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The great outdoors: £1 million grant to study countryside rights of way

COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of accessing nature to people’s health and wellbeing, with 42% of adults saying that ‘visiting green and natural spaces has been even more important to their wellbeing since coronavirus’*. Now a £1 million project will be researching the mapping, development, use and experience of twentieth and twenty-first century rights of way across England and Wales.

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) the project is called In All Our Footsteps: Tracking, Mapping and Experiencing Rights of Way in Post-War Britain, and will run for three years from 2021 to 2024.

Research will uncover unknown histories of 140,000 mile network

Led by Professor Glen O’Hara of Oxford Brookes University in collaboration with Dr Clare Hickman of Newcastle University, In All Our Footsteps will examine how the essential infrastructure of 140,000 miles of rights of way across England and Wales have been documented and used for both commuting and recreation across the years.

Professor O’Hara commented: “There has been little attention paid to histories of the establishment, maintenance and usage of this extensive network in post-war Britain. In All Our Footsteps will focus on the strategies pursued by local government, civil society, the third sector and citizen-activists in order to record and establish the public ways network in England and Wales after the Second World War.”

Dr Hickman, who will lead a research strand on pathways for meaning, health and wellbeing, added: “As well as being important historic artefacts, rights of way are central in facilitating activities for physical and mental health such as walking, and the ability to connect humans to nature for wellbeing.”

Access to these routes in England and Wales has been brought into sharp focus by the deadline of January 2026 for the registering of all historical paths under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. The Ramblers’ current ‘Don’t Lose Your Way’ campaign aims to identify and officially map as many useful rights of way as possible, before they are permanently lost to the public.

Jack Cornish, Programme Manager of The Ramblers’ campaign, also commented: “Our public paths are one of our most precious national assets. Through understanding and recording rights of way, we celebrate a part of our shared history and preserve access to our rural and urban landscapes for generations to come.”

Partners, workshops and accessibility

The research will have important policy and practical implications. In addition to The Ramblers, the team will work with Historic England, Natural England, The National Trust, walking practitioners and academics from a range of disciplines, to interrogate the importance of rights of way in their past and present context.

By working with third sector organisations and experts both within and beyond academia, the project aims to give historical insights into current and future issues relating to rights of way in England and Wales.

A series of workshops are planned to discuss key challenges faced by rights of way in relation to use, human diversity, economics and environmental change. An Open Access book will support a digital resources hub and policy documents.

Find out more about In All Our Footsteps on Dr Clare Hickman’s research website

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