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Sunday 3 May will see the return of Hit the Downs MTB, whether you are taking on the 30km, 60km or 80km route, here is everything you will need to get ready for the big day!
Pedestrian: “You can’t cycle here.”
Me: “Why not?”
Pedestrian: “It’s a footpath. You’re committing an offence.”
Me: “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid you’re wrong, this is actually a bridleway.”
Pedestrian: “No, it isn’t, it’s too narrow.”
This is an edited but essentially accurate version of an encounter I once had beside Rydal Water. Happily, one reason it sticks in the memory is that it was so unusual, at least in my experience. I’m much more used to friendly greetings, words of encouragement – often of the ‘sooner you than me’ variety – and the holding open of gates.
Still, this encounter is instructive because it illustrates several misconceptions about the right to ride a bike. And it’s not just the occasional pedestrian who may be ignorant of the law: many (most) bike riders are a bit hazy about it too.
The first misconception is that you can recognise a footpath or a bridleway by eye, or identify them by width. In fact, a footpath or a bridleway may exist even though there is no visible path or track – and conversely, a wide, smooth track may exist without any public right of way attached.
A right, not a thing
The definitive work on rights of way law, Rights of Way: A Guide to Law and Practice by John Riddall and John Trevelyan, sums it up beautifully: “A highway is not a thing; it is a right.” Footpaths, bridleways and byways are all highways and can all exist without any discernible trace being visible on the ground. And neither footpaths nor bridleways, contrary to my pedestrian’s opinion, are defined by width.
What may have given rise to this misconception is a rule which applies where a route crosses a field. If a farmer ploughs a field or plants a crop, the right of way must be restored as soon as possible, to a width of 1m (for footpaths) or 2m (bridleways). If a bridleway follows the edge of a field, it should not be disturbed (ploughed or planted) at all; in this case the protected strip is 3m.
Otherwise, there is no set width, except for gates: on bridleways these must be at least 1.5m wide. Elsewhere, the test is what is required for passage. A bridleway should allow horses to pass each other, whereas a footpath only needs to have room for walkers. But even this test applies to the right of passage, not to any physical trace on the ground. Thank goodness, or all that luscious single track would have to be reclassified as footpath…
Note: This article was first published in Cranked magazine in early 2015. The current access consultation in Wales may lead to radical changes to Rights of Ways there, but the situation in England is essentially unchanged. A few other references have been updated (August 2017).