Rites of way

Can anyone explain to me how some paths in England and Wales ended up as designated footpaths, and others as bridleways, and whether there is any need for a difference?

Excuse me, but would you know if this is a Public Footpath, or a Bridleway? It is actually the latter, and it is great to see a family out together, and wearing helmets. (Old Railway Track at Yarmouth, © 2015 EHN & DIJ Oakley.)
Excuse me, but would you know if this is a Public Footpath, or a Bridleway? It is actually the latter, and it is great to see a family out together, and wearing helmets. (Old Railway Track at Yarmouth, © 2015 EHN & DIJ Oakley.)

Time was when a public footpath was reserved for those travelling on foot, plus or minus the occasional pram or pushchair, dog, etc. A few renegades used to try cycling along them, but a smattering of kissing gates, styles, rough ground, and other obstacles usually made their excursions short, and deprecated by all other users.

Cyclists and horse riders were however welcomed on bridleways, which were maintained sufficient to permit more rapid passage on horseback, and lacked the impediments of footpaths.

(How this distinction came to be made seems to have been lost in the mists of time. However I am fairly certain that back in the eighteenth century, people got where they could as best they could, and did not fiddle around with such arbitrary rules.)

Then two things happened.

First, mountain bikes made it possible for anyone with a modicum of skill to go almost anywhere that a pedestrian could. I bought my first mountain bike at about the time that the Crane brothers rode theirs to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, on the premise that if they could get there, then I would be able to cycle pretty well anywhere around here.

Second, councils, in a desperate bid to meet targets for the provision of cycle ways in urban areas, started directing cyclists over what had been cycle-free pavements.

The upshot now is that no-one seems to know who should be doing what where. It has not been helped by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which confounded some terminology over other rights of way, and promised the right to walk away from rights of way on designated ‘access land’, but not if you are a cyclist or horse rider. Not that I have ever come across any such ‘access land’, so I must presume that this new right is at best extremely limited, a bit like some of our other more illusory rights. And locally, our valuable former railway track walk has been beautifully rebuilt, so the council wanted to open it to walkers and cyclists, but not horse riders. Would that make it a handlebarway, or what?

Finally, of course, none of this applies to Scotland, which does not make any distinction between footpaths and bridleways, and seems to have got the right to roam much better too. Instead of letting the Scots become independent, couldn’t we nick some of their smarter laws?