Exploring footpaths and bridleways – Historic paths to be mapped by 2026

I step over a fence and startle grazing sheep with my headtorch. Yellow arrow on the wooden steps points roughly northwest. My torch flickers. I take shaky running steps on the muddy field trying to keep my shoes dry while attempting to establish a path of some sort on the field. The headtorch gives up and leaves me to find my way in the dark. Maybe I should have left the exploration of these footpaths for another time when I have some daylight left. 

I moved house recently. It is terribly hard work even if you don’t move far: packing, cleaning, and unpacking, informing banks and councils, cancelling old accounts, and setting up new ones. The good thing about all this – besides getting away from dodgy neighbours – is that you get to explore a new place.

I am currently trying to learn the network of footpaths and bridleways in my new village. What are the best running routes? Where can I say hi to horses or lambs? Which is the shortest way to work?

Public rights of way

England, Wales, and Northern Ireland have public rights of way that anyone can use – it is a bit different in Scotland so I won’t talk about Scottish paths now. Here in England we have footpaths, bridleways, restricted byways, and public byways. 

  • Footpaths are just for walkers and runners – and nowadays also wheelchair and mobility scooter users can use all the rights of way.
  • Bridleways welcome bikes and horses to join the fun. 
  • Restricted byways are for all sorts of travel that don’t include a motor. 
  • Public byways are open to all, including cars.

Rights of way are usually marked but often rely on people knowing where to go. Wooden signposts or small arrows might point out where the path starts or crosses a road or a fence, but they are sparse along the paths which are often not even visible. I have stepped to a field over a fence many a time and ended up lost on the grassy slopes because I had no idea where the path would land on the other side of the field. 

The paths are usually marked on ordnance survey maps and councils have online maps that include footpaths. Google Maps shows hardly any footpaths but Bing Maps shows the footpaths if you switch to ordnance survey mode – however, this doesn’t seem to work on mobile versions so it cannot be relied upon if you are out and about. 

Five years left to record historic paths

Some historic footpaths are not recorded on new maps but can be found from old maps or other documents. Countryside and Rights of Way Act which came to force in 2000 requires all historic rights of way to be legally recorded – the deadline to get the paths officially in the books is January 2026

Walking community Ramblers is campaigning to save the lost paths. In 2020 they identified 49,000 miles of potentially lost paths. In order to get these paths legally recorded they have to be proposed to the local council which has the power to change, remove or add a public right of way. It is a big task but volunteers are working hard to get the paths on the maps.

Quick Look

  • What: Rights of Way types
  • Where: England, Wales and Northern Ireland
  • Why: Access countryside paths

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