Ramblers across Britain are working to restore the record, ensuring that historic paths are recorded to stop them from being lost forever.
Words by Andrew McCloy
For Steve Parkhouse of Nottinghamshire Ramblers, the story began at a display by Kings Clipstone local history group. Examining an estate map dating from 1630, he noticed a route from the village through Sherwood Forest that was not recorded as a public right of way. Exploring it on the ground, he found the northern half still open, but the other end gated with a ‘Private – Keep Out’ notice. He talked to residents who remembered using it, including a landowner who recalled losing his first litter of pigs on the road and spending all day rounding them up among the trees. Steve checked a map from 1822 at the local county archives and also unearthed a 19th century estate map – both clearly labelled it as a public road. Armed with this evidence, he successful lodged a claim to have it recorded as a restricted byway, open to walkers, horse riders, cyclists and horse-drawn carriage drivers as a legally protected right of way.
This scenic, 2-mile route is one of over 50 new footpaths, bridleways and byways that Steve and his colleague Chris Thompson have added to the Definitive Map, but in less than a decade this official register of rights of way that every local authority in England and Wales is required to hold will close to any further claims for pre-1949 routes. Partly in an attempt to ensure that landowners have a clearer idea of whether land they own has a right of way on it, the government has decided to end the process for logging unrecorded historic routes by 2026 – after that they will be lost forever. And since one estimate suggests there could be as many as 20,000 public rights of way currently missing from the Definitive Map, it’s an alarming prospect.
Becoming a footpath detective
So where exactly are these missing paths or unrecorded routes? The answer, of course, is that they’re all around, but you have to look for clues. The next time you’re driving along a straight country road and for no apparent reason it suddenly veers left or right, stop and check on the ground or study a map to see if there’s any indication that it once went straight on (perhaps a grassed-over track or neglected hedged strip?). Is there an avenue of trees inexplicably marooned in the middle of a field with no current public access? It may once have been a public route.
‘You must learn to read the landscape using your naked eye and via the map,’ says access expert Phil Wadey. ‘Make a note of any anomalies which could either be unrecorded or under-recorded paths.’ But that’s just the start of the investigation.
The next step is to check whether the routes are already on the Definitive Map and if they’re not, or incomplete, it’s time to pay a visit to your county archives or local studies library. Before long you’ll be rubbing shoulders with other amateur sleuths, perhaps researching their own genealogy or local history, with centuries-old maps, charts and records spread out before them. But what exactly are you looking for?
‘There are three important sources of historical evidence that may well provide conclusive proof that a route used by the public existed before 1949,’ says Phil, ‘and if you can show that at least two contain the same clear information then you will have a strong case to claim it as a public right of way.’
Tithe maps were drawn up after 1836 to identify owners and occupiers of land within a parish, but they also show well-used pathways and carriageways. So, too, do inclosure maps and awards, another important tool in interpreting historic public rights of way and whose validity was confirmed last year following the Ramblers’ Court of Appeal success in the ‘Andrews’ case (walk, autumn 2015, p14). The third key document is the Inland Revenue’s valuation maps, which date from around 1910. For some locations there are also useful records belonging to canal and railway companies, since they were obliged to identify crossing points, like public footpaths, during construction.
In addition to county records, the database of the National Archives at Kew is inevitably a treasure trove of information. Other historical records which may be useful include early edition OS maps and sales records from when estates were divided up and sold off.
Recording your routes
Phil Wadey’s experience comes, in part, from over 25 years as an access and bridleways officer for the British Horse Society, and he and fellow BHS activist Sarah Bucks have written the definitive guide to identifying, researching and claiming lost routes. Over the last year, Phil and Sarah have run a series of workshops for Ramblers and BHS volunteers around the country, the popularity of which shows the growing level of concern among communities that their historic paths are in peril.
‘We’ve known for some time that the Definitive Map would close for older routes,’ explains Janet Davis, senior policy officer at the Ramblers, ‘and as far back as 2005 we ran a project called Forgotten Paths that tried to encourage people to protect their paths. There’s now a renewed interest in this subject, but 2026 will come round soon and if we don’t act then many valuable and historic routes will either disappear or lose any sort of legal protection.’
As well as the ongoing workshops, the Ramblers’ Don’t Lose Your Way campaign will culminate in a national seminar on the subject to be held this autumn; plus there will be further support for volunteers undertaking the work.
Ramblers volunteers are already stepping up to the challenge. Northamptonshire Ramblers formed a Lost Ways Sub Committee and its members are busy at the county record office, poring over Cassini’s historical maps and comparing them with up to date OS maps for inconsistencies. Four members of Leicestershire Ramblers joined the Unrecorded Ways working party set up by the Local Access Forum; while in Sussex, membership of the Don’t Lose Your Way project group was thrown open to include parish councillors, horse riders and in fact anyone with an interest in identifying unrecorded paths. Its convenor, Chris Smith from Sussex Ramblers, says it’s vital that they not just recover paths that have fallen out of use, but also properly record existing routes. ‘We’re probably all aware of odd little anomalies in our local networks, such as a byway ending just before a road junction, a bridleway losing its status mid-route or a public footpath suddenly stopping dead at a parish or county boundary. If we don’t correct these things before 2026 some familiar walking routes will simply disappear or become impassable.’
Cumbria Ramblers’ methodical approach involved dividing up parishes in the south of the county and scrutinising each map square in turn for ‘white roads’ and other unrecorded paths. However, Ernie Robin has found that the county's everyday urban routes are also at risk. ‘I checked the Definitive Map with all the walked thoroughfares within the town of Kendal, from tarmac paths to short ginnels,’ he said, ‘and found 46 were unrecorded. Some even turned out to be public footpaths but weren't properly represented on the map. Through evidence of use I managed to claim them all.’
Indeed, if that shortcut to the shops or school, or the daily dog-walking route between the houses is depicted by no more than a black-dashed line on an OS map (a path apparent on the ground, but not shown on the Definitive Map), it may have no legal protection after 2026 and be especially vulnerable to new housing developments and roads. New regulations, expected this summer from the government, will set out various classes of way which will be saved from closure at the cut-off date.
Back in Nottinghamshire, Steve Parkhouse says that he and Chris Thompson have over 70 path claims awaiting a decision, with more prepared and being researched. Many go through unopposed, often after negotiation with a landowner, but whatever the process there's a real sense of achievement. ‘It's very satisfying when you get a major improvement to the rights of way network, but the bottom of line for all of us is to make sure we record our historic paths before it's too late.’
Top tips on saving lost paths
Talk to local people, especially older residents, about where they walk now and have done in the past
Be methodical – start with individual parishes and check all walked routes, or take one OS map square at a time
Study old maps (such as OS first editions) and compare them with what’s on the ground and map now
Mark anomalies on the map and list all unrecorded or under recorded routes
Check for gaps and inconsistencies in the network, such as dead end or disconnected routes
Do your historical research – look at tithe maps, Inclosure awards, Inland Revenue valuation maps and other evidence
Organise yourselves by forming a group with a range of different skills and share your experiences with others
Find out more