Contact Andrew Bibby
Making the most of the new 'right to roam'
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Choice, 2005
Walkers are celebrating the implementation of a new law which opens up for the public more than two million acres of open countryside in England and 600,000 acres in Wales .
The arrival of these new access rights potentially transforms the opportunities for walking in the countryside. In England, the ‘open' sign is now hanging beside large areas of moorland and mountain (particularly, though not exclusively, in the north) which were previously barred to the general public. In total, about 8% of the land in England is covered by the new law. In Wales, the effect is even more significant, with about 20% of the country affected. At the same time, new legislation in Scotland has formalised the previous de facto access rights which hill-walkers traditionally enjoyed in many areas.
The change in England and Wales is the result of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, the much publicised ‘right to roam' legislation. Ramblers had been campaigning for this right for at least a century (an unsuccessful Access to Mountains Bill was introduced in Parliament in 1884) and the issue achieved high visibility in the 1930s and again in the 1990s as the result of protests and ‘mass trespasses' by walkers on forbidden land.
But though the law has now changed, walkers do need to be aware of the detail of the legislation.
Q: What sort of countryside is affected?
The new access rights apply to open uncultivated land, including moorland, heath, mountain and downland. There is no right to walk through cultivated farmland (apart from by using the existing rights of way network) or through woodland, though many woods (particularly those of the Forestry Commission) are already informally open to the public. And despite what some newspapers suggested when the law was being debated, you can't take a ramble through anyone's back garden!
Q: How will I know which land is access land?
All the open country affected in England and Wales has been carefully mapped, a process which has been taking place since 2000. Once access has come in, the English access maps can be consulted on-line at www.countrysideaccess.gov.uk , the main public information website. Before then, the maps can be found at www.openaccess.gov.uk (a website officially supposed to be for use by land managers). The Welsh access maps are online at www.ccw.gov.uk .
The easiest way, however, is probably to splash out on new Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 Explorer maps, which are being reissued as soon as access is implemented to show all access land.
Q: What can I do on access land?
You can walk where you like. Should you be so inclined, you can also run and climb. However, there is no right to camp overnight, to swim, to use metal detectors or, of course, to drive a vehicle.
Q: Can I take my dog?
This is a tricky one, and is perhaps the issue which may cause the most difficulties. Under the law, dogs must be kept on leads on open country near livestock, and during the nesting season (1st March – 31st July).
But much upland country is maintained as grouse-shooting moorland, and estate owners are very unhappy at the idea of dogs running free (English Nature, too, is concerned that dogs may disturb ground-nesting birds). Under the law, therefore, grouse moors can apply for permanent bans on dogs throughout the year. If a ban has been imposed, there should be prominent signs at the point where you enter access land. You may also be able to find out from the open access helpline (see below).
Q: Are there any other restrictions?
Yes, landowners have the right to apply for access rights to be suspended on their land for up to twenty-eight days a year. The closure can be for any reason. Notice of closure has to be given in advance, and normally temporary closures will apply only mid-week, rather than at weekends. There are also provisions to close open country temporarily, for such reasons as fire prevention or for public safety.
In theory, it should be possible to find out about temporary closures locally and from www.countrysideaccess.gov.uk and the telephone helpline. In practice, it is not yet clear how well these arrangements are working. It is also not yet clear whether landowners are choosing to exercise their rights in a gung-ho way or with restraint.
In some circumstances additional restrictions can be imposed, for example on the grounds of nature conservation or heritage conservation.
Finally, some open country is subject to a permanent ban on public access. This has been the case, for example, in certain areas of the Pennines which are being used as rifle ranges or clay pigeon shooting grounds. It is possible that areas with old mine shafts may also be excluded in some areas. Again, there should be information available locally or from the helpline. However, and very unhelpfully, permanently excluded land is not currently shown as such on the first batch of new OS maps.
Q: How do I reach open country from roads?
Ordnance Survey maps show rights of ways which can be used to access open country. In some areas, the public is also being allowed by agreement to use private paths and tracks (such as shooting tracks).
Access land is increasingly being identified by a new brown and white logo showing a walker. (This logo is on the front of revised OS maps).
Q: What happens if I do get refused access?
Whilst most landowners are accepting the new arrangements (with differing degrees of resignation and reluctance), in some cases outright hostility may remain. If you find yourself turned back on what you believe is access land, you should contact the countryside service of the local authority (or national park). The Ramblers' Association also asks you to inform them ( www.ramblers.org.uk ).
Q: What about the helpline you mentioned?
The advice line for walkers on issues relating to access is on 0845 100 3298. Again, it is not yet clear how useful in practice this service will be.
Q: And Scotland ?
Scotland has both a different legal system and a different tradition when it comes to access to open country. The Land Reform ( Scotland ) Act 2003 is much more radical than similar legislation in England and Wales, and gives the public responsible access to all land, both open and enclosed. The new right is expected to be implemented this year. More details (including details of the new Scottish Outdoor Access Code) are available at http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/Environment/Countryside/16328/4826
Whilst the law provides for the right to roam, in practice many walkers are likely to want to stick to existing paths and tracks, rather than confronting the tussocky vegetation and bogs which can be a feature of much open country. There are also safety issues to be aware of in high or open country, and it is always advisable to take an OS 1:25,000 Explorer map, a compass, and adequate warm clothing. Weather can change quickly, and temperatures are noticeably colder on higher ground.
FIVE PLACES TO VISIT
The Forest of Bowland in Lancashire was long identified by ramblers as the principle area in Britain without public access rights. Bowland (it is a ‘forest' in the historical sense, having been a royal hunting estate, not because of its trees) lies east of Lancaster and the M6 and north of Blackburn and Preston .
Here can be found wild stretches of moorland where hen harriers nest. The heart of the area is accessible from the Trough of Bowland country road between Clitheroe and Lancaster (weekend buses come this way).
The Bronte Moors . Much of the moorland associated with the Bronte sisters' novels was closed to the public until access was introduced. The Alcomden Stones, an interesting outcrop of gritstone close to Top Withens (reputedly the location Emily Bronte had in mind for Wuthering Heights ) was the centre of ramblers' celebrations over access last September and is well worth a visit (the round trip from Haworth is about eight miles). Combine your visit to the area, perhaps, with a trip on the Worth Valley heritage railway.
Last of the Summer Wine country . Holmfirth near Huddersfield is famous as the setting for the popular TV series, and is a town which knows how to make visitors feel at home. Beautiful Ramsden Clough to the south is now accessible to walkers who are keen for a challenge.
The Peak District . Areas newly opened to walkers (of the serious bog-trotting kind) include countryside close to Sheffield such as Big Moor, Fallinge Edge and Midhope Moors. In the south of the national park, in the Manifold valley, Ecton Hill and the twin Wetton Hills can now be enjoyed. This area is suitable for those out for a more gentle walking experience.
James Herriot country . Yorkshire's most famous vet is associated (thanks primarily to the TV series) particularly with Swaledale and Arkengarthdale, in the north of the Yorkshire dales. Swaledale's heather moors provide homes not only for the red grouse but also for the much more rare black grouse.
Although not a ‘right to roam' experience, there are gentle rambles beside the river Swale also to enjoy for those wanting less of a challenge. Other nearby attractions include historic Bolton Castle, where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned, and Tan Hill, the highest pub in England and a famous watering hole for walkers on the Pennine Way.