EVIDENCE of forgotten footpaths is being sought by a Dorset group – and you could help in the search.
The Dorset Ramblers is calling on volunteers to help them track down evidence of ancient and lost paths, bridleways and rights of way.
They need people who know their way around a 100-year-old Ordnance Survey or parish map and who would enjoy looking at old railway or canal records or websites showing the location of former mills and other landmarks. All these things can help establish where former rights of way were, and how they were recorded.
“If you can find historical evidence to back up the fact that a pathway or bridleway once existed, you have a much stronger case,” explained Jan Wardell, footpath secretary for the Dorset Ramblers.
The project is part of a gargantuan effort to relocate and register England and Wales’s lost pathways and routes.
The Ramblers reckon there are more than 49,000 miles of these routes, which, in walking terms, is roughly twice round the earth – and they need to complete it by January 1, 2026.
After this date paths and bridleways that existed before 1949 but which are not recorded on definitive maps will be extinguished forever.
“It really started with the Countryside Act in 2001, when the government announced a cut-off date for adding routes to the definitive, which means the legal, map,” said Jan.
Initially, the government funded the discovery of the routes but after a while that ceased and, as time started to run out, the Ramblers launched their Don’t Lose Your Way campaign in 2018.
Routes can be lost for a variety of reasons, from falling into disuse, disappearing because of roads or changes to the original route, and some have been lost because of previous landowner action.
Volunteers in Dorset have already discovered 918 miles of long-lost routes – now they need more people to search for documentary evidence.
“You don’t even have to enjoy walking to do this, just enjoy being a bit of a detective with old documents and maps,” says Jan.
These documents are important because, say, a map showing a former mill may also indicate a public right of way to it used by the people who bought their flour for milling. A canal map may show a towpath that was created and used as a public thoroughfare.
Many of these documents and maps can be found online. Others, such as the ones in the Dorset Record Office, are on paper and must be inspected in person and others still will come from images derived from the National Archives at Kew.
Nationally, the Ramblers are developing tools and resources to help with the research. But they are also keen to get out a few messages, one of which is not encouraging people who think they’ve identified a former potential right of way to go and try and walk it.
A spokesperson said: “While many of the paths identified may be historical rights of way, they are not currently recorded on the legal map of rights of way, the definitive map, and some may have been legally extinguished in the past 120 years.
“Until they are recorded, we cannot guarantee they are public rights of way, and therefore we would not encourage you to go out and walk them.”
For the same reasons, it says, landowners and householders should not feel concern, about the campaign.
“The Ramblers do not want to claim lost rights of way going through buildings, including people’s houses,” said the spokesman. “Volunteers were asked to mark-up paths which appeared on historical maps and we recognise that some areas have seen a significant development in the last 120 years.
“We want to add paths to the map which will improve the network for all. Identifying a potential lost right of way is the start of the process and further research and consultation is required before the local authority confirms a right of way. In some cases it is possible and appropriate to apply for a diverted version of a historical route.”
To find out more or to help Jan Wardell and Dorset Ramblers contact the group nationally at ramblers.org.uk/get-involved/campaign-with-us/dont-lose-your-way.