A Brief History of at-risk Rights of Way

The 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act created our National Parks, but it also required County Councils to record a ‘Definitive Map’ of all of the Rights of Way within their borders. This was a legal, indisputable record that landowners, walkers, surveyors the public and the Council could all depend on. Many County Councils delegated this task to Parish Councils and District Councils and the work was completed haphazardly. This left us with an incomplete set of ‘Definitive Maps’ and an incomplete picture of our RoW National Network.

An ancient, well-used path in Coventry that is not on the Definitive Map.

Some well-known paths that were unregistered were still used. Some routes were forgotten by councils, walkers, cyclists and riders. They became dilapidated and overgrown. Signage may have rotted and because there was no record that it should have been replaced, these routes were swallowed up by nature. The image below shows a field where a Right of Way should cross the field in the parish of Powick, Worcestershire.

A legal Right of Way exists through this field, even if the footpath doesn’t.
Ordnance Survey maps from the late 1890s show a footpath (circled in red) across this field in the Parish of Powick, Worcestershire that no longer has a physical trace in the land. The route is at risk of disappearing forever. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.
Today, the same route is missing from most maps because there is no trace of a footpath, despite the legal route existing. Source OpenStreetMap

Subsequent legislation was passed that in the 1980s required more governing bodies, such as Unitary Authorities, to start recording their ‘Definitive Maps’. The work was often left to a single Rights of Way Officer. Once again, the work was often only partially completed.

The Passage of the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act stated that Surveying Authorities (an authority in charge of a Definitive Map) will no longer be able to accept DMMOs for historical routes after the 31st December 2025. A discovering Lost Ways project was set up in 2001, but it only produced four applications. When the Countryside Agency turned into Natural England, they reviewed the project and concluded it was fundamentally flawed; it would be unable to complete record before 2026.

The race is on to record the nation’s unregistered routes before the 1st of January 2026. This work is often left public servants, campaigners, volunteers and landowners. They must finish the huge project that was started back in 1949. There is a lengthy application process called a ‘Definitive Map Modification Order’. Historical evidence of the route must be produced, landowners must be informed and public hearings are often held. There is also an appeals process that can involve the Secretary of State for the Department for Food and Rural Affairs. A single application can take anywhere from a year to 10 years to be resolved. We are hear to help teach people how to make their applications as quickly and efficiently as possible.