In England and Wales, there’s a total network of over 220,000km (137,000mi) of public footpaths, bridleways (paths fit for riders, but not vehicles) and byways, which is more than in any other country in the world. Many paths have been joined together to form continuous well-marked, long-distance routes or national trails, as they’re known in England and Wales (the longest is 600mi/1000km). In Scotland, the law differs for the moment (see below), although walkers there generally have an absolute right of access to uncultivated land, unless there’s proven danger to walkers or wildlife.
Public rights of way grew up as part of the ancient communications system in use long before any form of transport was invented, and landowners must, by law, give walkers the right of passage across their land, which is fine in theory. Recent campaigns by walkers have led to clashes with landowners and farmers, some of whom will go to any lengths to deny walkers access to their land. The government reluctantly decided that the Country Landowners Association and its 50,000 members (who are estimated to own over half of the countryside in England and Wales) would never allow access to their land voluntarily, and passed the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.
National Parks in the UK
In addition to the thousands of miles of public footpaths, there are 14 national parks in England and Wales which were established to protect the UK’s finest landscapes from rabid developers and provide people with the opportunity to use and enjoy the open countryside. The land within the national parks remains largely in private ownership and visitors should walk only where access is permitted and should respect the lives and work of those who live there. There are no national parks in Scotland (the whole country is practically a national park) but it has 40 National Scenic Areas occupying one eighth of the country and offering some of the most beautiful and unspoilt walking in Europe.
Hiking paths are signposted (or waymarked as it’s called in ‘hiking talk’) by signs showing the destination and sometimes the distance. In England and Wales, national trails are waymarked with an acorn symbol. In Scotland, long-distance footpaths are waymarked by a thistle symbol. The footpaths and rights of way in the UK are often poorly signposted (signposts are often deliberately destroyed by landowners) and, away from national trails, part of your time may be spent searching for the path. When following a path you should look out for waymarks and use a map (see below). In England and Wales, paths are often signposted where they join roads, but many footpaths or tracks may be indicated only by arrows (yellow for footpaths, blue for bridleways and red for byways) or by special markers if the path is used as a recreational route. A map is essential when using trails without waymarks.
Orienteering is popular and is a combination of hiking and a treasure hunt or competitive navigation on foot. It isn’t necessary to be super fit and the only equipment that’s required (in addition to suitable walking attire) is a detailed map and compass. For information contact the British Orienteering Federation, 8a Stancliffe Houe, Whitworth Road, Darley Dale, Matlock, Derbyshire DE4 2HJ (01629-734 042, www.britishorienteering.org.uk). If you’re interested in joining a walking club contact the Ramblers Association, 2nd Floor, Camelford House, 87-90 Albert Embankment, London SE1 7TW (020-7339 8500, www.ramblers.org.uk). It promotes rambling, protects rights of way, campaigns for access to open country and defends the beauty of the countryside against those who would destroy it for financial gain. It has over 300 local groups throughout the UK and members receive a quarterly magazine, a yearbook, equipment discounts, free membership of their local ramblers group and the opportunity to participate in numerous walks with experienced guides.
General information about walking is provided in a Visit Britain leaflet entitled Walking in Britain, which also contains a list of companies which organise guided walking holidays. An excellent book for keen walkers is The Good Walks Guide by Tim Locke (Which? Books). In many towns and country areas, guided local walks are conducted throughout the year (which may be part of a comprehensive programme of walks), ranging from sightseeing tours of towns to walks around local beauty spots, for which there may be a small fee. Walks are usually graded, e.g. easy, moderate or strenuous, and dogs can usually be taken unless otherwise stated. Ask for information at Tourist Information Centres or local libraries.
This article is an extract from Living and working in Britain. Click here to get a copy now.