Rights of way

I’m now in Australia for nearly two months, but before I talk about that, I would like to draw attention to an issue relevant to people in England and Wales who enjoy the countryside.

The system of rights of way is one of the great glories of the English countryside. Any Ordnance Survey map will show a network of walks and rides through the country; you are entitled to walk or ride along them. They come in several flavours: footpaths, bridleways, RUPPs (roads used as public paths) and BOATs (byways open to all traffic): I am not quite sure of the difference between the last two, and in any case there has been some recent change in the status.

(As I have said before, in Scotland it is different; we have a right to roam anywhere, which sounds great but in practice means that it is much harder to plan a walk since there will be no guarantee that you can get through the fences or hedges.)

Many of these rights of way date back to the early days of the rambling movement which did so much to get people out into the country. In a lot of cases, the documented use of a path as a public highway in the past was used to have it registered as a right of way.

This is the system which is about to change. On 1 January 2026, the definitive maps will be closed to the addition of rights of way on the basis of historic evidence.

I am not sure what this means for rights of way as a whole. They can be extinguished, for reasons good and bad: maybe because a nuclear power station is being built over the path, or because a rich foreigner has bought the property and doesn’t want the public walking across his land. Will it be possible for new rights of way to be created? I don’t know; but it seems that one important mechanism for this will be lost.

This is not just a triumph of evil landowners. Indeed the committee that drew up the legislation had walkers represented, and attempted to find a compromise between vested interests. What it does mean, however, is that the time to establish rights of way on the basis of historic use is running out, and a lot has to be done in ten years.

If this matters to you, see this webpage maintained by the Open Spaces Society, and support them in their action.

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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