Walk on the wild side

Res­cu­ing for­got­ten foot­paths

The Guardian - G2 - - Front Page - By Kevin Rushby

Paul How­land is stand­ing in a bed of net­tles, his head sur­rounded by a halo of dusky-blue sloes. Be­hind him is an im­pen­e­tra­ble tan­gle of un­der­growth, self-seeded trees and – I peer more closely – what looks like the long-dis­carded parts of a ve­hi­cle. “The old path went up here,” he says, wav­ing his walk­ing pole fur­ther into the thicket. “I first spot­ted it on Milne’s county map of Hamp­shire from 1791.”

I glance back to where we have come from: a straight, well-trod­den foot­path that had at times dipped into a deep, tree-lined hol­low where I’d picked up earth­ball mush­rooms and empty snail shells.

How­land emerges from the net­tles and shows me an im­age on his phone. “This is Green­wood’s 1826 county map and you can see the path. It was called the Mark­way and goes straight up to this line – now the A30 road. But com­pare that with the cur­rent Ord­nance Sur­vey map.” He un­folds a pa­per map and points to our po­si­tion.

“In­stead of go­ing straight, the foot­path turns hard left at this point and heads back to­wards An­dover. What we have here is a miss­ing mile to a for­got­ten right of way – and a very use­ful miss­ing mile, be­cause it links to other foot­paths.”

Eng­land and Wales have about 140,000 miles of foot­paths, but there are an es­ti­mated 10,000 more that have been lost from cur­rent maps. Even that fig­ure looks like a huge un­der­es­ti­mate: a re­cent sur­vey in Cornwall alone iden­ti­fied 3,000 pos­si­ble paths that had fallen out of use and needed to be checked. That work of re­dis­cov­ery is be­ing done by volunteers, peo­ple such as How­land, who has so far made 85 le­gal ap­pli­ca­tions for the re­cov­ery of lost paths in a small cor­ner of Hamp­shire. A gov­ern­ment dead­line of 2026 for such claims has given How­land’s work a re­newed sense of ur­gency.

“It sounds like plenty of time, but I reckon that in our area we’d need to make two ap­pli­ca­tions a week un­til 2026. There is so much to be done.”

As a walker I’m used to los­ing my way. It’s a bit alarm­ing, how­ever, to find that paths can get lost, too. We give up any at­tempt to force a way through the bushes and set off up the path to the left. Two deer watch us war­ily from a stub­ble field and the gi­ant white dish of a ra­dio tele­scope ap­pears to hover on the hori­zon as we catch up with a group from the Ramblers, among them Jack Cor­nish, the pro­ject man­ager for the na­tion­wide cam­paign Don’t Lose Your Way. He ex­plains how gov­ern­ment leg­is­la­tion in 1949 ruled that ev­ery coun­cil should draw a de­fin­i­tive map of foot­paths and bri­dle­ways, a laud­able aim, but one car­ried out piecemeal. “Some parishes recorded hun­dreds of paths; oth­ers did al­most noth­ing. You ended up with foot­paths that led nowhere or sim­ply dis­ap­peared.”

Once those paths failed to ap­pear on OS maps, peo­ple stopped walk­ing them. The net­tles grew, the ash and sycamore seeds blew in and, within a few years, they were in­vis­i­ble. If a hous­ing es­tate or a ma­jor road then ap­peared, that path was truly lost. And it did not hap­pen only in the coun­try­side. The Open Spa­ces So­ci­ety has pointed out that ur­ban ar­eas were of­ten ex­empt from the 1949 reg­u­la­tions and pro­duced no de­fin­i­tive maps, leav­ing foot­paths in cities and towns par­tic­u­larly un­der threat.

How­land has a rough es­ti­mate of losses from his own ex­pe­ri­ence. “In my area, I ex­pect an an­nual loss of half a per­cent – mostly from new build­ings and roads.”

Does it mat­ter? “Those miss­ing paths can be the vi­tal el­e­ment in a good cir­cu­lar walk, or ac­cess to great coun­try­side.”

“These are an­cient rights of way,” Cor­nish adds. “Rights built up over cen­turies. And it’s not just about walk­ers: cy­clists and horse rid­ers need them, too.”

We reach a sign – “Pri­vate road, ac­cess only” – and ig­nore it. “It’s a pub­lic bri­dle­way,” says How­land, re­as­sur­ingly. One of the Ramblers finds a sign lost in the un­der­growth and, pro­duc­ing a pair of se­ca­teurs, quickly makes it vis­i­ble again.

Walk­ing with How­land is to see the Bri­tish land­scape through a fresh pair of eyes. Where I see walls of thorny bushes, he sees a dou­ble hedge hid­ing an an­cient drovers’ path; where I see neat white posts at the en­trance to some­one’s drive, How­land sees a de­vi­ous at­tempt to gull the pub­lic into be­liev­ing they are on pri­vate land; most of all, where I see cul-de-sacs and dead ends, he spots op­por­tu­ni­ties to dis­cover lost routes. He reads the land­scape like a de­tec­tive, build­ing the phys­i­cal el­e­ments into nar­ra­tives of growth and change.

He shows me a patch of land on his OS map called Brans­bury Com­mon that was de­clared open-ac­cess land un­der the Coun­try­side and Rights of Way Act 2000. It was both bi­o­log­i­cally im­por­tant and a lo­cal beauty spot. For as long as it has been an ope­nac­cess area, the two bridges that once al­lowed en­try have been un­us­able. They have never been re­placed. “The pub­lic have the right to be on Brans­bury Com­mon,” says How­land. “But get­ting there is harder.”

He has seen aban­doned rail­ways, used as foot­paths and recorded as such on OS maps, sum­mar­ily closed when new own­ers ar­rive. In other places, agri­cul­tural schemes such as the Coun­try­side Stew­ard­ship de­mand that landown­ers open up paths in re­turn for pay­ments. When the schemes fin­ish, these “per­mis­sive” paths can dis­ap­pear overnight. On other oc­ca­sions, new own­ers sim­ply don’t un­der­stand lo­cal tra­di­tions. In Oc­to­ber 2016, for ex­am­ple, vil­lagers in Brat­ton, in Wilt­shire, were as­ton­ished to find a tra­di­tional river­side path through wa­ter­cress beds blocked by barbed wire and “pri­vate prop­erty” signs. A Lon­don prop­erty dealer had bought the lo­cal mill and erected the bar­ri­ers. It took a two-year court bat­tle to es­tab­lish that the path was a le­gal right of way.

“There are two ways to re­cover a lost path,” Cor­nish says. “By prov­ing reg­u­lar pub­lic use over a 20-year pe­riod with­out any at­tempt to pre­vent ac­ces by a landowner, and by de­tec­tive work on his­tor­i­cal maps.”

What about the Mark­way, I ask. How did that dis­ap­pear? “Al­most by ac­ci­dent.” How­land says. “In the sec­ond world war, a Hur­ri­cane fighter base was built here and the path tem­po­rar­ily blocked. That or­der was not re­scinded un­til 1956. By then it was too late: the last mile of the route had got over­grown and for­got­ten.” If not for How­land, this right of way would have per­ma­nently dis­ap­peared.

We stop talking to stroll along a short sec­tion of busy road, be­fore turn­ing once again on to a path where spin­dle flow­ers gleam like nubs of coral in the hedge. A kestrel cuts away across the field, glo­ry­ing in its free­dom. We come even­tu­ally into the pretty thatched vil­lage of Chilbolton and, in the way of all good coun­try walks, reach a pub.

Over a bowl of hot soup, Paul shows me the pa­per­work that each De­fin­i­tive Map Mod­i­fi­ca­tion Or­der en­tails. “It does take hours of work, but a lot of the in­for­ma­tion and maps are now on­line. The Na­tional Li­brary of Scotland web­site is par­tic­u­larly use­ful. You don’t need to be spend­ing days in the Na­tional Archives at Kew, in­ter­est­ing as that would be.”

The cam­paign has put pres­sure on un­der-re­sourced lo­cal coun­cils. Hamp­shire’s ex­ec­u­tive mem­ber for ru­ral af­fairs, Ed­ward Heron, pointed out to me that Hamp­shire has seen a rise in ap­pli­ca­tions from five a year to 35. “We ex­pect that these in­creases will con­tinue un­til the clo­sure date of 2026.” The good news is that any ap­pli­ca­tion sub­mit­ted by the 2026 dead­line will, even­tu­ally, go through the le­gal process of as­sess­ment and con­sul­ta­tion.

Mean­while, How­land is plan­ning more routes. His dif­fi­dent man­ner masks a steely de­ter­mi­na­tion and he clearly likes the el­e­ments of re­search and his­tor­i­cal anal­y­sis. “It’s given me a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of how the land­scape changes and de­vel­ops.” In the­ory, that re­search could go back to the era of Richard I. His reign, which be­gan on 4 July 1189, is the be­gin­ning of le­gal time. In prac­tice, many rights of way date back to the en­clo­sure acts of 1750 to 1850. Ei­ther way, the sense of a long game be­ing played is pal­pa­ble and How­land knows it.

“A re­stored right of way will usu­ally last for ever.” He smiles. “There aren’t many tasks in life that you can say that about.”

As a walker, I’m used to los­ing my way. It’s a bit alarm­ing to find that paths can get lost, too

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