Cycling campaigners demand access to public footpaths as ramblers voice opposition

Telegraph Reporters
Mountain biking in the Galloway Forest Park, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland - www.alamy.com

For decades ramblers have had free reign over the 140,000-mile network of public footpaths winding across England and Wales.

But now they are on a collision course with cyclists who are demanding the right to ride their bikes on the same routes through the tranquil countryside.

British Cycling, backed by Olympic gold medallist and keen mountain biker Chris Boardman MBE, is spearheading efforts to reform rights of way legislation that bans bicycles from more than two-thirds of the paths.

It says the myriad of current laws are "outdated and confusing", and only allow walkers to enjoy "outstanding" trails through beauty spots such as the Cotswold Hills.

Instead it has called for all paths to be classed as "multi-use", meaning cyclists could ride along them, unless there are good reasons not to. 

The proposals, currently under review by the Welsh government, have been met with fierce opposition from walkers who believe their legal rights are under threat.

The Ramblers, an association of 500 UK walking groups, says that each pathway should be carefully reviewed before its status is changed. 

Gemma Cantelo, Head of Advocacy and Policy for the Ramblers said: "Some of our paths, because of their character or physical features, are not suitable as multi-use routes. 

"That’s why we don’t back proposals, as seen in Wales, to move towards a presumption that all paths should be multi-use. 

"Instead, we support a case-by-case approach to ‘upgrading’ footpaths to make sure that they continue to be safe and attractive to walkers, including those who are less physically able. 

"In order to protect walkers, we’d like to see clear codes of responsible behaviour introduced." 

Unless the landowner allows it, cycling on a footpath in England and Wales is normally considered trespass, making it a civil but not a criminal matter. 

Local by-laws or Traffic Regulation Orders (TRO) covering particular footpaths can make it a criminal offence.

British Cycling's campaign has won support from Cycling UK, a group championed by Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow.

Both organisations stress that they want to bring in rules of responsibility to ensure cyclists would use public footpaths safely. 

It would be based on the Scottish Land Reform Act, which gave cyclists access to almost all public footpaths north of the border in 2003. 

Duncan Dollimore, Cycling UK’s head of campaigns said: “Conflict sometimes arises because people feel either entitled or annoyed because they perceive someone is using their particular space. 

"Cycling UK wants to see England develop a better, more modern system for determining access rights – one based on suitability of use rather than historic use. 

"Scotland has it, and Wales is developing one – it’s about time England caught up.

“This would go a long way to calming the rare conflict we see on our trails and would mean more people can enjoy the great benefits of the English countryside.”

News of the plans renewed tensions between ramblers and cyclists, who became embroiled in angry exchanges on social media. 

Walker Bob Murray tweeted: "Far too many cyclists ignore the principle that walkers have the right of way and belt past them at dangerous speeds without warning. 

"A simple ring on a bell at an appropriate distance and passing at slower speeds is greatly appreciated. Very few do."

Cyclist Emma Morris wrote: "Walkers are tarring cyclists with the same brush.

"Some of us don’t speed passed walkers, some of us are polite and respectful.  "We cycle up to 70km a week on bridleways and never see a single walker!"

A British Cycling spokesman said: “England and Wales are packed with outstanding countryside on millions of people’s doorsteps but, due to outdated and confusing rights of way legislation, much of it is only open to you if you choose to walk. 

“We know that many people will simply not consider cycling unless they can do it on a traffic-free route. 

"Countryside paths are fantastic, free alternatives that could be enjoyed and shared responsibly by people on bike, on foot and on horseback.”