Has England's trail system lost its way?
In little more than half a century Britain has developed a remarkable long-distance trail network that now numbers around 1500 paths and ways of all description. Like Scotland's 29 Great Trails, the 15 National Trails in England and Wales are held up as the gold standard, but how did these routes come about, where do they go and what does their future look like? Andrew McCloy recounts the story of how we built up a fabulous domestic walking resource – and explains why it's now at risk.
In the beginning there was the Pennine Way, proposed as far back as the 1930s as England's answer to the USA's 2000-mile Appalachian Trail. By the time it eventually opened in 1965, recreational long-distance walking was already taking off, fuelled in part by increased affluence and leisure time but also as a result of greater public access to the countryside. There had been demonstrations and mass protests in the 1920s and 30s and, indeed, the motivation for creating the Pennine Way was as much about opening up the jealously guarded private grouse moors for public access as it was about creating a walking trail. This was the time that the Ramblers' Association, Youth Hostels Association and others emerged to make recreational walking in the countryside more mainstream.
Of course, people had been walking long distances on foot since more or less the beginning of time, whether as traders, pilgrims, hunters or armies; but now they were stepping out purely for pleasure. As Colin Speakman explains in his excellent 2011 book Walk! the emergence of dedicated long-distance recreational trails began in Germany in the early 1900s. The idea then spread to Sweden and crossed the Atlantic to the US. Britain came to the party relatively late, with the post-war Hobhouse report recommending the creation of official long-distance footpaths (the Pennine Way, Offa's Dyke Path, Ridgeway, Pilgrim's Way/North Downs Way, South Downs Way and the Thames Path). It also suggested continuous walking routes around the coastlines of the proposed new national parks following former coastguards' paths, and thus the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, Cleveland Way and South West Coast Path all began to take shape. During the 1970s and 80s the number of routes increased as long-distance walking surged in popularity.
At its height it was reckoned that as many as 10,000 people were walking the full distance of the Pennine Way every year, and over 150,000 enjoying day-long outings along the route.
A hierarchy of trails
In 1989, the Countryside Commission rebranded official long-distance paths in England and Wales as National Trails, mirroring the USA's well-known system. Below them, in this new hierarchy, were so-called Regional Routes, often developed and promoted by local authorities partly for their economic value, and including the likes of the Oxfordshire Way, Staffordshire Way and Solent Way. Underpinning it all, but already at the bottom of the pecking order, was the wider footpath network of local paths and tracks.
National Trails were self-evidently the flagship and, although Pennine Way numbers began to dip, they remained well-walked and others were designated, including the Hadrian's Wall Path, Cotswold Way and Thames Path. But the popularity of long-distance walking extended far beyond National Trails. The Long Distance Walkers' Association (LDWA) defines a long-distance path (LDP) as generally over 20 miles in length, and for which a publication or guide of some sort is available to help you follow it. In 1986 the association's handbook listed 231 unofficial LDPs, but their online database has now ballooned to around 1500 paths, trails and defined routes of all descriptions across the UK, covering more than 81,000 miles.
More remarkably still, a significant number of these routes owed very little (if anything) to local authorities or public bodies, but instead were devised and developed by enthusiastic walkers and walking groups. All across the country, dedicated bands of ramblers were dreaming up new and ever more inventive routes, usually by threading together existing paths, bridleways, old railway lines, canal towpaths, and so on. And when groups weren't creating them, individuals were, including the prolific long-distance walker John Merrill, who has self-published hundreds of guidebooks. Perhaps most famous of all is Alfred Wainwright's Coast to Coast Walk across northern England, which in terms of popularity has almost certainly eclipsed most of the official National Trails.
Some routes are themed on history (Hereward Way, 1066 Country Walk, Liberty Way, Orange Way), literary figures or creations (Bronte Way, John Bunyan Trail, Tarka Trail) or simply pioneering ramblers or noteworthy local individuals (Nev Cole Way, Leland Trail, Bishop Bennet Way, D'arcy Dalton Way, Jack Mytton Way). A number of them trace boundaries or encircle cities (Peak District Boundary Walk, Leeds Country Way, London Loop and Capital Ring), while others have been devised ostensibly as fundraisers for good causes, such as the Macmillan Way. The LDWA also continues to list Anytime Challenge Routes, which are to be completed as a continuous walk, normally in one day. The sheer variety of routes is staggering, both by theme and geography, reflected in the output from publishers. Quite apart from National Trails, Cicerone's catalogue of British long-distance walking guidebooks covers routes as diverse as the Severn Way, Borders Abbeys Way, Teesdale Way, Pilgrim's Way, Isle of Man Coastal Path, Lea Valley Walk, Two Moors Way and Ribble Way.
Trails and tribulations
Inevitably, a home-grown walking trail tends to last only as long as its guidebook remains in print, which sometimes isn't very long at all, or else it relies on the ongoing commitment of a specific support group to maintain it. The UK Trailwalker's Handbook, produced by the LDWA in 2009 and published by Cicerone (now out of print), estimated that since 2001 over 100 routes had been lost, including a number of millennium trails established with public funds. ‘Only those offering a quality combination of a good theme, scenery, guidebook, mapping, funding, promotion, support and accessibility endure,’ it sagely observed. In particular, the practicalities of keeping a new or little-used route open and usable have become ever more problematic.
In England, spending on rights of way usually lies with the Highway Authority, which is fine when county councils are well off, but recent austerity has hit hard at both national and local level. The Countryside Commission's eventual successor, Natural England, was stripped of so much of its resource by Government that it all but ceased to have an access and recreation function. Meanwhile, hard-pressed English local authorities have rather inevitably prioritised spending on roads, schools and social care over footpath work, so that countryside access budgets have been slashed – especially routine spending on rights of way, including the maintenance and promotion of local waymarked ways.
The changes have even hit National Trails. Where once there were centrally funded National Trail Officers with budgets and a desk in a county council or national park authority, there are now trail partnerships (involving local authorities and voluntary groups), which have to find the cash to match Natural England's diminishing grant in order to cover day-to-day work. Calls for new designations, most notably for National Trail status for the Coast to Coast Walk, have been resisted; although perhaps rather surprisingly the Government has so far remained committed to creating the new England Coast Path National Trail, due to open in 2020. By contrast, north of the border there were once just four official Long Distance Routes, but this has now mushroomed into 29 promoted routes branded Scotland's Great Trails, partly funded by Scottish Natural Heritage but managed day-to-day by local authorities.
Perhaps, too, the sheer number of unofficial local routes (in England, at least) is now adding to the problem. Could it be that we are close to saturation point in terms of waymarked trails?
According to the LDWA, around 40% of long-distance paths have their own special waymark symbols, and I heard a rights of way officer recently speculate just how many directional discs can be fitted to a single gatepost.
More and more of these local trails are now shown on Ordnance Survey Explorer and Landranger maps, but there's strict criteria for inclusion covering minimum length; the need for full and distinctive waymarking on the ground; endorsement by all of the local authorities that the route traverses; and the need for an up-to-date guidebook, leaflet or website. OS tells me that they do occasionally remove existing trails if they no longer meet the above criteria – a risk that would seem to be growing as local investment in countryside recreation and rights of way maintenance diminishes.
Choosing the right path
Despite everything, leisure walking remains the most popular outdoor activity in the UK by some distance, including trail-walking. Although I was one of only a small number of full-distance walkers on the Pennine Way when I completed it four years ago, there were still plenty of day-ramblers; and elsewhere, pedestrian traffic remains busy on the likes of the Hadrian's Wall Path, Cotswold Way and South West Coast Path. Walking holiday companies continue to block-book beds for their customers along the Dales Way and Coast to Coast Walk for months in advance, and walkers generally bring a significant economic boost to rural economies.
It could be argued, then, that it really doesn't matter that a rather idiosyncratic local walking route dreamt up in someone's bedroom gets forgotten, or some relatively obscure trail get overgrown and un-walked? Or does it?
On 1 January 2026, just seven years from now, any path used by the public but not recorded on the Definitive Map (the official record of rights of way in England and Wales held by local authorities) will be lost forever as the process for recording historic paths will end for good. England and Wales can be justly proud of its 140,000 miles of public rights of way, an achievement every bit as important as the first long-distance footpaths that were created by the same momentous 1949 legislation that had at is heart the notion of access, freedom and public entitlement. But away from the flagship National Trails it's a system increasingly under strain. Obstructions, missing waymarks, unfulfilled legal orders and general under-promotion are making local paths harder to follow, unleashing a dangerous downward spiral of declining use and neglect; then add to that the spectre that many unrecorded historic thoroughfares, even some used today, might be lost forever.
The parlous state of our rights of way network mirrors the long-term uncertainties surrounding our wider trails system, since in effect they are one and the same. There is a palpable lack of strategic coordination and investment, with the danger that many of the health, environmental and economic by-products of this fabulous resource will not be fully realised and many hard-won achievements might even be lost. A Natural England user survey from as far back as 2008 concluded that there were potentially 15 million new users of our trails out there, provided they had the information about where to go and the reassurance that the paths would be usable. It's no good promoting a relatively small number of premier routes – such as the National Trails – if below that the local footpath network is crumbling.
The answer is simply that we all need to keep walking and loving these local trails.
Following less well-known routes into quieter backwaters will ensure that both the trail system and the rights of way network underpinning it have a chance of survival. We need to shout about how important they all are for so many reasons.
Let's not forget that the 1949 legislation that established official long-distance footpaths and definitive maps of rights of way – and hence the trail network we have today – was enacted in a time of post-war austerity and shortages that few of today's leisure-rich generation could even begin to imagine. We could do with some of that vision, purpose and determination now.
For more information about the Ramblers' campaign to save historic routes in England and Wales visit their website.
Andrew McCloy has a passion for walking, and as a writer and journalist he has written or contributed to over 20 outdoor titles. An experienced long distance walker, he wrote the first ever guide to walking from Land's End to John o'Groats. He is a member of the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild, contributes to a variety of magazines and newspapers and is also a freelance access and recreation consultant.View Articles and Books by Andrew McCloy