Paul Howland is standing in a mattress of nettles, his head surrounded by a halo of dusky blue sloes. Behind him is an impenetrable tangle of undergrowth, self-seeded bushes and what seems to be just like the long-discarded components of an a car.
“The outdated path went up right here,” he says, waving his strolling pole additional into the thicket. “I first noticed it on Milne’s county map of Hampshire from 1791.”
Howland emerges from the nettles and reveals me a picture on his telephone which confirms his suspicions: we now have simply discovered one in every of Britain’s lacking footpaths.
“That is Greenwood’s 1826 county map and you’ll see the trail. It was referred to as the Markway and goes straight as much as this line – now the A30 highway. However examine that with the present Ordnance Survey map.” He unfolds a paper map and factors to our place.
“As an alternative of going straight, the footpath turns arduous left at this level and heads again in direction of Andover. What we now have here’s a lacking mile to a forgotten proper of approach – and a really helpful lacking mile, as a result of it hyperlinks to different footpaths.”

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England and Wales have about 140,000 miles of footpaths, however there are an estimated 10,000 extra which have been misplaced from present maps. Even that determine seems to be like an enormous underestimate: a current survey in Cornwall alone recognized 3,000 potential paths that had fallen out of use and wanted to be checked. That work of rediscovery is being finished by volunteers, individuals akin to Howland, who has to date made 85 authorized functions for the restoration of misplaced paths in a small nook of Hampshire. A authorities deadline of 2026 for such claims has given Howland’s work a renewed sense of urgency.
“It appears like loads of time, however I reckon that in our space we’d have to make two functions each week till 2026. There’s simply a lot to be finished.”
As a walker, I mirror, I’m used to dropping my approach. It’s a bit alarming, nevertheless, to seek out that paths can get misplaced, too.
Howland chuckles. “It’s simpler than you suppose.”

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We hand over any try and pressure a approach via the bushes and set off up the trail to the left. Two deer watch us warily from a stubble area and the enormous white dish of a radio telescope seems to hover on the horizon as we meet up with a bunch from the Ramblers, amongst them Jack Cornish, challenge supervisor for the nationwide marketing campaign Don’t Lose Your Means. He explains how authorities laws in 1949 dominated that each council ought to draw a definitive map of footpaths and bridleways, a laudable goal, however one carried out piecemeal.
“Some parishes recorded tons of of paths, others did nearly nothing. You ended up with footpaths that led nowhere or just disappeared.” As soon as these paths failed to seem on OS maps, individuals stopped strolling them. The nettles grew, the ash and sycamore seeds blew in and, inside just a few years, they have been invisible. If a housing property or a serious highway then appeared, that path was actually misplaced. And it didn’t solely occur within the countryside. The Open Areas Society has identified that city areas have been usually exempt from the 1949 laws and produced no definitive maps, leaving footpaths in cities and cities notably below risk.
Howland has a tough estimate of losses from his personal expertise. “In my space I anticipate an annual lack of half a p.c – largely from new buildings and roads.”
“These lacking paths could be the very important component in a very good round stroll, or entry to nice countryside.”
“These are historical rights of approach,” Cornish provides. “Rights constructed up over centuries. And it’s not nearly walkers: cyclists and horse riders want them, too.”
We attain an indication – “Non-public highway, entry solely” – and ignore it. “It’s a public bridleway,” says Howland, reassuringly. One of many ramblers finds an indication misplaced within the undergrowth and, producing a pair of secateurs, shortly makes it seen once more.
Strolling with Howland is to see the British panorama via a recent pair of eyes. The place I see partitions of thorny bushes, he sees a double hedge hiding an historical drovers’ path; the place I see neat white posts on the entrance to somebody’s drive, Howland sees a devious try and gull the general public into believing they’re on non-public land; most of all, the place I see cul-de-sacs and lifeless ends, he spots alternatives to find misplaced routes. He reads the panorama like a detective, constructing the bodily parts into narratives of development and alter.

Paul Howland. {Photograph}: Martin Godwin for the Guardian
He reveals me a patch of land on his OS map referred to as Bransbury Widespread that was declared open-access land below the Countryside and Rights of Means Act 2000. Virtually surrounded by a chalk stream, it was each biologically vital and a neighborhood magnificence spot. For so long as it has been an open-access space, the 2 bridges that when allowed entry have been unusable. They’ve by no means been changed. “The general public have the correct to be on Bransbury Widespread,” says Howland. “However getting there’s more durable.”
He has seen deserted railways, used as footpaths and recorded as such on OS maps, summarily closed when new house owners arrive. In different places, agricultural schemes such because the Countryside Stewardship demand that landowners open up paths in return for funds. When the schemes end, these “permissive” paths can disappear in a single day. On different events, new house owners merely don’t perceive native traditions. In October 2016, for instance, villagers in Bratton, in Wiltshire, have been astonished to discover a conventional riverside path via watercress beds blocked by barbed wire and “non-public property” indicators. A London property supplier had purchased the native mill and erected the obstacles. It took a two-year court docket battle to ascertain that the trail was a authorized proper of approach.
“There are two methods to get well a misplaced path,” Cornish says. “By proving common public use over a 20-year interval with none try to stop entry by a landowner, and by detective work on historic maps.”
What concerning the Markway, I ask. How did that disappear?
“Virtually accidentally.” Howland says. “Within the second world struggle, a Hurricane fighter base was constructed right here and the trail briefly blocked. That order was not rescinded till 1956. By then it was too late: the final mile of the route had acquired overgrown and forgotten.” If not for Howland, this proper of approach would have completely disappeared.
We cease speaking to walk alongside a brief part of busy highway, earlier than turning as soon as once more on to a path the place spindle flowers gleam like nubs of coral within the hedge. A kestrel cuts away throughout the sphere, glorying in its freedom. We come finally into the gorgeous thatched village of Chilbolton and, in the way in which of all good nation walks, attain a pub.

Over a bowl of scorching soup, Howland reveals me the paperwork that every Definitive Map Modification Order entails. “It does take hours of labor, however lots of the knowledge and maps are actually on-line. The Nationwide Library of Scotland web site is especially helpful. You don’t must be spending days within the Nationwide Archives at Kew, attention-grabbing as that will be.”
The marketing campaign has put strain on under-resourced native councils. Hampshire’s government member for rural affairs, Edward Heron, identified to me that Hampshire has seen an increase in functions from 5 a 12 months to 35. “We anticipate that these will increase will proceed till the closure date of 2026.”
The excellent news is that any software submitted by the 2026 deadline will, finally, undergo the authorized technique of evaluation and session.
In the meantime Howland is planning extra routes. His diffident method masks a steely dedication, and he clearly likes the weather of analysis and historic evaluation. “It’s given me a greater understanding of how the panorama adjustments and develops.” In idea, that analysis might return to the period of Richard I. His reign, which started on four July 1189, is the start of authorized time. In observe, many rights of approach date again to the enclosure acts of 1750 to 1850. Both approach the sense of an extended sport being performed is palpable and Howland is aware of it.
“A restored proper of approach will normally final for ever.” He smiles. “There aren’t many duties in life you can say that about.”
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