The upside to lockdown last spring was that lots of people discovered their local paths—and as we return to lockdown they will do so again. But few will have realised that those local paths only exist because of the work of the Ramblers and our predecessors.
Without the Ramblers there would probably have been no definitive maps of public rights of way, which we won 71 years ago in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. Before then, if you went for a walk and found your path blocked you had to prove it was a public highway before you could expect any action to clear it.
The definitive maps were just the start though. Then we had to claim the paths for the maps—not so easy in the 1950s when far fewer people had their own cars. Later we had to persuade the Ordnance Survey to show the paths on its maps. Later still, the Ordnance Survey threatened to stop producing the 1:25000-scale maps, and the Ramblers led the fight to save them.
Many of these new walkers and explorers will not realise that it is a constant fight to keep the paths open and usable, that volunteer working parties install gates and steps and clear vegetation, and that our path workers scrutinise every application to alter the route of a path and object where it is against the public interest, and lobby the highway authorities to maintain the paths budget in increasingly difficult times.
As I wrote in the Dorset Ramblers’ newsletter, it is thanks to the Ramblers that we have the Dorset Jubilee Trail, the Wessex Ridgeway, and other long-distance routes. It is thanks to us that we have access land where we can roam free—on the Dorset downs and Purbeck for instance. We have played a vital part in achieving the England Coast Path; this will amplify the South West Coast Path with adjoining access land and in many parts of the country create a brand-new route along the coast.
Locally, we should continuously publicise our work to enable people to walk, and encourage them to get involved, for instance by surveying paths in their communities and reporting problems, carrying secateurs on their walks and snipping away the brambles, and researching ancient ways before the definitive maps are closed to new claims on 1 January 2026.
Now is the perfect time to inspire a new taskforce of path workers. Those who enjoy their local paths should not take them for granted, so let’s make sure they know what we do to secure paths and access, and that their help and support will be truly welcome in the post-pandemic world.
This is based on an article I wrote for the excellent Footnotes, produced by Doug Pigg of Ramblers Dorset Area for Dorset members. It is worth including similar stories, with local examples, in Ramblers’ newsletters as some people may be questioning whether to continue as members when there are no led walks. Of course they should! Without the Ramblers they could not walk so freely today.