In these troubled times we could do with more reminders of what makes Britain great.
Here, courtesy of Sam Knight in the New Yorker is one of them:
“Between them, England and Wales have around a hundred and forty thousand miles of footpaths…”
The country’s footpath network, including bridleways and other rights of way, is an underrated wonder of the world.
The British countryside as well being beautiful is also accessible. That’s not just because of Britain’s manageable size or the gentleness of its climate and terrain, but because there aren’t many square miles of it that aren’t served by one or more footpaths.
Why I'm a man for more seasons
When I visited Scandinavia, I was proudly told that the land “belongs to the people”. And indeed it does – except that, over vast tracts, there’s no practical way for the people access it.
The British paradox is that in a nation of jealously guarded private property rights and more than a few cries of “get-orf-my-land!”, our countryside is joyously permeable.
It wasn’t always that way. Centuries, indeed, millennia of human activity are engraved on our landscapes, but that history is also one in which the rich and powerful have moved to obstruct ancient rights of way, enclose the commons, and herd the people into towns and cities once their labour on the land was no longer required.
However, the people fought back. Knight writes about the history of the Ramblers’ Association – which campaigns for rights of access:
“The Ramblers date their history to 1931, the year before five hundred people defied the law to walk on Kinder Scout, a moorland plateau in the Peak District, which had been reserved for grouse shooting.”
The protests led not only to the creation of the National Parks but also “the drawing up of so-called definitive maps, on which every parish in England and Wales was asked to record all the footpaths, bridleways (wide enough for a horse), and ‘roads used as a path’ (cart tracks, more or less)…”
Of course, one also ought to remember than these paths aren’t arbitrary, but customary; furthermore, one of the main reasons why they remain accessible in practice, as well as law, is the diligence of farmers and other private custodians of the land.
The footpath network, therefore, is the product of a curiously British mix of radicalism and conservatism.
As such it can be a hit and miss affair – with some paths ploughed up and others becoming overgrown. Another issue is the ‘lost paths’ – old rights of way that have yet to be recorded on the definitive map (an estimated ten thousand miles of them, according to Sam Knight).
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Though millions of Pounds of funding have been allocated to finding the lost paths, progress has been slow and time is running out. Knight says that the Countryside and Rights of Way Act has set a 2026 deadline for the task, after which the old rights of way will be “extinguished”.
This is something that the current Conservative Government ought to sort out – either extending or getting rid of the deadline.
For a start there’s something deeply unconservative about extinguishing ancient rights. Expunging old laws from the statute book is a symptom of the neurotic rationality of the modern age – a compulsion that true conservatives must resist with every fibre of their beings.
Secondly, it’s a small but significant opportunity to detoxify the ‘Tory brand’. Conservatives should think twice before agreeing to the shortsighted demands of the landowner lobby. The image of the man on a horse, lording it over the people in their own country provokes a deep atavistic reaction even to this day. The more the Conservative Party can do to side with the people, the better it will be for them.
The battle for Britain's countryside – the other Brexit debate
Thirdly, if we do ever manage to leave the European Union, then the system of agricultural subsidies will have to be completely re-thought. State support for farming ought to be firmly tied to farming’s support for the biodiversity and accessibility of the countryside. In which case, it might be highly advantageous for farmers to rediscover lost paths on their land.
Indeed, we could see ancient rights of way, that no one previously suspected, miraculously unearthed all over the country. But then that’s the great thing about much-loved, age-old traditions – if they don’t exist, they can always be invented.