The Guardian view on restoring lost rights of way: in search of beauty | Editorial

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If Britain decided to choose a patron saint of rambling, Thomas Traherne would be a leading candidate. Few have captured the joy of fresh air, field and wood as beautifully, or with such spiritual intensity, as the 17th-century English writer and clergyman. In the verses of Walking, he offers a poetic celebration of the human capacity to bear witness to “the glory that is by … in the bright and glorious day”.

Traherne’s heart would have been lifted by the happy news that an army of “citizen geographers” has identified an astonishing 49,000 miles’ worth of lost and forgotten paths, criss-crossing the countryside of England and Wales. Using an online mapping tool provided by the Ramblers charity, members of the public have traced myriad former rights of way that had literally fallen off the map.

Thousands of volunteers have participated in this pastoral labour of love. Paths that hosted drovers and their livestock, old routes to historic sites and overgrown coastal routes have all been rediscovered. Obsolete ways to market and to church have been traced; old pilgrim roads have been restored to memory and secret smugglers’ routes exposed. In perhaps the most eye-catching finding, a missing part of the ancient Icknield Way between Norfolk and Wiltshire, first recorded in Anglo-Saxon charters of the 10th century, appears to have been relocated. Another revelation is a favourite walk recorded by Virginia Woolf in her diaries.

As it seeks to recover the byways of the past, the Ramblers project is also a race against time. Postwar government legislation demanded that local councils draw up definitive maps of footpaths and bridleways. Some did a meticulous job. Others didn’t bother. The government has established a deadline of 2026, after which unrecorded routes will be lost as public rights of way for ever. The scramble is therefore on to submit legal applications to register the lost paths. If all were to reappear on local maps, the recorded network in England and Wales would increase by up to a third.

That won’t happen, in part for sound ecological reasons. Some countryside campaigners have warned that clearing old paths would disturb what have become natural habitats for wildlife. And, inevitably, not every battle to restore public access to land that has long since fallen into private hands will be won.

Nevertheless, the passion with which members of the public have responded to the Ramblers’ “Don’t Lose Your Way” campaign shows the significance of walking in our collective imagination. A country ramble is a way to calm the soul and regain a sense of perspective on human affairs. Even before the current pandemic, studies confirmed the mental health benefits of setting out into the open air. The sense of confinement that came with the spring lockdown, and subsequent Covid-related restrictions, only underlined this psychological truth. As another shutdown begins, many of us will seek consolation in the still-allowed pleasures of a stroll in the park, or a walk in nearby countryside. In these grim times, it is all the more uplifting to know that in future, there may be more ways to access what Traherne describes as “those rich and glorious things, The rivers, meadows, woods and springs”.

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