On 1 January 2026 – now only a few years away -the official (definitive) maps will be closed against the addition of paths claimed on the basis of historic evidence.
The process which path workers all over England and Wales have used since the first definitive maps appeared in the 1950s, and which has steadily extended our freedoms everywhere, will become a dead letter. The ancient legal maxim on which so many claimants have relied, ‘once a highway always a highway’, will be shattered. Unrecorded paths, even if they are still in use, could and often will be lost for ever.
The society has been working for decades to prevent this looming disaster.
We are members of Natural England’s rights-of-way stakeholder group. There with landowners, local authorities and other users, we have thrashed out agreed measures to speed and simplify the procedures for claiming paths in anticipation of the 2026 guillotine. These measures have been incorporated into the Deregulation Act 2015 and the government plans to bring them into effect soon; we are now working with the stakeholder group to draft the regulations through which the act will be implemented.
The imperative for the society is clear. Over the next few years we must claim those paths which, with the backing of historic evidence, we believe to be public highways; if we do not claim them most will be lost for ever. A massive and urgent effort is required of us and our members¹.
Investigation(2,4). Before claiming a path for the definitive map the applicant must thoroughly investigate the evidence which is dispersed in many different places—inclosure awards³, tithe maps, Finance Act maps and other official documents for instance. These cannot be retrieved by a few keystrokes on the computer. They must be examined in national and local record offices, in estate archives and among parish and community council papers—wherever the trail leads. Only then can a claim for highway status be submitted to the ‘surveying authority’, ie the county or unitary council.
And we must investigate as many paths as possible before 2026.
Training. Locating and understanding this kind of evidence requires skill. That is why we continue to run training days *(crash courses in finding and understanding the documents) for our volunteers. The aim is to equip participants to get cracking immediately on evidence for claims.
Collaboration. We are not the only organisation involved. That is why we are collaborating with other user groups such as the Ramblers and the British Horse Society in planning a joint bid to fund the digitisation of vital records. This would be invaluable to us, but digitisation is a job for experts and will cost money: we must pay our share.
We recently obtained from Natural England, with its kind co-operation, a copy of the Discovering Lost Ways dataset. This is around 0.25 terabytes of data arising from the inconclusive work undertaken by contractors for the Countryside Agency 2005–06 to research records and claim unrecorded public rights of way in several local authority areas: Cheshire, Dorset, Nottinghamshire, Warrington, Wiltshire and Wirral.
We now hold copies of the documents photographed in each of these areas, and Natural England has provided individual summary sheets for each area. Anyone undertaking research in any of these local authority areas ought to be aware of the work already done, and particularly the documents already available in electronic form. This overall summary is not intended to be a comprehensive listing of the data, but helps illustrate its breadth: please read the introductory notes to understand the content.
We are not resourced to provide individual documents on request, but we will try to help members of the society where practicable. We understand that Natural England is likely to be willing to provide further copies of the data (or parts of the data) to research groups established for the relevant local authority areas. We are happy to put people in touch, to try and answer questions about the data, and provide samples of the data or copies of the area summary sheets.
FAQs. As 2026 approaches the flow of questions from our members increases. They need advice and our minuscule staff has to be there to give it.
None of this comes without costs in time and expertise and therefore money. But the prize is great. We believe, on the basis of work so far, that there are hundreds of unrecorded paths in every county of England and Wales—every one of which will be under a very real threat of annihilation unless we get them recorded before the cut-off on 1 January 2026.
To meet these costs and to save these paths we have set up the society’s Find our Way Fund . Please give to it now.
Please send your cheque to Open Spaces Society, FREEPOST (RG1344), Henley-on-Thames RG9 2BA or visit our appeals page. Thank you.
Taking action – Highways under threat (Summer 2015)
Taking action – Highways under threat (Autumn 2015)
Taking action – Highways under threat (Spring 2016)
Taking action – Highways under threat (Summer 2016)
Rights of Way: Restoring the Record
2nd edition of this invaluable research guide by Sarah Bucks and Phil Wadey now available
Full details at Restoring the record