By: Blonde Two

If you’re about to set off for a bike ride, walk, run or even horse ride, you need to know where you are and are not allowed to be. The good news is that here in the UK we have a fabulous network of public footpaths, bridleways and byways that make it really easy to create fantastic routes, no matter how far you want to travel. We also have some amazing access land where you have the right to roam but the rules for that differ around the country so, although we mention access land, we will focus today on footpaths, bridleways and byways.

The Countryside Code
RESPECT other people – Stick to marked footpaths and leave gates as you find them. Behave gently and quietly
PROTECT our countryside – Plan how you are going to take your litter home. Keep dogs under control. Leave only footprints
ENJOY the outdoors – Plan ahead to be safe, look for and follow local signs and advice

Which map are you using?

It’s worth remembering that different map producers, and even different map scales use different colours and symbols to denote footpaths, bridleways and byways. One of the best scales for walking is a 1:25,000 scale map so we’ve chosen to concentrate on Ordnance Survey’s Explorer series of maps (the orange ones) for this post. You can of course, find out more information from your map legend, which is printed on the side of every paper map, and available on the OS Maps app.

What is a public footpath?

Using a public footpath

A public footpath shows a route you are allowed to use if you are travelling on foot or using a wheelchair (including powered wheelchairs and mobility scooters). Public footpaths can be in all kinds of places, and often take you across private land. It is the land owner’s responsibility to make sure you can pass safely, it is your responsibility to make sure you pass thoughtfully, and follow the Countryside Code. Thoughtful use of public routes can include being quiet as you pass houses, being aware of animals, and not climbing fences or walls except via stiles.

Using a public footpath to cross a field

Sometimes a footpath will take you across a field. In theory you should follow the line of the path (compass skills can help with this) but sometimes a farmer will make a clear path around the edge of a field, or across it in a slightly different direction. What really matters is to make sure you don’t disturb on any crops (these sometimes look like grass), and leave all gates as you find them.

If you are a wheelchair user, or have other needs, it’s worth noting there that not all public rights of way will be accessible. Although much is being done to improve this, gates, stiles and gaps still present problems to many people. Although we are not experts in this area, Disabled Ramblers and Paths for All both look like really helpful resources.

Finding public footpaths on a map

If you take a look at the map snippet above (Dartmoor of course) you’ll see some green dashed lines. These all show public footpaths (rights of way). The longest one, to Great Mis Tor goes across access land (coloured yellow) as it head north. In England you can walk or run anywhere on access land but not necessarily camp. Cycling and horse riding are only allowed on bridleways (see below). Motorised vehicles (including camper vans and motorbikes) are only allowed on byways (seen even further below).

The shorter one, to Fices Well, crosses private land. It’s also on a track, if you look closely you’ll see dotted black lines either side of the green dots. You can see other tracks on this map too. In this case they are all on access land so you are free to use them but sometimes tracks cross private land, and are not for public use.

Not always easy to follow

Sometimes the public footpath will be clear and easy to follow. In wilder areas it might not show on the ground at all. This map shows a really good example of this. The track that goes up to Little Mis Tor isn’t a public footpath but is really obvious. The public footpath that leads on up to Great Mis Tor is just grass and rocks. Just one more example of how good navigation skills can help you get where you are going. Despite Great Mis Tor being so big, it’s surprisingly easy to walk straight past it on a misty day.

What is a bridleway?

Using a bridleway

A bridleway shows a route you can use if you are travelling on foot, by wheelchair (including powered wheelchairs and mobility scooters), by bike (including recumbent bikes and tricycles) or by horse. Bridleways can also be in all kinds of places, including across private land, and open hillside. All the same expectations and considerations apply except that, on a bridleway, you need to put your sharing head on. Bikes can make walkers jump, walkers can scare horses, horses are really big. They key to successful bridleway use is to think ahead and consider the needs of those around you, as well as those who live nearby.

Using a bridleway to cross open land

You won’t find many bridleways that cross farmers’ fields but you will find ones across access land. Although you can walk, run and push (wheelchair) on access land, it’s important for those on bikes and horses to stick to bridleways (unless of course you have the landowner’s permission to ride). Some areas have traditional local rights of access but it’s important to investigate these properly before making presumptions.

Finding bridleways on a map

There are more green dashed lines on the map above but this time the dashes are longer and further apart. These rights of way are bridleways. Your map legend will help if you are finding the two sets of green dashes a bit confusing.

Together with the lane (yellow) they form a cycle route loop that includes a track as well as a cross-moorland section. What’s interesting here is the top bridleway that goes past the Crock of Gold Cairn. If you look closely you’ll see that it doesn’t follow the track that runs really close to it. In this case most people would choose the track (especially when they saw the lumps and bumps either side of it). Sometimes choosing your line is just a matter of common sense.

Not always easy to follow

Just like footpaths, bridleways aren’t always easy to follow. Navigation can be difficult when travelling quickly across open moorland. It is possible to use traditional map and compass skills on a bike (ask Mr B2 about his bike packing adventures). If you are at all concerned a good cycling GPS system or an app like OS Maps can also really help.

What is a byway?

Using a byway

You can use a byway or B.O.A.T. (byway open to all traffic) if you are travelling by any means we have already discussed, or if you are riding a motorbike or driving a car. Byways are usually very small, and require 4×4 capabilities, but if you are on one, you do need to be aware that there might be traffic around. In our experience byway users travel slowly and are considerate of other people so we recommend listening out for them, and giving them the space they need to pass.

The map above shows a byway called Penhill Lane. It’s marked by a crossed green line. This is almost certainly an example of one of Devon’s fabulous green lanes.

I choose this snippet as an example because it also shows two other important examples of Ordnance Survey’s collection of green rights of way (green on the map, not necessarily on the land). The green dots show another route that is in use but whose rules and origins are unclear (often the subject of local regulations). The green diamonds show a named route (which could follow any or none of the public rights of way discussed above). This example is, of course, the spectacular South West Coast Path.

What is a permissive path?

The other really useful type of route we haven’t yet mentioned is the orange dotted line (hooray for a new colour). You can walk or run on these but only as long as the landowner continues to give permission. Understanding these has become particularly important during the coronavirus pandemic. Head on over to our permissive path’s blog post to find out more.

Look at your map legend

If you think that’s a lot to take in, imagine how long it took to write it. Fear not though if you forget to take your Two Blondes out with you on your next outdoor adventure. All the information you need (and arguably some you don’t) will be on your map legend. Happy exploring!!

All map snippets – copyright Ordnance Survey 2021 (thanks team)
Two Blondes Walking has an affiliate advertising relationship with Ordnance Survey