Public rights of way – what to expect

In order to enjoy visiting the countryside, walkers and riders should be aware that there are differences in the standards of path that you may come across when using public rights of way.

Just because a right of way exists, does not mean that it is necessarily suitable for all users, all year round. Some paths may be narrow, steep or boggy to use due to the nature of the terrain, or how they came into being.

All users of public rights of way have a responsibility to ensure their own well-being and to take due care. You should consider the weather conditions and nature of the terrain, carry a map and know how to read it, and wear appropriate footwear and clothing. Users should follow the Countryside Code

Unmade, natural surfaces

Where paths are simply a worn line on the ground, or maybe not even that. Users must be aware that there may be natural hazards that may, without care and attention, cause them to trip, slip or fall. These include holes made by animals or water, and protruding roots and rocks. Similarly, the path may be overhung by low branches, pass close to steep slopes or traverse riverbanks.

Some paths are difficult to use at certain times of the year. For example, in the summer a little-used path may have vegetation growing up and from the sides, whereas a well-used path may become muddy and more slippery in the winter.

If paths are muddy, please try to keep to the footpath and avoid unintentionally widening them or diverting off route wherever possible, as this may cause permanent damage to field soils, grassland and crops.

In some locations, in order to keep users on the legal line of the path, land managers have enclosed paths with fences. This, they are entitled to do provided adequate width is given. Paths will become muddier as a result because of the concentrated footfall.  

Urban and semi-urban areas

In towns and some larger villages, paths may be constructed with stone, tarmac or concrete. Whilst users can expect them to be reasonably free from vegetation, deep puddles or deep mud, they are not constructed to the same standard as footways (pavements), nor are they necessarily lit.

Water crossings

In most cases, users can expect a means of crossing a watercourse, such as a bridge. Where stepping stones are provided, users could find them unusable when the water level is high.

Some paths cross watercourses where there has never been a crossing, but where historically, the water level once was suitably low. Also, some paths are on floodplains, meaning that at certain times of the year or after heavy rainfall, they can become difficult, or even impossible to use. Care must be taken by any user, as the suitability of a crossing point in any particular condition, cannot be guaranteed.

Environment Agency advice for flood alerts is to avoid using low lying footpaths and any bridges near local watercourses and do not attempt to walk or drive through flood water.

Unexpected hazards

Cheshire East Council, as the highway authority, seeks to ensure that any hidden, unexpected hazards are rectified in a timely manner. A large and deep hole in a tarmac path could be considered unexpected and should be reported to the Council, whereas a rabbit hole in a meadow path may not be considered unexpected, does not necessarily need reporting, and care must be taken by the user.

Cattle in fields

Where a public right of way crosses a field where there are cattle, this generally does not present a problem, but there are simple precautions that users should take: 

  • make sure that you know where your exit point from the field is
  • do not walk between young calves and their mothers
  • do not let your dog chase the cattle
  • be ready to let your dog off the lead (do not pick it up)
  • turn to face approaching cattle spreading your arms out and shouting, do not run away but move to the exit point (or back to the entry point) carefully.

Cattle, together with most livestock (e.g. horses and pigs) are often inquisitive and rarely aggressive. More caution should be taken when public rights of way cross fields where there are bulls, goats and geese.

Page last reviewed: 07 May 2024