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Historic Footpaths

‘Once a highway, always a highway’ is a phrase often used in reference to all kinds of rights of way in England, Wales and Scotland. However, for the first time in England and Wales some of our historic Rights of Way could be lost – and it could have big impacts for paddlers.

When the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (commonly known as the CRoW Act) the legislation had many benefits for those who enjoy the great outdoors, but was seen as a missed opportunity to greatly secure new rights of access along water by paddlers. It also had impacts on the future of our Public Footpath network. The CRoW 2000 Act has now, for the first time in legal history, set a deadline for registering historic routes which haven’t been used since 1949. Any that are not listed in local council’s records of Rights of Way (known as the ‘Definitive Map’) by 2026 will be no longer be eligible for inclusion.

For paddlers Public Footpaths and other Rights of Way can be useful ways to access rivers and lakes. Although there is some debate about using Rights of Way on land to access water for recreational paddling, old fords, ferry crossings and waterside paths could all be useful access points for paddlers.

You can read more on the background to the CRoW 2000 Act and registering historic Rights of Way in our original Canoe Focus article and in the expanded version in the online version of Canoe Focus.

You can also find more about the efforts being undertaken to protect historic routes through these organistaions:

What are we looking for?

The maps below show just three examples from a short stretch of the River Trent. These routes could have public rights which are currently unregistered – and would be lost forever in 2026.


This image from Fiskerton shows a ferry across the river. If this was a public ferry, it could still carry public rights, both in terms of public rights of way on land leading up to the water’s edge and across the river. Although the river has a well recognised Public Right of Navigation (PRN) here, having public rights up to the water’s edge may provide a good spot for paddlers to access the water.


This second image from Hazelford also shows an old public ferry crossing the river. Although the path network on both banks already shows a registered footpaths and bridleways the ferry crossing could help prove these rights extend right up to the waters edge (and further!). You can read documentary evidence for this ferry in this local newpaper report.


This last example shows an historic ferry right by which is now a public car park, and a public house too. So it could be a great spot for paddlers to launch from!

(These maps are from a great online resource managed by the Library of Scotland)

The examples above show three historic ferries from a small stretch of the River Trent from a very quick look at the river. Although there is a well recognised PRN here, and some of these spots are already used for some launching, it is still important to have any unregistered public rights entered onto the local council’s Definitive Map, protecting them for the future too. It can be even more important on rivers with less well-recognised public rights, or where there are few public access points.

You can find more examples of potentially lost Rights of Way in the guidance documentation for the project

What will we be doing?

Our project will aim to work with paddlers, other organisations (such as the Ramblers, BMC, and Open Spaces Society) and Local Authorities to find unrecorded waterside routes – and to get them registered. It’s a long term project, with the 2026 cut-off date. However, there is also no time like the present – councils are already struggling with backlogs of applications, so we need to get applications in for any routes we identify as quickly as possible.

Our project will be looking to run in the following stages:

  1. Preparation – dividing our rivers into manageable sections and prioritising them for research
  2. Desk Research – examining old maps and records to find routes not currently registered
  3. Prioritising routes – some of the potential routes we identify will be of more relevance to paddlers than others, for example:
    • Does the river have huge banks here that would make launching unsuitable?
    • Are there other public launch points nearby?
    • Is this a stretch of river paddlers use (or could it be with more launch sites)?
    These factors will help us prioritise the order we apply for routes.
  4. Apply for routes to be registered.
  5. Follow up on applications – potentially including appeals

What can I do?

There are many ways you could get involved in the project, from donating a few hours of your time for some desk research through to helping us lead the project. We can’t do it without your help! Click here to find out more about how you can get involved.