Learn to design, construct, maintain and repair rural footpaths and informal paths in urban areas
This is a handbook of footpath management, first published in 1983, and now updated to include developments through to the mid 1990s. It has been written for conservation volunteers and path workers who are involved in the design, construction, maintenance and repair of footpaths.
The term ‘footpath’ is used in its non-legal sense to include any path or track that is mainly or only used by people on foot, whether a public right of way or a private path. Although mainly concerned with rural paths on farmland, moorland, mountain, woodland and coast, this handbook is also relevant to the management of informal paths in urban areas. The emphasis is on footpaths, rather than bridleways, byways or cycleways, although some of the information may be relevant to all types of paths and tracks.
England and Wales have over 225,000 kilometres of public rights of way, and many other areas to which the public have access. Scotland too has many miles of public rights of way, although definitive maps showing them are not required by law (see Chapter 2 – Rights and responsibilities). Large areas of mountain and moor are generally accessible to the public.
The path network is one of Britain’s greatest recreation resources. It not only takes the walker to magnificent mountain, moorland and coastal scenery, but unlike most other countries, it gives access through the working countryside, across commons and into woods, through farms and settlements, between and within villages.
With this great asset come many problems. Rights of way are the responsibility of landowners and local authorities, and between them, much may be left undone due to lack of resources, time or will. For some landowners, the right of people to walk across their land is an interference to farming, forestry or game, as well as wildlife. Many landowners take good care of their paths, gates and stiles, knowing that walkers are much more likely to keep to them if they are waymarked and easy to follow. It is the neglected paths that cause trouble both to walker and landowner.
The first Countryside Commission National Survey of rights of way in England took place in 1988, during which rights of way were surveyed on a sample base. The findings showed that walkers only had a one in three chance of completing a two mile walk. The main problems were that paths were ploughed, cropped or overgrown with natural vegetation, blocked by fences, walls or hedges, very muddy, or not signposted either from the roadside, or along their length. The second National Survey, completed during 1993/4, showed encouraging progress towards the Countryside Commission’s goal* of getting all rights of way in England back into a usable condition by the year 2000, although there was still much do be done at the time of writing.
* Countryside Commission is now Natural England
Another problem is the uneven spread of use over the path network. It is ironic that so many paths are difficult to follow due to lack of use and maintenance, while a tiny percentage of paths are eroded and unsightly through over-use. This is not surprising. Most people want to walk to the spectacular places, to hill and mountain tops, coastal cliffs, lakes and waterfalls. The attractions of certain areas have been increased by the designation of national trails, and by publicity. This is part of the complex subject of recreation management, which is beyond the scope of this publication. This handbook is concerned with the practical work that can be done to improve paths. There are two main areas of work. Firstly, the opening up of neglected paths, and secondly, the repair of paths damaged by over- use. Both are equally important.
There has been progress since the early 1980s, though still much remains to be done. The Countryside Commission’s target of getting every right of way in England legally defined, properly maintained and well publicised by the year 2000 gave impetus to highway authorities to fund rights of way officers and other staff involved in rights of way work. In England, local authority spending on rights of way increased from about £12 million in 1986/87 to £23 million in 1990/91 (Countryside Commission, 1993). Over the same time, there was an increase in the number of professional and administrative staff working on public rights of way, but a large decrease in the number of manual workers. Many more manual workers are needed, even to get back to the number who were employed during the years of job creation schemes in the late 70s and early 80s.
Voluntary groups have gone some way to fill the gap, with voluntary involvement trebling between 1987 and 1991. This is being further encouraged by various initiatives. In England, the Parish Paths Partnership was a scheme through which parish or town councils, or local voluntary groups could receive grant aid to undertake rights of way work. Parish Paths Liaison Officers were being appointed to highway authorities to give advice and training to local councils, and by 1996, more than one thousand parishes were working on rights of way through the Partnership. The Esso Footpath Awards, organised by The Conservation Volunteers, attracted over 100 entries each year from a wide variety of community groups from throughout the UK. The first five years of the Footpath Awards represented over 1,610km of paths which were maintained and improved by local voluntary action. Meantime, much has been happening in the uplands. The work of restoring eroded upland and moorland paths and their surrounds, which was in its infancy in the early 1980s, has developed into a craft with its own skills and techniques. Much experimentation has been done using different techniques, both on the small scale by individuals, and on the larger scale by management projects such the Pennine Way Management Project and the Three Peaks Project in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Although there is always more to be learnt, the experimental phase is mainly past, and most areas have now established the techniques that work for them, and given enough resources and time are confident that they can successfully tackle any problem.
Some controversy remains, but in general the need to maintain upland paths has been accepted by those who love the wild upland landscapes. The use of timber for boardwalks and steps, and of plastic drainage pipes and other synthetic materials during the ‘experimental’ years have been found in general to be insufficiently durable as well as visually intrusive. Instead, stone is used for nearly all path work, including surfaces, drains and revetments. Traditional methods of using stone are sometimes combined with very modern techniques, using helicopters to airlift materials and machinery, and excavators to expose subsoils with which to make durable path surfaces.
The detailed routing, design and construction of upland paths, together with the landscaping and restoration of the path surrounds has become a skilled craft, developed by individuals and teams in many upland areas, including the Lake District, North Wales, the Peak District, the North York Moors and in Scotland. The early development of this work was by National Park, National Trust and other countryside staff, working with The Conservation Volunteers and other volunteers on sites in England, Wales and Scotland. Work was mainly limited to small projects which could be completed in a week or two. From those early days came the realisation that the sensitive restoration of upland paths was possible, and skills were then further developed and applied through a variety of schemes in different areas.
In 1988, the Scottish Conservation Projects Trust (now The Conservation Volunteers Scotland) employed five full-time path workers, which led to the founding of Pathcraft Ltd, the first business in the UK to specialise in upland footpath work. Others followed, and by 2001 there were around 100 skilled workers employed on path restoration projects throughout Scotland. Initiatives such as the Footpath Skills Training Project provided training during the late 1990s.
In other areas, such as the Lake District and North Wales, the National Park Authorities and the National Trust have set up their own teams of full-time path workers, who have restored many kilometres of upland paths during the last decade. Volunteers continue to play an active role, particularly in the Lake District, where The Conservation Volunteers has provided the training ground for many mid-week and long term volunteers who have gone on to permanent employment with the National Trust or National Park authorities.
The permanent employment of people on path management and maintenance in both uplands and lowlands can provide a significant boost to local employment and regeneration. Well managed paths are vital both for tourism and local amenity use.
In Northern Ireland, the importance of access to the countryside is recognised as being of great importance for tourism. Although it has neither a tradition of public access to the countryside, nor a well developed network of rights of way, progress is being made in the creation of footpaths and long-distance routes. The Ulster Way follows a 902 km route through mountains and along coastlands right around Northern Ireland, with additional linking loops and extensions. Provision of Country Parks and Forest Parks is increasing. Conservation Volunteers Northern Ireland, which is part of The Conservation Volunteers, has expanded rapidly in recent years, with staff and volunteers involved in public access and other environmental projects throughout Northern Ireland.
This second edition of ‘Footpaths’ includes many of the successful techniques for upland work which have been developed since the early 1980s, together with tried and tested designs for stiles, boardwalks and bridges, and information on tools, organising groups and other aspects of footpath work. Like the first edition, this is intended as a source book of ideas, and not a list of prescriptive techniques and designs. It advocates local solutions and materials, not the standardisation of designs, and reiterates the need for sensitive treatment of all rural paths.
National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs)
This handbook is also a key reference point for the practical ways of improving and maintaining footpaths. It contains realistic advice including standards of good practice. As such, it is an invaluable aid to anyone wishing to gain an NVQ covering practical conservation and countryside footpaths. By following the advice within the book and working to the standards given, you will generate useful evidence of levels of competence. Collating this evidence correctly for your assessor will enable you to get your NVQ.