My interest in social and cultural politics extends from my interest in genealogy and history and how they project into today's societies.
The Unique Legal Status of Britain's Countryside
In simple terms, the law on ‘Public Rights of Way’ in England and Wales when crossing private land is the legal right to “pass and repass along the way”.
The freedom to roam the English and Welsh countryside, even when crossing private land, is largely uninhibited thanks to ancient ‘Common Laws’ and reinforced by legislation passed by the Labour Government in 2000. Laws on ‘Rights of Way’ in Scotland are similar to those of England and Wales; but it's not so in Northern Ireland, where the freedom to roam across private land is greatly restricted.
This unique legal status makes Britain’s picturesque countryside one of the most freely accessible lands anywhere in the world.
Land Access Is a Privilege to Be Cherished
When I recently corresponded with an American on this subject he pointed out that if people trespass on private land in the USA, apart from the risk of being prosecuted for trespassing, they also run the real risk of being shot.
It was this stark statement that made me realise how privileged we are in Britain—a privilege that we should be grateful for and which should be cherished.
It was his comments that made me decide to write this article to provide an overview of the legal status of ‘Public Rights of Way’ in Britain. I also hope to provide an opportunity in the comments at the bottom of this article for British people to express their experiences of Rambling in the UK, and for Americans and others to express their views.
Green and Pleasant Land
I know that, on speaking with Americans, the English countryside isn’t on the grand scale of America e.g. the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park etc., but as small as Britain is compared to the size of America, it does have lots of open space and is packed with stunning beauty and variety.
For example, Britain has 21 moors, something that doesn’t exist in America. In fact, 15% of the world’s moorlands exist in the UK.
As well as the moorlands in Britain, we also have:
- 145 SSSI’s (Sites of Special Scientific Interest)
- 15 National Parks
- 46 AONBs (Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty)
- Over 400 historic buildings e.g. castles, protected by English Heritage
- More than 350 historic sites and sites of natural beauty protected by the National Trust
- 224 Nature Reserves
- Over 2,700 square miles of forests protected by the Forestry Commission
In fact, when I think of Britain, compared to the USA, I always think of the film Horton Hears a Who!.
Also, in typical British irony, although surveys show that 71% of the young British public are now ‘non-religious’, the Jerusalem hymn has been adopted by the British as England's unofficial 'national anthem' because of the lyric “In England’s Green and Pleasant Land”.
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The British public haven’t always had the freedom to roam the British countryside. Two hundred years ago access was highly restricted, and we only have the freedoms we’ve got today because of people voting with their feet as part of over a century of campaigning to open up the countryside to free access for all.
Under common law, dating back almost a thousand years, commoners (peasants) had a legal right to graze their animals on common land. Under the feudal system in medieval Britain, the Lord of the Manor would be granted land from the King, and the Lord in return granted rights to Commoners (the peasants) to use some of that land for grazing livestock and collecting fuel etc.
Also under common law, a network of paths crossing common and private land between local communities (villages) and town markets was established, and it’s many of these ancient paths that have become enshrined in modern legislation to protect the legal rights of way of the British public (under ‘Common Law’) to cross private land.
Erosion of Common Rights
From the 17th century most of the ‘Common Land’ was lost to Enclosure; a process that led to the Agricultural Revolution. Although there are still over 7,000 Commons in England that exist to this day; 74% of which in Wales is still used for grazing, and 35% in England for grazing. Enclosure was a process of fencing off land and ending the rights to Commoners to graze their livestock.
The Agricultural Revolution helped to feed the Industrial Revolution from the 1760s, which triggered the mass migration of millions of people from the rural villages to the urban towns and cities. However, within a generation the towns and cities became unpleasant areas to live, with high levels of poverty and disease.
So by the early 1800s, the more affluent members of urban society started to flock to the countryside on weekends for leisure; but in doing so (using ancient public footpaths) they would frequently cross over private land to get there.
It was at this time, in the early 19th century that farmers started to put up “Keep Out” signs, prosecute people for trespassing; and in extreme cases set mantraps to discourage walkers. A mantrap being a metal device with teeth, held back by a spring, that would trap a person’s leg (and maim them) if they stepped on it.
The Fight Back
From the early 1900s all this started to change when people voted with their feet. At that time, across the whole of Britain campaign groups would organise mass walks in protest to assert their ancient rights of way across private land to gain access to the countryside.
Although these protest walks led to frequent clashes between game keepers and walkers, the campaign grew and by the mid-1930s the various campaign groups across Britain came together to form the Ramblers Association.
Eventually, with continual organised campaigning from the Ramblers Association, the Labour Party in 2000 enshrined the legal use of established footpaths (Public Rights of Way) across private land in an Act of Parliament.
The effect of the Legislation is that all historic paths that appear on old maps have legal protected status, and under the Act, the Ramblers Association has until 2026 to identity any further, yet to be discovered ancient rights of ways, so that they may to be given legal protected status.
Popular British Pastimes: Rambling and Cycling
All of the 140,000 miles of public footpaths (‘Rights of Way’) are now clearly marked on Ordinance Survey maps, and clearly signposted, so there is no doubt as to where you can legally cross private land.
Consequently, with these paths giving easy walking access to some of the most beautiful and varied landscapes in the British countryside, 77% of the British population regularly walk for pleasure; so ‘Rambling’ has now become Britain’s most popular outdoor activity.
Second to walking, cycling has become another great outdoor passion for Brits. It all started back in the 1970s when a charity called Sustrans bought a stretch of redundant railway line between Bristol and Bath and converted it into a cycle path. Since then, they’ve purchased disused railway lines across the country to help create a network of 16,575 miles of traffic free cycle paths across the length and breadth of Britain linking towns and cities together.
So that now over half the British population lives within less than a mile from the cycle network.
For Further (Authoritative) Information
- Basics of Rights of Way Law - Ramblers
The Ramblers - Britain’s walking charity working to protect and expand the places people love to walk and promote walking for health and pleasure. Walking information, advice and campaigns, walking news and events.
Your Views on Rambling
If you took part in the above poll and wish to elaborate on your answer, feel free to add your comments in the 'Comments' box at the end of this article.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.