Footpaths and Freedom

A week or so back, the Guardian had another article about the ongoing campaign to save Britain’s historic footpaths. The government has set a 2026 deadline for these paths to be registered; after that, the rights-of-way will be lost. The Ramblers are stepping up their campaign to save these routes, with a new mapping site. Some of these routes, particularly urban alleyways, are taken for granted by locals but not recognised on official maps.

There have been some fantastic articles on the campaign, including ones in the Guardian, Ramble On: The Fight to Save Forgotten Footpaths, and New Yorker, The Search For England’s Forgotten Footpath.

In a 2017 interview with Guernica Magazine, Walking is a Democracy, Iain Sinclair spoke about how important walking is to freedom, and how walking is becoming constrained in cities:

Walking is increasingly a sort of final democracy. The weight of what’s being [politically] imposed is very much anti-walking, and has to do with control of space, creating public areas you can’t walk in—which are completely covered by surveillance, policing, private spaces, gated communities, and unexplained entities at the edge of things. So walking around becomes actually difficult. But the walking process is the oldest natural form of movement. It puts you literally in touch with the earth and the weather around you and allows you to get into conversation with people as you move, which seldom happens in the other ways we move.

I was recently reading up on an access dispute near Uckfield, where the landowner was outraged at the idea that walkers’ access rights were ‘the law of the land’:

Where does this law come from? Because these so-called public footpaths in inverted commas were for the serfs to walk from A to B. They weren’t for the public. The public have never walked anywhere – they’ve had horses and cars and things. You don’t think the lord of the manor walked along a footpath do you? Course not. They were just for the serfs. Remember that prior to 1700 and something, nobody had any rights here anyway, they were all slaves… Why do people have to trespass on not just my land, but any private land? And what kind of people go rambling? Perverts.

Which makes a direct connection between the rights-of-access and more profound freedoms. There may be more urgent battles over rights and freedom than the one over English footpaths, but this small debate quickly reaches towards fundamental questions.

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