How you can save your local footpaths

‘Adopt a Square’ of Britain’s byways and help preserve the ancient routes that map our land.

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What is The Big Pathwatch?

Ramblers has launched an “ambitious project to walk every footpath in England and Wales”, and it needs your help to make it happen. Nearly 12,000 people have already registered to take part, adopting 35% of all available squares (over 50,000 in total) and completing a quarter of the survey’s pathways.

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The survey aims to gain a reliable picture of the condition of the entire network, at the same time encouraging as many people as possible to enjoy and support the paths they share.

There are an estimated 140,000 miles (225,000km) of public rights of way in England and Wales, consisting mainly of footpaths, but including bridleways and other types of byways. They provide safe networks across Britain, enabling the public to enjoy urban and rugged areas of the British landscape alike.

But many footpaths are difficult to access, with signage running out halfway through a walk, large obstructions or angry dogs making it difficult to follow a route from start to finish. The Big Pathways survey enables walkers to record these and other hazards, as well as the aspects that make a particular footpath special – be they beautiful views, or unusual species of fungi.

So how does it work?

To get involved you need to register with The Big Pathways survey and then – either by downloading the app, or using a desktop – you can choose to ‘adopt a square’ on the Ordinance Survey maps they provide. As you walk the footpaths within that square you can record any ‘positive experiences’ or ‘path problems’ you find along the way.

Every two weeks a local authority will receive a report from Ramblers about the Big Pathwatch, updating them on the surveying that has taken place.

The end results of the Big Pathwatch will enable Ramblers and local authorities to create the long-term solutions needed to keep our paths open for future generations to benefit and enjoy.

The Big Pathwatch App put into practice: a review of the experience

At face value it’s a bright, well-designed interface simply divided into neat boxes and surprisingly easy to navigate. 

I created an account on my desktop and then downloaded the app to my phone, though you can stick to the device of your choice. The app then locates your position and shows you an OS map of your local area, divided into grid squares. You ‘adopt’ the squares you want to walk and ‘report features’ along the way.

‘Positive’ features might include flora and fauna, attractive views and any welcoming or interesting aspects.

‘Negative’ features could be ‘intimidating’ animals or people, elusive signage, problematic path surfaces and so on. You can also upload a photo for each feature you report.

I also used the ‘Find and Share‘ feature on the app to tell Ramblers about a couple of problems I came across. They won’t be able to include those extras in their analytics, but promise to pass the information on to your local authority.

It’s really helpful that the app gives you very specific options as I was encouraged to look for things I might not have otherwise thought to mention. I later realised there’s also a ‘Feature Reference Guide’ to download before you start that helps with this.

The survey is designed so that participants survey all paths within a grid square rather than a specific path, which means you end up going in strange circles to fill in all the areas in the square. I found this was a bonus, however, as it took me into corners I’m not familiar with, and gave me a new sense of the scale of the areas I walk day-to-day.

One of the great aspects of the app is that you don’t need to complete the whole square in one go. You can break it up into several shorter walks and also have more than one square being recorded at the same time.

It’s a shame that the only way to see who else has mapped your chosen square is via desktop computer, and not also on a phone. On a desktop squares appear in green if they’ve already been ‘adopted’, though that doesn’t stop you from recording a square again yourself, and Ramblers say they will make use of all the data they receive.

You can choose up to 10 grid squares at any one time. If after four weeks you haven’t submitted results they will be unassigned from your Big Pathwatch account.

Squares can be walked and results uploaded until 31st December 2015.

The Survey So Far

With more than 25,000 positive features reported, including beautiful views of open countryside and welcoming signs, the survey has already shown that there is much to celebrate about Britain’s walking networks. However a further 30,000 reports have come in of things that cause people concern. Missing signs are the most frequently cited problem for walkers, but overgrown undergrowth is the most common obstacle to finishing a walk (as Idris complained about in a recent dogblog).

Eleanor Bullimore, Engagement Manager at Ramblers, told BBC Countryfile Magazine that they have seen walking trends changing almost week by week as the Big Pathwatch develops: “Following the launch, urban areas were proving very popular. We were seeing lots of people walking out their front doors and surveying their local paths. Throughout August, however, we saw a spike in squares surveyed in Devon and Cornwall, Cumbria, the Peak District and Northumbria. This reinforces what we already know: people love walking our national parks – and Big Pathwatch may be proving a popular holiday activity for families!”

Endangered Paths

The paths also offer valuable access to our history, connecting us to routes that have been walked for thousands of years.

Walking on foot was the only method of getting around for the vast majority of Britain’s ancestors, and the once commonplace old word ‘way’, still resonant in ‘byway’, ‘bridleway’ and ‘highway’ from Old Saxon ‘weg’, reflects this. In fact our modern ‘road’ only began to appear in writing in 1617, and being derived from Old English ‘ridan’ meaning ‘to ride’, it reflects the later shift away from travelling on foot.

The Big Pathwatch is an attempt to protect these ancient ‘ways’, but there are countless further routes that our ancestors would have walked but that have never been databased and are consequently in danger of being lost forever. Potentially hundreds of paths not recorded between 1946 and 2026 will not be eligible for protection.

Ramblers are addressing the need for these paths to be added to the definitive map through a separate campaign called ‘Don’t Lose Your Way’. Eleanor Bullimore said, “It will be a sad diminution in our heritage if paths established perhaps hundreds of years ago are put out of our reach forever.”

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Words by Agnes Davis