Some weeks back I followed a public footpath along a field edge in East Yorkshire only to find that it led into a large dome of brambles. Unfortunately, the Ordnance Survey map offered no clues as to which way I should turn. Actually, that’s not strictly true – the green dotted line indicating the public right of way showed that the footpath terminated abruptly, giving me no choice but to turn round and retrace my steps.
The onward section of path that once existed had been covered up, simply erased from the landscape as if it had never existed. It was my latest encounter with one of 20,000 miles of public footpaths that the Ramblers walkers’ rights group says have disappeared from maps in England and Wales. Okay, another 140,000 miles of paths are still in use but to lose so many of them under the plough is worrying.
The same thing has happened to the bridleway network. There’s an intricate web of them around where I live, used by walkers and mountain bikers as well as horse riders, but like footpaths many no longer appear on OS maps.
Those concerned about this have an increasing sense of urgency to try to put it right. According to the Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act any footpath and bridleway that was known to be in existence before 1949 but wasn’t formally recorded on maps will be legally extinguished in 2026. So there’s now a frantic effort to survey and register all lost routes in the countryside.
Seven years’ grace to do the work may seem generous, but I’m told that local councils that are responsible for public rights of way are simply not up to the task. “They haven’t been given the manpower or funds to do the paperwork,” says a friend who sits on Calderdale Council’s Local Access Forum in West Yorkshire. One well-used path has spent nearly 20 years “bound up in red tape”, she adds, and still hasn’t been legally agreed as a right of way.
There are 5,000 other such applications waiting to be processed in England and Wales, and the way things are going only a fraction of them will be successful.
The issue has been raised by the DJ and writer Stuart Maconie, who is current president of the Ramblers. “Thousands of miles of historic rights of way are at risk of being lost for ever,” he said recently. “We must not miss this opportunity to put these paths back on the map, ensuring that they can be used and enjoyed by generations to come.”
In the parts of Yorkshire where I do most of my walking, I frequently see routes that are not marked as legal rights of way, and I have a feeling that the figure of 20,000 miles of lost paths quoted by the Ramblers seriously underestimates the problem.
To survey even half of them, and then go through the painstaking process of recording each one on a map and submitting them to councils already suffering an applications logjam could take decades.
Which is why the 2026 deadline is absurd. If the environment secretary Michael Gove is serious about offering farmers subsidies for opening up the countryside to more public access, as he said last year, he should scrap the deadline.
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