Where can you walk?

We know that eleven million Brits love to get out of the house, take a break from modern life and enjoy the great outdoors on foot. We’re really lucky to have plenty of places to walk in the English and Welsh countryside but between rights of way, permissive paths, national parks and access land it can be really confusing to figure out where you’re allowed to walk. 

We’ve created a handy guide to explain where, and when, you’re allowed to walk. 

Please note this guide is for England and Wales only. Find access information for Scotland here

Rights of way

A public right of way is a path which leads from A to B. Most public rights of way run across private land but they are open to the public at all times of the day and year (as long as it hasn’t been closed by a Temporary Closure Order).

There are four kinds of public rights of way which you can use on foot. They are: footpaths, bridleways, restricted byways and byways open to all traffic. Bridleways and restricted byways can also be travelled on bicycle and horseback, and you can take any method of transport on a byway open to all traffic. 

How to find them

On the internet

  • Many councils have working versions of their Definitive Map online. You can find these using a search engine and the term "Definitive Map" paired with your local authority.
  • If you are a Ramblers member you can use Ramblers Routes to find walks.
  • Rambling clubs also publish their routes online and you can find these by searching the internet too - try searching for "Circular Walk" with your desired location and see what comes up.

In Print

  • OS maps show public rights of way in green or pink lines, although they are sometimes outdated or inaccurate. Most of the time you can trust OS maps to show you where to walk.
  • The Definitive Map is the legal record of public rights of way in each local authority area. You can view this for free at the council offices (sometimes by appointment only), and can request copies for a small fee.
  • Local libraries also sometimes have copies of the Definitive Map.

On the ground

  • Check for signs at the side of the road as local authorities have a duty to signpost public rights of way where they leave ordinary roads with hard surfaces.
  • Once on the right of way, you should follow the obvious path unless you come to a waymark. Waymarks show you where the route goes if it is not obvious. Be sure to follow the arrow or you could end up trespassing

View of cliffs and the sea

Open access land & the coastal margin

Open access land is a mapped section of countryside which carries a “right to roam”. This means that you can walk anywhere you like within the land and you don’t have to stick to the public right of way or enter via gates or stiles. You are allowed to climb over fences or walls as long as you don’t damage them. 

Access land includes most mountain, moor, heath and downs, as well as registered common land, and town and village greens. Although woodland is not included automatically, some woodland managed by the Forestry Commission is open access. 

Access land is often private property – especially in the open countryside – and occasionally landowners can apply to have access restricted because of a legitimate business reason. Access can also be restricted to protect wildlife so you should always do a quick Google search to check if any restrictions apply to an area you want to visit. 

The coastal margin is a section of open access land which is being mapped around the coast of England and Wales. Essentially, you can walk wherever you like on this land as long as no specific restrictions apply and you aren’t damaging property or the landscape. 

How to find it

On the ground

On the ground you might notice this sign at gates or stiles. This means that you are about to enter access land.

Open access

If you see a sign like this it means you are exiting the open access land.

End of area-wide access

However, this doesn’t apply to all access land. Commons, for example, will often have signs at each entrance explaining the history of the common and assuring you of your right to roam. If you’re unsure - you can always ask the locals.

On the internet

  • Try DEFRA's Magic Map.
  • On the left hand side, there is a button labelled "Access" - press it and then select the last three options which will show you CROW Access Land and Registered Common Land.
  • Coastal Margin land is also one of the options further up the list.

In Print

OS maps show Access land in a yellow wash while Coastal Margin is in purple.

Public path

Permissive paths

A permissive path is a route which you are allowed to walk because the landowner or land manager has given permission. They are not legal rights of way (although in some cases you can claim them) and unfortunately this means that they can be closed without notice or consultation, or restrictions put in place at certain times of day or year.

However, there are many excellent permissive routes across the country. For example:

  • Canal towpaths are almost always permissive. If the Canal and River Trust owns the canal then the towpath will remain open for walkers and cyclists unless there’s a public safety risk. 
  • National Trust property and other estates – some estate managers open up permissive paths through the grounds of stately homes. You can find out if there are any permissive paths, or if you have to pay an entrance fee, by contacting them directly. 
  • Disused railway lines are sometimes opened up as recreational trails.
  • National trails – some sections of the national trails (EG the Thames Path) are permissive. National Trails will have negotiated access with the landowners to join up all of the existing public rights of way and provide a long-distance path.
  • Some land owned by the Ministry of Defence has permissive paths through them due to successful negotiation between the MOD and local Ramblers.  

Lanscape of large hills behind a peaceful lake

National parks 

National Parks are large sections of the countryside which were first protected under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. There are specific restrictions in place for National Park land which aim at protecting the countryside and the wildlife that lives in it. Most of the land within National Parks is, however, privately owned and so not necessarily open to the public.

Although there are pockets of private land without public access, most National Park land is designated as Open Access so there's plenty of places to explore. You will also find public rights of way and permissive paths all over the National Parks.

A person walking on a paved urban scene, with shops and trees to the side

Urban Environments and Other Roads

Urban environments are where most of us live and do our day-to-day walking. Obviously, you can walk along normal pavements (known as "footways" in legislation) next to any carriageway in our villages, towns and cities. It is illegal to cycle on the pavement or obstruct it.

You can also walk along the grass or tarmac verge on any road which isn't a motorway.

There are also plenty of recreational spaces to walk in urban environments, such as parks and pedestrianised areas in city centres.

Please note that Inner London Boroughs are not required to have or update a Definitive Map. However, they will have a List of Streets Maintainable at Public Expense, which tells them whether the council is responsible for paying for repairs or not. Any lane or alleyway listed will carry a right to pass on foot at the very minimum, and many will also have a right on horse/bike or motor vehicle. You can walk on these at any time of the day or year, unless a legal order is in place to restrict it.