While we set up a bespoke website this page outlines a new research project starting in Spring 2021 – led by Professor Glen O’Hara with Dr Clare Hickman – on the history, use and experience of rights of way.
The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a new or renewed appreciation of the importance of access to nature to people’s health and wellbeing. The October 2020 release of the People and Nature survey organised by Natural England found that ‘forty two per cent of adults said visiting green and natural spaces has been even more important to their wellbeing since coronavirus’.
Given that rights of way and footpaths are essential for many people in order to access nature it is particularly timely that the AHRC have awarded £1m of funding to ‘In All Our Footsteps: Tracking, Mapping and Experiencing Rights of Way in Post-War Britain’. This project led by Professor Glen O’Hara of Oxford Brookes University in collaboration with Dr Clare Hickman of Newcastle University will demonstrate the importance of examining the mapping, development, use and experience of twentieth and twenty-first century rights of way.
Access to those routes in England and Wales has been brought into sharp focus by the deadline of January 2026 for the legal identification of all such 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 rights of way as possible before they are permanently lost to the public.
In England and Wales there are around 140,000 miles of rights of way, essential infrastructure for those wishing to access the countryside for both commuting and recreational uses. Professor O’Hara argues that ‘there has been little attention paid to histories of the establishment, maintenance and usage of this extensive network in post-war Britain. Therefore “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’, notes that ‘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’.
Our work has important policy as well as practical implications. The team will therefore work with The Ramblers, as our Project Partner, as well as representatives from 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 we will provide historical insights into current and future issues relating to rights of way in England and Wales. We will organize a series of workshops to discuss key challenges faced by rights of way in relation to use, human diversity, economics and environmental change. Project outcomes will include better links between academics, practitioners, path users and policymakers, further support for deepening these connections further, a series of policy documents and a digital resources hub, all supported by an Open Access edited book.
As part of the project we are excited to announce that we will be advertising 2 full time postdoctoral positions which will last the duration of the grant. More information about these will be advertised soon so watch this space!