Ramblers protest at 'national disgrace' of Britain's footpaths

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More than 30,000 miles of footpaths across the United Kingdom are either deliberately obstructed by landowners or have fallen into a state of such disrepair that walkers are unable to use them, according to the Ramblers' Association.

More than 30,000 miles of footpaths across the United Kingdom are either deliberately obstructed by landowners or have fallen into a state of such disrepair that walkers are unable to use them, according to the Ramblers' Association.

It will describe Britain's network of footpaths, many of them historic, as a "national disgrace" at a rally marking National Footpaths Day today.

The Government's Countryside and Rights of Way Bill, published last month, will dramatically increase the land over which the public will enjoy "a right to roam" but the Ramblers' Association has accused many local authorities, who are legally responsible for the maintenance of paths, of doing little or nothing to improve matters.

A report by the Audit Commission found that almost 25 per cent of all paths are blocked or unusable. One path has been closed to walkers - and has been the subject of tortuous legal attempts to reopen it - for more than 26 years.

Many of the rights of way affected are of great historical and cultural importance. They include Hardwell Lane in Oxfordshire, which is mentioned in three Anglo-Saxon charters; a path at Acaster Selby, near Tadcaster in North Yorkshire, which runs through the remains of a medieval college; the Carrier's Way, an ancient pony-track route that runs through the north-east of England; and a Roman bridleway from Corfe Castle to Poole Harbour in Dorset.

A rally organised by the Ramblers Association will take place today at Lightwater Valley, near Ripon in North Yorkshire, the county which has been singled out for criticism for having more blocked footpaths than any other.

A footpath at Marton-cum-Grafton in North Yorkshire has been obstructed by a hedge and orchard since 1974. North Yorkshire County Council policy is to deal with this type of path blockage within three months, but the most recent letter from the council, dated last September, that was sent to local walking groups states that the issue "is not a priority matter".

There are an estimated 130,000 miles of public paths in England and Wales. Local authorities have a legal obligation, on behalf of the public, to see that paths are kept open and properly maintained. Under Target 2000, set up by the then Countryside Commission in 1987, all local highway authorities were supposed to have ensured that every footpath in their area was unblocked by the year 2000. But only one, the Isle of Wight Council, claims to have met the target.

At Hardwell Lane, near Compton Beauchamp in Oxfordshire - mentioned in Anglo-Saxon charters as having equal status with the nearby Ridgeway and the Icknield Way in Suffolk - the landowner, multi-millionaire Erik Penser, argues that Hardwell Lane "doesn't exist" as a path.

In Carmarthenshire, there are five paths in dispute at Mynydd Sylen, a mountain near Llanelli. Ramblers have accused the owners of the eastern flank, the Rees family, of being "consistently aggressive" towards walkers. The path is blocked in several places, with locked gates and barbed wire, and overgrown in others.

Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, said: "The public footpath network is a unique part of our cultural heritage and should be valued as such. I cannot think of any other feature of our landscape that is so accessible to so many people and which enables them to follow, literally, in the footsteps of their ancestors."

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