The Right to Roam in England: when is it trespass?

The Joys of Walking

During the days of the pandemic, many people have rediscovered the joys of walking near their homes. The right to roam gives people freedoms. For those living in towns, this would mostly be in their local park. For those nearer the countryside, there are signposted footpaths, perhaps alongside a lake or a canal; or for those lucky enough to be near a National Park, they can venture up and down dale or across a moor, again on a signposted way. But if they dare to venture off the designated footpaths, they are in danger of trespass.

As a young child in the Weald, I used to wander with my brother freely over the fences, across the fields and into the woods, there to pick a bunch of primroses or bluebells, or gather gorgeous green moss to use as a bedcover in our dolls house. 

Nobody stopped us, though we were probably trespassing. We knew not to run through standing corn, like Theresa May did as a young child. It was good to know how to talk sternly with any curious bullocks who approached us. We didn’t go with a dog which would scare the sheep.

As we got older and were able to read maps, we paid more attention to designated footpaths, as stiles and gates were easier than our daring leaps over or through fences and hedges. We also became aware, through our mother’s interest in Kent archaeology, of the green lanes, the disused tracks which used to be coach roads but which were never tarmacked.

On one of these the ghost of Nell Gynne was said to roll by in her carriage. There was also a Roman ford. And one interesting holiday project was to find the old village boundary stones and milestones, some deep in undergrowth, but still with their inscriptions. In the old days there was a ceremony of ‘Beating the Bounds’ every year, as villagers walked from stone to stone.

From Turnpike to Motorway

During the eighteenth century, many  local turnpike trusts were formed to improve the roads, put in infrastructure like bridges and drainage, and collect tolls to pay for this. But after the local government act of 1888, these turnpike roads were taken over by the new county authorities. As motorised traffic grew, and enhanced engineering was required to improve roads, the system was started of grading roads. They were categorised A, B and C in 1923, with government funding for superior roads. Construction of motorways started in 1958.

Highways England is now the government agency (an unelected quango. It is responsible to the Minister of Transport for the upkeep of all motorways and the major A roads. Other roads are under the next tier of government (county or unitary or metro).

The counties are also bound to keep a definitive map of all protected rights of way (PROW). These include bridleways for riding animals, cycle routes and paths for walking. Some of these were maintained by the local authority, while some are rights of way but ‘unadopted’.  Some run across privately owned land, but the public right to use that route has long been established. It started perhaps because it was the most convenient way to a church, bridge or market-town.

The CROW Act of 2000 extended public rights of way across mapped open land (moors, heath,mountains) even if it is a farm or estate. It gives a list of the dos and don’ts for both owners and users. The public can use the right way for walking, running, birdwatching, and for walking a dog (on a lead). However, there is a long list of don’ts: e.g. not lighting fires, camping, or riding a bicycle or other vehicle, not metal detecting.

The owner usually puts up a sign listing these forbidden activities. Owners can  make an exception to these general CROW restrictions, such as permitting horse-riding. They can also create a public right of way by a dedication which allows a permanent public right of way. That remains valid even when that land is sold.

PROW in Kent

Kent, in the South East of England, does not have much ‘open’ land. However, it has plenty of routes that come under PROW and are managed by KCC, nearly 7 000 km of them, more than any other county in England.

A map of them all is available at County Hall, the ‘definitive map’ for legal purposes, and it is also available online.

KCC manages all PROW, both in the countryside and across towns. Interestingly their report notes that many paths through towns had been allowed to deteriorate when under borough authorities. There is also much need to upgrade routes for use by the disabled.

Stiles are being discontinued, and gates which are more accessible for wheelchairs and buggies are being installed. The whole PROW system now costs each resident of Kent £1 per year.

Proposal Deadline 2026

One important deadline to note is that the public are allowed until 2026 to propose paths that had historic rights of way, but which have been left off the map. So maybe some of those green lanes traversed by the ghostly Nell Gwynne might be mapped for the walking public again.