It’s not just walkers who get lost – paths can get lost, too. Now a small army of volunteers are seeking to recover thousands of public rights of way before they disappear for ever
Kevin Rushby Tue 4 Dec 2018
Once paths failed to appear on maps, people stopped walking them and, within a few years, they were invisible.
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 what looks like the long-discarded parts of an 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.”
Howland emerges from the nettles and shows me an image on his phone which confirms his suspicions: we have just found one of Britain’s missing footpaths.
“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 every week until 2026. There is just so much to be done.”
As a walker, I reflect, I’m used to losing my way. It’s a bit alarming, however, to find that paths can get lost, too.
Howland chuckles. “It’s easier than you think.”
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, 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 only happen 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.”
“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. Almost surrounded by a chalk stream, it was both biologically important and a local beauty spot. For as long as it has been an open-access 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 access 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, Howland 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.”