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.Continue reading “Britain’s footpaths”