Magazine article Geographical

The Right to Roam: The 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act Has Been Touted as the Most Significant Piece of Rural Legislation since the Second World War. as Huge Tracts of England and Wales Are Finally Opened Up to Walkers, Chris Baker Explains What It Will Mean for Our Countryside

Magazine article Geographical

The Right to Roam: The 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act Has Been Touted as the Most Significant Piece of Rural Legislation since the Second World War. as Huge Tracts of England and Wales Are Finally Opened Up to Walkers, Chris Baker Explains What It Will Mean for Our Countryside

Article excerpt

Standing atop Brown Willy, you can taste the sea--a hint of salt drifting in on waterlogged Atlantic air. The ocean breaks against giant cliffs a few kilometres from Cornwall's highest point, while in the other direction you can glimpse the English Channel, a blue tint beyond deep-green valleys.

Below is Bodmin Moor, a mini-wilderness of granite-topped hills, mires and ancient settlements. Visit today and you're shepherded along a footpath, constantly reminded to keep to the signposted route. But from August, walkers will be free to explore the surrounding land as the right to roam is introduced in South West England.

Brown Willy--the name is thought to be a corruption of the Cornish for winding or tortuous path--is among 100,000-odd hectares of land mapped as open country or registered common in the South West, one of the last areas in England and Wales to benefit from the new access legislation. "This will give confidence to walkers looking for places to explore," says Jill Goodman of the Ramblers' Association. "You can pick up a map and see where you can walk."

In total, about eight per cent of England's land area--and 21 per cent of Wales--is, or soon will be, classified as open country or registered common. In national parks alone, new access land designated under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 will cover an area the size of Luxembourg. The Ramblers' Association has been moved to describe the act as the most exciting and important piece of legislation to increase public access to the country-side since the Second World War.

In Yorkshire Dales National Park, accessible land has risen from four per cent to 64 per cent. And 85 per cent of Northumberland National Park is now open to ramblers, up from 19 per cent. In the Lake District, the change is from 46 per cent to 59 per cent.

Outside the national parks, vast: tracts of upland are now open, in many cases for the first time in centuries. In Wales, huge areas of mountain countryside, such as in the Brecon Beacons, the Berwyns and the Rhinogs, are now accessible, as well as land on many of the hill tops that divide the valleys in the old coal-mining heartland.

Altogether, there will be about 11,000 square kilometres of new access land on mountain, moor, heathland, downland and registered common, all of it marked an inviting shade of pale yellow on 1:25,000 maps being produced by Ordnance Survey. The regime began operating in parts of the North. West, the South East and the South of England last autumn, in the rest of the North and in Wales in May, and, after the South West, will come into force in East Anglia and the Midlands before the end of the year.

According to former rural affairs minister Alun Michael, the right to roam is ambitious, balanced and already operating smoothly enough to have dispelled many of the worries of the doomsayers. Work has already begun on extending access to include coastal land, he says, a process likely to accelerate as mapping is completed elsewhere.

"I want to get away from the idea that access to the countryside is just about townies getting out and about, or people walking where they want. It's really about urban and country people enjoying the countryside more," Michael says. "Groups such as the country landowners and the National Farmers' Union have joined in the celebrations of opening up access land. I think they have come to recognise the importance of opening up access, not just as a freedom for the public but as an economic driver for rural areas."

However, according to the Country Land and Business Association, it's still too soon to judge whether the act has been a success. For landowners, there are worries about liability, the effect on. livestock and how easily the complicated regulations will be understood.

The new system isn't a general right to walk everywhere. Defined access land can only be entered on foot, dogs must be kept on a lead between March and July, and many activities, such as using metal detectors, aren't permitted. …

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