The variety and extent of our footpaths

2016 August Great Langdale weekend (22)

In England and Wales we are lucky enough to have around 140,000 miles of footpath or rights of way to explore.  This is more than the 111,000 miles [180,000 kms] in France [a bigger country].  These footpath, bridal ways and tracks may have been used by Neolithic ancestors, such as the Ridgeway or might be a medieval corpse route or coffin route, linking outlying villages with the burial ground, like the beautiful route from Grasmere in the Lake District.  As well as shorter routes between settlements there are numerous long distance paths; even urban Salford has one.

This network of paths is something we easily take for granted.  We accept that from anywhere in England and Wales you can walk out of your front door and very soon be on a footpath, devoid of cars.  We can browse the relevant excellent Ordnance Survey map and put together a walk of the length and difficulty that suits us that particular day.  We moan when a landowner tries to block a path with some barbed wire or does not maintain the gate but these things can usually be overcome.  It seems in other countries this network of rights of way does not exist.  In the USA there are many excellent trails and paths but these are in specific areas such as national parks that often have to be driven to.  Here in the UK land ownership may come with the obligation to maintain a right of way, a wonderful example of the privilege being required to work for the public good.  Since the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act we also now have open access land, this is uncultivated land where everyone has the right to roam at will, that is away from footpaths.  This land is generally mountains or moorland and may also be privately owned.

Of course, while not all landowners and farmers take care of their footpaths to ensure good access, not all walkers are well behaved either and both sides clash in conflicts from time to time.  Through spring, as lambs begin to appear in our fields I am always horrified to read the usual batch of stories of dog owners who do not maintain control of their dogs within a flock of sheep appear.  The National Sheep Association gives clear advice for dog owners that should be common sense.  The incident last year when 116 sheep died due to being chased by dogs was unusual for the scale but losing even one sheep can be devastating for a farmer.

Walking is great exercise, affordable and good for our mental health.  Taking a walk gives me a chance to think and it is when my brain is most creative.  There are plenty of websites and blogs giving details of the benefits of walking and ideas for routes.  We are lucky to have this network of footpaths to be able to get out and enjoy traffic-free routes and we should fight to keep them when they are under threat.