The Search for England’s Forgotten Footpaths

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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.

A couple of days into the New Year, with the deadline now only seven years off, I met Bob Fraser, a retired highway engineer, in a parking lot a few miles outside Truro, in Cornwall, in the far west of England. Fraser grew up in Cornwall and returned about thirty years ago, which is when he noticed that many footpaths were inaccessible or ended for no reason. “I suppose that got me interested in trying to get the problem sorted out,” he said. Since he retired, seven years ago, Fraser has been researching and walking more or less full time; in the past three years, he has applied to reinstate sixteen lost paths.

On This Day In 1999

Looking Back

On this day in 1999 I sent out the twenty-eighth of my Cool Thing Of The Day To Do In Aberystwyth emails. I wasn’t blogging at the time (although I did have a blog previously), but these messages-back-home served a similar purpose, if only for a select audience. You can read more about them in my last On This Day to discuss them or the one before.

For technical reasons, this particular Cool Things Of The Day appears to have been sent on 27th October, but in actual fact I know that the events it describes took place on 5th November 1999. The obvious clue? The fireworks! I knew that Cool Thing Of The Day as shown here on my blog was out-of-sync with reality, but this particular entry gives a great indication of exactly how much it’s out by. And no, I can’t be bothered to correct it.

Back in 1999 I started as a student at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth (now Aberystwyth University), moved away from home, and had a fantastic time. One bonfire night, I called up two new friends of mine – Rory and Sandra – and persuaded them that we should wander over to nearby Trefechan and climb the hill (Pen Dinas) there to watch the fireworks. It was a wild and windy night, and certainly not the conditions to climb an unknown and occasionally-treacherous hill, but we weren’t dissuaded: we set out!

You know those films or sitcoms where the protagonist (usually through their own stupidity) ends up on a date with two people at the same time, trying to keep each unaware of the other? That’s what I felt like at the time: because (though neither of them knew this at the time) I had an incredible crush on both of them. Of course: back then I was far shyer and far less-good at expressing myself, so this remained the case for a little while longer. Still: my inexperienced younger self still manged to make it feel to me like a precarious situation that I could easily balls-up. Perhaps I should have better thought-out the folks I invited out that night…

A storm blew in furiously, and the fireworks launched from the town scattered around, buffeted and shaken and only occasionally still flying upwards when they exploded. The rain lashed down and soaked us through our coats. We later found ourselves huddled around a radiator in The Fountain (under its old, old ownership), where the barman and the regulars couldn’t believe that we’d been up Pen Denis in the

Looking Forward

A little later, I got to have a ludicrously brief fling with one of the pair, but I was fickle and confused and ballsed it up pretty quickly. Instead, I fell into a relationship with my old friend-with-benefits Reb, which in the long run turned out to be a very bad chapter of my life.

Trefechan – exotically across the river from the rest of Aberystwyth – didn’t seem so far away after a few more years in Aberystwyth… only a stone’s throw from Rummers! But for three new students, just a couple of months into their new home, lost and drunk and fumbling their way using an outdated map and seeing by firework-light, it was an exciting adventure. In 2004, SmartData (my employer at that time) moved into their new premises, right over the road from The Fountain and in the shadow of Pen Denis. The Technium turned out to be a pretty good place for SmartData, and it suited me, too. Some days in the summer, when it was warm and sunny, I’d leave work and take a walk up Pen Dinas. It wasn’t the same without the fireworks, the company, or the mystery of being somewhere for the very first time, but it’s still a great walk.

Sometimes I’d go up there in the rain, too.

This blog post is part of the On This Day series, in which Dan periodically looks back on years gone by.

Touring Scotland

While JTA was off breaking parts of his body (and showing off his injuries on Reddit) with Ruth on the second part of their honeymoon, the week before last, I too took some time off work in order to have a bit of a holiday. I’d originally hoped to get some cheap domestic skiing in, but the weather forecast showed that Scotland was going to consist of exactly two weather conditions, depending on where you were:

  • Snowy, but with 55mph winds.
  • Not snowy.
Scotland. Snowy, but with 55mph winds. It looks like this.

This kind-of put a dampener on my plans to get some snowsports done, but I’d already taken the time off work so I re-arranged my plans into a “make it up as you go along” tour of the highlands and lowlands of Scotland.

Highlights of my little tour included:

  • Renting an almost brand-new car, and – by the time I returned it – being responsible for more than half the miles on the odometer.
  • Visiting my family both on the way up and the way down – my dad injured his back while cycling around Italy this winter, and had originally hoped to join me in Scotland (perhaps to get some more training in for his upcoming trek to the North Pole). He couldn’t, as he was still recovering, but it was nice to drop by.
  • Being virtually the only guest at each of Glen Nevis and Glencoe youth hostels; getting an entire dormitory to myself at each.
Ben Nevis. It looks slightly less-hostile here than it did on the day of my ascent.
  • Exhilarating but exhausting trek up Ben Nevis. The freezing conditions, plus the incredible wind, meant that I spent the Tower Ridge stretch clinging to a steep ice slope against the push of a gale-force blizzard. Spectacular.
  • Ice climbing at Ice Factor. I’ve never done ice climbing before (y’know – scaling a glacier with crampons and ice axes), and it was spectacular. Also, very tiring, especially after just coming down off Ben Nevis a couple of hours earlier. I was pleased that not all of the rock climbing experience I’d had, over 15 years ago, was completely forgotten, and my stamina – if not my flexibility – was better than I expected.
A climber fights to free his axe from the wall.
  • Veggie haggis, tatties, neeps, and a dram of whisky on Burns Night, drying myself off by the open fire in a wonderful little pub.
  • A reasonably-gentle walk along the lochside at Fort William, in order to allow my knee – which I banged swinging into a wall of ice – to recover a litle.
  • Visiting the Falkirk Wheel, the world’s first and only rotating boat lift. Did you know that the wheel is apparently so efficient that it costs only £10 a day in electricity to run it?
The Falkirk Wheel. Photo by Sean Mack.
  • Live comedy and music in Edinburgh. Also, meeting fabulous strangers and hanging out with them drinking whisky and singing along to bawdy Scottish folk songs until past midnight.
  • Returning to Edinburgh Central Youth Hostel to find it full of Spanish sports fans. Sharing pizza with them, and conversations in broken English.
  • Visiting the Wallace Monument and learning all of the bits of 13th Century Scottish history that they don’t teach you in Braveheart. It’s far cooler, yet much much bloodier, than you’d be made to believe.
The Wallace Monument, photographed by Finlay McWalter.
  • Geocache-maintenance expedition with Kit, along with the opportunity to dress up in invisibility jackets and hang about near roundabouts and road signs.
  • Chinese buffet with Kit & Fi, two of my favourite people to go to a Chinese buffet with. Surprisingly impressive selection of veggie-friendly foods, which is something I look for, these days.

All in all, a delightful little tour, particularly impressive considering that it was launched into with the minimum possible amount of planning.

× × × × ×


Kit and Fiona came down to Aberystwyth to visit the other week for the first time in ages, and – as Paul already wrote – they made the mistake of introducing everybody down here to the phenomenon known as geocaching.

Dan and Paul watch as Kit resets his GPS receiver and Fiona packs up a geocache

For those who’ve not heard about it before, geocaching is often described as “a global game of hide & seek played using GPS technology”. Personally, I prefer Kit’s explanation, which is “using military satellites to find lost Tupperware”. Put simply, participants hide caches (often plastic stay-fresh containers) in interesting places around the globe, and publish the GPS co-ordinates online on websites like, then other participants try to find them.

Ruth helps Paul up a particularly steep slope

I suppose one could also describe the activity in the context of the pastimes it is most similar to. It could be described as being a little like rambling (although some caches are in urban locations and many are reachable by car), orienteering (but generally with less need to be able to triangulate points and read a map and more ability to use a GPS effectively and understand its limitations), hide & seek (finding things that have been hidden rather than people, of course), and one of any number of hobbies ending with “-spotting” (each geocache has a unique number, and many participants are trying to visit as many as possible, or to visit particular subsets of them).

A small geocache wrapped in grey tape to help camoflage it, the roll of tape, and a TomTom navigation system (being used as a backup GPS receiver).

I suppose another way of describing it might be in the context of the hot cold game, which you probably played as a kid: where while looking for something hidden, the hider calls out “warmer, warmer, colder, warmer again, hot!” as an indication to the seeker as to whether or not they’re on the right track. This analogy is particularly apt when one gets within a few metres of the cache, at which point GPS devices become almost useless at telling you which direction to go in (and of uncertain value at telling you how far away you are – when in a wooded area or surrounded by tall buildings, GPS can be thrown off by tens or even hundreds of metres).

Ruth watches as Kit gets a reading for the cache that Fiona and Paul are preparing to plant

Since Kit and Fiona’s visit, a number of us have jumped right in to geocaching. Paul, Ruth, Jimmy, Claire and I are all now represented on the site: as pacifist_049 (Paul), fleeblewidget (Ruth), JimEsk (Jimmy & Claire), and avapoet (me).

Kit and Ruth prepare to hide one of Paul's first caches

I can’t speak for all of these people, but there’s something about geocaching that’s really grabbed my interest. Since their visit, I’ve been out and found a number of the caches in and around Aberystwyth, and I’ve even hidden the first of my own. At the very least, I’ve been glad of the excuse to make better use of my bike, but more than that: I’ve been pleased to get around and see parts of the town and countryside that I don’t normally visit or look that closely at. Yes, even when I’ve ended up stuck up on a hill in the dark (that’ll teach me to go ‘caching after work in the short days of winter!).

Geocaching way up the Rheidol valley

Perhaps strangest, though, is my (so-far limited) experience of the local geocaching community. After you’ve visited a few sites around here you begin to notice patterns in the names of the people who’ve been there before you, and you start seeing the same aliases appearing again and again. And in a town the size of Aberystwyth, it’s invariably only a matter of time before you make contact with, well, everybody.

Paul, Kit, Fiona and I wandering back from a cache (sorry about the wonkiness of the picture: this one was taken by Ruth, and she's all wobbly and stuff).

At the weekend I was in Morrisons, buying plastic tubs and other supplies with which to make caches – I suppose that in itself might have made me stand out: who goes to Morrisons to buy a stack of small Tupperware boxes and notepads small enough to fit inside them? – when a man come over to me. He looked at me, as if trying to work out where he knew me from, and then looked down at my hands and saw what I was carrying. “Avapoet?” he asked. “Treedoctor2000?” I replied. So there we have it, I’m officially part of the local geocaching community, and I didn’t even mean to.

Ruth finds a cache!

So there we have it, a glowing review for a fun new activity that if you haven’t tried, you ought to. If you own a GPS or even a modern mobile phone or even just a portable SatNav system, you’ve probably got all you need to get started, and with almost a million caches around the globe, there are sure to be a few near you. So if you were waiting for my approval before you went and did so, here it is.

Now get away from the computer and go do something outdoors!

Further Reading

  • More photos courtesy of my camera and Kit’s camera. I’ve been careful to use only photos that don’t give away huge clues about where caches are in this blog post, but there may be spoilers in the other photos: you have been warned!
  • Paul wrote a  brief blog post about geocaching, too.
  • The caches I’ve found and the ones I’ve hidden (more of the latter coming soon).

Board Games And Waterfalls

It’s been a fun, full weekend. Highlights include:

A good Troma Night

In case you weren’t following, Troma Night is on Fridays nowadays. We watched the fantastic 1945 film Brief Encounter, which I’d highly recommend, and Lava, which I wouldn’t (although if you do see it, watch ’til the end: it improves, I promise).

Same about the early finish, though. People are such sleepyheads these days.

A lie-in!

Ah, it shouldn’t be such a rarity that it’s noteworthy, but unfortunately it is. I thought I had so little to do on Saturday, so Claire and I lay in and then went for a leisurely brunch… and then is when I remembered all of the things I was supposed to be doing – helping out with the Samaritans stand at the Aber Farmer’s Market, meeting up with a friend for a drink, and meeting my dad and his partner Jenny who were visiting.

Did manage to find time to hack around with some Wiimotes, though. I’ve been doing some fun reverse-engineering of their peripherals. More on that later, little doubt.

An awesome Geek Night

My dad had a little difficulty with Munchkin, but apart from that it was a fast-paced and fun Geek Night. I kicked arse at Gnostica, but only by being a bastard (Claire almost had it at one point, and even got so far as to declare an imminent victory), and also played a hell of a game of Puerto Rico, winning by only a couple of points. It was nice that Jenny was able to win Apples to Apples on the first time she’s played it, despite not being able to “play to the judge” as the rest of us so often do.

And afterwards, most of us lounged around and chatted, in that way that’s sometimes become the end to a Geek Night, and it was fabulous. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard as I did while Jimmy was trying to explain to Elizabeth how variable the consistency of semen can be. You probably had to be there, I’m afraid.

Pushing my dad off

My dad’s visit marked the beginning of his now-annual Aberystwyth to Preston cycle ride (yes, the mad fool rides the 130+ mile journey in a day).

I pushed him the first 5 yards, though, along the prom, so I’ve done my bit. He set off at about 08:30 and got home at about 19:15, so made a run of 10 hours of 45 minutes. And I’m pretty sure he couldn’t have done it without that first 5 yards, so it’s my victory, really.

Hafod estate

Ruth and I decided to make the most of the day, having gotten up early to see my dad off, and so – armed with a Forestry Commission brochure from the hotel where he and Jenny had been staying – we went to go for a walk around the quite-beautiful Hafod Estate, near Devil’s Bridge. It’s a quite beautiful part of the Ystwyth valley, filled with forests and waterfalls.

And yet another Whedon Night

And then a Whedon Night (our weekly Buffy & Angel night) to finish off the weekend. We’ve decided to try to squeeze a couple more of these in over the coming weeks in order to try to finish the final series of Buffy (and the penultimate series of Angel) before Ruth leaves for Oxford at the end of the month.

Llanwrtyd Wells Real Ale Ramble

What’s everybody doing on the third weekend in November? If I could find reasonabley-priced accomodation (everybody likes camping, right <wink>), who’d be up for the Llanwrtyd Wells Real Ale Ramble – two days of trekking over hills and being fed real ale at various points along the way?

From the web site:

The Real Ale Ramble is held annually in conjunction with the Mid Wales Beer Festival. All the walks begin from the centre of Llanwrtyd Wells, the smallest town in Britain. This is an area where the pace of life is relaxed and traditional, where the inhabitants are friendly and welcome visitors who come to enjoy the unsurpassed scenery of this little known part of Mid Wales.

The Real Ale Rambles are non competitive, the entry fee for 2004 [think they mean 2005 – they say 2005 everywhere else, and the information seems to still be accurate] is £16 per person which covers 2 days (booking by the day will cost £15 per day) and there are choices of 10, 15 or 25 miles daily. All routes are waymarked, and a refreshing glass of Real Ale will be free to all registered participants at the various checkpoints en-route. All walks take place off road, so you can enjoy the beauty of the landscape, forest, moor and mountain in this spectacularly beautiful area of Mid Wales. Those who finish their chosen walk can purchase a medal or badge and track suit badges will also be on sale.

I’ll get an information pack on it’s way to The Flat. And before you ask, Llanwrtyd Wells is less than 2 hours drive away.

Cool Thing Of The Day

Cool And Interesting Thing Of The Day To Do At The University Of Wales, Aberystwyth, #39:

Climb a nearby hill with the intention of finding a forest that you’ve heard is on the other side. Fail. Check maps to verify that the forest is there, and climb the hill again, looking for the forest. Fail. Check the maps, get somebody who’s been there already, and set off looking for them once more. Fail. Where in smeg’s name are the Cwm Woods??? How have they managed to evade me on three occassions, when I’ve had maps and experience on my side! Who knows? Who cares?

The ‘cool and interesting things’ were originally published to a location at which my “friends back home” could read them, during the first few months of my time at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, which I started in September 1999. It proved to be particularly popular, and so now it is immortalised through the medium of my weblog.

Cool Thing Of The Day

Cool And Interesting Thing Of The Day To Do At The University Of Wales, Aberystwyth, #30:

Gather together a werewolf and an irishwoman, and, together, climb an unlit hill with a treachorous unmarked cliff, in an unfamiliar nearby town, in the darkness of the night, during a storm, and watch fireworks while clinging to a hundred-year-old momument to save yourself from being sucked over a 140ft precipice over a wave-smashed beach. Fail to find the ‘fort’ which the maps clearly state is right by the monument. Cause excess concern in the natives in a nearby pub upon your return: “You weren’t up the hill tonight, were you?” Smile. Nod. Sup your beer.

The ‘cool and interesting things’ were originally published to a location at which my “friends back home” could read them, during the first few months of my time at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, which I started in September 1999. It proved to be particularly popular, and so now it is immortalised through the medium of my weblog.