Walking, Rights & Ways

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Going for an unremarkable walk in the English countryside has a lot in common with other old British freedoms. Everyone swears by it, though no one knows quite how it works. Photograph by Education Images / UIG / Getty

As someone who walks 5-10 miles most days, I am always looking for new things to think about, or to pay attention to during my walking. In the olden days I was left to my own thoughts and in recent days I am podcast-fueled. But some days I resist the earbuds and instead focus thought on a particular thing. One of my favorite pathways through the mountains where we live was fenced off in recent years, which already was on my mind before reading the article below. And I love the idea of an unremarkable walk, which my daily walks are, except that I have gotten to know most of the families who live in the mountains near us only by walking and having the chance to say hello. Which is a remarkable side benefit of trying to live now without owning a car. Thanks to Sam Knight for this other perspective on how to think about this thing:

The Search for England’s Forgotten Footpaths

Nineteen years ago, the British government passed one of its periodic laws to manage how people move through the countryside. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act created a new “right to roam” on common land, opening up three million acres of mountains and moor, heath and down, to cyclists, climbers, and dog walkers. It also set an ambitious goal: to record every public path crisscrossing England and Wales by January 1, 2026. The British Isles have been walked for a long time. They have been mapped, and mapped again, for centuries. But that does not mean that everything adds up, or makes sense. Between them, England and Wales have around a hundred and forty thousand miles of footpaths, of which around ten per cent are impassable at any time, with another ten thousand miles that are thought to have dropped off maps or otherwise misplaced. Finding them all again is like reconstructing the roots of a tree. In 2004, a government project, named Discovering Lost Ways, was given a fifteen-million-pound budget to solve the problem. It ended four years later, overwhelmed. “Lost Footpaths to Stay Lost,” the Daily Telegraph reported. Since then, despite the apparent impossibility of the task, the 2026 cutoff has remained on the statute books, leaving the job of finding and logging the nation’s forgotten paths to walkers, horse people, and other obsessives who can’t abide the muddled situation.

A couple of days into the New Year, with the deadline now only seven years off, I met Bob Fraser, a retired highway engineer, in a parking lot a few miles outside Truro, in Cornwall, in the far west of England. Fraser grew up in Cornwall and returned about thirty years ago, which is when he noticed that many footpaths were inaccessible or ended for no reason. “I suppose that got me interested in trying to get the problem sorted out,” he said. Since he retired, seven years ago, Fraser has been researching and walking more or less full time; in the past three years, he has applied to reinstate sixteen lost paths. Fraser is a member of the Ramblers, the United Kingdom’s largest walking organization, and we were joined by Jack Cornish, who is in charge of the group’s Don’t Lose Your Way campaign. Cornwall is thought to be missing around two thousand public routes of one sort or another, and Fraser, who has a white beard, a quiet manner, and an easy, nimble gait, planned to show us a few he was working on. It was a flat, gray afternoon. Fraser led the way out of the parking lot, which faced a large sofa store, and onto the edge of a busy road.

Going for an unremarkable walk in the English countryside—damp hedges, a church, the smell of wood smoke—has a lot in common with other old British freedoms. Everyone swears by it, though no one knows quite how it works. (Nearly all land in the U.K. is privately owned, but public paths cut across it.) The practice is fiercely held but lightly talked about. Nobody “hikes.” The Ramblers date their history to 1931, the year before five hundred people defied the law to walk on Kinder Scout, a moorland plateau in the Peak District, which had been reserved for grouse shooting. The Kinder Scout protest led to the creation of Britain’s national parks. The law that established the first parks, in 1949, also called for the drawing up of so-called definitive maps, on which every parish in England and Wales was asked to record all the footpaths, bridleways (wide enough for a horse), and “roads used as a path” (cart tracks, more or less) within its borders. In Cornwall, according to Fraser, the process involved cutting up a map of the county into two hundred and twenty pieces. “What they didn’t do was put all the maps back together,” he said. Parishes perceived their paths differently, meaning that many footpaths across Cornwall now stop inexplicably between villages.

Other tracks were not designated as anything at all. A few minutes into our walk, Fraser showed us a battered tarmac path leading off to a house and a few fields that was marked on the map as an ambiguous white line. “Is this a road?” I asked. Fraser breathed in deeply. “Well,” he said. Cornish stared down the track, too. “Well,” he said. “Who knows?”

In England, public paths are made by walking them. You can make a new, legally recognized footpath by simply treading up and down it, with a few friends, for a period of twenty years. Paths that weren’t recorded properly in the fifties have suffered the same fate in reverse. “Cross-field paths are a classic,” Cornish said. Most people who have attempted to walk across farmland in England are familiar with the experience of climbing over a stile into a plowed field, or rows of head-high corn, and having no idea where to go next. If a path isn’t labelled clearly on a map, or walked much, then landowners can be tempted to further confuse the situation, leaving the odd tangle of barbed wire, or a homemade sign, lending the route what Fraser described as “a private feel.” Until 2026, any public path can be reinstated, as long as there is documentary evidence that it used to exist. But, after the deadline, old maps and memories won’t matter any more. “This is a one-shot thing, really,” Cornish said. “So we need to make sure we do it right.”

Retrieving a lost path requires a certain cussedness. At a turn in the road, Fraser indicated a narrow opening between two hedges. Over time, the road had been built up over a culvert, leaving the ground on either side several feet lower. Fraser scrambled down and headed into the gap. Holly snagged at our coats. “We are most unlikely to be stopped,” he said. “But, if we are, we will just . . . leave.” The shape of the old path, which was probably used for herding animals, was visible ahead of us, lined with sycamore trees. It is part of a network of lost farm tracks that Fraser is trying to save, which he called the Maze.

Until last year, when Fraser applied for the path to be recorded, the owner of a nearby house had a gate across it, which was now gone. When you attempt to open an old path, you have to inform landowners who might be affected. “He said, ‘You’re just a troublemaker, you are,’ ” Fraser recalled. “And he stanked off.” “Stank” is a Cornish word for walk. Britain’s byways have their own language, too. One of the best sources for lost paths are old maps of the countryside made for tax purposes. Public rights of way show up between parcels of land called “hereditaments.” A valid claim to reinstate a lost path is known as “a reasonable allegation.” Campaigners refer to the 2026 deadline as the Extinguishment…

Read the whole article here.

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