Sam Thompson is standing at the end of the footpath that he is helping to save. There is no sign, just a gate and a post adorned with a few strands of barbed wire. “I started walking this route a few months ago. It connects to woods that otherwise I’d have to walk through a housing estate to reach.”
We are in the York suburb of Acomb, a former village now swamped by sprawling post-second-world-war housing developments. To outsiders, it can seem like an endless, stupefying maze of long bends and cul-de-sacs where car drivers are kept awake only by extraordinary numbers of crumbling speed bumps. “We’re in our 20s,” says Thompson. “It was what we could afford.” We climb the gate and start down a narrow path lined by tall grasses, soon dodging through a hedge to emerge in a wild meadow, beyond which lies a line of trees. The change from brick and asphalt to rural beauty is dramatic and totally unexpected.
A few months ago, I wrote a story in these pages about the urgent need to identify and reclaim lost rights of way in Britain. After the story appeared, a member of the UK walking charity Ramblers posted handwritten notes through all the houses on Thompson’s street alerting them to a local path under threat. It was a path that was used but its legal status was uncertain. Boots on the ground were needed. “This path has changed my perception of Acomb,” Thompson says. “The fact that I can be in fields and woods so quickly: I’m definitely happier and more at home now.”
He wrote to the Guardian to tell us about it, and he was one of many: we received tales of ongoing battles and those that had only just begun. Readers described finding fallen footpath signs and heading off through beds of nettles to identify local rights of way that had been forgotten. Others, working from maps, began to discover lost paths in their own neighbourhoods while a considerable number had been reminded of lost routes they had known as children. There were cases of schools putting up fences that blocked much-loved and well-used routes across playing fields. A huge range of issues were raised: changes in farming practices, austerity cuts to local government, access to coast and riverbanks, access to riverbanks when the river moves and ones pertaining to the law about paths that have been established by regular public usage (a footpath can be established as a right of way by regular use for 20 years if there has been no attempt to prevent access by the landowner).
At the Ramblers, the Guardian reader response was deeply felt and appreciated. “Around 4,000 copies of our practical guide to saving footpaths were downloaded,” says Jack Cornish, the coordinator for the Don’t Lose Your Way project. “Lots of people got in touch with personal stories. It was fantastic. Of course, the process takes time, but I’m sure we’re going to save hundreds of miles of previously unidentified rights of way.”
He is under no illusions about the significance. “The response highlights how much more is out there. There are large areas of the country from which we hear very little. Potentially, there are thousands more miles that could disappear without immediate action. We urgently need more people to get involved.”
The reason for the urgency is the UK government’s decision to set 1 January 2026 as a deadline for applications to change definitive maps held by local councils. These maps are supposed to show every public right of way in existence, but in practice, they do not. When the maps were drawn up in 1949, the recording process was patchy and fairly arbitrary: some parishes faithfully set down all their paths, some managed a proportion, others did almost nothing.
Some of the omissions are shocking: drovers’ roads used for centuries suddenly truncated, key access ways to historic sites or coastal features vanished. One reader found a local walk that simply ended in the middle of a wood, an orphan caused by the boundary between Herefordshire and Shropshire. “It was great fun researching the history of the footpath and I learned a huge amount,” he says. The application is now lodged, and despite the frustrating pace at which local authorities are examining each case, the application will stand, beyond the 2026 deadline if necessary.
Near St Just in Cornwall, a Guardian reader discovered a vital path connecting to the south-west coastal route. “It was almost invisible due to high ferns growing all over, but it was possible to follow the traces. It is not a long stretch and could be cleared with a brush cutter.”
In Devon a group of locals, the Brentor Commons Association, identified a lost drover’s path then got a grant from the Co-op Local Causes to fund restoration. Their centuries-old path, now named The Holloway, has become a popular local walk.
In Leintwardine, Herefordshire, estate maps from 1780 helped Jonathan Hopkinson identify a lost way, possibly part of a Roman road. The application to change the definitive map is now under way and Hopkinson has identified two further paths that will help create a circular route.
For Jack Cornish, a key discovery of the project has been the history behind every lost footpath. One right of way was rediscovered after an observant art-lover spotted an interesting aspect to a Gainsborough painting in Tate Britain. “He had worked out the spot where Gainsborough had painted the picture in 1747 and, from that, after checking old maps, had realised that the artist had been using a footpath, one subsequently lost.”
Stephen Whittle had a similar experience with an 1892 painting by Thomas Prytherch that showed an access lane down to the River Severn at Wroxeter, an ancient route and one Stephen had used as a child to go swimming, but which was now blocked by gates. Maps from the 19th century back up his claim.
The battle for rights of way is certainly not a new one. Prof Eric Jones, an emeritus professor at Melbourne’s La Trobe University and the author of Landed Estates and Rural Inequality in English History, has found many examples of losses going back to the 17th century. “The appropriation of rights of way,” he writes, “is a perpetual but surprisingly overlooked aspect of England’s much-studied landscape.” Preferences for privacy and fine views led landowners to demolish villages and reroute, or simply obliterate, roads and paths. Jones points to a typical case in Methley, West Yorkshire, when, in 1627, Sir Henry Savile built a new park and refused to countenance “a common road way” through it. The right of way simply disappeared.
At some point, all of us have probably wondered why the routes of certain roads can be so capricious, suddenly darting around an apparently unnecessary right angle. The answer is often in the past. The A350 between Shaftesbury and Blandford Forum, for example, does a big loop to avoid a certain fish pond, the property in the 17th century of the Beckford family, whose sugar plantations in Jamaica paid for their Dorset estate to be remodelled, including the diversion of local roads. A contemporary trunk road, it seems, can owe its course to the slave trade.
John Andrews, a keen walker in Suffolk, is a veteran of more recent battles. He saw the original story and got in touch to tell us he has submitted more than 800 applications since 1973. “When I first asked my local council for their definitive map, they didn’t know what I was talking about.” The map was eventually found, in an attic, and Andrews pored over it with a council officer. “Our first discovery was that their new council building was built on a public footpath.”
The early years of Andrews’s campaign were marred by bullying and violence. “I was physically attacked several times by landowners.” The old one-inch OS maps were not made for walkers and caused disputes. Fortunately, with the increasing popularity of walking and hiking, plus larger-scale maps, Andrews feels attitudes have changed. His advice to those submitting applications is simple. “Go through the Ramblers, they will save you no end of time and effort. And collect strong evidence.”
For Cornish, the battle for our rights of way is about what kind of country we want to live in. “More paths means people are more likely to walk. Take away a useful cut-through in a town, for example, and someone might drive to work instead of walking. More paths mean a healthier and happier population.”
It is an argument that seems to have resonated internationally. Cornish has been contacted by media from all around the world: German journalists were in touch to ask why their own country hadn’t got a lost footpaths project. “I couldn’t really answer that!” He spent 90 minutes on the phone explaining the significance of British footpaths to an American who went everywhere by car. Our footpath network, of course, is an object of curiosity and envy for visitors from countries who have no such thing. Recently, I was pleasantly surprised to see a group of Asian visitors on the Lyke Wake walk on the North Yorks Moors, even more surprised when I noticed they were pulling wheelie bags.
Andrews now lives in Scotland, a country with a more positive attitude to rights of access, but his finest achievement in footpath salvation is back in Suffolk. “I used documents from the early 19th century to prove a right of way along about eight miles of the Icknield Way.” Passing over heathland and through woods, the path ran across the Guinness estate near Elveden. Andrews won the case. “That is an ancient path, I mean, the Romans improved it. Now it’s on the definitive map.”
For everyone embarking on the challenge of rescuing a right of way, his message is clear: “It’s so rewarding to see people walking a path that you rescued. Don’t be put off by the legal process. Keep going!”