Everything you need to know about Rights of Way

Earlier this year I was involved with the running of a series of Ordnance Survey map reading workshops across Great Britain. One topic that regularly cropped up was rights of way – where can I go walking? Today on the Ordnance Survey blog I hope to be able to answer that question for you.

When we’re compiling the information for our maps we talk to a variety of other organisations and groups that provide different data-sets to link with the maps. When our surveyors are on the ground, or when our cartographers take information from the aerial photography that our plane has taken, they can’t always tell what the rights of way in that area are. We work with local authorities and national bodies (such as Sustrans and Natural England) to bring the information together for the maps. The maps are as accurate as they can be with the information that we have to hand at the time of the map being printed.

First of all – let’s have a look at the map and see what that tells us. What we’re looking at is the “Communications” section on the map legend. Here we can see the different types of roads and paths and public rights of way.

If you look on the map legend you'll find the rights of way information

If you look on the map legend you’ll find the rights of way information

Let’s work our way through these rights of way and establish what rights we do / don’t have.

  • Footpath – the green dashed line (on OS Explorer Maps) or pink dashed line (on OS Landranger Maps) are footpaths with public right of way. They are legally protected routes that the public can travel along by foot. The local authorities hold and maintain the definitive map of Rights of Way. These are the legal documents for the status and alignment of Rights of Way. Local Authorities pass details of amendments to the definitive map to Ordnance Survey for inclusion in our maps. Footpaths may cross private land and in such cases the footpath must be kept to, the public only have the right to walk along the footpath.  If a landowner wishes to  divert a  public right of way they must obtain a legal order from the local authorities to amend the definitive map. Footpaths are sign posted, usually with yellow or green arrows.
  • Bridleway – as with footpaths the bridleways (as shown in the legend above) are legally protected routes that the public can use on foot or on horseback. Cyclists are permitted to use the bridleways – although through the Countryside Act 1968 there is no obligation to facilitate the cyclists on the routes and they must give way to other users. Bridleways are usually sign posted with blue arrows.
  • Byway open to all traffic – these are open to all forms of traffic – pedestrians, horse riders, cyclists and car and other motor vehicle drivers. These routes are often marked with red arrows.
  • Restricted byway – on these routes there are restrictions on how you can travel the route. You are permitted to use the route on foot, horseback, bicycle or horse drawn carriage. You cannot use any motorised vehicles along this route.
  • Other public access route – these are route that are rights of way, however the exact nature of the routes are unclear and are based on the best information that we have to hand. Prior to setting out on one of these routes – you may want to contact the local highway authority to see if they can advise on any restrictions that there may be.
  • Recreational route - these are trails designated by the local authority and may follow existing public rights of way. They are routes that will be sign posted by the local authority.
  • National Trail / Long distance route – these are long distance routes.  Some are only available for walkers, others may also be open to cyclists and horse riders. They are maintained through funding from Natural England and are sign posted along the route. Each route has a National Trails Officer who is responsible for the coordination of maintenance, improvement and promotion of the route on the ground.
  • Permissive footpath – this footpath takes you over private land and isn’t a right of way. The landowner has granted permission for the route to be used by the public but they also have the right to withdraw that permission if they choose. The path will often be closed for one day a year in order to protect the landowner against any future claims of continuous public right of way. The date(s) the path is closed for should be well signed in the area.
  • Permissive bridleway – as with the permissive footpath above, the route takes you across private land where the landowner has granted permission for the public to use it. They do have the right to withdraw their permission and as above, will probably close the bridleway for one day a year.
  • Traffic free cycle route – this is a designated traffic free cycle route, although not part of the national cycle network.
  • National cycle network – these are national, sign posted cycle routes that are either on road or traffic free (depending on whether the box is filled in or not). These routes are managed by Sustrans.
  • Danger area – this could be a military firing range and the warning notices around the area should be observed and adhered to. You can contact the Ministry of Defence ahead of your trip to find out about access to specific area.
  • Managed access – again, this could be a military firing range and the warning notices around the area should be observed and adhered to. Access is restricted and managed in this area and you can contact the Ministry of Defence ahead of your trip to find out about access to specific area.
  • Open access land (England & Wales) – on maps for England Wales you will notice area that is shaded in yellow. This is open access land and within this area you are free to roam at will. Although there are footpaths and trails running across this land – you do not have to stick to them if you don’t want to. The boundary of the open access land is a tan colour thicker line. In Scotland the situation is different – north of the border you have the right to roam. There may be local restrictions on access – but local signs will instruct you.
  • Right to Roam (Scotland) – The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 gives the public the right to be on any land for recreational, educational and certain other purposes and to cross the land if exercised responsibly. There may be circumstances where you get permission from the landowners but providing that you are considerate and respectful of the land you’re traversing, you have the right to roam when walking, cycling or horse riding.  You have the right to walk your dog with you – providing the dog(s) are kept under control. You are not permitted on to land for the purposes for hunting, shooting, fishing or using motorised vehicles. From your Ordnance Survey map you will be able to see where land may belong to the National Trust for Scotland, Forestry Commission or Woodland Trust. There may be limited access in some of these area – but local signs will instruct you.

Hopefully that has answered some questions for you on rights of way in Great Britain. If you come across a blocked right of way – your first port of call should be with the Rights of Way Officer (or similar) with the local authority. They will hold the definitive list of the rights of way in that area and should be able to advise or help clear the route.

Now you know where you can and can’t go – I hope you enjoy exploring Great Britain with your Ordnance Survey maps!

Photograph: Albert Bridge from Geograph

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