Walking the Malham Landscape Trail in December. Andy Kay YDNPA

‘Hasten the job!’ A 70th anniversary look at the law which defined rights of way

Friday 13 December, 2019, by Andrew Fagg

An act of parliament which would determine definitively public rights of way in England and Wales will turn 70 on Monday.

The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was enacted on the 16th of December 1949.  It created a ‘National Parks Commission’ with powers to ‘designate’ the country’s first National Parks.  

It also required a comprehensive survey of footpaths and bridleways in England and Wales, so decisions could be made on which ways were public and which were private. It is this survey, triggered by part Part IV of the Act, which is remembered in this extended article.

Letters kept at the North Yorkshire County Record Office illustrate that in the Yorkshire Dales, it was a time-consuming and fraught business involving all three levels of local government.

Let’s start on the 25th of April 1950, when the ‘Clerk of the Peace and of North Riding County Council’, Hubert G. Thornley, addressed a Part IV conference held at County Hall in Northallerton.   He told officials and local representatives that the Act stipulated that they had only three years – until 16 December 1952 – to carry out the survey.

It was a task “quite impossible for the County Council to perform unaided,” he said, spelling out that District and Parish Councils must assist with the work. 

It was decided that the County Council would send maps and forms (“schedules”) to the Rural District Councils, for distribution to the 163 Parish Councils and 337 Parish Meetings in the North Riding. 

The survey would itself be in three stages.  First a “draft” map would be produced, then a “provisional” map taking into account draft map objections, and finally a “definitive” map.   This definitive map would not be published until 27 October 1961 in the North Riding and 31 October 1969 in the West Riding (which then included the now Cumbrian parishes of Sedbergh, Dent and Garsdale).

It was a far from seamless process.  By 12 March 1952, Mr Thornley was getting twitchy at County Hall.  “Only nine months remain,” he said in a letter to the clerk of Aysgarth Rural District Council, which covered upper and mid-Wensleydale and Bishopdale, “and so far I have received less than 10 per cent of the maps and schedules in respect of the various Parishes”.

He wrote again on 30 October 1952, pointing out that five out of the 12 parishes in the district were still to submit maps and paperwork. The deadline was only six weeks away.

“Will you please impress upon the Parishes the need for completing the surveys at once,” wrote Mr Thornley to the Aysgarth RDC clerk, John J. Willan.

His pleas were passed on to the parishes by Mr Willian, but they fell on deaf ears.  On 14 January 1953, Mr Thornley wrote again. Tell the late parishes to “hasten the job”, he said.

By 16 April 1953, when still nothing had happened, he was getting shirty.

(North Yorkshire County Record Office)

“Can you do anything, please, to expedite the submission by Aysgarth, Hawes and High Abbotside of the surveys of public paths in their respective Parishes?  They have had the maps now for over two years and I think that time is more than adequate to complete a task which ought to have been done December last,” he wrote.

Enter the Ramblers’ Association.  It had got wind of the incalcitrant parishes.  The Honourable Secretary of the North Yorks and South Durham Federation, one Stanley Cardwell of Darlington, wrote to Mr Willan offering to complete the outstanding surveys.

“I have written to Mr Sayer (Aysgarth Parish) and Mr Wiseman (Hawes and High Abbotside) and offered to help finish this job,” said Mr Cardwell.

Mr Wiseman accepted the offer (although Mr Sayer ignored it for a few months).  So, it came to pass that Ramblers’ Association volunteers came to Hawes to carry out a survey of all paths and bridleways in the parish. 

They filled out and submitted schedules for 110 paths which they believed to be public rights of way.  

Finally in December 1954 Mr Thornley was able to publish the draft map showing the ‘public paths in the western part of the riding’.  An advert was placed in the Darlington and Stockton Times on the 18th of that month.  People had just over four months, until 1 May 1955, to make draft map objections or other representations. 

Of the 110 public rights of way put forward by Ramblers’ Association volunteers, 52 of them were “deleted”.  It is fascinating to burrow into the detail.

Take path 46, for example.  This led from Hawes main street (‘Hawes West End’) due north under a stone railway bridge and through two fields to the River Ure, to a place known locally as Lobler Dub.

1952 Schedule of path 46 in the parish of Hawes. (North Yorkshire County Record Office)

Being from the town myself, I have asked one or two elderly friends about ‘path 46’.  “O yes,” said Basil Allen, now in his nineties, in his family grocer shop, “that way was used by washer women”.  “O yes,” said Joan Fawcett (my grandmother), in her mid-eighties, “when we were children we went that way to the river all the time and nobody ever stopped us.”

The Ramblers’ Association volunteer had cited “public usage” as grounds for believing the path was public.  A check of earlier maps held at the Records Office, such as an 1865 book of drawings for the Midland Railway branch line which ran through Hawes, showed the path clearly marked.   Indeed, while some paths on the 1865 map were marked ‘private foot path’, this one was labelled ‘foot path’. 

‘Path 46’ is in the centre of this 1865 Midland Railway map, heading due north to the River Ure. (North Yorkshire County Record Office)

Yet path 46 did not make the cut.  Like many other paths in the parish, it was dropped from the draft map and did not make it onto the provisional map, which was published on 30 January 1959.  Unfortunately, the records do not provide a satisfactory answer about why a hand crossed out the schedule and wrote “deleted”. 

Only one letter, dated 1 September 1954, sent by the County Surveyor, a Mr R. Sawtell, to the clerk Mr Thornley, casts any light. 

It listed 18 of the 110 paths as “unsuitable for inclusion as public rights of way”.

“Many of them are clearly private paths, others have no objective or are unnecessary duplications,” wrote Mr Sawtell, strongly suggesting he had carried out site visits.

He listed a further 12 paths, including path 46, as being “doubtful”. 

County Surveyor letter 1954 (North Yorkshire County Record Office)

This letter was evidently pored over by the scribes in the County Council clerk’s office.  Marks are made on it by later hands. 

Paths 44 and 46 – on the doubtful list – are ringed in red crayon and marked “LEAVE”.  Path 44 was indeed left.  It is on the definitive map, meaning that all the queen’s subjects have a right to use it.  Path 46, as I’ve already said, was not left; with one swipe of a crayon, it was gone.

One last point on this story:  the words “accommodation path” are written on the path 46 schedule.  This term, used widely in the rights of way survey documents, describes a path which is neither public nor private, but is used by local people. 

For example, during its interrogation of the maps and schedules put forward by the parish of Carperby-cum-Thoresby, the County Council specifically asked whether three ways marked as ‘Accommodation’ should remain in the survey. 

On the subject of accommodation paths (North Yorkshire County Record Office)

The parish council did not answer the question directly.  Instead, it replied simply that they were paths ‘for the use of residents in the village only’.

Accommodation paths, however, were not recognised by the law.  Many of them, such as path 46 in Hawes, are not now in use at all.

Let’s turn to the West Riding, where similar public-or-private questions abounded, only with a bit more razzamatazz.  Skipton District Council and local people in Embsay and Burnsall aided by the eminent archaeologist Arthur Raistrick were pitted against the Chatsworth Estate.

A path over the moor between Burnsall and Embsay had been put forward by the parishes and included on the West Riding draft map.  The estate, which owned the moor, objected.  A public hearing was held on 14 May 1964. 

Robert Bland of Burnsall said it was a right of way which had been used for many generations.  He’d used it on several occasions and never been stopped by a gamekeeper. 

“I have heard my father tell how his grandfather used to use this path for taking potatoes to Skipton by packhorse,” he said.  “I am very keen on keeping open all the footpaths that are of use to the public, seeing that the roads are every day becoming more dangerous to the pedestrian.”

The Chatsworth Estate employed solicitors, a Mr Hay, and also a Mr Bird of Charlesworth Wood and Brown, to represent it.  They put forward a letter from a Mrs H. Birch, whose husband was head gamekeeper for the estate between 1903 and 1926. 

“She states that no public footpaths existed from Embsay to Burnsall during the above periods.  Mrs Birch also states that people have been stopped unless they had a permit from the Bolton Abbey Estate Office,” they said in evidence.

West Riding County Council decided to delete the path from the draft map. An appeal against its decision was dismissed by the Minister of Housing and Local Government.  The Chatsworth Estate won the day.  (Notwithstanding, four years later, in 1968, the Estate had the foresight to enter into an access agreement with West Riding County Council and dedicate much of its land for public access on foot. This agreement was struck more than 30 years before the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act came along and eventually made the moor in question ‘open access’.)

Although the records capture these stories in detail, there are many gaps.  Today the legal assumption is that a correct process was followed.  That explains why reclaiming a so-called ‘lost way’ is exceedingly difficult. 

Some of the records, however, suggest that the process was at least a touch haphazard at times.  Returning to the old North Riding, Mr Thornley, clearly not overly familiar with Dales dialect, wrote to the clerks of the district councils on 7 December 1950 asking about “narrow passages”:

“In preparing the survey of public paths … my attention has been drawn to the fact that in many towns and built up areas in the Riding there are narrow passages, sometimes wholly consisting of steps … I believe the local name is a ‘ginnel’.”

He requested that the district council clerks find out from the parishes where such ginnels were, so that they could be considered for inclusion in the survey.

Tom Calvert, clerk of Askrigg Parish Council, wrote that there were 16 ginnels in the town:

(North Yorkshire County Record Office)

Mr Peacock, clerk of neighbouring Bainbridge Parish Council, however, wrote that the village of Bainbridge had no ginnels which could be classed as public footpaths:

(North Yorkshire County Record Office)

As the National Park Authority offices are located in Bainbridge, I can say with certainty that this is a village with ginnels. 

Little stories such as this suggest that local officials of the time had a significant influence on a survey that would in effect define in perpetuity where people had the right to walk. 

To be clear, though, the records have turned up nothing substantial to justify quibbling with a student, Rachael Greaves, who spent some time with the Park Authority studying these matters in 1998.  “A thorough and careful survey was carried out,” was her conclusion in a paper she wrote entitled, ‘Mapping public rights of way in the Dales’. 

Although the survey led to some paths with long-standing use by local people being “deleted” at the draft map stage, the process as a whole led to the formal establishment and protection of a rights of way network which might be described as the great joy of those who live here or visit.     

Finally for now, let’s turn to the formation of the Yorkshire Dales National Park itself, made possible by the 1949 Act. 

On 8 October 1954 a Whitehall civil servant wrote to the Secretary of the now-formed National Parks Commission.  He said the Minister for Housing and Local Government had considered a report of a public inquiry, held on 13 May that year, on the ‘Yorkshire Dales National Park (Designation) Order 1954’.

It noted that North Riding County Council had formally objected.  The council had felt the designation was “unnecessary” and would “complicate local administration and increase its costs”.  West Riding County Council had attended the inquiry, and shared the North Riding’s reservations, but “abstained from lodging a formal objection to the Order”.

The letter acknowledged that “a large number of farmers from the northern dales” had objected. 

“The farmers objected, in particular, to the inclusion in the Order of purely agricultural land, especially in Wensleydale and in parts of Swaledale, where the land was largely enclosed and intensively farmed and where a tuberculosis eradication scheme was about to come into operation,” it said.

Against this, the National Parks Commission and supporters had argued that “the area, though one in which agriculture was of the greatest importance, was clearly of National Park quality … and that the high amenity of the area was of more than merely local interest”. 

“This is also the Minister’s view,” concluded the letter, signed by ‘W.H.T Wiltshire’. 

So, just short of five years after the enactment of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, the Yorkshire Dales National Park duly came into being. 

Thank you to the staff at the North Yorkshire County Record Office for their assistance.

Picture of Andrew Fagg

Andrew Fagg

Media Officer, Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority

Website: www.yorkshiredales.org.uk

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