Rights of Way and Lost Ways
The County Records Offices, or County Archives, are threatened with the loss of important documents, possibly for ever. Documents do not always 'belong' to the county archive. Often they have been lent by their owners. This is true of most parish records, but we also rely on the goodwill of landowners and property owners for many valuable documents, such as Tithe award maps and schedules, 1910 Finance Act maps and valuation books, Estate plans, deeds, sales and auction particulars, and estate or farm book-keeping records
The Govermnent, in Countyside and Rights of Way act 2000, has undertaken to revise the 1949 definitive footpath map, using these and other records. Generous landowners who have lodged their historic documents with the county records office may, in consequence, find extra footpaths through their land, and the suggestion is being made in some places that they should withdraw them as a precaution. Currently, a pilot project, called 'Discovering Lost Ways' is trawling through the County Records Offices in Cheshire and Wiltshire for footpaths that may have slipped through being included onto the definitive map.
We realise from local experience round here that the job of drawing up the definitve footpath map in 1948 was botched and skimped. There are several footpaths clearly marked on the Ordnance Survey maps, and remembered by local people, that aren't on the map.
If the owners of historic documents are likely to feel sufficiently threatened to withdraw their documents, then, where possible, these can be copied before returning them. However, the terms of the original deposit agreement may prevent a copy being made.
Even the moderate CLA is advising its members "If members are concerned that the records they have deposited could disadvantage them with a Rights of Way claim, then they should consider the removal of these documents from public view providing that the terms of agreement with the archive office allow". This is chilling stuff, as the local historians absolutely depoend on access to such documents. Some unscrupulous landowners may even make doubly sure that their old documents could not be used against their interests by putting them through the shredder.
However much ones sympathies lie with those who wish to ensure the continuation of historic rights of way wherever possible, one cannot help wondering if the method of sifting through the county records offices to try to establish more footpaths may result in the disappearance for ever of a lot of estate records, and will ensure that a lot more documents that have never so far been placed in the county records office, will never ever be so placed. Any landowner considering handing over his historic documents will hardly be encouraged by the government's plans to attempt to use archived documents against the interest of the donors or owners.