Britain’s footpaths

I grew up in Britain.  I rarely feel like moving back, but there are some genuinely wonderful things about the place.  One of them is the incredibly comprehensive network of public rights of way, especially in rural areas.  The basic principle is that any path that’s been in common use, stays in common use, even if the “path” is nothing more than a customary route across the middle of a field.  Landowners are not allowed to obstruct public access on foot, and in turn walkers are supposed to respect farmland by sticking tightly to the established path, keeping dogs under control, and so on.  And because most of the British Isles have been relatively densely populated for a long time, there are customary routes all over the place.

Although there are sometimes conflicts, the system mostly works.  It’s helped along by strong social norms, and a healthy dose of fierce and nerdy advocacy.  Landowners aren’t generally obliged to do trail maintenance, so sometimes it’s done by local governments, and more often by volunteers.  Farmers do tend to maintain stiles to allow access from one field to another without letting livestock out, and in the more populated parts of the country there’s usually someone providing stream crossings.

a stile and wooden bridge on a footpath

In a picture like this one, the stile (those wooden steps to get over the fence) is probably maintained by the farmer, and the bridge by volunteers.  Wayfinding is usually low-key but clear, and seems to be done by county authorities.  This sort of thing is typical, with enough of them that following a path is easy:

A white plastic disk a few inches across, with a big arrow pointing the way.

The paths often run between fields or skirt the edge of a field, but sometimes they just run right across the middle, a narrow strip of wear and tear that farmers have to accept:

A hiking trail that simply consists of a one foots' width line of trodden grass across a field

I’m not certain, but I suspect this happens because fields have been amalgamated over time, and when a landowner joins two fields they’re not allowed to move the right-of-way.  I’m guessing that’s also the story behind oddities like this:

A stile with a footpath marker, in the middle of a field with no fence.

 The paths also often take odd turns that don’t follow obvious barriers or direct routes between anything of interest, but again I’m sure that’s because they’re frozen in time and made sense once.  It must be frustrating for farmers to have these unalterable paths across their fields, but with the amount of combining and dividing of fields that’s happened over the centuries it’s easy to see how the network would wither by attrition if it wasn’t so protected.  The beauty of this system is just how many routes have been preserved by it:

Screenshot of a map centred on Moreton-in-Marsh and showing a great density of walking routes

In that screenshot from the Long Distance Walkers’ Association‘s site, all the skinny lines are well-mapped footpaths.  To give you a sense of scale, North to South on that map is a long day of leisurely walking with stops in pubs and to take pictures.

I got to spend a few days last Spring doing exactly that, and have some more photos online here.

Looking at the map you may also notice some very entertaining place names, but that’s another story for another day….

2 thoughts on “Britain’s footpaths”

  1. This is so cool! I’ve wanted to go walk there since I was a kid with serious anglophilia (which I’ve mostly outgrown, though I’ve still never been.) I do love walking about.

    1. The similarly dense network of commuter rail lines out of London is a great companion to this. There’s a lot of good hiking just a short train ride from central London. The Saturday Walkers’ Club will be your friend if you ever get around to this trip:

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