Roger Ratcliffe takes to the paths – with stile

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Don’t get me on to the subject of the crap summer I’ve had because of the number of times I have ended up being drenched despite the forecast promising a fine day for walking.

But if you insist, here’s what happened when I went striding forth along a public footpath on the south side of York, happy in the belief that summer had finally arrived. It started off a beautiful day with wall-to-wall blue skies and hot sun, but slowly turned to one of glowering clouds and sharp gusts of wind, and when the long-threatened downpour eventually began it soon resembled one of those walls of vertical water that are fashionable as interior decor features in restaurants and hotel lobbies.

The point of this story isn’t really that I got soaked to the skin, or that we’ve had a rubbish summer, or that despite billions of pounds of satellites they still can’t tell us if it’s safe to plan a walk or a barbecue in a few hours’ time. What made this walk particularly miserable was that the public footpath I was following suddenly came to an abrupt end. I had followed the route on my OS map to cross a narrow back lane, but neither stile nor signpost existed on the other side to continue the path shown on the map. It looked like they had been removed long ago.

Now, feeling as though it would be more appropriate to wear flippers instead of walking boots did not put me in the best mood for discovering that the quickest route back to my car was blocked, but if it was the only time I ever suffered this inconvenience then I’d just put it down to an unfortunate experience. But a week later virtually the same thing happened to me over in the North York Moors.

I left the Cleveland Way National Trail to the south of Whitby and headed west along a few tracks. When I turned to try and follow a public right of way shown on my GPS-enabled phone, the path simply vanished beneath my feet, obscured by acres of very thick and very ripe corn.

My discovery of the Great Public Footpath Heist continued a fortnight later in the Yorkshire Wolds near the village of Huggate and it suddenly struck me, standing right there in England’s green and pleasant land, that what I’d stumbled on was a lesser known consequence of austerity.

Until about five years ago each council had a team of footpath officers to made sure all these rights of way were properly accessible. But many were easy targets in the first round of financial cutbacks by the Con-LibDem coalition, and we are now seeing paths simply vanish from the landscape, ploughed up or allowed to become overgrown.

In national parks like the Yorkshire Dales the cuts have led to well-used paths becoming eroded through lack of maintenance after funding was reduced by almost 30 per cent. Across England’s nine national parks, budgets fell from £47.8 million in 2009-10 to £35.5 million last year and they have been warned to face further huge cuts.

In the future, access to the British countryside – something we take for granted after it was fought for by ramblers a century ago – could become a real problem.

Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe

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