Roaming the British countryside is our right – we must fight to preserve it | Glen O’Hara

Roaming the British countryside is our right – we must fight to preserve it | Glen O’Hara

As Covid lockdowns drag on, and full spring is still some way away, it’s inevitable that thoughts should turn to getting outdoors. That’s what is behind the constant questions about domestic or foreign holidays; and it’s what sells the seemingly endless stream of stories about cold water swimming or moving to “the country”.

It’s not just a matter of fleeting wish fulfilment. Travel and tourism are a mainstay of the British economy, accounting for about 10% of jobs and nearly 10% of GDP. Walking, cycling and generally spending time in the British countryside are among our favourite pastimes, spanning everything from high-end glamping to quick local walks with the dog.

Below the surface, though, some important questions linger: whose countryside are we talking about? Who exactly controls the rights of way that we walk and run along? How should we reach, access, enjoy the countryside? Beyond the bucolic image, politics as usual reaches everywhere.

Those questions used to be thought of as straightforward. In the immediate postwar period, a mix of socialist principle and concerns about the health of the British people came together to create the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 – a law designed to open up the land to everyone.

The national parks were of course the flagship achievement: but the act was also supposed to lead to a definitive map of rights of way in England and Wales, with local councils drawing up a draft version within just three years. It never happened: many customary paths were indistinct; conflicts between landowners and those who wanted access to their fields were too acute; and the whole process was far too complex to administer, let alone finalise.

Since there seemed no end to the wrangles, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 – the same legislation that finally enshrined the right to roam into law, after decades of argument – set a deadline to settle the question once and for all. For most of the country, that date is now coming up fast, in rambling terms at least: it’s 1 January 2026.

That’s the reason for the Ramblers walking charity’s Don’t Lose Your Way campaign, which is currently mobilising volunteers to scour records and the landscape for lost paths, or rights of way that soon might be lost. They’ve already found 49,000 miles of them, though some of course may have been misidentified.

You can help with that project by volunteering with Don’t Lose Your Way, or joining third sector groups such as the Open Spaces Society. Many academics have been doing their small bit for the cause too. Along with a colleague from Newcastle University, I have recently started a large-scale project to look at rights of way across England and Wales and the troubles of the original 1949 map.

But there is really a need for a wider cultural shift, moving still further away from the idea of “access” and towards the idea of equal rights that we all enjoy together. That’s not how it looks right now, for a number of reasons.

First of all, and most obviously, without clearer routes into outdoor spaces of any type we will remain very divided as to who can get out on two feet. One survey recently showed that only 39% of black, Asian and minority ethnic Britons had access to green space nearby, as opposed to 57% of the population as a whole.

At root, though, the question is one of vision. The outdoors tourism industry can be a very individualistic thing. The health benefits we are sold are real, but personal: walking is good for you. You stand up straight, you strengthen your posture, you get a good lungful of fresh air. The walker in the landscape, moreover, is usually depicted as well-equipped with mountain gear, is often a man, and is usually white.

But the whole picture could and should be seen in a different frame – exploring the outdoors as experienced with friends, parents, colleagues, citizens. Walkers are usually pictured boldly and confidently traversing the landscape in ones and twos – never, as they might be, big groups of friends, or bedraggled, confused city-dwellers enjoying just how unsure they are about the path ahead.

That’s what imagining our huge network of paths – byways and bridleways as a collective resource, in trust for all of us – can help with: entrenching our connection with every detail that we see on foot, bike or horseback, as part of a slow, ragged jumble of everyone’s journeys. No one walks on their own. Even if they’ve set off alone, they walk in others’ footsteps.

Unfortunately, the present Conservative government – despite warm words – is no particular friend of access as collective entitlement. The current environment bill contains no legally binding targets on access, alongside those it provides for biodiversity, air and water quality and waste reduction. Constant talk of making trespass a criminal not a civil offence could deter people from walking or riding in nature in case they are prosecuted.

The emphasis on the individual is again very unhelpful, and the collective social history of Britain’s paths reveals a very different story, one that is more political than commonly assumed – though one that has far to go if everyone is to be included.

Arguing for the 1949 bill, Labour’s minister of town and country planning, Lewis Silkin, said: “Now at last we shall be able to see that the mountains of Snowdonia, the Lakes, and the waters of the Broads, the moors and dales of the Peak, the South Downs and the tors of the west country belong to the people as a right and not as a concession”. Our rights are still urgent, and still too little understood.

  • Glen O’Hara is professor of modern and contemporary history at Oxford Brookes University and the principal investigator of the AHRC-funded project In All Our Footsteps: Tracking, Mapping and Experiencing Rights of Way in Post-War Britain

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