Ellie Harrison: Walk in the footsteps of our ancestors to save ancient paths

Want to keep our ancient paths? Then pull on your walking boots, says Countryfile presenter Ellie Harrison.

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The house I grew up in sat on the side of a hill that could only be reached on foot and had a rambling half an acre perched by its side. It also had a footpath running through the gate, right past the front door and away up the garden. In the 15 years I was there, nobody used it even once.

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For my single mum working full-time with three young children, it was a relief that strangers weren’t in the garden. But as a two-hour-a-day walker, there isn’t a footpath in the county she hasn’t enjoyed – typical of our mixed relationship with these ancient trackways.

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Over the last few years as I’ve been looking for land to buy, this sentiment has been explicit: “There is a footpath running through it I’m afraid, but you can probably get it moved.”

As it goes, I’m not the footpathmoving kind. I find it a little bemusing that some folks I know, working class just a generation or so before, have now made enough money to pay someone to divert irritating ancient paths in case ordinary people get a distant glimpse of their ravishing house. But these are the very footsteps of our ancestors. They can’t tell their stories. Of a Bronze Age man taking his crafted axe to sell at the nearest settlement. Of an Iron Age man strolling to the next village to see the girl he fell in love with. Or of 10th-century people walking the natural contours of the landscape on lifelong pilgrimages to worship. We will never know their meaning, only that they mattered in our history, in bringing us to this very day, to this very moment as the light flares through the leaves and on to our faces.

Ancient as they are, it’s only within living memory that they’ve been given to us as rights of way enshrined in law. In the 1700s, various enclosures acts packaged up millions of acres of common land used for grazing and crops, and moved it to privately owned estates. It wasn’t until 1884 that there were parliamentary calls for the right to roam, all of which were unsuccessful until the early 1930s and the Kinder ramblers’ famous mass trespass on the Peak District moors preserved for private grouse shooting.

Their protest led to the establishment of long-distance footpaths, such as the Pennine Way, and the creation of the Countryside Code. It also ultimately led to the law that created Britain’s national parks and called for the drawing up of ‘definitive maps’, where parishes were required to record the footpaths within their borders. But as each parish perceived its paths differently, many stopped inexplicably on the maps. Even with growing popularity for the cause, significant parts of the countryside remained completely out of bounds for working people.

It wasn’t until 1997 and the Countryside Rights of Way Act (2000) that the right to roam formally made its way onto the statute book – 1997! The act opened up three million acres and 140,000 miles of paths. It also set the goal of recording every public path by January 2026, which, with 10,000 miles thought to have fallen off maps, is rather a punchy deadline. Public money has been spent and lost on the project, so now the task falls to local walkers and riders. The Ramblers’ Don’t Lose Your Way campaign offers guidance for finding lost rights of way in your area.

Most of us have been on footpaths and come across places that all of a sudden have a private feel to them. But who can blame a landowner for not going out of their way (or their pocket) to create a more accessible look? Some say these routes have been lost because they were no longer relevant or in demand. Most agree that the 2026 deadline isn’t helpful, preferring an approach where footpaths emerge as the evidence and demand arises.

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The writer James Baldwin said: “Our crown has already been bought and paid for, all you have to do is put it on.” As our ancestors made those paths with their feet and their needs, as our relatives took punches and prison to walk those private lands and make them ours for the day, and as we ask ourselves what land is really for, know this: if you want it, all you have to do is walk it.