Public Rights of Way – a simple understanding

During a recent Ramblers Roadshow I attended a workshop on Rights Of Way and access, and I reproduce here a precise of what was covered during the day.  For a more in-depth understanding of the rights and wrongs of Public Rights Of Way Read More:

What is a Right Of Way?

A right of way is a path that anyone has the legal right to use on foot, and sometimes other modes of transport. As detailed in the official ‘definitive map’ of public rights of way.

  • Public footpaths are open only to walkers
  • Public bridleways are open to walkers, horse-riders & cyclists
  • Restricted byways are open to walkers, horse-riders, and drivers/riders of non-motorised vehicles (such as horse-drawn carriages and bicycles)
  • Byways Open to All Traffic (BOATS) are open to all classes of traffic including motor vehicles, though they may not be maintained to the same standard as ordinary roads.

Legally, a public right of way is part of the Queen’s highway & subject to the same protection in law as all other highways, including trunk roads.

What Are My Rights On A Right Of Way?

Your legal right is to “pass and repass along the way”. You may stop to rest or admire the view, or to consume refreshments, providing you stay on the path and do not cause an obstruction. You can also take with you a “natural accompaniment” which includes a pram, or pushchair.  You can take a dog with you, but it must be kept under close control.


Signposting & Waymarking

Highway authorities have a duty to put up signposts at all junctions of footpaths, bridleways and byways with metalled roads. The signs must show whether the path is a footpath, bridleway, restricted byway or byway open to all traffic (BOAT) and may also show other information such as destination and distance.

Highway authorities also have a duty to waymark paths along the route so far as they consider it appropriate

In Britain waymarking is normally done with arrow markings on gates, stiles and posts. Natural England and the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) recommend a standard system of colour-coded arrows – yellow for footpaths, blue for bridleways, purple for restricted byways, and red for byways open to all traffic.

Footpath indicators

Obstruction and Other Problems

An Obstruction is anything which interferes with your right of way, such as a barbed wire fence across the path or a heap of manure dumped on it. You are permitted to remove any obstruction providing you are a bona fide traveller on the path and have not gone out for the specific purpose of moving the obstruction, and that you remove only as much as is necessary to get through. If you can easily go round the obstruction without causing any damage, then you should do so.


Highway authorities have a duty “to prevent as far as possible the stopping up or obstruction” of paths, so report all infringements to them.


A person who strays from a right of way, or uses it other than for passing and repassing commits trespass against the landowner.  In most cases, trespass is a civil rather than a criminal matter. A landowner may use “reasonable force” to compel a trespasser to leave, but not more than is reasonably necessary.

Criminal prosecution could only arise if you trespass and damage property.  It is a criminal offence to trespass on railway land, sometimes on military training land and on land which has been designated under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act.


Access To Open Country

In 2005 walkers were given a new right of access to most areas of open country in England & Wales.  This allows walkers the freedom to walk over wide areas of land, without the restriction of the use of paths.  Open access land is:

  • Mountain – land over 600m (1969 ft) above sea level & other upland areas of rough, steep land with crags, scree, bare rock & associated vegetation.
  • Moor – unenclosed areas of semi-natural vegetation, including bog, rough acid grassland & calcareous grassland.
  • Heath – unenclosed areas of nutrient poor soils that support acid-loving plants such as heather, gorse, bilberry and bracken.
  • Down – semi-natural, unimproved grasslands in chalk or limestone areas
  • Common Land – land registered as common under the Commons Registration Act 1965.




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