Hidden Yorkshire: the 4,000 miles of paths that could be lost forever

A 2026 deadline for registering England’s historic rights of way could see up to 4,000 miles of ancient pathways lost in Yorkshire alone. An army of volunteers are hoping they can save them in time.

While Google Maps may be the most useful tool for travelling through urban areas, any walker worth their salt knows that Ordnance Survey maps are the best bet for traversing the countryside.

On these maps, legally protected rights of way are ordinarily indicated by dotted or dashed green lines, marking out the vast network of walking routes that snake across the length and breadth of Britain.

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Look a little closer, however, and you’ll spot something strange: some of these green lines stretch for several miles before stopping, abruptly, in the middle of the countryside.

Well over 140,000 miles of public paths criss-cross England and Wales. This network has evolved over centuries with many paths dating back to medieval times - or earlier - linking villages, hamlets, roads and towns.

What you’re seeing isn’t a blip or mis-print, but the product of human error made over half a decade ago, when local authorities across England and Wales were asked to piece together a definitive map to determine legal rights of way.

For various reasons, many fell short of the task at hand. The conflicting interests of local landowners, apathy, lack of resource and simple misunderstandings meant a number of paths were left - both deliberately and accidentally - off the map.

“You might arrive at this stop [in the path] in the middle of a field or stream - that’s often a parish boundary”, explains Tony Corrigan, coordinator for the East Yorkshire Ramblers, who has been investigating lost rights of way for the past four years.

“It often represents where one parish committed [to putting the map together] while the other didn’t have the resources or wherewithal”.

If paths are not added to the definitive map before the deadline, they risk being built over, forgotten or left to dereliction.

Over the years, volunteers have been able to rectify some of these errors by submitting historical evidence to local authorities proving a path’s former use as a right of way. Soon, however, this won’t be an option.

After a government cut-off date of January 2026, it will no longer be possible to add rights of way to the definitive map based on historical evidence. It’s a deadline that puts thousands of miles of pathways at risk of being lost forever.

Thousands is no exaggeration: in February 2020, The Ramblers, Britain’s biggest walking charity, conducted a mass citizen geography project titled “Don’t Lose Your Way” to find out just how many rights of way were at risk, and found an estimated 49,138 miles missing from the definitive map - enough to stretch around the world nearly twice.

In Yorkshire and the Humber alone, volunteers identified 4,524 miles of lost pathways, with North Yorkshire second only to Devon in the highest number of lost rights of way.

Without protections under right of way legislation, these pathways are not only at risk of being forgotten, but of being left to dereliction or built over entirely.

Urban areas, where people already have limited access to green space, would suffer the most, says Lee Davidson, footpath officer for the Leeds Ramblers:

“Places like Leeds have many kilometers of path which are non-definitive rights of way...central Leeds didn’t have to register its paths on the definitive map…

“At the time it was thought that footpaths only occurred in rural areas...but there are miles and miles of paths in Leeds which are now in urban areas thanks to new developments and estates”.

It’s volunteers like Lee and Tony who are driving the battle to save these paths before it’s too late. Their passion for the project isn’t only, as Tony explains, “for a personal love of the countryside”, but for a feeling of duty to future generations in the UK who will reap the benefits of the work they’re doing now to secure path access.

He adds the caveat, however, that not all of the lost paths identified by the initial Ramblers’ project are guaranteed to be added to the definitive map. Some may have been misidentified in the initial project, while others may already be built over or blocked.

“We’ll prioritise the most important and useful ones”, says Tony, noting that any pathways with sudden stops in the middle “are almost guaranteed to have once been right of ways” and thus worth further investigation”.

Beyond the initial identification of lost paths, which Tony describes as a “spot the difference” between historic maps and current ONS maps, the process of getting rights of way added to the definitive map is far from easy.

The task requires a huge amount of time and research, involving trips out to visit sites and delving into archives for historic maps. Sometimes, all that research will simply amount to a dead end.

Once the historic evidence is obtained, claims are submitted to the local authority for consideration - and the process of getting claims approved can take years.

Many councils, explains Lee, “foolishly got rid of their rights of way officers”, meaning that many paths are not maintained properly, and sometimes illegally built over.

This lack of resource not only leaves some paths poorly maintained, but means that claims for new ones are slow to be processed. In some areas, says Tony, the backlog is almost a decade long.

It’s not just the backlog they’re worried about. Though the deadline for registering paths is over five years away, there are fears among volunteers that, given the scale of the missing paths and the lengthy process of claiming them, many simply won’t be registered in time.

The Ramblers have already begun pushing back against the 2026 deadline, which they say does not give them sufficient time to register lost paths:

“We’ve had volunteers putting in crazy amounts of hours to work through their local area”, explains Tom Platt, Director of Advocacy and Engagement at The Ramblers.

“But it’s just such a big job...we’re trying to push back that date (2026) at the moment”.

Without the protections afforded by right of way legislation, those paths left off the map simply “don’t have protection...they can be built on or blocked by anyone”, he adds.

The change might not be noticeable at first, but the 2026 deadline raises the possibility of walkers slowly losing access to pathways that their ancestors have been walking for thousands of years.

It is his - and everyone’s - duty, feels Tony, to protect these paths for the sake of the future, just as previous generations did for us, and he urges anyone with “an interest in history, and research skills” to get involved:

“We’re able to walk these paths like the Yorkshire Wolds Way because previous generations did something very similar to what we’re doing now...had it not been for our forefathers many walks may have been lost”.

The Ramblers is seeking volunteers to help them search for and claim England and Wales’ lost paths. You can register to join them here.