Silent Walks
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Paths and trails in Britain


Many paths go back hundreds and even thousands of years, routes which locals took to get to Church, the local market or other villages. The routes developed naturally as convenient links that were passable in all seasons. Some of the long distance routes such as the Ridgeway have existed for over 5000 years, providing travellers and drovers with a reliable and safe route. (High level routes such as the Ridgeway, with its commanding views deterring ambush, as well as providing good drainage.)

During the Victorian era with the increasing industrialisation and urbanisation of Britain, townspeople of all classes ventured more and more out into the countryside for escape and relaxation from their built up environment. The paths where you could walk were simply a matter of local knowledge handed down from generation to generation.

After the Second World War and following on from a number of cases of contention over what was a right of way, the Government passed the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, which in addition to creating the National Parks Commission addressed the issue of public rights of way and access to open land for England and Wales. Essentially public rights of way are paths on which the public have a legally protected right to pass. (The situation in Scotland is different – there a route that meets certain conditions may be defined as a right of way.)

A public right of way is established as a consequence of:

Presumed dedication (most common) - where a path has been used for longer than anyone can remember, or Deemed dedication, where the use of the public right of way has been in existence for 20 years or more, (in that the law assumes that the landowner, by not making any objection in the past, has dedicated a right of way) or Express dedication, where the landowner has given a public right of way across their land.

All of the above are permanent. There are other forms of right of access on foot which may be withdrawn by the landowner such as permissive path and licenced bridleway etc.

Rights of way exist where they have been designated, and are recorded on 'definitive maps' maintained by local authorities for their respective areas.


In Britain there are four main types of public rights of way.

1. Footpath

This public right of way is for walkers only. (Marked on Ordnance Survey (OS) maps as short green dashes. Ref.: Legend below.)

Path as marked on OS maps.

2. Bridleway

This public right of way is for walkers, horse-riders and cyclists only. (Marked on OS maps as long green dashes. Ref.: Legend above.)

3. Byway

(Short for 'Byway open to all Traffic', or BOAT). This public right of way is for all: Walkers, horse-riders, cyclists and motorised vehicles (commonly farm vehicles and motor bikes). (Marked on OS maps as long green dashes with a bar across it. Ref.: Legend above.) Originally byways were established (prior to motorised vehicles) as highways to be used by horses and carts. With the introduction of motorised vehicles use of a byway was extended to include them. Unfortunately where the surface of the byway is not tarmacked it can easily become damaged, particularly during the winter months in muddy conditions. It is for this reason that some byways now have seasonal access for non-essential motorised vehicles.

4. Road Used as a Public Path or RUPP (Now redesignated as 'Restricted Byway' )

RUPPs or Restricted Byways provide a right of way for walkers, horse riders, cyclists and other non-mechanically propelled vehicles.

Permissive / Permitted Paths

Use of these is permitted by the landowner, but they are not public rights of way and the landowner may withdraw permission. They are shown on OS maps as short orange dashes for permissive footpaths and long orange dashes for permissive bridleways.

National Trails

National Trails are long distance paths along public rights of way in England and Wales. The idea for National Trails came about after the Second World War, whereby a long distance route could be established by linking various well established (and some newly created) paths, consisting of footpaths, bridleways, byways and minor roads. They are marked with an acorn symbol on the waymarks along the route. The South Downs Way, North Downs Way, The Ridgeway and The Thames Path in the south east of England are all National Trails.

Currently there 15 National Trails in England and Wales. The first ever National Trail was The Pennine Way which was designated in 1951 and officially opened on 24th April 1965.

The First National Trail - The Pennine Way

Given the history of the area, then it is probably only right that the Pennine Way became the first National Trail in England and Wales.

The 269 mile/429km route runs along the "backbone of England" - The Pennine Hills. It owes its origin to an idea of Tom Stephenson, first secretary of the Ramblers Association. Starting at Edale in The Peak District it runs north via the Yorkshire Dales and Northumberland National Park to finish at Kirk Yetholm on the Scottish borders, just inside Scotland. (The Wider Significance of The Pennine Way.)

Access Land

Not all access to the countryside in England and Wales is restricted to defined paths, however. Land managed by the National Trust, the Forestry Commission and the Woodland Trust have long been open for access on foot anywhere. Moreover, since 2005 when the provisions of the Countryside and Rights of Way (CroW) Act 2000 came into force, 936,000 hectares of mountain, moorland, heath and other unenclosed land (shown on the map in yellow), much of which had been used for shooting and other 'field sports' and from which walkers had been excluded, have been available to walk on.

Access to coast and foreshore

This remains patchy, and is by no means universally available around the coast. However the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 enabled the creation of a national trail around the whole coastline of England and Wales. To date, the Welsh coastal path has been completed but in England halting progress only is being made in creating stretches of path to link the existing national trails (eg the South West Coastal Path and the Cleveland Way).

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