Public rights of way – what to expect

In general the countryside is not designed for walking or riding on – in order to make it more convenient and accessible paths and tracks have been constructed in many places but it is not reasonable to expect these everywhere, even in some places where there are a lot of users. Some paths are too narrow or steep for all the permitted users because of their nature or the way that they were originally dedicated as public rights of way-  that is not an error necessarily but a quirk of history. For example:

  • A byway open to all traffic (BOAT) may not have to have a suitable surface or be wide enough for a car
  • Some bridleways are too steep for horses to use or too boggy for cyclists
  • Some footpaths are too uneven for wheelchairs or pushchairs

Users will need to assess the nature and natural restrictions of particular paths that they are using, take necessary care and be prepared to take an alternative route if necessary.

Users should be prepared, consider the effect of weather conditions and take particular care when running or riding quickly and when visibility is poor.

There is great variation in the standards of surface and potential hazards that you could expect whilst using public rights of way in Lancashire.

Rural areas and natural surfaces

Where paths have been constructed in a rural area the purpose is generally to facilitate passage across boggy, steep or otherwise difficult terrain and they may be uneven and slippery – this is the nature of such paths and users should take appropriate care.

Where paths have not been constructed but are simply a worn line on the ground, or maybe not even that, users must be aware that there could be holes made by animals or water, tree roots, rocks and other natural hazards to trip over or fall into. Similarly the path may be overhung by low branches, pass close to steep slopes, traverse river banks or cross fast-flowing streams. A little-used rural path may have both overhanging vegetation and upgrowth through the surface of the path that makes it difficult to use.

Historical routes

There are public rights of way which follow historical routes, often through areas of industrial archaeological interest, which used to be maintained to a high standard appropriate to that historical land-use but which is not necessary or appropriate today. This sort of route also requires users to take care appropriate to a deteriorated surface.

Urban and semi-urban areas

In village areas the paths tend to be better, often constructed with stone and in urban and semi-urban areas many paths are tarmac, concrete or stone. Users can expect them to be reasonably free from vegetation, deep puddles or mud but this does not mean that they are up to footway (pavement) standards nor are they necessarily lit.

The user has a responsibility to take care appropriate to the general nature of that particular footpath.

Signs and Waymarks

Public rights of way should normally be signed where they leave the road and waymarked where necessary along the route. However, you must expect you will need to use a map to find the way and not rely entirely on waymark arrows except on specially marked trails, for example in or near Country Parks.

Bridges

In most cases users can expect a means of crossing a watercourse but this may be stepping stones or an Irish bridge not usable when the water level is high. Historically some paths cross rivers or streams where there has never been a bridge or stepping stones but where the water level is, or once was, suitably low but care must be taken by any user as the suitability of a crossing point in any particular conditions cannot be guaranteed – it is the responsibility of the user to assess the circumstances at the time and not to take risks.

Unexpected hazards, obstructions and how to report a problem

Lancashire County Council as highway authority should ensure that any hidden, unexpected hazards are rectified as soon as possible after they have been reported.

For example, a rabbit hole in a meadow path or tree root across a path in a wood is expected but a rabbit-sized hole in a tarmac path or piece of metal sticking out of a concrete path is unexpected and should be rectified by the highway authority.

Wherever the public right of way is crossed by a fence, hedge or wall a gap, gate or stile should be provided and that should be safe and convenient to use. Steps, revetments, handrails and other structures are also provided where necessary.

There should be no obstructions such as locked gates, piles of building materials, paths ploughed or covered in crops, buildings, fences across the path or 'keep out' notices.

There is a regular programme of vegetation clearance from many paths which are subject to undergrowth, however, it is not possible to anticipate all locations where this is required and Lancashire County Council relies on members of the public reporting problems of excessive vegetation.

If you see a problem like this on a public right of way you can report it online. It would be helpful if you could give a detailed description of where the problem occurred, inform us of its nature and whom you believe may be responsible.

Be Prepared

It is strongly recommended that users:

  • Carry a suitable map and ensure that they are able to use it (remember that you may need to carry reading-glasses and a torch)
  • Allow for suddenly worsening weather conditions
  • Wear suitable clothing, including footwear, and where appropriate take waterproofs or carry extra warm clothes
  • Carry water or other non-alcoholic drinks especially when it is hot.

A GPS (global positioning system) unit or traditional compass may also be useful as long as the user is able to use it competently.

Watch out for cattle

Many public rights of way cross fields where livestock are present. In general this presents no problem but there are simple precautions that you can take: 

  • make sure that you know where your exit point from the field is
  • do not walk between young calves and their mothers
  • do not let your dog chase the cattle
  • be ready to let your dog off the lead or put it down if cattle approach (do not pick it up or hold it close when cattle approach)
  • turn to face approaching cattle spreading your arms out and shouting, do not run away but move to the exit point (or back to the entry point) carefully.

Remember that cattle are often inquisitive and rarely aggressive.

Public rights of way - your responsibilities

  • Public rights of way – what to expect