Our beautiful country is criss-crossed by a network of byways. By and large, they have escaped the attentions of highway engineers and remain tranquil lanes or tracks.
Often referred to as ‘green lanes’ or ‘white roads’, many of them are truly ancient, dating back to the Romans or even earlier. They were laid out long before the wheel, let alone the bicycle or car, were invented. Some of them were once highways but have long been bypassed.
They’re shown in white on the Ordnance Survey maps and few have any legal status except a few with arcane descriptions as ‘bridleways’, ‘road used as public path’ or ‘restricted byways’.
The distinctions are subtle and I won’t bore you with them here – except that to say you can’t generally drive a motor vehicle on them except, in limited circumstances, for access. Most of them are so old that rights of way are customary rather than legislated.
These ‘white roads’ are a perfect escape for the walker or cyclist wanting to avoid the noise and danger of motor traffic. The walker is king here and the cyclist would do well to remember that wheels are a recent imposition and give way to those on foot. We’re well blessed with them in Norfolk, Peddars Way, from near Thetford to the coast at Holme being the best known.
Sadly though, they’re under threat now as never before. In the Peak District, a battle is being fought that will determine whether these ancient highways remain solely the preserve of walker, cyclist, horse rider and the odd agricultural vehicle. Chapel Gate is an old drover’s road built by 12th century monks to get their sheep to market. It crosses high moorland between Chapel-en-le-Frith and Edale. I rode it back in the late 1980s and it was wild and lonely, but easily rideable with care, even on touring tyres. Not any more. Chapel Gate has been ‘discovered’ by off-road motorbikers and ‘leisure’ 4x4 users. It’s now a 5m wide sea of churned mud, almost impassable to anyone NOT in a 4x4. Every weekend convoys of 20 or more vehicles are destroying what remains of this historic track.
The so-called ‘green laners’ are exploiting a loophole in the law that says if a byway is proved to have been used by wheeled vehicles in the past it can be used by any wheeled vehicle now, however inappropriate.
The Ramblers’ Association, along with cycling groups and landowners are campaigning to get the law changed to reclassify this and other similar routes as bridleways, restricting access only to motor vehicles that have good reason to be there, such as farmers.
If they lose their case it gives carte blanche to those who see our ancient tracks as something to be trashed for their exclusive use.