The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 gave the Great British public until 2026 to find and record 'missing' paths.
We’re sitting on a labyrinth of lost trails in the UK, and without your help they could be gone forever. Peruse it or lose it!
How to help
- “Know your MP” argues Kieran Foster from CyclingUK. They hold the real executive power in the UK and can actually make things happen. “Talk to them about access for mountain bikers, about rights of way and land that could be opened up at very little cost, and not the pipe dream of open access in the UK,” Kieran says.
- Act well. Be a proper ambassador for the sport, which means following the Be Nice, Say Hi campaign from CyclingUK and the British Horse Society. We need to show people we’re not a bunch of illegal trail builders.
- Join The Ramblers campaign if you’ve got the time to do the research. There’s a map at dontloseyourway.ramblers.org.uk to let you see where potential routes might lie unclaimed. We found something around our favourite Lakes route that takes in Nan Bield pass, a little section of trail that would chop out a short section of road. It’s exciting stuff, although we’ve got to stress that you don’t currently have a right to any of the potential routes flagged up on the #dontloseyourway map.
- Join the CyclingUK Missing Links campaign, there are local access forums to let you contribute and discuss what’s going on in your area and there’s also a Cycle Advocacy Network to let you get involved.
England and Wales are rich in rideable trails – by some estimates there are over 30,000km of bridleways and close to 10,000km of byways to play on, not to mention 146,000km of footpaths. Scotland’s just as well off, with around 15,000km of public rights of way. But until recently we’d always assumed that was our lot. With the country divided up over millennia and no new land springing up from the sea, we were hardly likely to see more rights of way drawn on our maps. How wrong we were… it turns out there could be some 49,000km of lost paths, potential singletrack heaven, dotted about the countryside. Who knew?
Well, it turns out all of us should have known about them, by right. Back in the 1950s and 60s a definitive map of the country was drawn up by the local authorities that supposedly charted every single right of way going. Much of the job was palmed off on local parish councils though and it turns out that some of them didn’t do a very good job… perhaps understandably, given their limited budgets and expertise.
“Some parishes remembered to include a path, and some didn’t,” explains Jack Cornish from The Ramblers, a walking charity that’s been spearheading the campaign to return rights of way to our maps. “In some cases there will be a path recorded up to edge of one parish, and there it’ll just finish because the next parish didn’t record it on their side.”
If you’ve ever ridden a dead-end trail or one that starts as a bridleway before mysteriously turning into a footpath or a supposedly private track, you’ll know the heartache of that one.
The government wants to make amends, though, for 70 years of omissions. Or rather, the Blair government that passed the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 wanted to. The idea was to give us until 2026 to find everything that was missing. Twenty six years should be long enough, surely? Well, now that there are only five years left before we lose them all forever, it seems not. The hard deadline exists as a compromise with landowners, who potentially bought their property in good faith, did the requisite searches, only to find out there’s a right of way straight through their garden. There had to be an end, but it’s come too soon, explains Jack Cornish.
“In 2000 there were assurances there would be lots of money to spend for the government to do the job, but that hasn’t happened,” he says. “We never expected it would fall to The Ramblers to do the work. We’re calling for an extension of five years, at least.” It’s time-consuming work too – volunteers have to apply to the local authority, and provide the evidence that a path really has existed, and that on the balance of probabilities it was used by the general public – this involves physically hunting through local archives. The local authority can then make a decision on the application, although it can be contested almost endlessly.
As it stands, there’s no way The Ramblers can work through the lost ways in time, so it’s trying to prioritise what’s important, which involves using common sense. That means not trying to save paths that run through people’s gardens, instead focusing on dead ends, paths that link villages or perhaps connect to the coastal paths.
“We don’t want to claim everything, we’ve got 225,000 miles of established rights of way and we see very few issues with that in terms of landowners,” Jack says. “Having a right of way will not make a farm uneconomical, most landowners see benefits in terms of the rural economy.”
What it will potentially do is unlock up to 25,000km of paths that could be used by mountain bikers, some half of the total so far discovered. Why is the percentage so high, given the proliferation of existing footpaths exceeds bridleways by around three to one? “The evidence will be easier to find as they were historically carriageways or roads,” Jack says. “They therefore had higher status and more maintenance money or were public roads, whereas footpaths are more ephemeral.” That’s the good news. Less good is that while this issue is clearly one that affects many outdoor user groups, from walkers to mountain bikers via horse riders, it’s The Ramblers that are doing most of the leg work with its Don’t Lose Your Way campaign. It’s a fantastic campaign calling for volunteers to find trails and prove they’re old rights of way, but the focus will definitely be on walking paths rather than mountain biking trails.
The other drawback with The Ramblers Don’t Lose Your Way initiative is how long it takes to get rights of way returned to the map. “It’s not going to deliver anytime soon because there’s a huge backlog of submissions going through, and fundamentally the system is broken,” explains Kieran Foster from CyclingUK. “That’s the trouble with 2026, you could put in a claim now and it could be 20 years until it’s resolved.” Clearly, a very small percentage of those lost kilometres will actually make it to print on an OS map, then.
Like The Ramblers, CyclingUK is aware of the problem and has been in discussions with other user groups about how best to legitimise these rights of way. It’s currently on a mission to improve public access, find ways of upgrading missing rights of way, make impassable trails more accessible, and calm traffic on road sections of its routes. Called the Missing Links campaign, the goal is to create a network of traffic-free trails, which could be more useful for cyclists… but it’s not a dedicated push aimed at mountain bikers.
As mountain bikers, then, we aren’t making our numbers count. We’ve been slow to join The Ramblers scheme, probably because we’re not first and foremost walkers, but we’ve also been slow to join any kind of trail advocacy negotiations full stop, according to Kieran from CyclingUK.
“Throughout the whole time I’ve been working on trail advocacy, since 2002, it’s been hard to engage mountain bikers in the process,” he says. “If you talk about trail building you’ll get 20 people wanting to come, but general trail advocacy – it’s almost impossible. Mountain bikers just don’t want to leaf though paperwork in the records office, they don’t have time, and they just want to ride their bikes.”
Mountain bikers need to get better at this, and start claiming the unofficial routes we’ve been riding for years, according to Kieran. Far from building new trails, then, Kieran wants to see mountain bikers putting rights of way claims to the council for paths that they’ve been using for more than 20 years.
“The Deregulation Act 2015 will help, it will simplify rights of way claims, although we’re still waiting for it to be enacted,” Kieran says. “I’d focus on the footpaths that people have been using for years and could be claimed – the basic rule to bear in mind is that if they’ve been used for 20 years they can be claimed, although the caveat is there’s loads of small print in that basic rule. Of course we shouldn’t claim them all, we wouldn’t be able to, and besides some are really not suitable… but lots are.”
The past 18 months have reminded us all how important it is to have a working network of trails reaching into every part of the country. More trails would of course be great, but perhaps just as useful would be official and recognised access to trails that already exist. This would stand us in good stead to grow the sport and bring us the proper recognition we deserve. Helping to find the lost rights of way is a laudable aim; so too would be helping CyclingUK fill in its missing links, but perhaps the easiest and most important thing we can all do is just get out and ride… oh and be nice and say ‘hi’.