow Ways’ to collaboratively create a network of 7,000+ walking routes that connect all of Great Britain’s cities, towns and villages. During the spring lockdown, 700 Slow Ways volunteers drafted over 7,000 Slow Ways routes connecting all of Britain’s towns, cities and thousands of villages. This will not be an overnight project as it requires checking over 100,000km of routes, but shared between 10,000 volunteers that is only 10km per person. The initial challenge is to actually walk, test, review, record and verify the draft Slow Way routes, using public footpaths and rights of way wherever possible.

The concept is quite simple, grounded by the principle that people should be able to walk reasonably directly, safely, easily and enjoyably between neighbouring settlements; people who like walking and want to get from A to B. People will then be able to use them to see family, meet friends, get to work or go on adventures, for both short and long distance journeys.

As stated on the Slow Ways website, it is being promoted as positive, timely, and important on several counts, particularly in today’s environment as ‘walking can improve health and wellbeing, be part of lifestyle changes that help tackle the climate and ecological emergencies, save people money, improve our environment and bring joy to people’s lives’.

You can find out more about Devon’s (and Dartmoor’s) public rights of way at the excellent Devon County Council online map viewer at https://www.devon.gov.uk/prow/interactive-map/ Not only do you have the option to view public rights of way and access lands interactively on the OS basemap down to a scale of 1:500, but one can also study environmental details such as air and water quality, geology, flood risks, even the historic environment including features such as protected offshore wrecks. Better still, a mobile friendly version of the public rights of way map may be downloaded to a mobile phone and the public rights of way data can also be downloaded to a PC for loading into other software such as Google Earth – enabling the tech-savvy to plan walks using public rights of way by uploading to a GPS or even a mobile phone with the appropriate app. The public rights of way map viewer may be accessed directly at: https://map.devon.gov.uk/dccviewer/MyLocalPaths/

Any problems on the public right of way network may be reported online via the Devon CC public right of way home page: https://www.devon.gov.uk/roadsandtransport/report-a-problem/map/map_src/prow/ or by calling the Devon CC Customer Service centre on 0345 155 1004.

To find out how many lost paths there are in your local area and to make a donation to help save them before they are lost forever, or to volunteer, visit the Ramblers’ website at: www.ramblers.org.uk/dontloseyourway

The Dartmoor National Park Authority website may be found at: https://www.dartmoor.gov.uk/home . Details of access and public rights of way may be found at: https://www.dartmoor.gov.uk/enjoy-dartmoor/outdoor-activities/walking/where-you-can-walk

The Dartmoor National Park Heritage Trails map shows public rights of way and access land along with heritage assets and suggested walks and trails, and the public can also submit their own walking routes for publication on the map: https://www.dartmoor.gov.uk/wildlife-and-heritage/heritage/heritage-trails Any problems on public rights of way within Dartmoor National Park relating to walking, cycling and horse riding may be reported online at: https://www.dartmoor.gov.uk/enjoy-dartmoor/outdoor-activities/report-a-path-problem

You can find out more about the Slow Ways project at: https://slowways.uk/ and more about Dan Raven-Ellison at: https://ravenellison.com/about/

Ross Tibbles

Author: Ross Tibbles

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