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Accessing the Great Outdoors blog by Charlotte Ditchburn

Public Rights of Way Explorer and Green Space Dark Skies official advocate Charlotte Ditchburn explains public rights of way and open access rights.

What does access to the countryside mean?

We access the countryside of the UK via public rights of way and open access rights. Approximately 170,000 km of these rights of way are footpaths and 40,000 km are bridleways. Over 4,600 km are National Trails and 30,900 km are recreational routes. Different users are entitled to use different routes which are as follows: footpaths – open to pedestrians only, bridleways – open to pedestrians, equestrians and cyclists. Restricted byways – open to pedestrians, equestrians, riders/drivers of non-motorised vehicles, and Byways Open to All Traffic – open to all classes of traffic including motor vehicles.

Public Rights of Way originate from the National Park and Access to the Countryside Act which laid out the need for all routes to be legally recorded on a map. These Definitive Maps are now being consolidated by Local Authorities to generate an accurate digital map of our Rights of Way.

As well as rights of way we can access the countryside via access land which includes mountains, moors, heaths and downs that are privately owned. It also includes common land registered with the local council and some land around the England Coast Path. Your right to access this land is called the ‘right to roam’, or ‘freedom to roam’. These rights were created by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CRoW) and the Marine and Coastal Access Act, allowing you to roam freely from the path in these areas.

Line of people walking in the countryside alongside a river

Right to roam in Scotland

In Scotland the Land Reform Act provided the right to roam responsibly across the width and breadth of the country. This has set a great president for what is possible for England and Wales. The majority of the English countryside is out of bounds for most of its population. 92% of the countryside and 97% of rivers are off limits to the public. Although the CRoW Act provided open access land to roam on, it did not extend to our waterways which still lie off limits to us due to disputes over the navigational rights on them. When you head into the hills of England and Wales to wild camp you are currently committing a civil offence against the landowner who has the right to ask you to leave. Surely with the known benefits of immersing ourselves in nature and the great advantages of escaping our busy day to day lives we should be able to enjoy these activities without prosecution?

There are some concerns which lead to stricter controls over our rights to access and to roam in the countryside and on our waterways such as “people don’t know how to treat the countryside with respect, there’ll be loads more litter”. There are a lot of unknowns and negativity about attempts to increase access throughout the UK. There is also a great deal of positive work being done to allow everyone access to nature and to connect with their natural world. Charities such as The Ramblers, The British Horse Society, Sustrans, Cycling UK, The Open Spaces Society, Clear Access Clear Waters, and many more are dedicated to protecting and extending access throughout the UK. The Outdoor Access Coalition is a broad coalition of organisations working to secure better access to, and enjoyment of, the natural environment for everyone. Sustrans is one of the user groups who are part of the coalition.

Whether you’re a rambler, horse rider, paddle boarder, wild camper, or cyclist we can all enjoy the outdoors responsibly and ensure its protected for generations to come.

Alongside its intrinsic benefits, people value nature more if they are able to experience it first-hand. The more people who can do so, the more likely it is that we will be able to ensure good stewardship and protection of our most valued natural environments.

Partner in The Outdoor Access Coalition
Wooden wayfinding sign showing symbols for bicycles, horseriders and pedestrians

Mental health benefits of being in nature

The mental health benefits of immersing ourselves in our natural environment via green spaces and the countryside are staggering. These natural environments have a huge benefit to our psychological and emotional wellbeing. Myriad studies show that blue and green spaces reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. These spaces do not have to be in the wilds, they are accessible in urban landscapes. Healthcare professionals and mental health advocates promote access to the natural environment in all its forms as having huge benefits to psychological and emotional wellbeing. Exercising in natural environments has been shown to promote greater feelings of revitalisation, increased energy, and joy. The evidence of the benefits of access to the outdoors has been proven to decrease tension, anger, and depression.

The main aim of Green Space Dark Skies is to organise a series of mass gatherings, which celebrate nature, our responsibility to protect it and everyone’s right to explore the countryside. Green Space Dark Skies invites thousands of people, from all paths in life, to make a journey into the landscape together. There, they are experiencing wild and beautiful places across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as dusk falls. In the face of the climate emergency, and at a time when the need to reconnect with nature is more urgent than ever. This is a chance to have an adventure – meet new people, travel with us to new places and come together to experience some of the UK’s beautiful green spaces at dusk.

Dirt track road running vertically through the countryside with shrubs and trees on either side of the road

In England 92% of the countryside and 97% of rivers are off limits to the public.

In Scotland the Land Reform Act provided the right to roam responsibly across the width and breadth of the country.

Charlotte Ditchburn
Public Right of Way Explorer

What can we do to help?

Although the Government has ambitious plans for access to nature which are reflected in documents like its 25 Year Environmental Plan, there is far more that can be done to improve these access rights; if access rights were reviewed in the UK’s green strategy providing new legislation to establish a public right for fair, shared sustainable open access on all waters allowing safe and welcoming places for recreational activity. At the moment it is down to charities, volunteers and members of the public to work tirelessly to protect access to the Great Outdoors. This is an issue that could be resolved if the UK had a coherent green strategy which would allow more time and resource to take on this mammoth task which will benefit all throughout the UK.

With the daunting threats from climate change and losing many of our lost ways we need to fight for action. We’re more likely to fight for action on climate and the environment if we have a close connection to it – and access rights are crucial for this. Every member of the UK’s society can get involved from learning more, writing to your MP and signing petitions, but we need the evidence that our relationship with nature improves our mental and physical wellbeing to equate to good policy and strategy for the UK.

It is our job to protect these places – Green Space Dark Skies will be carbon positive, ultimately removing more carbon from the atmosphere than it produces. The aim is to empower everyone involved to make a difference locally too. Green Space Dark Skies is hoping that everyone who takes part will become caretakers of nature for the future.


For more information, have a look at Charlotte’s website – Public Rights of Way Explorer.

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