Norfolk County Council, like all similar councils, is required to draw up and maintain a ‘definitive map and statement’ of the rights of way in its area. The record of a path on the definitive map is conclusive evidence that public rights exist over it.
At present paths can be added to the definitive map if the relevant evidence is produced. However in 2026 this possibility comes to an end. Any path which came into existence before 1949 and that has not been requested to be on the map by 1 January 2026 will be lost – forever! As one estimate suggests that there could be as many as 20,000 public rights of way missing from the definitive map this is an alarming prospect.
2026 probably seems a long way off, but the work involved in the careful checking of historic records and maps is inevitably time consuming. Collecting the necessary evidence and putting together a claim also takes time. In addition it is important that researchers co-ordinate their efforts so as to avoid duplication and also to ensure complete coverage in an area if possible. For this reason several organisation keen to promote access to the countryside are encouraging local people to work together and make sure that historic rights of way are not lost.
The British Horse Society has been in the forefront of raising awareness of this issue and also providing information and advice on how to find and restore ‘lost’ paths to the definitive map. Although they focus on bridleways, the research and processes involved for footpaths are just the same. Two of their members have published Rights of Way: Restoring the Record. This is an excellent guide to finding and using the relevant maps and documents, and preparing an application to have a path added to the definitive map. (This book is actually an incredibly useful tool for any local historian; it gives very clear information on where to find and how to use a wide range of archive material that would be of use for many research projects.) Unfortunately it is currently out of print with a new edition expected at the end of 2016. However, it can be borrowed from Norfolk Libraries, and also Beachamwell Local History Group holds a copy which could be borrowed by local residents.
In Norfolk, the British Horse Society is working with the Open Spaces Society and The Ramblers, each committing funding to undertake research in a systematic and co‑ordinated way. Initially, the funding is being used to get copies of records held at The National Archives in Kew and make them available to all doing this work locally.
What this work also needs is volunteers willing to review the records in a systematic fashion so that we capture every route in Norfolk which is a public right of way but not yet recorded as one. Some of the funding from The Ramblers is being used to hold practical workshops for anyone (not just members of The Ramblers) willing to spend some time on this, to show them just how it can be done. The workshops will be led by Helen Chester of BHS and will include:
- the evidence available on line, how to collect it and what it shows, through a live application.
- other types of evidence available at the records office with examples of what to look for
- standard recording templates with a worked example on how to use them.
If you are interested in attending workshops or getting involved in this work, please contact Ken Hawkins of The Ramblers and CPRE Norfolk.
|Tips on saving lost paths (as suggested by the Ramblers)|
|Talk to local people, especially older residents, about where they walk now and have done in the past|
|Be methodical – start with individual parishes and check all walked routes, or take one OS map square at a time|
|Study old maps (such as OS first editions) and compare them with what’s on the ground and map now|
|Mark anomalies on the map and list all unrecorded or under recorded routes|
|Check for gaps and inconsistencies in the network, such as dead end or disconnected routes|
|Do your historical research – look at tithe maps, Inclosure awards, Inland Revenue valuation maps and other evidence|
|Organise yourselves by forming a group with a range of different skills and share your experiences with others|
Links to further information: