Right from our formation in 1935, protecting rights of way has been at the forefront of our campaigning work. We’ve done this in various ways: through lobbying Parliament for legislation and local councillors for better funding for footpaths, through the media, with occasional large scale rallies from the Peaks to the Dales, from Bowland to the Chilterns and sometimes through action in the courts. Our aim is to not only protect paths but also to improve them, both by practical work on the ground and through the law.
Books on walking and the outdoors dating from the 1920s often mention the ease with which landowners could close footpaths simply by blocking them. There was no authoritative record of footpaths, so people opposing a closure had to prove the issue in court - too costly a risk for many - while highway authorities (county councils) often lacked the political will to do it.
As more people began to own cars, highway authorities had the excuse that footpaths were no longer needed, an excuse that some of them were still regurgitating in the 1960s. Our work promoting walking in the 1930s and 1940s through group led walks based around rail and bus services significantly helped ensure that many paths were walked which may otherwise have been quietly closed.
Our well-orchestrated lobbying of the post-war Labour government (then all done by volunteers - there were no salaried staff until 1952) led to the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. That great new chapter in British social history provided the framework for national parks and for long-distance routes. Our first national secretary, Tom Stephenson, had in fact proposed a long-distance route in the Pennines back in 1935 - 30 years later it was opened as the Pennine Way.
The Act also required every county council to compile a ‘definitive map and statement’ of all public rights of way - an exercise which took many years and involved parish councils, the Ramblers and members of the public. The result is a legal document – some people think of it as the public’s ‘title deeds’ to their rights of way network – which provides conclusive statutory proof that the ways shown on it are public. It is a vital tool for keeping paths protected.
In the mid-1960s a white paper introduced proposals to facilitate the wholesale alteration of the rights of way network, removing its historical integrity and very likely resulting in the loss of many paths, leaving a much-reduced and artificial set of leisure trails instead. We defeated those proposals, partly through representations we made through the Gosling Committee whose report led to the Countryside Act 1968, through which we secured instead the legal requirement that all rights of way be signposted where they leave the metalled road, and along their routes where necessary.
By the 1970s legislation was needed to speed up the process of compiling the definitive map [link] as procedures were proving cumbersome. It needed to be reviewed every five years, and councils didn’t have the resources to do so. Our lobbying efforts led to important sections in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. These meant that anybody with the right evidence could apply for a path to be recognised as a right of way through its addition to the definitive map.
With the help of Edward Leigh MP we secured the Rights of Way Act 1990, which strengthened the law about ploughing rights of way and planting crops on them - it needing reinforcing and strengthening, not least because it had been relaxed between 1939–45 to maximise food production for the war).
Further lobbying led to the Countryside and Rights of Way 2000. Well-known for its creation of the right to walk on mountain, moor and heathland, it also increased the protection given by the law to public rights of way, giving anyone (not just councils) the right to prosecute for the offence of planting crops on them and the ability to serve notice on highway authorities for failure to deal with obstructions.
Occasionally we take a case to the higher courts to test a principle of law:
We continue to campaign for the protection and improvement of rights of way. Read about our latest efforts to tackle cuts to council rights of way budgets.