Landscape

Prehistoric: The History of Footpaths in England

Many of the footpaths we use today have origins that stretch back hundreds or even thousands of years. In the days before trains and cars, nearly all travel was done on foot since most ordinary people could not afford a horse, much less a carriage. Despite these limitations, people managed to get around quite effectively by walking.

From ancient tracks trodden by Roman legions to scenic routes maintained for modern hikers, footpaths have played a crucial role in English history, shaping both the landscape and the way people interact with it.

In England and Wales, we are fortunate to have more than 140,000 miles of footpaths, bridleways, and byways that form our public rights of way network. These routes provide a valuable resource accessible to everyone throughout the year, supporting daily activities such as exercise, routine travel, and engagement with nature.

Contents

Prehistoric Beginnings

These paths originally formed naturally as humans and animals moved across the terrain in search of food, water, and shelter, creating worn trails in the wilderness.

As these trails were traveled repeatedly, they became the first primitive footpaths, shaping routes that connected emerging communities and facilitated trade and communication.

The Icknield Way is one of the oldest trackways in Britain, believed to date back to the Neolithic period, making it over 5,000 years old.

During the Bronze and Iron Ages, these paths took on greater significance. They linked scattered settlements and became vital trade routes, carrying goods such as metals, pottery, and livestock between tribes and across significant distances.

The necessity of these paths grew as communities became more settled and the need for reliable trade routes intensified.

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The arrival of the Romans in 43 AD brought a new era of road construction to England. The Romans built extensive roads, many of which were primarily for military use to move legions quickly across the British landscape. Often was the case that the Roman engineers upgraded existing tracks and routes.

Settlements

However, alongside these larger thoroughfares, smaller footpaths continued to serve local communities. These paths allowed for the daily activities of the rural populace, enabling farmers to reach their fields and villagers to connect with neighbouring settlements.

These ancient paths were not just practical necessities; they held cultural and religious significance. Many paths led to sacred sites and were used for religious pilgrimages, embedding spiritual importance into the landscape.

iron age hut
Iron Age farm and huts

The trails allowed pilgrims to traverse vast distances to visit shrines and holy places, reinforcing the spiritual and physical landscape’s connection.

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As centuries passed, these ancient tracks were formalised and maintained due to their importance in everyday life and governance. They became recognised routes, protected by early laws that ensured they remained accessible to the people who relied on them for their livelihoods and religious practices.

Medieval to Early Modern Period

During the medieval period, footpaths across England evolved significantly. The landscape was increasingly shaped by human activity, with villages, towns, and cities becoming more interconnected.

As agriculture intensified and the population grew, these footpaths provided vital links for commerce, communication, and community cohesion.

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The medieval era saw the establishment of numerous market towns, and footpaths were essential for transporting goods to these commercial hubs. Farmers used these routes to bring their produce to market, while craftsmen and traders traveled them to sell their wares.

footpath in Dorset
This is not a public footpath but the owner gives permission to walk on it. Access can be taken away at anytime.

This period also witnessed the growth of feudal estates, where footpaths within manorial lands became crucial for the daily operations of the feudal economy, enabling serfs and labourers to reach the fields, mills, and lordly estates.

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Religion played a significant role in the use and development of footpaths during this time. Pilgrimage was a major aspect of medieval Christian life, and pilgrims traversed established footpaths to reach sacred sites across England, such as Canterbury, where Thomas Becket was martyred. These paths were often prehistoric routes along the ridgeways.

These journeys were not only spiritual quests but also significant social events, and the paths used frequently became ingrained in the cultural consciousness of the regions they connected.

Footpaths and Henry VIII

Moreover, the medieval legal system began to formalise the rights associated with these paths. The concept of the “King’s highway” was developed, where certain routes were protected under law for public use, ensuring that they remained open and accessible.

This was a precursor to the public rights of way legislation that formalised the use and maintenance of these paths in later centuries.

The early modern period brought further changes to the network of footpaths. The dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII had a significant impact, as many paths had been maintained by religious orders.

During the medieval period, footpaths were crucial for pilgrimages to religious sites, such as the journey to Canterbur
During the medieval period, footpaths were crucial for pilgrimages to religious sites, such as the journey to Canterbury.

With the monasteries gone, many of these routes fell into disrepair or were repurposed for secular use. However, the rise of the gentry and the continued expansion of trade under the Tudors and Stuarts saw new paths created and old ones revived as trade and travel between towns continued to grow.

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The Enclosure Acts, beginning earnestly in the 17th century and continuing over the next two hundred years, dramatically altered the landscape of rural England.

Common lands were enclosed for private use, and many traditional footpaths were rerouted or extinguished. This led to social unrest and resistance, as public access to the countryside was reduced.

However, these changes also reflected the shifting economic priorities of the period, moving from a predominantly feudal agricultural system to a more capitalist, market-oriented economy.

Enclosure Acts Impact on Footpaths

The Enclosure Acts, which gained momentum in the 18th century and continued into the 19th, profoundly transformed the English landscape and the network of footpaths that crisscrossed it.

These Acts allowed for the privatisation and enclosure of common land that had previously been open for communal use by all segments of rural society.

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This process not only altered agricultural practices by consolidating land into fewer hands, but it also had significant impacts on the public access to the countryside, including the footpaths that had served as vital public resources for centuries.

a drovers roads are now used as footpaths
Many footpaths act as wildlife corridors, enabling different species to move safely across human-dominated landscapes.

Before the Enclosure Acts, many communities had informal rights to large tracts of common land. These areas were used for grazing livestock, collecting firewood, and growing food, and the footpaths provided necessary access.

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However, as land was enclosed, many of these paths were blocked or redirected, disrupting traditional travel routes and limiting community access to resources. The loss of access to common lands was felt most acutely by the poorer classes, who relied heavily on these resources for their livelihoods.

The Acts often led to increased rural poverty and spurred migration of dispossessed farmers and laborers into urban areas.

Simultaneously, the Industrial Revolution, beginning in the late 18th century, further influenced the development and use of footpaths.

Footpaths to Small for Carts

As industry grew, so did the need for roads and more structured transport networks to move goods and labour between urban centers and rural areas. Many traditional footpaths were adapted or abandoned in favor of roads that could accommodate horse-drawn vehicles and, later, motorised vehicles.

However, the Industrial Revolution also led to a dramatic increase in the urban population, with former rural dwellers and new generations moving into cities to work in factories.

This track was originally a footpath connecting two villages
This track was originally a footpath connecting two villages

As urban areas swelled, the countryside became idealised as a place of leisure and escape from the pollution and crowding of cities. This shift in perception led to a renewed interest in the countryside for recreation and tourism, and thus in the preservation of footpaths.

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The latter part of the 19th century and the early 20th century saw the beginnings of the rural preservation movement and the campaign for rights of way, fueled by the middle and upper classes, who had both the means and the leisure time to spend in rural pursuits.

Industrial Revolution

This renewed interest in preserving footpaths as recreational resources clashed with continued agricultural and industrial use of the land, leading to conflicts and legal battles over public access.

The debate around rights of way and access to the countryside became part of larger discussions about land use, conservation, and urban planning.

The Enclosure Acts and the Industrial Revolution together had a lasting impact on the physical and cultural landscape of England, reshaping how footpaths were used, viewed, and valued.

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These changes set the stage for modern conflicts and legislation concerning public access to the countryside, highlighting the complex interplay between industrial progress, rural traditions, and recreational needs in shaping the history of English footpaths.

20th Century

The 20th century marked a significant turning point in the history of footpaths in England, driven by a growing public desire to preserve the nation’s rural heritage and ensure public access to the countryside.

This era saw the consolidation of legal frameworks and the initiation of significant preservation efforts that have shaped the modern landscape of public rights of way.

pollard tree
Woodland track that started life and a prehistoric trail

The early part of the 20th century witnessed increased activism aimed at protecting rural footpaths. Groups such as the Ramblers’ Association, founded in 1935, became pivotal in advocating for the rights of walkers and the preservation of access to natural landscapes.

One of the most notable events in this movement was the 1932 Mass Trespass on Kinder Scout, where hundreds of walkers deliberately trespassed on private land to highlight the restrictions on public access to the countryside.

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This act of civil disobedience brought national attention to the issue of public access to the countryside and is often credited with accelerating legislative changes regarding public rights of way. These advocacy efforts culminated in several key pieces of legislation over the course of the century.

The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949 was a landmark law that established the framework for the creation of National Parks in England and Wales, designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), and solidified the legal status of public rights of way.

This act also led to the development of the National Trails System, which includes long-distance walking routes, such as the Pennine Way, that are maintained to high standards and provide extensive access to the countryside.

Footpaths, Walk Freely

In 2000, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CRoW Act) further extended public access rights, particularly over open country and registered common land in England and Wales.

This legislation was pivotal in granting “the right to roam,” allowing people to walk freely in these areas, regardless of whether there were pre-existing paths.

In 1932, the mass trespass on Kinder Scout protested restricted access to paths in the Peak District, highlighting the demand for public right of way.
In 1932, the mass trespass on Kinder Scout protested restricted access to paths in the Peak District, highlighting the demand for public right of way.

The drive to preserve footpaths has continued into the 21st century, reflecting a deeper recognition of the environmental, social, and health benefits of public access to nature.

Modern conservation efforts are not only focused on maintaining and expanding access but also on ensuring that footpaths are integrated into sustainable land management practices that protect both natural and cultural heritage.

Read More: Ridgeways, our Prehistoric Road System Before Roman Roads

Local authorities, alongside national organisations and volunteer groups, play critical roles in maintaining the network of public footpaths. These groups work to ensure that footpaths are clearly marked, well-maintained, and free from obstructions.

They also tackle challenges such as erosion, overgrowth, and damage from increased use, ensuring that footpaths continue to be available and accessible for future generations.

Additionally, modern technology has transformed the way people interact with footpaths. Digital mapping, GPS devices, and mobile applications allow walkers to explore rural areas with more confidence and knowledge, contributing to a renewed interest in hiking and walking as recreational activities.

What Was the Mass trespass of Kinder Scout

The Kinder Scout mass trespass was a pivotal protest that took place on April 24, 1932, in the Peak District’s Kinder Scout area in Derbyshire, England.

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The protest aimed to draw attention to the fact that walkers were being denied access to open countryside, which had been enclosed by wealthy landowners prohibiting public entry.

The protest was led by Benny Rothman, a communist leader and Jewish anti-fascist who was then the secretary of the British Workers’ Sports Federation and a member of the Young Communist League.

The Romans built extensive roads in England, but smaller footpaths also flourished alongside these routes for local travel.
The Romans built extensive roads in England, but smaller footpaths also flourished alongside these routes for local travel.

At the time, the mass trespass was seen as a controversial act. However, the subsequent imprisonment of some participants sparked public outrage, bolstering support for the right to access open land.

Some of the trespassers later became notable activists and politicians, with a few even losing their lives fighting against fascism in the Spanish Civil War.

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The historical details of the Kinder Scout mass trespass, such as the exact number of protesters, the immediate impact of the protest on public access rights, and whether all participants reached the summit, remain subjects of considerable debate among historians.

Outcome

According to the Hayfield Kinder Trespass Group website, this act of civil disobedience ranks as one of the most impactful in British history.

It is credited with influencing the creation of the National Parks legislation in 1949 and catalyzing the development of the Pennine Way and other long-distance footpaths.

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The right for walkers to traverse common land and uncultivated uplands was eventually safeguarded by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CROW Act) of 2000.

Initially controversial, the trespass has since been viewed as a seminal event in the working class’s struggle for the right to roam versus the wealthy’s rights to exclusive land use for activities like grouse shooting.

From the 18th century, the Enclosure Acts privatized common land and led to the loss or rerouting of many traditional footpaths.
From the 18th century, the Enclosure Acts privatised common land and led to the loss or rerouting of many traditional footpaths.

The Kinder mass trespass distinguished itself from other contemporary protests by adopting a more radical approach to demanding greater access to the moorlands of the northern Peak District, an approach that was not universally endorsed by all rambling groups.

The severity of the sentences meted out to the protest’s leaders drew significant media coverage, elevating the issue to national prominence and garnering public sympathy.

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This led to a massive access rally at Winnats Pass, which attracted 10,000 people advocating for expanded access to nearby moorland.

In 2021, activists from the Young Communist League (Great Britain) commemorated the Kinder Scout mass trespass, marking its lasting significance.

An unintended consequence of the protest was increased scrutiny of ramblers’ behavior and discussions on how to regulate it.

This scrutiny eventually led to the creation of a ‘Code of Courtesy for the Countryside,’ a precursor to the modern Countryside Code, which aimed to balance the interests of landowners and the public.