Signs on public rights of way have been around since before recorded history, long before routes became ‘Public Rights of Way’. Signs first indicated the way to guide pilgrimages and the way up mountains with cairns.
Routes used to take farm workers to estates and villagers to church, this is where many of our routes originate from and were marked in accordance with this. In the 17th century guideposts began to appear across the landscape to ensure people could find their way across the moors etc. This was long before walking and recreation activities along rights of way became a leisurely activity.
In 1932 the Rights of Way Act came into effect protecting routes, then the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 came around which began the first definitive map in England and Wales.
In 1968 it became a requirement for councils to signpost paths to help people find their way around the legal public rights of way network.
In present times Local Authorities have a statutory duty to mark public rights of way from the metalled road but it is not a statutory duty to waymark routes beyond this.
This means that every route should have a fingerpost where a route leaves the roadside to show you where to begin. When you are out and about walking, riding or however you enjoy the countryside you should carry an Ordnance Survey 1:2500 Explorer map to navigate even areas you know well.
Waymarking is not a statutory duty therefore it’s up to the Local Authority whether they believe a waymark is required or if in fact they can afford to replace it. Waymarks shouldn’t litter the countryside as the public should be able to follow a map whether it’s a paper map or on an app. This means that waymarks should only be required where the way is not clear whilst navigating with your map, for example if there is a cross over with a farm track or no clear route on the ground.
Natural England have some great guidance on waymarking:
Waymarking in upland areas: Special thought should be given before waymarking paths over mountains or remote moorland. These are places where inexperienced walkers or riders can easily get lost, but the widespread use of waymarking posts will be out of keeping in such areas. Waymarks can also encourage a false sense of security, putting users in danger should the weather suddenly deteriorate.
Permissive paths: Permissive paths are paths that are not public rights of way, but which the landowner has agreed can be used by the public, with certain conditions. The highway authority’s duties do not include waymarking permissive paths.
It is important to appreciate that waymarking a path cannot take away any ‘higher’ rights that may exist. For example, the fact that a path is shown on the definitive map as a footpath and is waymarked in yellow does not invalidate any higher (unrecorded) horse-riders rights that might exist over the route.
Click here for a link to Natural England’s guide to waymarking which includes what colours are used and the detailed guide to where and how routes should be marked.
If you come across a damaged or missing sign then you should report this to your Local Authority. Most Councils have online reporting tools to easily report such problems.
Local Authorities tend to have signage works undertaken by contractors but due to the decreasing budgets they are becoming more reliant on volunteers and partner bodies such as Parish Councils. These kind of schemes often include the Council providing volunteers with training, tools and materials free of charge and then the signs are installed with no labour costs, it is a great way to get involved with your community and help to protect and maintain your local rights of way.
The Ramblers have created a great short video about signage and it’s history, if you want a brief overview then have a watch below.