COLUMN: Civic Society with David Winpenny

The Valley of the Seven Bridges on the Studley Royal estate near Ripon. (S)
The Valley of the Seven Bridges on the Studley Royal estate near Ripon. (S)
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David explores how we might prevent the public rights of way which criss-cross our countryside from being destroyed due to their popularity with walkers:

Look at the Ordnance Survey Explorer maps that include Ripon – numbers 298 and 299. What are the most obvious features?

The River Ure, certainly, and the line of the A61 as it by-passes the city. And then the tangle of dark and light orange roads in the centre.

What you might notice next, perhaps, is the green dotted line, joining up green diamond shapes, that follows the Ure as it passes east of the city. Just north of Fisher Green you will see that it’s labelled “Ripon Rowel Walk”. Spread the map open a little further and that green dotted line is joined by others – the whole network of public rights of way that criss-cross the countryside.

Now look at the maps’ back covers. In the small map labelled “Area covered . . . ” there are more of the diamond-indicated routes, which are helpfully labelled. We have, in addition to the Ripon Rowel Walk, the Dales Way, Nidderdale Way and Harrogate Ringway on the 298 map; the 299 adds the Knaresborough Round, which just creeps in on the very southern edge of the map, and a section of the Foss Walk, which begins in the east at Pond Head near Easingwold and follows the River Foss to the Ouse in York.

So, if you want to go on a walk from Ripon, there is no shortage of designated routes from which to choose. You can do almost 50 miles on the Rowel Walk, in a wide sweep around the city.

You could tackle the 53 miles of the Nidderdale Way, which officially begins and ends in Pateley Bridge. You could circumnavigate Harrogate on its 20-mile Ringway, or do a similar distance circling Knaresborough. All these paths have their devotees and provide an interesting view of the areas through which they pass.

You could, though, set your sights on something more challenging. The Dales Way runs (though running is not what most people do) the 84 miles from Ilkley to Bowness-on-Windermere, with linking spurs from Bradford, Leeds and Harrogate.

You’ll get wonderful views of Wharfedale and Ribblesdale, and enjoy settlements like Dent and Sedburgh en route. Some walkers do it in four days; the more relaxed may take a week or more.

Or, if you fancy going east, there’s the Cleveland Way to tackle. This was England’s second official Long Distance Path, now called National Trails, and it opened in 1969, four years after the Pennine Way.

This is a more meaty challenge – a curve of 110 miles from Helmsley around the edge of the North York Moors, finishing with a paddle in the North Sea at Filey; if you want to be even more energetic, you can link with the Wolds Way, adding another 79 miles to reach the Humber at Hull. The official view is that the Cleveland Way is a nine-day walk, though those who prefer to take in the views rather than have a head-down route march may wish to take longer.

All of these routes are within easy striking distance of Ripon. And, of course, if you want to try at least a section of the most venerable of all the long distance paths, you can pick up the 268-mile Pennine Way at Malham, not too far away.

The full length, from Edale in Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders, is reckoned to take between 16 and 19 days (do not attempt the fastest transit – the record, set in 1989, is two days, 17 hours and 20 minutes – oh, and 15 seconds).

For something a little easier, you could follow the 215-mile Trans-Pennine Trail from Hornsea to Southport – this promises “surprisingly-easy gradients” and surfaced paths; there are links to it from York and Leeds, and it passes through Selby.

On the other hand, if you want to tackle the longest of the designated National Trails you’ll need to go further afield, and perhaps be much fitter too; you’ll need a trip to Minehead in Somerset, and a lift back from Poole in Dorset (or the other way round) if you walk the 630 miles of the South West Coast Path.

There is of course, the question of whether you should do such routes. Certainly they are a challenge for anyone who likes to pit themselves against the landscape.

They provide a chance to see some stunning scenery, and to meet like-minded people (often in the accommodation and the pubs along the routes!). But there are drawbacks.

Because the paths are well-known, they attract thousands of walkers, all of whom, unwittingly for the most part, damage the very environment they come to see. It is entirely natural for walkers to avoid mud and other obstacles by going round – but doing so makes the paths get wider and wider, and it can damage the landscape.

You have only to think about the Lyke Wake Walk, which was once so popular – and so became so damaged – that the North York Moors National Park Authority reported that “within a few years the whole area will become a desert if something is not done quickly”, and considered a complete closure of the route. Fortunately the fashion changed, and the route has, in part at least, recovered.

There are similar concerns, still, about the Pennine Way, the Cleveland Way and the Coast-to Coast Walk, which passes north of Ripon. On all these longer routes constant repairs are made, and sections given new surfaces of flagstones or gravel, which help to preserve the rest of the ground, but do little for the look. So what should we do? By all means walk on these routes – they are, after all, through some of our most valued and spectacular landscapes. But be careful when you do – and perhaps spend more time walking the paths close to home.

How about ensuring that you have walked every path within a five-mile radius of your home? From Ripon, that should give you enough variety to last quite a while.