Nineteen years ago, the British government passed one of its periodic laws to manage how people move through the countryside. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act created a new “right to roam” on common land, opening up three million acres of mountains and moor, heath and down, to cyclists, climbers, and dog walkers. It also set an ambitious goal: to record every public path crisscrossing England and Wales by January 1, 2026. The British Isles have been walked for a long time. They have been mapped, and mapped again, for centuries. But that does not mean that everything adds up, or makes sense. Between them, England and Wales have around a hundred and forty thousand miles of footpaths, of which around ten per cent are impassable at any time, with another ten thousand miles that are thought to have dropped off maps or otherwise misplaced. Finding them all again is like reconstructing the roots of a tree. In 2004, a government project, named Discovering Lost Ways, was given a fifteen-million-pound budget to solve the problem. It ended four years later, overwhelmed. “Lost Footpaths to Stay Lost,” the Daily Telegraph reported. Since then, despite the apparent impossibility of the task, the 2026 cutoff has remained on the statute books, leaving the job of finding and logging the nation’s forgotten paths to walkers, horse people, and other obsessives who can’t abide the muddled situation.
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