Sarah Ford investigates Somerset's bridleways, looking into both their history and their future

PUBLISHED: 09:56 06 January 2011 | UPDATED: 16:08 20 February 2013

Our bridleways are an important part of our heritage

Our bridleways are an important part of our heritage

With some of Somerset's bridleways under threat, Sarah Ford looks into the history and future of these precious countryside routes.

Sarah Ford investigates Somerset's bridleways, looking into both their history and their future

The ancient bridleways that thread through our countryside were once used by everyone to get to their nearest town, visit friends or drive their livestock to market. Although they may have fallen out of general use, these highways are still enjoyed by horse riders, cyclists and walkers today.

The Rights of Way network in the county of Somerset is 3,809 miles long and most of these paths were recorded by parish councils in the 1950s for inclusion on the Definitive Map of Public Rights of Way. Some 623 miles are classed as bridleways but, in common with most other counties, it is a fragmented network. In fact, only Exmoor and the Quantock and Mendip Hills have a good network of off-road bridleways; in the rest of Somerset the provision is very poor.

When Somerset County Council asked the public what they wanted from their rights of way network, as part of the Rights of Way Improvement Plan (RoWIP), the overwhelming response was for improved maintenance; as this takes place, the focus will shift to improving the provision of bridleways.

Their management and maintenance is the ultimate responsibility of the County Council. However, this responsibility is delegated to the district councils in Mendip and South Somerset and Exmoor National Park Authority, and is managed directly by the County Council in West Somerset, Taunton Deane and Sedgemoor.

Landowners with public rights of way on their land also have a responsibility to keep adjoining hedges cut back and to keep gates, etc in good working order.

Mendip District Council's Rights of Way department has worked successfully alongside the Mendip Bridleways and Byways Association. The secretary is Ginnie Jones, who says it is vital the network of riding routes is not lost.
"It is as valuable as a historic building in giving us an insight into where people lived and how they went about their daily lives. Bridleways are quite simply part of our heritage. Nowadays they offer safe riding to the millions of horse owners throughout the country, many of them children.

"It is difficult to gauge just how many bridleways there should actually be on the definitive Mendip map. Many of the old routes have simply been forgotten over the years or incorrectly marked as footpaths. It is a continuing task for the bridleway associations to find and research these old routes. Once evidence is found, usually by a visit to the Taunton Records Office to examine ancient maps, a DMMO (Definitive Map Modification Order) is put in to Somerset County Council. There is then a waiting game while the evidence is examined by the legal department and a decision made. Sometimes it is necessary to take the case to appeal, but SCC tries hard to help and the time lapse for a result, which used to be up to 20 years, has improved recently."

The British Horse Society's Access and Rights of Way Department is another organisation working to improve the network. South West BHS Access Officer Stephanie Wheeler says bridleways never lost their public status. "Once a highway, always a highway, and with the wish of all to live healthier lives, they have never been more important. Many parishes did not seem to realise that they were supposed to assess anything except footpaths, which is why we have many parishes in Somerset with no bridleways at all. I suspect there are as many as 1,000 tracks in Somerset which should be either bridleways or restricted byways (because they were formed for the horse and cart)."

So what is the best way to secure off-road provision for horse riders?
"Deal with all the mistakes of the definitive map, a huge task under present legislation," says Stephanie. "How could a track which opens at both ends on a public road, is hedged on both sides, with no access to fields, be only a footpath? Yet there are many like this in Somerset. Riders can join their local bridleways association. There are six in Somerset, covering all five districts. We have instructed them all in the process of correcting the map, with the full co-operation of the County Council Rights of Way Department."

Meanwhile Woodspring Bridleways Association has launched a website ( to keep riders updated on the situation in North Somerset where there are just under 56 miles of bridleways.
Spokeswoman Ann Gawthorpe said: "One of the main problems is that the bridleway networks are fragmented and can only be accessed by using busy roads. We are trying to get better links between these networks so that riders can use them without having to negotiate heavy traffic. Even once-quiet country lanes are now rat runs, with wall-to-wall cars, as well as lorries going to small industrial sites around the villages. This is a recipe for disaster and the number of accidents involving horses and riders is going up.

"Since the WBA started in 1992 we have added more than 15 miles to the network and have many more claims lodged with North Somerset Council. If all these are successful the bridleway network in the area will be greatly improved and one day it might be possible to get all riders off the roads."

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