Before 1949

‘In a confused state’
A popular Ramblers guide reveals how problematic old footpath laws were.

By Rodney Whittaker

Anyone experiencing problems on a country walk can at least reflect that things were much worse 75 years ago. A best-selling 1944 Ramblers booklet, Right of Way: Footpath Law for Everyone, shows just how problematic the old footpath law was and how much was achieved by the 1949 Act and its successors. 

The Ramblers initially envisaged printing 1,500 copies but, as the annual report later recorded, ‘The demand for it has been almost embarrassing.’ It had been ‘favourably reviewed in over 100 newspapers and journals’, and 17,500 copies were eventually produced, with the best customers being public libraries, local authorities and county planning departments.

For a start, how did you find a footpath? 

The walker ‘cannot expect to find a sign “Public Footpath”… such indications are the exception not the rule’. Further, ‘It is only the most frequently used paths which show any track on the ground.’ There were some footpath survey maps published either by councils or by the Ramblers themselves but ‘at present they cover only a small area of the country’.

It went on to say that ‘the law relating to maintenance and repair of public rights of way is in a confused state’ – with responsibility divided among county, parish and rural district councils. The answer sometimes depended on whether the path existed before 1835 or, in the case of bridges, before 1803. Liability for repair of a stile or other fence crossing was ‘often in dispute’. 

As for obstructions, a parish council had to make a complaint before a rural district council would take action but ‘unfortunately, some parish councils (a minority but still too many) are dominated by people who have an interest in opposing the use of footpaths and this occasionally extends also to the rural council’. The booklet went on to state, perhaps superfluously, ‘The presence of a bull in a field can be as effective in preventing use of a path as some more obviously deliberate methods.’ County councils had the power to make bye-laws prohibiting the keeping of bulls over a year old in fields traversed by public paths, but the booklet then listed fully 20 counties covering large areas of the countryside where no such bye-laws existed.

Of course, it was still wartime and until the ‘invasion scare’ receded, defence regulations provided that ‘no one could acquire maps on a scale exceeding one inch to the mile without a permit from a chief of police’. Even after this, ‘map users were frequently viewed with suspicion’, and walkers were advised to ‘use their maps openly, with no attempt at concealment’.

As the foreword to the 1944 booklet stated: ‘Our highway law has a long history, and in some respects is undoubtedly archaic and in need of reform.’ Happily, reform was only five years away. 

Be a Ramblers campaigner

Inspired? We rely on our members to campaign with us and keep the original ambitions of the 1949 Act alive. Sign up and receive a free downloadable vintage poster of the Autumn cover and join the movement: ramblers.org.uk/1949Act