Until we moved to the country I didn’t realise how valuable our network of public footpaths and bridleways really is.
I grew up on the edge of a national park, and we used to go for walks, but I don’t think I ever understood the significance of rights of way. It felt as a youngster that the countryside was our playground. Striding along Hadrian’s Wall or Druridge Bay or rambling along a burn in Hexhamshire the last thing in our minds was land ownership. The country was for everybody, and the more adventurous you were, the more you got. If you wanted to loop a ropeswing round a branch or dip in the deep bend of a river, you got on and did it.
Then university came with it’s ‘Keep off the grass’ signs and security walls. Sure there were public parks, but even a small, leafy city is a stark contrast to the country’s least populated corner. Then we rented a house with a few paving slabs outside and a towering view of the back of a car park; followed by a garden that we actually owned and grew some herbs in but in reality wasn’t big enough to pitch a family tent. And we were too busy with pushchairs and highchairs and nappies and nurseries to go off in search of countryside again.
Even when we did, by moving to Somerset, one estate agent tried to ward us off a house because it had no garden. Pointing to the beautiful hills all around the building she said ‘it’s not like the old days when kids could go out and explore – now it all belongs to somebody’.
But she’s wrong. Maybe land is more valuable and better utilised these days, boundaries better maintained and ownership more socially established, but I have walked through that very combe on my way from one little village to another, between the patchwork fields and through the wooded ridge, along a track with views to the Quantocks then down through the fields among the sheep with their lambs – all entirely legally, by following public paths and bridleways.
They are everywhere. They are the network that opens up the country to us all.
All you need is an OS map showing the routes and you’re off. I’ve climbed hills with incredible views, tracked rivers through secret valleys and forests, circled lakes by the water’s edge, walked across undulating farmland and acres of the greenest grass. My favourite pastime is picking a virgin footpath off the map and heading out with the dog to see what lies along it. The map hints at the territory via steep contour lines or marked features – waterfalls, old bridges, historical ruins, pools and landmarks – but the reality is unpredictable and discovering it first hand is such a thrill. Invariably, I don’t meet a single other person on the walk. The countryside is mine again.
You can’t walk like this in every country. My wife’s cousin lived in Australia and bemoans the lack of public access. Even if you get permission from one owner to walk on their land it’s impossible to tell at what point you have crossed a boundary and have become a trespasser.
In Britain we have this incredible historical matrix of routes and tracks that knit together the landscape and open up the land. That doesn’t even include the right to roam on uncultivated and common areas, or parcels of land shared by the National Trust, the Forestry Commission and the like.
Most of the footpaths are signposted and marked by arrows, kept clear, and correspond to the OS route. Occasionally the path disappears, or is blocked by a fence, but by and large there is a way through. Once when the track was uncertain a man hollered across the field that I was on private land. I shouted back that I thought there was a footpath and he said: ‘fair enough’.
In fact the landowners in West Somerset are remarkably friendly. Once in the middle of his farm a farmer greeted us with amazement because, ‘this path only gets used about twice a year’. Yet it was still signed and open. Another time I was shutting a gate on a field of young cows when the farmer drove up the track. I wondered if he’d take exception to the dog being off the lead but instead he said, ‘hold the gate while I turn around – I’m just looking for my bees’. Another owner asked me if I’d tried all the other routes around her land, pointing out new footpaths to explore.
I’m sure it’s more political when the landowner is a celebrity and the footpath in question crosses their high-walled Surrey estate, but round here people are happy for you to get on with it and enjoy the countryside. I try to stick to the path, keep the dog under control and not damage anything, in return for the pathways being accessible. Some owners marshal you in straight line with fencing but most allow you to walk openly over their land even when grazing animals or growing crops.
Which is brilliant. And it’s only now that I appreciate it.
It feels like such a privilege to explore our country like this. My advice if you’re staring out of a window at your neighbour’s net curtain wondering what you’ve got in life: move to the country, get a dog, buy a detailed map and start walking. The first two are optional; just get out on the trail. Our countryside is a gift.