The British are keen walkers and they take their hard won free access rights very seriously. It took nearly 100 years to win them, culminating in 1932, in the Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout
. Hundreds of workers defied the Duke of Devonshire's gamekeepers to gain access to open moorland in the Peak District. Public outcry at the subsequent arrests let directly to the formation of the gently named Ramblers Association.
Today, countryside rights of free access for "recreation on foot" to "mountain, moor, heath or down" are enshrined in law throughout the UK. Here's where to find the best free walks.
Photo credit:©Ferne Arfin
Fifteen long distance national trails are mapped and decribed on the National Trails website, funded by the governments of England and Wales. Created by linking existing local footpaths, bridleways and minor roads, they range from gentle, level walks
like The Thames Path
and The Peddars Way and Norfolk Coast Path
, to more challenging upland or scenic hikes like the Pennine Way
and the Southwest Coast Path
. Some stretches are suitable for cyclists and riders as well.
Each trail has its own web resources, linked to the National Trails site, and each can be taken up as a long distance challenge or as a series of pleasant, shorter walks.
I've been tackling the 100 mile-long South Downs Way in short chunks.
Scotland's official tourist website has a superb set of walking pages with a database of more than 1,000 free walking route options searchable by map, area, type and theme. Walks are graded by difficulty and level of challenge into four categories:
The site also provides detailed itineraries for 28 themed "Perfect Walks"
and more than 120 Family Walks.
Among the more popular are the West Highland Way that stretches from Glasgow to Fort William and The Rob Roy Way, around Loch Lomond and the Trossachs.
This huge website is somewhat frustrating to use because just about every live link opens to yet another list of live links. But persisence pays off. The Ramblers Association is a huge organization with hundreds of local and regional groups who organize guided walks, suggest itineraries and lobby for walkers and ramblers interests around the UK.
Although the association, which is a registered charity, encourages joining (not free), most local groups welcome guests free for one or two outings. The website lists hundreds of walking itineraries - many of which are described in detail - with information about guidebooks, maps and local walking groups. The Ramblers Association website is, frankly, hard work - but it is also encyclopaedic.
Dennis Hardley/Isle of Eriska
The the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CRoW), mentioned above, doesn't limit walkers to marked paths. It gives everyone the right to walk freely on more than 2.1 million acres of mapped mountain, moor, heath, downland and registered common land without having to stick to paths. The law also obliges local authorities to map accessible land under the act.
The government operated Natural England website provides information about the law, CRoW Access restrictions and a searchable database of CRoW Access Land all over England and Wales.
The same web portal also provides information for Countryside visitors with links to conservation, wildlife and woodland organizations.
Read the Scotland Outdoor Access Code
The National Parks in the UK protect some of the most spectacular and valued landscapes in England Scotland and Wales. It may surprise some visitors that National Parks in the UK also protect farms, villages and cultural heritage.
Within the UK National Parks, visitors can find a mixture of privately owned land and land owned or controlled by the the National Trust,The Forestry Commission, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and central and local government. There are mountains, moors, woodlands, marshland, pasture, lakes and coasts.
And, of course, there are also hundreds of miles of free trails for walkers. The main UK National Parks website links to all the individual parks where you can find information about paths and free, ranger-led walks
If you like woodland walking, The Forestry Commission's website is the place to go for loads of free, well marked and maintained forest paths. The commission maintains woodlands in England, Scotland and Wales for managed exploitation of timber, for conservation and for recreation. In all, the commission managers 1,500 woodlands, covering nearly 500,000 acres. All the forests - except Westonbirt
the National Arboretum in Gloucestershire, are free for entry on foot. There may be a fee for parking in some areas, particularly near visitor centers.
Search their data base for Forestry Commission walking trails by county, nearest town area, by level of difficulty, by wheelchair accessibility and by activity.
britainonview/ Wales Tourist Board Photo Library
The National Trust protects enormous stretches of beautiful and important landscapes for the nation. Coastal walks and stunning beaches
, to ecologically important woodlands, meadows and uplands, mountains and valleys are all within the National Trust "estate" and most are laced with well marked, free paths for walkers. The Go Walking
section of its website includes a searchable database of free, downloadable walks (with descriptions and maps), by region. Typical of these walks --
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
The UK country side crisscrossed with footpaths traditionally considered public rights of way. Though the law in Scotland differs slightly from England and Wales, generally, paths are public rights of way if -
- they connect two public places - two villages for example
- they are recognized routes in public use for at least 20 years.
Walkers can use any marked public footpath in England and Wales. Bridleways and cycle paths have different signs. In Scotland, no distinction is made between walkers, riders and cyclists.
Tourist information offices in most towns and villages have information, maps and suggested circuits of local routes. Or go out into the countryside and look for the signposts. They are everywhere.
Photo credit:©Ferne Arfin
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