Benedict Southworth: All paths lead to roam

The Ramblers turns 80 next year, and in that time we’ve achieved a lot for walkers in Britain. We’ve organised millions of walks and protected thousands of paths. This month marks the 10 year anniversary of one of our biggest achievements - winning the right to roam – when the first pieces of open country in the northwest and southeast of England were opened up for walkers.

80 years ago, people wanting to escape the city and climb mountains, or explore wild moorland risked threats, harassment, and even arrest. Now, much open country (mountains, moor, heath, down and common land) in England and Wales is open for us to roam freely. In Scotland, you can walk (and camp) almost anywhere.

I feel incredibly proud to be at the helm of an organisation that has delivered so much. Access to nature should be a fundamental human right available to all citizens.

Kinder Scout - access land sign

The Peak District National Park

That freedom and access was hard won. It started during the Industrial Revolution when workers, who had toiled all week, found their weekend trips to the countryside being restricted by gamekeepers and landowners. Right to roam proposals were defeated over 10 times from the 1800s onwards, until success was finally achieved in England and Wales with the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and in Scotland with the Land Reform Act 2003.

Now open up any Ordnance Survey map in England and Wales and you will see this achievement reflected in the large tracts of land which are shaded in yellow. It was a magnificent effort by the then staff and the large numbers of members who lobbied so hard and effectively to help this legislation through Parliament.

Thousands of our volunteers played a key role in working with government agencies to ensure that all open country was recorded on maps showing where the right to roam is in force. One of the first areas opened in the Peak District in September 2004, ten years ago. Since then, over a million hectares have been opened up for walkers to explore freely.

I was in the Peak District just last week talking to members about the importance of access to green spaces for the public in Sheffield. I was reminded of their huge effort helping to ensure the Countryside and Rights of Way Act was implemented in a way that benefitted the whole community. On the way home I was reflecting on what we still need to do.

Today, across the world, the majority of people spend their lives in towns and cities. Too many are in poor health, through lack of physical exercise or the mental stress of modern life. It is vital that we all have the opportunity to go for a walk, wherever we live or work, enjoy fresh air and green spaces. The Ramblers is at the forefront of a massive effort to ensure that all of us, as well as our children, can enjoy these benefits for all time.

The recent announcement by the Deputy Prime Minister that the England Coast Path will now be completed by 2020 was very welcome. We’ve been the driving force behind the campaign to open up the coast for everyone to enjoy and our volunteers are again helping to define the route with other stakeholders.

Walking in woodlands

Enjoying an autumnal stroll

But there is still much to do. My predecessor Tom Franklin sat on the independent panel on forestry that recommended better access to woodland as only 38% of England woodlands are open to fully explore. The government has pledged that everyone should have a wood close to them that they can walk in, but they’ve yet to do anything to make it happen.

Next year, elections will be held for the Westminster parliament. Our Manifesto for a Walking Britain asks for a new approach to provide more and better access in England and Wales. Included is a call for all party leaders to increase the amount of woodland available for walkers, so that everyone can enjoy a walk in the woods.

Hanging up in the Ramblers office is the letter that Tony Blair (then leader of the opposition) sent to the Ramblers, promising that a new Labour government would introduce the right to roam. With the election a year away, this framed letter acts as a reminder for how important it is to influence political parties in the run up to general elections.

Securing rights of access to a nation’s land is not simply about public enjoyment of our natural environment. It is at the heart of our economy and prosperity. Increasing public access, creating and managing paths, encouraging everyone to get outdoors all helps to stimulate economic activity in the countryside, attracting public and private investment alongside the promotion of healthy and rewarding lifestyles.

I urge you, whilst out walking this weekend to get off the beaten track and explore a piece of access land close to where you live and think back to all those before you that worked so hard to improve your right to access nature. You can choose from 8 of my favourite open landscapes.

It is a fundamental human right that everyone in Britain should be entitled to and I am determined to lead the Ramblers efforts to achieve this.

Benedict Southworth is chief executive of the Ramblers – follow him on twitter @BenedictSouthWO.

Photos: (top) Vertigogen; (bottom) Kevin Millican

Nigel May

I live in South East Cornwall and we have many woodlands around us but ALL have been given over to shoots. As a result all access is banned - some all of the year. This is totally wrong. I can understand problems of safety during the shooting season, and also at the beginning of the season when the young birds are being fed in the open, but at other times I cannot see why access should not be allowed. I would even support some sort of licenced access where individuals could apply for a licence to walk through the woods and could be identifiable by gamekeepers. In fact this might be a real positive as licenced walkers could actually help keep an eye for trespassers, particularly for those shoots who are located near centres of population.

Peter Watson

I am very uncomfortable with your determination to substantially increase access to woodlands as has been achieved with moorlands etc. I am all for increased access but in a controlled way, certainly not unrestricted. I am perfectly happy to stick to waymarked walks as long as there are enough of them. I don't want to go trampling through a pristine area. All ramblers will have seen the results of increasing access, litter and dogs disturbing ground nesting birds being just two of them. Ramblers need to be careful not to spoil the very thing they are concerned about.

Peter Hall

I live in North West Hampshire just a mile from the New Forest and similar distance from the Downs. I have walked across most parts of Britain including 7 long distance walks and last year walked 2300 miles so feel I speak with some experience. I believe we have superb access to the countryside in this country with such an array of well walked paths which may well be due to the efforts of organisations such as your own but many of these footpaths have been available to people for hundreds of years. However, I do have serious reservations about allowing open access to all woodland. In many instances, this is a working environment for "shoots" providing much needed employment and it would be totally impractical as well as potentially dangerous to allow easy access. In most areas I have visited which is extensive, there are usually footpaths through those Woods. I do not believe Ramblers appreciate the noise they often create when walking in the countryside. On my own walks, I have often heard Rambler groups up to half a mile away before seeing anyone which drives much of the wildlife away from the area and this would have a devastating effect on game on shooting estates both in the shooting season and at other times. Most Landowners in more recent times have taken a more liberal view to public access and we should applaud and appreciate their efforts and work on those few who have not rather than trying to expand our aims in what I consider an unreasonable manner. Just to confirm, I am retired and have no personal advantage in this view other than being a country person.

Sarah Gardner, the Ramblers

Thanks Nigel, Peter and Peter for your comments. The Ramblers wants to see better access to woodlands, with the necessary restrictions. We always encourage walkers to respect other users by being aware of the Countryside Code and any other restrictions in place to protect wildlife and habitats. We work alongside landowners and other organisations to ensure that by increasing access for walkers, we consider the needs of others, such as stopping access during ground nesting bird season. The outdoors is for everyone and we need to share it. However there are many woods which are not open at all. We want to see more access - with the necessary restrictions and considerate use - in those areas, for everyone who enjoys the outdoors, including individuals, families and walking groups. An independent panel which was set up to look into how woodlands are managed, also recommended that government should ensure that people have access to a wood within close proximity of their home. You can find out more here: