Backstory: The British right to roam – or get lost

England's footpath civics connect walkers and landowners.

Set out on any of Britain's long-distance trails and you're soon climbing over stiles, walking through pastures past grazing sheep, cutting across fields as farmers bale hay, or trudging through the mud of newly plowed earth. It's hard for Americans to fathom that they, perfect strangers, have the legal right to walk this meter-wide strip of land no matter whose property it cuts through. But the little arrow on the gatepost says so, as do the green dots and dashes on Ordnance Survey maps.

Today, 140,000 miles of public rights of way crisscross England and Wales, a legacy of days when laborers walked to work, young men took shortcuts to see their girls a village over, and women made their way to the market town, basket in hand. Now used mostly for recreation and exercise, these rights of way are an accepted part of British life – as is the occasional grousing by some landowners and walkers alike.

"I reported an obstructed path the other week," says Patrick Lonergan, looking not a little delighted as he leads a group of four on a rainy 10-mile walk south of Oxford. He is general secretary of the Oxfordshire branch of the Ramblers' Association, a nationwide group that promotes walking. Mr. Lonergan's complaint, he adds offhandedly, was even reported in the Oxford Mail.

Slow news day, was it? Actually, thorough crime reporting. Since the passage of the Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act of 1949, public paths form part of the country's highway system; obstructing them is a criminal offense.

Nigel Curry, author of numerous books on the subject, explains that the law effectively gave legal status to paths that the public had long used. It made local authorities responsible for providing working stiles, and it mandated that landowners not prevent access by, say, parking a tractor across a gate or planting crops in the path. For their part, walkers had to stick to prescribed routes, close gates behind them, and leash their dogs.

As time went on, regulations grew increasingly precise – really precise. Farmers cannot, for example, put adult dairy bulls in fields with paths, but can have bulls of certain other breeds as long as those bulls are "accompanied by cows or heifers." The regs don't specify exactly why – perhaps bulls don't bother human interlopers when there are females around to distract them.

The 1949 legislation did not, however, produce a definitive map of all public rights of way. But the CROW Act of 2000 decrees that, by 2026, local authorities must have charted every public path once and for all. And the race is on.

"The definitive map is constantly being updated," Lonergan calls over his shoulder, without breaking stride. "You can claim a path for the map if it's been in continuous use for 20 years," along with any documented historic paths. And, he adds, landowners, who've been allowing access to their land through a so-called permissive path, can "prevent it from being legitimately claimed by blocking it once a year." His tone indicates that, as far as he's concerned, that's acceptable. As for those who try to get paths deleted – "pretty cheeky," he exclaims.

For the Country Land & Business Association, however, deleting little used paths makes sense. According to the association's national access adviser, Caroline Bedell, it would make the system easier and less costly to manage while ensuring the upkeep of popular routes. She estimates it can cost landowners up to £4,000 pounds ($7,500) a year in lost income due to land they can't cultivate and in such costs as fencing – for those dairy bulls, presumably.

For many nonfarmers, however, paths don't cost a penny. Near the Cotswold village of Ascott-under-Wychwood, Nigel and Anne Braithwaite rely on the county to maintain their stiles, and welcome walkers as an opportunity to catch up on village gossip. And, adds Mr. Braithwaite, "When you buy, you know jolly well that there is a footpath, and if you're sensitive to people walking through, then you wouldn't buy a place like this."

Indeed, the right of way runs up the Braithwaite's driveway, past the front door of their converted mill, and into a field split by a fast- moving stream spanned by a narrow footbridge.

"Without the footpath," Braithwaite says, "we would feel quite cut off." Moreover, having "eyes in the countryside" means environmental problems like polluted streams get spotted and reported.

As for the advantage to walkers themselves, "It's terribly important, isn't it, for people to be able to find space and peace and get closer to nature," says Braithwaite, echoing the sentiments of William Wordsworth who, with others of the 19th-century Romantic Movement, spearheaded efforts to preserve and enjoy Britain's countryside.

Yes, occasionally the Braithwaites look up from Sunday lunch to see noses pressed against their window. And, yes, there have been times when they've left the door open and walkers' dogs have run through the house. But only once in 23 years has a walker failed to close a gate, and never has anyone deliberately caused mischief.

This is a testament to the fact that walking is not everyone's cup of tea – Mr. Curry's research reveals that more and more people spend leisure time at home – and to educational efforts on the part of the Ramblers and similar groups keen to see the system survive. Their latest campaign is to promote walking for health reasons – the '80s mantra was "social inclusion" – and this is one reason Josephine Lister joined Lonergan's walk, rain notwithstanding. Also, she says with a smile, "I live on my own and this is good company. Pat, he's preserving the English way of life."

For the Ramblers and like-minded groups, that way of life would allow all to roam freely across the land. And already, they have scored victories: Across the whole of Scotland and in designated areas totaling 3,300 square miles in England and Wales, the public has "the right to roam" wherever they wish. Or, as one headline warned, the "right to get lost."

Not that this would ever happen to Lonergan. Even on a relatively straightforward route, he stops often to check the map he keeps sheathed in clear plastic, carefully aligning the marks on his compass with the angle of the path. At the edge of a large field, a footpath sign points straight across. Lonergan's eyes flicker from field to map and back until he spots a slight break in the hedge. "That's the stile," he announces and heads for it, humming a Dixie Chicks tune.

Suddenly, he stops dead: "Ask me why some paths cut across the middle of a field." The answer? "Because," he says, "there was once a hedge that ran along here."

For the American visitors it's suddenly clear: They're touching history by walking this path. They want to say something, but Lonergan has already resumed his mile-gobbling pace.

After negotiating the stile, Lonergan pulls pruning shears from his daypack and snips a thorny branch growing into the path.

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