The benefits of access land

Access land allows you to walk freely, explore wild, open landscapes and find your own way. To highlight why these rights are so great, Alan Marlow, the Ramblers Hampshire area footpath and access officer, shares his views on why open access is important. As an expedition trainer and assessor for the gold Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, and a regular user of access land, we think there are a few things he can share from his experience.

On November 6 last year we celebrated 800 years since the Charter of the Forest, the first step on our countryside access journey which granted common people the right of access to forest land. Since that landmark we’ve also celebrated the 17th anniversary of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CROW), which opened over 3 million acres of moorland, mountain, heathland and downland for walkers to explore across England and Wales. And next week, we’ll see the 15th anniversary of the Land Reform Act (Scotland), a world-leading piece of legislation giving the right of access to the vast majority of Scottish land.

Open access rights

When talking about walking on access land, Alan is keen to point out the way that people are using their open access rights:

‘Most users walking on Access Land have a specific route or objective in mind when they start their walk. They will follow existing tracks or paths on the ground and will largely stick to these in order to reach their objective.

Generally, the most up to date OS map will accurately reflect all the paths and tracks that are on the ground in an access area. [People] appreciate the ability to access new areas of countryside, but are then normally very happy to follow linear routes'.

Many people who walk on access land are happy to have areas of countryside to explore, and enjoy the ability to follow tracks in all directions without a fear that they are trespassing. It is good to know that you can step off the path to go to a viewpoint or other feature, before heading back to the track.

Multi-use

Access land isn’t all about walking though, and people have rights to go climbing, bird watching and picnicking, as well as a whole range of further rights that are granted by individual landowners.

Alan uses access land in his role as a Duke of Edinburgh Assessor, and it is here that the rights really come into their own.

‘An assessed challenge for a gold expedition team will be to be self-sufficient for 4 days while travelling a pre-planned route of about 50 miles in so-called ‘wild country’ (typically Access Land), carrying all required equipment and food and camping overnight.

Some of the objectives of the DofE expedition include: getting young people ‘away from the crowds’ to encourage self-sufficiency; teaching them detailed map-reading skills and getting them to practise these ‘for real’; teaching them to observe and appreciate the wild life and countryside around them.

One requirement on these teams is for them to produce a report about an ‘Aim’ which they pursue during their journey, something that gets them to ‘travel with their eyes open’.

Freedom to roam 

We all know that getting people out to explore the countryside is the best way to teach responsibility for the wildlife and environment around them. It is great to hear that this is one of Alan’s objectives when taking young people out. He goes on to explain why access land is necessary to achieve these aims;

'For several of these skills it is clearly very beneficial to be able to roam freely across remote countryside without staying on the paths, and in the right environment students can gain a great deal of experience in detailed map reading and navigation skills if presented with appropriate challenges in terrain that is known to be safe and accessible. Clearly navigation when restricted to following paths is very one-dimensional compared with the freedom to roam.

As an assessor or supervisor trying to keep an eye on teams of youngsters without interfering with their self-sufficiency, the ability to leave the path and reach a good vantage point for observation is invaluable.'

Access rights have enabled thousands of walkers to step off the path and explore beautiful landscapes every day, as well as giving people the chance to enjoy other outdoor activities, from running and climbing to photography, orienteering and birdwatching.

If you want to get out and explore some access land near you we’ve created a handy guide to let you know your rights and responsibilities, and some tips finding the best places to walk.

As we celebrate the anniversaries of these access rights we are not just looking back over the last 800 years, but are looking forward as well. It may surprise you that today, only 40% of woodland in England and Wales is accessible to the public. Our recent YouGov survey revealed that people want increased access to woods and forests more than any other type of land, so in response we are calling for improved access to the beautiful woodlands of England and Wales. Add you voice by signing our petition.