The Public Footpath Riot


You will be aware how passionately we English love our public footpaths.

A network of public rights of way criss-cross England, the prerogative of public boots to tramp them enshrined in law. It is one of the few pieces of legislation which has proved truly democratic.

Because landowners can’t deny that right. Even if they are rich and powerful. As Sir William Rose found out to his considerable cost.

Farnham and its environs are packed chock-full of ancient history. Conventional: Jonathan Swift was secretary to one of its encumbents, and there’s a dissolved monastery on the banks of the River Wey. But also bonkers history. Like Mother Ludlam’s cave, said to be the haunt of a local white witch. Her cauldron – allegedly- still sits in the local church where a peasant permanently borrowed it and was forced to seek sanctuary from her ire.

So the footpath which leads up the drive of Jonathan Swift’s old abode – Moor Park -towards the monastery and the cave has always been popular with the local punters.

And in 1897, after ne’er a change in dynasty, Sir William Rose announced to Farnham Urban District Council that he was going to close the gates to walkers, and not let anyone in without written authotity.

The council told Sir William’s solicitors that  “they had no doubt as to the rights of way over Moor Park and were resolved at whatever cost to use all proper means to preserve such rights”. 

Oh, dear. A stand-off.

It got ugly. On a Sunday, too. Sir William emoloyed ex-metropolitan policemen to secure the gate, and the council took measures to keep it open. A mob turned up obligingly: there is nothing like licensed posh-person-bashing, now, is there?

Vive la Revolution.

So the ex-police were no match for the mob which consisted of mostly men but a few outraged women. Sir William was forced to back down, and to this day one can take that momentous footpath straight past the windows of Moor Park.

Sir William must have spent the rest of his life snarling whilst glaring out of his front windows.


27 thoughts on “The Public Footpath Riot

  1. I have mixed feelings on this one. I favour rights-of-way, but not when they avoidably intrude on one’s privacy. Did he make no attempt to negotiate re-routing with the local mob … er, populace?

  2. Like you I love a good walk, but I’d not be impressed if folk walked through our garden.

    I know one Lord who lets folk onto his estate 20 odd times a year, or by prior appointment. It may seem stingy, but then again one could regard that opportunity as generous.

    My biggest “open space” disappointments were parts of the South West Coast Path that strayed from the coast to oblige stuffy (nee selfish) land owners.

    No one man (or woman) should be able stake a privacy claim on our coastal regions, certainly not those below the high tide mark.

    1. Hear, hear. In Britain, there are places which are so much part of us that access is imperative. I can empathise with the South West Coastal path diversions: I lived in a Cornish village just minutes from the sea, but it might as well have been ten miles away: the footpaths did not take you to the coast because of local landowners’ power. In Cornwall I have noticed this, and in Norfolk. I fume at great pieces of heritage held away from us by the affluent: Mereworth Castle in Kent, or the Metropolis railway graveyard city at Brookwood in Surrey.

    1. Yes: our public footpaths are sacred. I am still delving into their history, and why the paths are so enshrined as a right. We have to ‘beat the bounds’ once a year to keep them open, though!

  3. that’s fantastic and is ‘truly democratic’ – would never happen here 🙂 Not sure I would like people walking through my property but if they are the rules I would abide (or buy somewhere that doesn’t have any good footpaths that people wish to trod).

    1. The paths have been there for centuries, Gabrielle: anyone buying such a property would know of the public rights of way, so they can make their decisions before coughing up the cash.

  4. The wonderful thing about English footpaths is that they were not designed by bureaucrats but by people, so they are actually in places that are beautiful and/or interesting for one reason or another.

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