Access To The
Countryside In Britain & Ireland
All the land in
Britain and Ireland is owned by someone
- no matter how difficult it may sometimes
be to track down the landowner! No matter
how wild or remote the land may be,
or whether it looks uncared for or derelict,
it is owned by someone, somewhere. Despite
this, people do have certain rights
of access to certain routes and areas
of land. The following brief explanation
should help you to find routes which
you can follow across the countryside.
England and Wales
In England and Wales
there is one system of legislation governing
access to the countryside. There is
a network of "rights of way"
which anyone can follow at any time.
Rights of way are subdivided into footpaths,
bridelways and byways. Footpaths can
be used by people who are walking. They
may take a dog, if it is under close
control, and if the nature of the path
allows, then baby buggies or wheelchairs
may also be taken along these routes.
Bridleways can be used simply as footpaths,
but they may also be used by horse-riders
and cyclists. Byways are generally open
to all traffic. There are also areas
of land which have been designated as
"access areas". These are
generally fairly wild upland areas and
most will be in National Parks. Access
areas generally allow freedom to wander
in any direction, although there may
be restrictions at certain times of
the year. If this is the case, there
will usually be notices explaining the
nature of the restrictions. Sometimes,
there is a designation known as a "permitted
path", where the landowner allows
access along a route, but reserves the
right to curtail it for any reason.
Ordnance Survey maps show the full extent
of the rights of way network in England
and Wales, although in practice you
could find some of these routes illegally
The law, they say,
is different in Scotland. Although there
are such things as rights of way in
Scotland, they are not marked on Ordnance
Survey maps and may not be indicated
on the ground either. In some of the
wilder and more remote parts of Scotland,
there has been a long tradition of free
access, but in some places this seems
to be under threat. On some estates,
access is permitted, while on others
it is discouraged. There are also estates
which allow virtually free access for
part of the year, then restrict access
at other times. Some guidebooks give
contact names, addresses and telephone
numbers to allow the access situation
to be checked day by day if necessary.
In many areas, local people will be
able to offer advice.
Rights of way legislation
has been enacted in Northern Ireland,
but it is a watereddown version of the
legislation pertaining to England and
Wales. The District Councils have been
charged with managing access, but some
are slow to address the issue. In a
few areas, rights of way have been "asserted"
and signposted, but in many areas rights
of way are simply "alleged"
to exist and have yet to be proven.
The District Councils are supposed to
hold maps which show both "alleged"
and "asserted" rights of way.
There are some waymarked trails which
are not necessarily rights of way, but
may instead have been created by "wayleave"
agreements. This leaves the landowner
free to close the routes if necessary
for a variety of reasons. Some areas
have virtual free access, such as the
central part of the Mountains of Mourne.
Ordnance Survey maps do not yet carry
rights of way or access information.
Republic of Ireland
In effect, there
is no cogent access legislation in the
Republic of Ireland. Although rights
of way do in fact exist in some places,
they are very difficult to prove and
any conflict over them would need to
be resolved through the courts. The
waymarked trails were virtually all
established by "wayleave"
agreements and so cannot be regarded
as rights of way. The little legislation
which does govern access is often in
contradiction to established custom
and practice in many areas. Responsible
walkers seldom have any conflict with
responsible landowners, and in many
areas local people can advise visitors
where they can walk unhindered. A recent
piece of legislation was the Occupier's
Liability Act, which reduced the "duty
of care" formerly owed by landowners
and tenants to other people on their
property. In simple terms, if you now
have an accident on someone's land,
you can't sue them for damages - so
take care when you are out walking in
Isle of Man
The Isle of Man
has a system of rights of way similar
to that in England and Wales. Rights
of way are marked on the Ordnance Survey
map and are usually well signposted
on the ground too. There is also another
tier of access, where areas have been
designated for "public ramblage"
which allows free access in any direction.
There are also "greenway roads"
which are tracks that can be used by
almost anyone - vehicles included.
Notes for American
The rights of way
network in Britain and Ireland is freely
available to anyone, without need for
payment or permits. Access areas and
permitted paths are freely available
for use until such time as the privilege
is withdrawn. The National Parks generally
offer very good access to the countryside
and these can be visited any time, without
the need for payment or permits. Ordnance
Survey maps of England, Wales and the
Isle of Man indicate the rights of way
which you can follow. Ordnance Survey
maps of Scotland and Ireland often indicate
paths and tracks, but this is no guarantee
that they are rights of way.