Memory lanes: the ramblers trying to save 10,000 lost footpaths

England and Wales have about 140,000 miles of footpaths, but there are an estimated 10,000 more that have been lost from current maps. Even that figure looks like a huge underestimate: a recent survey in Cornwall alone identified 3,000 possible paths that had fallen out of use and needed to be checked. That work of rediscovery is being done by volunteers, people such as Paul Howland, who has so far made 85 legal applications for the recovery of lost paths in a small corner of Hampshire. A government deadline of 2026 for such claims has given Howland’s work a renewed sense of urgency.

“It sounds like plenty of time, but I reckon that in our area we’d need to make two applications every week until 2026. There is just so much to be done.”

As a walker, I reflect, I’m used to losing my way. It’s a bit alarming, however, to find that paths can get lost, too.

“Some parishes recorded hundreds of paths, others did almost nothing. You ended up with footpaths that led nowhere or simply disappeared.” Once those paths failed to appear on OS maps, people stopped walking them. The nettles grew, the ash and sycamore seeds blew in and, within a few years, they were invisible. If a housing estate or a major road then appeared, that path was truly lost. And it did not only happen in the countryside. The Open Spaces Society has pointed out that urban areas were often exempt from the 1949 regulations and produced no definitive maps, leaving footpaths in cities and towns particularly under threat.

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