One of the wonderful benefits of living in Britain is our network of public footpaths and bridleways. And yet, despite legal protection, that network seems continuously under threat.
Nowadays we may think of them as recreational routes, but footpaths were created for a purpose.
They connected village with village, provided paths for worship and pilgrimage, were shortcuts to the market place or to the pub.
And when you walked a footpath, you knew others had been there before you. You knew that this was a safe route to take if you wanted to cut through a valley, or climb that steep ridge of hills, or find your way through a thick forest, or cross the bleakest of bog-strewn moorlands.
Footpaths are ancient. Footpaths trace our history.
When you follow a footpath, you are moving backwards in time.
They are as important a record of human endeavours as the stones of Stonehenge.
So a footpath diversion is not something to be undertaken lightly.
Good reasons for diverting a footpath
- For safety reasons, for example when the ground has become dangerously eroded due to natural forces.
- When a route becomes temporarily impassable, for example due to fallen trees or flooding.
- Possibly, and after consultation, to create a more scenic route when an old route has been despoiled, for example by a rubbish tip or industrial works.
Bad reasons for diverting a footpath
- Because a farmer would prefer you to walk around the border of his field, instead of through the middle.
- To create more ‘privacy’ for a newly built house, despite the fact it was built along an existing public right of way. The same applies to a new owner of an old house where a right of way already exists.
- To make way for new developments, such as housing estates or industrial units. These should be designed to accommodate the existing footpath.
The above is my opinion, not a legal definition!
I’ve seen many footpath diversion notices. Some make sense. Some don’t.
An example of a bad footpath diversion
This is the field I came across on a recent walk. Until 2012, the footpath used to run straight across the grass. (I’ve shown the original route with a white arrow, and the new route by red arrows.) You can’t actually see the whole diverted route, because it disappears down the hill and into the valley.
And here is the diversion notice on the right.
I’ve removed distinguishing marks from the map, so as to avoid offence. And I’ve tidied up what was a poor photograph of a poor sign. The original notice was in black and white, and therefore hard to read. I’ve added colour.
So the historic rights of way are shown in green. The new diversion is shown in red.
The new diversion follows the edge of the field, and that is why it takes such an odd course. You will notice the new route is more than twice as long as the old route.
Why was this allowed to happen?
There are sheep in the field and maybe the path (which is also a bridleway) created a muddy track. Or perhaps the farmer just didn’t like people disturbing his sheep.
The reasons aren’t clear.
Why do we allow this to happen? Why aren’t there more protests?
What is the role of organisation such as The Ramblers, and have these lobbying organisations grown too soft – too accommodating to the wishes of landowners?
Our public footpaths should be regarded as public monuments. They need and deserve protecting.
Is it time to get militant?