The knights of our rights of way

Four men wearing high-vis jackets, fixing a gate 

As the Ramblers campaigns to safeguard public access to the countryside post-Brexit, footpath secretary Ian Hardy highlights the role of volunteers working across England and Wales to defend our rights of way network. 

It’s good to see thousands of Ramblers members signing up to be ‘path protectors’ in the Ramblers Your Path Awaits campaign, helping to secure our rights of way post-Brexit. But as you click the web link and email your MP, please spare a thought for the humble footpath secretary working hard to protect our paths, day in, day out.

‘Who on earth is a footpath secretary, and what does one do?’ you may ask.

Ok, let’s go back to the beginning.  The mass trespass at Kinder Scout took place in 1932, the Ramblers was founded in 1935, and why? Access! People demanded the right to walk.

How has this right of access been expressed down the years? Well, in England and Wales it’s been mostly through paths and ways. Slowly, sometimes painfully, through hard-won legislation, the public rights of way network evolved. It has often been a difficult process and we have always had opponents. But without this network, where would we be? Could the Ramblers even exist?

From the 1930s to the present (and into the future too), this network has always needed a lot of protection – by councils, groups and individuals, and a huge contribution by the Ramblers. And within the Ramblers? Mainly by volunteers – by footpath secretaries.

It is these volunteers, in every English and Welsh Ramblers area, who protect the public rights of way network. They may also, if they wish, do a lot more besides – doing hand clearance, reporting problems to councils, checking planning applications, liaising with land-occupiers (owners, tenants, farmers, etc), monitoring applications to change the network and challenging changes when necessary, initiating changes with land-occupiers, campaigning against blockages, fighting for access in inquiries and in court when required. They are only volunteers, and some do more than others, but just walking a local patch, reporting problems and helping to react to network changes, is so necessary and so satisfying, and is enough to make a real difference.

All of this happens behind the scenes, quietly, all over England and Wales, day by day, year by year. Without these volunteers, where would the public rights of way network be? How much less would be walkable, or perhaps even there at all? Where would members walk? Where would the public walk?  No path network, no Ramblers.

It could be argued that footpath secretaries underpin everything the Ramblers stands for. Yet mostly they remain hidden in the background, little trumpeted, perhaps taken for granted? More recently their vital contribution is becoming a little more publicly recognised and reported.

And how are they doing, these footpath secretaries, who underpin so much vital work? Well, I think they, and the Ramblers’ ‘footpath secretary function’ within which they operate, need some TLC. They need recognition, recruitment, a review of their role, perhaps even a re-branding. Personally, I wonder if a new name would help – like ‘paths and ways officer’. After all, who on earth is a footpath secretary?

Find out more about the work of Ramblers footpath secretaries, and other volunteers involved in protecting and expanding the places people love to walk.

And if you’re a footpath secretary, please share your successes. Let us know about your achievements by emailing policy@ramblers.org.uk

 

Magazine of the Ramblers