The routes you love may not always be accessible if they are not registered as public rights of way. Stephen Jenkinson explains...
Few local dog walkers in Bratton, Wiltshire, ever thought a peaceful wander along a woodland path near Luccombe Mill would ever be denied to them. Villagers knew the route as the Watercress Way and had walked it for decades, until 2016 when the 17 acres of land were sold. The new owner, Henry Pelly, then blocked the path with fencing, barbed wire, and erected a ‘private’ notice.
If the path had been officially recorded as a public right of way on the local council’s records (the ‘definitive map’), Mr Pelly’s actions would have been a criminal offence. The local council could have reopened the path without his permission, and taken him to court.
However, like many well-used and much-loved paths across England and Wales, the Watercress Way was not registered as a public right of way. And so, it could only be reopened if local people could prove they had walked it without objection for many years.
And while, in this case, villagers eventually got the path reopened, the years of effort needed, combined with chronic underfunding of many local council rights of way departments, mean that many other paths will be lost and closed if they are not claimed before the government-imposed deadline of 2026.
The process can take a long time because, if the landowner objects to the path being registered, a public inquiry is often needed, where local people give evidence before an independent government inspector.
For the Watercress Way, 81 people initially gave witness statements to say they had walked the path; two years later, 11 walkers were called before Inspector Heidi Cruickshank, supported by representatives from Wiltshire Council; in total the public inquiry spanned three days.
On hearing the inspector’s decision, Philip Workman, the local resident who applied to have the path protected, said: “This is a wonderful result and the villagers are delighted that this beautiful, peaceful path has been restored for the public to use and enjoy over future generations.
“We got no prior warning that it would be shut. The landowner didn’t go to the parish council or consult with any walkers before shutting it.”
Local people were helped by the dog-friendly Open Spaces Society, which has campaigned since 1866 to protect public paths and green spaces. It is increasingly concerned that many routes will be blocked-off if people wrongly assume their well-used local paths are registered.
Are you sure your paths are protected?
- Public paths should, by law, be signposted where they start at the roadside. If they are, it’s most likely they are protected.
- Paths that aren’t signposted could be at risk. Look on an Ordnance Survey Explorer or Landranger Map (other maps are not good enough) to check; registered public paths are shown in green or red respectively.
- If there are no signs and nothing is shown on these maps, contact your local council’s rights of way department to see if they have it recorded. If it isn’t, they can advise you how to protect it.
- The Open Spaces Society has lots of useful information on its website, and can provide additional help if your local council does not have sufficient staff to assist; visit www.oss.org.uk
Outside England and Wales
- In Scotland, most paths in town, coast, and country are protected, due to the general right of responsible access to almost all public and privately owned land. However, public rights of way do exist and can be at risk if they are not used or go close to people’s homes. If you have concerns, contact your local council or Scotways; visit www.scotways.com
- In Northern Ireland, access to the countryside is severely restricted compared to England, Wales, and Scotland. While public paths and other forms of countryside access do exist, they are often vulnerable to closure, and restrictions on walkers with dogs are far more common. For more information, contact the district council.