What are public rights of way?

A public right of way is a right by which the public can pass along linear routes over land at all times. Although the land may be owned by a private individual, the public have a legal right across that land along a specific route. As these routes cross private land we ask you to bear this in mind and be responsible when using them.

Public rights of way are all highways in law, but the term ‘public rights of way’ is generally used to cover more minor highways. The mode of transport allowed differs according to what type of public right of way it is. There are four categories as follows:

Footpath

A footpath is a highway over which the public has a right of way on foot only – waymarked in yellow.

Bridleway

A bridleway is a highway over which the public has a right of way on foot, horseback and on a pedal cycle (including mountain-bikes). There may also be a right to drive animals along a bridleway – waymarked in blue.

Restricted byway

A restricted byway is a highway over which the public is entitled to travel on foot, horseback and with non-mechanically propelled vehicles (such as pedal cycles and horsedrawn vehicles). There may also be a right to drive animals along a restricted byway – waymarked in purple.

Byway

A byway open to all traffic (BOAT) is a highway over which the public is entitled to travel on foot, horseback or pedal cycle and by wheeled vehicles of all kinds, including horse-drawn vehicles, but which is used by the public mainly for walking or for riding. Most of these highways do not have a surface suitable for ordinary motor traffic – waymarked in red.

How you use a right of way is important. You may only make a bona fide journey with reasonable rest along the way. On rights of way you can:

  • take a pram, pushchair, wheelchair, but expect to encounter stiles on footpaths
  • take a dog, preferably on a lead or under close control
  • take a short alternative route around an illegal obstruction
  • remove an illegal obstacle sufficiently to get past.

Other types of public access route

Unsurfaced county road

A minor road over which the public is entitled to travel on foot, horseback or pedal cycle and by wheeled vehicle of all kinds, including horse-drawn vehicles. Most of these routes do not have a surface suitable for ordinary motor traffic – often waymarked in black and shown on OS maps in a green or red dot notation.

Cycle tracks

A path with a right of way for all types of pedal cycles (not mopeds), including electrically-assisted cycles, with or without a right of access on foot. (However, cycle tracks are not a type of right of way that have to be shown on a definitive map).

Permissive path

A permissive path is not a public right of way, but the public is allowed to use it with the permission of the land owner. Various waymark symbols are used.

Green lane

This term has no legal meaning, but is used as a physical description of lanes that are vegetated underfoot or enclosed by hedges hence the ‘green’. The term is also commonly used for unsurfaced county roads, many of which are now shown on Ordnance Survey Explorer maps with green dots, and on Landranger maps with red dots. However, any individual ‘green lane’ might be a footpath, bridleway, restricted byway, byway or road, or have no public rights on it at all.

Access land

This involves a right of access rather than a right of way, as it relates to area access rather than linear access. Commonly known as the ‘right to roam’, this right covers some of England’s most wild and dramatic landscapes, heaths, moors, down and areas of registered common land. The Open Access symbol is used to mark the boundaries of land available for area-wide access. There is also a category of ‘voluntary access land’, which includes most of the Forestry Commission’s freehold land.

Access land is recorded on maps held by Natural England and the Countryside Council for Wales, and is shown on Ordnance Survey ‘Explorer’ maps from 2005.

Land managers are allowed to close access land for up to 28 days each year, and for longer periods for certain purposes by agreement with relevant authorities. These are highway authorities or national park authorities or Forestry Commission depending on the location.

If you wish to find out more about how to enjoy access land and view the access land walking maps, see GOV.UK – Rights of way and accessing land.

If you are a land owner or manager and want find out how the Act affects you and get advice on how to manage public access, see GOV.UK – Open access land: management, rights and responsibilities.

Please follow the Countryside Code.