The Benefits of Using Public Footpaths in the English Countryside
Public Footpaths for Walking and Hiking
Your mind, body and spirit can benefit from using the public footpaths in England. The English countryside is criss-crossed by a huge network of ancient pathways that can take you into the heart of any particular landscape. They're a mix of old shepherd trails, packhorse routes, farm tracks and priest's ways - ancient paths that have been in regular use, day after day, for centuries.
In England (and Wales) there is an estimated 140,000 miles of public rights of way! For a relatively small island that's an enormous amount of mileage. It just shows how important these walkways were to mostly rural folk who had to go about their business and make a living.
What makes these footpaths unique is the fact that they can be found in the most unusual locations - they cross river bridges, bisect farm yards and sports pitches, quietly follow a graveyard wall, cut between modern housing estates before heading out into the fields.
I use public footpaths every day, walking a few miles when time allows, building up to long distance walks occasionally, getting out into Nature and fresh air. Some of these paths can take you into unexpected secret places where you can end up discovering things you would never get near in a car, or even on a bike.
That's why I think they've survived into this modern age. People will always want to walk, to escape, to experience the thrill of getting from A to B to C using only their feet and often, with no need of a map.
- you get to keep physically fit.
- walking can definitely lower stress levels.
- you may even lose weight.
- you can exercise your organisational skills when planning new walks.
- you experience the countryside at first hand.
- walking with others is of social benefit.
- being out in Nature is uplifting for the spirit.
- you help continue a long tradition of using public rights of way.
- you get to choose which pathway, where to finish, how far to go etc.
- you learn about your local environment.
- you see loads of wildlife.
- there is often a pub at the end of your walk.
- there could be a pub half way through your walk.
Rights of Way
In England and Wales (Scotland and Ireland have their own distinct laws regarding this issue), any member of the public can walk along a path that is a legal right of way, whether the landowner likes it or not.These paths are owned by the highway authority, the local council, and they are responsible for maintaining them in good condition.
By tradition some of these paths cut across farmer's fields and can take you out into remote areas. I've followed many a path through fields full of golden barley and wheat, and on into hills and mountains, which is a gloriously uplifting experience on a hot summer's day, with larks rising.
In contrast I've trudged miles through mud and muck only to end up at a field gate with a sign - Beware of the Bull - or on occasion reached a dead end, no sign of an ongoing path or way forward without trespassing.
Legally a farmer can't keep a mature bull in a field with a public footpath crossing. And a landowner can't suddenly just decide to divert a right of way to mislead or deter walkers and travellers. Some do. I've seen public footpath signs knocked over and hidden in the undergrowth;I've seen obstructions placed at certain crossing points say from field to farmyard, where it's obvious the owners don't want people to use 'their' land. But this is rare.
Generally speaking most footpaths are maintained to a good standard, they're clear and will take you to where you want to go. It's possible to walk for miles out in the countryside, through woods and fields, over rivers and streams, avoiding the noise and stink of traffic and urban life.
Perfect for lovers of nature, wanderers and dreamers.
Some paths are not legally right of way but can be used by the public if the landowner gives permission.
From Village to Church to Wood to Mountain
Before roads and canals, bicycles, cars and tractors, before horses and mules, there were people walking. This was the only guaranteed way to get to work, to church, to the store or shop, to a neighbour. Many of the public footpaths in England still faithfully follow the routes the ancestors trod.
If you look on a detailed map of England (an Ordnance Survey map for example, see below) you'll see dotted red lines going here, there and everywhere, like little capillaries branching off a vein or artery. These are footpaths. Choose one at random and follow it closely and it'll lead you to other paths, tracks, woods, roads and long distance trails.
Can You get from Grange Farm to Park Wood? On Footpaths Alone?
The Right to Wander and Preserve
In the UK and many parts of Europe, across the globe right now, the preservation of open unspoilt space - wilderness - is a hot topic. With populations growing and competition for land increasing to unprecedented levels, the pressure on landowners and governments to build houses and factories is enormous.
Bit by bit, path by path, once green land is disappearing as development accelerates in England. Hardly surprising but very worrying. To help maintain a balance, local rambler groups and other voluntary organisations lobby councils and officials in an effort to keep the ancient rights of way open for all.
They do a great job. Without someone standing up for these pathways and for the environment they pass through, who knows what might happen? Wild places would undoubtedly start to disappear.
Once hooked on public footpaths it's very difficult to give them up. I need at least a mile a day, more, or I start to get cravings.
There's something addictive about a path that takes you out into the wilds, pure and simple, through the forest shadows, across the pasture, over the beck with the cow drinking, up the field side against a dry stone wall where the fox likes to jump on his way to Low Fold Farm, past the lone oak centuries weathered, through the stone stile and on towards Kirkburton church, home to the tawny owl who drops his pellets on the side entrance slabs having finished off his meal atop the squat tower.
The Length of the UK - Lands End to John O'Groats
Is it possible to walk the length of the UK solely on public footpaths, bridleways, byways and other permitted paths? Many have tried and some have almost achieved the goal - avoiding modern tarmac roads is a huge challenge on such a cluttered island! To truly stay 100% rural would mean back-tracking, deviation and frustration because many of the old footpaths aren't straight. They take you to the left, to the right and often end up joining a tarmac road. It would be a hard task but who knows?
All images by the author unless otherwise stated.
© 2016 Andrew Spacey