Protecting England’s Public Footpaths One Hike at a Time

A writer discovers that walking Great Britain’s many footpaths is more than a lockdown salvation—it’s a civic duty.

Protecting England’s Public Footpaths One Hike at a Time

Nearly 150,000 miles of footpaths crisscross England, including this trail leading to Simonside Hills in Northumberland National Park.

Courtesy Shutterstock

The signs were everywhere, but I rarely saw them: slender green arrows mounted on metal posts, pointing out over fields, down alleyways, along rivers and canals. The white words painted on them, PUBLIC FOOTPATH, getting not so much as a thank-you for their service.

Great Britain, my native landscape, is overridden with these interconnecting footpaths—roughly 150,000 miles of trails known as public rights of way. The land they cross is often private, but public rights of way—which allow anyone to traverse that land on foot, bicycle, or even horse—have been part of the country’s history since the Dark Ages, enshrined in law for centuries.

We all found our own ways of coping with lockdown. Some people turned to fitness videos, some to baking, some to games nights. I escaped to the footpaths. My parents’ cottage in Buckinghamshire, 40 miles northwest of London, was small for three people who had had a lifetime of each other’s foibles—but it was surrounded by countryside. And so, for the sake of my sanity, I walked every day.

Courtesy Shutterstock

Courtesy Shutterstock

Footpaths operate on the same principle as red-car syndrome: Once your brain is aware of their existence, they proliferate madly. I rarely repeated a route; each new possibility had to be explored. A month after lockdown began, I found myself following a trail I’d never before noticed. It was lined on both sides by tall hedges, the path made narrower by shoulder-high elder trees, which offered high fives as I passed.

Halfway up a gentle incline, a wooden stile spilled me into open space. Looking back, I could see for miles. To my left, stippled cows peered benevolently from their paddock. To my right, a field of yellow rapeseed ran all the way to a cluster of houses and a stone-turreted church. At the field’s edges were more hills, embroidered with forest, above it a sky of urgent blue. My breath caught. I was looking at one of the prettiest views of the British countryside I had ever seen. And I had never encountered it before, despite visiting this area for two decades. I had known what a freedom Britain’s footpaths were; now I understood they were also a privilege.

Footpaths operate on the same principle as red-car syndrome: Once your brain is aware of their existence, they proliferate madly.

I won’t be the only one who found herself appreciating something that’s been in her backyard all this time. With time on our hands and our movements curtailed, we all see the world around us more clearly. The question is: What do we do with our new perspective? Personally, I feel a sense of responsibility to protect these footpaths. Public rights of way in Britain are formalized on the basis of use. However, many were left off of government maps drawn up in 1949. Over generations, hundreds, possibly even thousands of miles of paths have been forgotten, or built over, or made impassable by landowners. In 2000, Parliament decreed that any historic rights of way that are not on the official record by 2026 will be gone forever.

An online campaign, launched in February just before COVID-19 hit Great Britain, has provided access to old maps and encouraged citizens to hunt for—and help register—paths that have fallen off the government’s official record. It feels a worthwhile pursuit, as I begin to emerge from isolation. Wherever you are in this mostly post-lockdown world, whatever it is you’ve grown to appreciate, it’s the perfect time to take the next step and pledge to preserve it.

>>Next: The New American Perimeter Trail Will Be the Longest Hiking Route in the U.S.

Emma John is a journalist at the Observer newspaper in the United Kingdom, and a contributing writer to AFAR. She lives in London and regularly writes on travel for the Guardian.
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