Memory lanes: UK ramblers trying to save 10,000 lost footpaths
tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Wed Dec 5 00:01:21 GMT 2018
lanes: the ramblers trying to save 10,000 lost footpaths
Its not just walkers who get lost paths can
get lost, too. Now a small army of volunteers are
seeking to recover thousands of public rights of
way before they disappear for ever
Kevin Rushby Tue 4 Dec
Once paths failed to appear on maps, people
stopped walking them and, within a few years, they were invisible.
Paul Howland is standing in a bed of nettles, his
head surrounded by a halo of dusky blue sloes.
Behind him is an impenetrable tangle of
undergrowth, self-seeded trees and what looks
like the long-discarded parts of an a vehicle.
The old path went up here, he says, waving his
walking pole further into the thicket. I first
spotted it on Milnes county map of Hampshire from 1791.
Howland emerges from the nettles and shows me an
image on his phone which confirms his suspicions:
we have just found one of Britains missing footpaths.
This is Greenwoods 1826 county map and you can
see the path. It was called the Markway and goes
straight up to this line now the A30 road. But
compare that with the current Ordnance Survey
map. He unfolds a paper map and points to our position.
Instead of going straight, the footpath turns
hard left at this point and heads back towards
Andover. What we have here is a missing mile to a
forgotten right of way and a very useful
missing mile, because it links to other footpaths.
England and Wales have about 140,000 miles of
footpaths, but there are an estimated 10,000 more
that have been lost from current maps. Even that
figure looks like a huge underestimate: a recent
survey in Cornwall alone identified 3,000
possible paths that had fallen out of use and
needed to be checked. That work of rediscovery is
being done by volunteers, people such as Howland,
who has so far made 85 legal applications for the
recovery of lost paths in a small corner of
Hampshire. A government deadline of 2026 for such
claims has given Howlands work a renewed sense of urgency.
It sounds like plenty of time, but I reckon that
in our area wed need to make two applications
every week until 2026. There is just so much to be done.
As a walker, I reflect, Im used to losing my
way. Its a bit alarming, however, to find that paths can get lost, too.
Howland chuckles. Its easier than you think.
We give up any attempt to force a way through the
bushes and set off up the path to the left. Two
deer watch us warily from a stubble field and the
giant white dish of a radio telescope appears to
hover on the horizon as we catch up with a group
from the Ramblers, among them Jack Cornish,
project manager for the nationwide campaign Dont
Lose Your Way. He explains how government
legislation in 1949 ruled that every council
should draw a definitive map of footpaths and
bridleways, a laudable aim, but one carried out piecemeal.
Some parishes recorded hundreds of paths, others
did almost nothing. You ended up with footpaths
that led nowhere or simply disappeared. Once
those paths failed to appear on OS maps, people
stopped walking them. The nettles grew, the ash
and sycamore seeds blew in and, within a few
years, they were invisible. If a housing estate
or a major road then appeared, that path was
truly lost. And it did not only happen in the
countryside. The Open Spaces Society has pointed
out that urban areas were often exempt from the
1949 regulations and produced no definitive maps,
leaving footpaths in cities and towns particularly under threat.
Howland has a rough estimate of losses from his
own experience. In my area I expect an annual
loss of half a percent mostly from new buildings and roads.
Those missing paths can be the vital element in
a good circular walk, or access to great countryside.
These are ancient rights of way, Cornish adds.
Rights built up over centuries. And its not
just about walkers: cyclists and horse riders need them, too.
We reach a sign Private road, access only
and ignore it. Its a public bridleway, says
Howland, reassuringly. One of the ramblers finds
a sign lost in the undergrowth and, producing a
pair of secateurs, quickly makes it visible again.
Walking with Howland is to see the British
landscape through a fresh pair of eyes. Where I
see walls of thorny bushes, he sees a double
hedge hiding an ancient drovers path; where I
see neat white posts at the entrance to someones
drive, Howland sees a devious attempt to gull the
public into believing they are on private land;
most of all, where I see cul-de-sacs and dead
ends, he spots opportunities to discover lost
routes. He reads the landscape like a detective,
building the physical elements into narratives of growth and change.
He shows me a patch of land on his OS map called
Bransbury Common that was declared open-access
land under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act
2000. Almost surrounded by a chalk stream, it was
both biologically important and a local beauty
spot. For as long as it has been an open-access
area, the two bridges that once allowed entry
have been unusable. They have never been
replaced. The public have the right to be on
Bransbury Common, says Howland. But getting there is harder.
He has seen abandoned railways, used as footpaths
and recorded as such on OS maps, summarily closed
when new owners arrive. In other places,
agricultural schemes such as the Countryside
Stewardship demand that landowners open up paths
in return for payments. When the schemes finish,
these permissive paths can disappear overnight.
On other occasions, new owners simply dont
understand local traditions. In October 2016, for
example, villagers in Bratton, in Wiltshire, were
astonished to find a traditional riverside path
through watercress beds blocked by barbed wire
and private property signs. A London property
dealer had bought the local mill and erected the
barriers. It took a two-year court battle to
establish that the path was a legal right of way.
There are two ways to recover a lost path,
Cornish says. By proving regular public use over
a 20-year period without any attempt to prevent
access by a landowner, and by detective work on historical maps.
What about the Markway, I ask. How did that disappear?
Almost by accident. Howland says. In the
second world war, a Hurricane fighter base was
built here and the path temporarily blocked. That
order was not rescinded until 1956. By then it
was too late: the last mile of the route had got
overgrown and forgotten. If not for Howland,
this right of way would have permanently disappeared.
We stop talking to stroll along a short section
of busy road, before turning once again on to a
path where spindle flowers gleam like nubs of
coral in the hedge. A kestrel cuts away across
the field, glorying in its freedom. We come
eventually into the pretty thatched village of
Chilbolton and, in the way of all good country walks, reach a pub.
Over a bowl of hot soup, Howland shows me the
paperwork that each Definitive Map Modification
Order entails. It does take hours of work, but a
lot of the information and maps are now online.
The National Library of Scotland website is
particularly useful. You dont need to be
spending days in the National Archives at Kew, interesting as that would be.
The campaign has put pressure on under-resourced
local councils. Hampshires executive member for
rural affairs, Edward Heron, pointed out to me
that Hampshire has seen a rise in applications
from five a year to 35. We expect that these
increases will continue until the closure date of 2026.
The good news is that any application submitted
by the 2026 deadline will, eventually, go through
the legal process of assessment and consultation.
Meanwhile Howland is planning more routes. His
diffident manner masks a steely determination,
and he clearly likes the elements of research and
historical analysis. Its given me a better
understanding of how the landscape changes and
develops. In theory, that research could go back
to the era of Richard I. His reign, which began
on 4 July 1189, is the beginning of legal time.
In practice, many rights of way date back to the
enclosure acts of 1750 to 1850. Either way the
sense of a long game being played is palpable and Howland knows it.
A restored right of way will usually last for
ever. He smiles. There arent many tasks in
life that you can say that about.
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