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I recently attended a very interesting one-day workshop held by the Penwith Landscape Partnership (PLP) here in Cornwall. The subject of the workshop was ‘Rights of Way, Surveying and the Law’.

The course was designed to help volunteers become proficient in surveying access routes, reporting any problems found and teaching about the law regarding different types of access. The day was led by Linda Holloway, a Senior Officer in Cornwall Council’s Countryside Access Team, well versed in all aspects of the subject.

We discussed the three main categories of public routes, which are:

  • Public footpaths – designed for walkers only. Dogs are allowed, but no special provision is made for them (at stiles, etc).
  • Bridleways – For horses, walkers, and cyclists.
  • Byeways – Which allow vehicles in addition to the above (sometimes restricted, e.g. for landowner access only).

Unrestricted access to the above is determined by the Definitive Map, which was set in 1952 (with some subsequent additions). If a path is marked on this map, then the public has the right to access, by law. Of course, in many cases, landowners find it inconvenient to have public pathways across their land, and will often try to discourage their use. This may be by use of off-putting signs (beware of the bull, trespassers will be prosecuted, etc.) or some form of obstruction such as locked or blocked gates, overgrown paths, intimidating livestock in fields, etc.

We heard of several horror stories where landowners had been prosecuted, including some awful cases where people had been severely injured in accidents.

All incidents of lack of access, or damage to paths on the Definitive Map should be immediately reported to the local council, who will follow-up and take appropriate action to restore access.

So how does all of this affect those of us who like to visit ancient sites? Well, it’s a sad fact that many pathways are not included on the definitive map. In 2012, the government announced plans to simplify the recording of definitive paths. Under these plans, all unrecorded footpaths and bridleways created before 1949 will no longer be recorded after 1 January 2026. This means that pathways that have been available for use to access the countryside that are not on the definitive map are in severe danger of being lost/closed for future use.

So what can be done to protect these unregistered pathways for future generations to use? There are several initiatives underway to get pathways added to the Definitive Map before the deadline expires.

  • The Ramblers organisation has produced a downloadable guide to help identify and register ‘lost’ pathways.
  • The British Horse Society provides online maps for most of the country, showing definitive and lost pathways, and providing links to older maps to assist with evidencing historical usage of paths.
  • Restoring the Record illustrates the sorts of evidence that are valuable in recording paths of historic origin. This is important because unrecorded routes will cease to exist on Path Extinguishment Day (1 January 2026).
  • Rights of Way Maps provides a search facility for maps showing existing (registered) rights of way. Useful for identifying existing registered paths.

In order to be added to the Definitive List, evidence of the use of a pathway must be provided. This may be a witness statement indicating regular usage, documentary evidence on old maps or tithe apportionments, or other historical evidence.

If you care at all about rights of way, and particularly if you regularly use a currently unregistered path to access ancient monuments in our countryside, please consider getting involved in registering our paths via one of the projects listed above before they are irretrievably lost!

 

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