Ancient Footpaths, Bridleways and Green Lanes

Speaker: Vicky Allen

18 January 2022

In the last couple of years, many of us have made more use of our local network of footpaths.  Perhaps that explains the good number of members and visitors who attended our meeting in January to hear from Vicky Allen, President of the Leicestershire & Rutland Bridleways Association, about the history of rights of way.

In ancient times, the easiest way to transport people and goods was by water – but as it didn’t always flow where you needed to go, roads of various kinds have always been necessary.  Some of those ancient routes may be the oldest man-made features to survive in the landscape.  The Romans famously built good, straight roads, which continued to be used long after the Roman occupation.  Their technology was not improved on until the scientific advances of Telford and Macadam in the 1800s.

In the right conditions, the early roads made it possible to travel quite rapidly: for example, Richard II was able to ride 70 miles along Watling Street in one night, with only a single change of horse.  However, in wet weather routes over Leicestershire clay could become “foundrous”, meaning bad enough to bring a horse to its knees.  In some cases, horses were better off following the bed of a brook, while lighter pedestrians would walk alongside.  Individual parishes were made responsible for maintaining the roads that passed through them but they often failed to comply.  Although the responsibility has now passed to county councils, parishes do still retain some rights of veto in highways matters.

Richard II’s journey shows that, in medieval times, even kings would travel on horseback, while peasants would go on foot and goods would be transported by packhorse.  There was also a network of drove roads across the country, along which herds of cattle and sheep would be driven from Wales, Scotland and the North of England to be sold in the South-East, grazing along the way.  Pub names such as the Durham Ox and the Black Bull might indicate a drove road, as might wide verges and clumps of Scots pines, which were planted to mark favourable stopping places.

County maps did not begin to show roads until about 1600 and, even then, the maps were for display by the gentry, not for practical route-finding.  Later in the century, writers such as Celia Fiennes made travelling fashionable and strip maps began to be published showing the routes between principal towns.  In the 1700s, turnpike trusts built better roads funded by tolls and it became practical to make journeys by carriage.  Surveying also improved and the military established the Ordnance Survey to plan the movement of guns (ordnance) in the threat of invasion.  At the end of the century, parliamentary enclosure transferred large areas of the countryside into private ownership and established the distinction between roads, bridleways and footpaths for the first time.

The 19th century landscape movement, which led to the founding of organizations such as the National Trust, increased interest in preserving footpaths.  In 1850 the artist John Flower – who painted in both Thurcaston and Cropston – set up the Leicestershire Footpaths Association, which went on to publish comprehensive maps of paths in the county.  The new pastime of cycling gave rise to its own maps, with routes marked in different ways to show the quality of the surface.

Rights of way in the countryside (but not in cities) are now recorded in Definitive Maps.  A recent law has set a deadline of January 2026 for any new claims based on historic rights to be submitted and a huge number of them is expected.  However, after many years of campaigning to re-establish historic bridleways on the routes of footpaths, Vicky has concluded that the distinction should be abolished.  She advocates “greenways” that can be used by all non-motorized traffic, with the money saved in legal fees being used to educate users and landowners to share them responsibly.