Article Types 7 things you always wanted to know about path repair (but were too afraid to ask)

7 things you always wanted to know about path repair (but were too afraid to ask)

Article Types

We often get frequently asked questions about path repair, so we thought we would debunk some common myths about it and sheds more light on what kind of work we support in the British mountains.

#1 Why is path repair important?

We all use and benefit from paths in the British hills, mountains and countryside. A lot of the time we take them for granted, walking on them without giving too much thought to why and how they were created.

When we walk in the hills we all contribute the erosion of the ground underfoot. The effect of an individual is negligible, so you won’t notice your own impact, but on the most popular routes there can be hundreds of thousands of people walking the same way over the course of years and decades. This drip-drip effect opens up scars in the hillside, which are rapidly widened by running water and people detouring around the eroded sections.

This ‘vicious cycle’ means that what starts as a narrow trail can grow exponentially into a scar of 30 metres or more in width – that’s as wide as the M1 – or into deep trenches that could easily swallow a person.

Don’t believe it? Check out this image of Coledale, in the Lake District, before path repair was carried out:

The last twenty or thirty years have seen a range of efforts to address this problem, much of it targeted in specific areas. Work by Moors for the Future in the south Pennines, Fix the Fells in the Lake District or the Three Peaks initiative in the Yorkshire Dales has done a lot to heal the damage of the past.

This is what Coledale looks like today, thanks to work by Fix the Fells – by any standards, a vast improvement:

If we don’t support path repair, these nightmare scars will return. There is simply no point in pretending the hills can ‘look after themselves’ – well-targeted, high quality path repair is essential if we are to continue to enjoy the places we love and not disfigure and harm them in the process.

#2 I don’t like the way these repaired paths look. It doesn’t seem ‘natural’.

Path construction and repair should always be carried out in a way which ‘blends in’ as far as possible to the surrounding environment. A path intervention designed to control erosion has failed if it is as intrusive or unsightly as what it replaces.

All path work funded by Mend Our Mountains must meet a set of quality standards designed to achieve this which includes things like avoiding linearity and uniformity and using ‘indigenous’ materials such as locally appropriate stone and vegetation. ‘Light touch’ solutions (such as using landscaping to better define paths) are always preferable to more intrusive methods such as stone pitching and laying down flagstones, but this is not always possible on the most heavily-trodden routes, where more robust, durable solutions are needed. We use references such as the Mending Our Ways guidance, which was published in 1998 by the British Upland Footpath Trust (in which the BMC was integrally involved) and still serves as a key benchmark for high-quality path repair.

The solution must always be proportionate to the problem – a one metre-wide flagstone path is obviously an artificial ‘intrusion’ in the landscape, but if it succeeds in controlling a twenty metre-wide erosion scar (which is also an artificial intrusion in the landscape), then it could well be a justifiable intervention. Of course, the same intervention may not be appropriate or justifiable in other places.

Path repair is also about more than just visual appearance. It plays a vital role in protecting and conserving the soils, vegetation and ecology of mountain areas. If that hypothetical twenty-metre wide erosion scar referred to above runs through an irreplaceable habitat then it makes intervention even more important.

Take the blanket peat bog which covers much of the Peak District moors, for example. This is vital for carbon storage, water quality and biodiversity and has been thousands of years in the making. But in the nineties and early noughties, vast motorway-sized scarring along the route of the Pennine Way over moors like Bleaklow was destroying huge swaths of peat. For many years the summit of Black Hill, for example, was trodden to death, until not even a blade of grass remained. As Mike Rhodes from the Peak District National Park Authority recalls: "It was a choice of either making a major intervention and spending a significant amount of money to make the route sustainable – or close it."

As part of efforts by likes the of Moors for the Future to restore this habitat, paths constructed from Millstone Grit slabs were laid down to create durable surfaces for walkers. These proved controversial, but  they are one of the most effective techniques to protect this habitat from our footfall (and in a nice quirk of history, the flagstones were often reclaimed from disused Manchester mills, having originally been quarried from the Pennines - the very place they were being returned to in order to protect.)

Valuable habitats are not just found in the Peak District. As ecologist Barbara Jones says: “On the very tops of our hills, especially the more rounded tops such as the Carneddau, Great Dun Fell and the Helvellyn plateau, there is a wonderful miniature habitat.  It consists of tiny mosses, lichens and Britain's smallest tree, the dwarf willow creeping along the ground, yet most people walk all over it and never even notice.  It is suffering from overgrazing, but unconstrained wandering over these plateaus can increase the damage.

“No-one likes to think we need constraining to a footpath line on these open plateaus, but the alternative could be additional damage to this habitat which is literally right at the edge of its range in England and Wales and it could be lost completely if we don't do all we can to protect it and give it the best chance of surviving into the future.”

#3 I find flagged and stone-pitched paths are hard to walk on. They are dangerous when iced up or wet and hard on the knees.

Climbing a mountain is inherently challenging, and hill walkers and climbers should have the ability to cope with whatever conditions they are presented with, including rain and winter conditions. Mend Our Mountains-funded work is not designed to make paths ‘easier’ or to ‘urbanise’ the mountain environment. Going into the hills and mountains is an adventurous activity requiring fitness, navigation skills and self-reliance. As Barbara Jones says: “We don't build paths to make it easy for people to walk, but to protect the mountains from us.”

That said, a poorly-constructed path which is unappealing or overly hard to walk on can fail in the aim of controlling erosion; users will avoid it and simply spread damage to the sides. Good path repair should strike an effective balance between preserving challenge and being sufficiently ‘appealing’ it will be followed by the majority of users.  This is one of the criteria used when assessing whether to fund work through Mend Our Mountains.

#4 Why is path repair so expensive?

Richard Fox, from Fix the Fells, puts it succinctly: "Path repairs are expensive because the majority of the work is carried out by skilled craftspeople. There are very few folk who have the skills and experience to carry out high quality, well designed path works that will last for the long term. We only use locally occurring, natural materials for our repairs, but to move them to site requires either specialist and very expensive machinery, or more often a helicopter."

There a misconception that paths are built by volunteers. While volunteer labour can be useful to maintain paths after they have been constructed, for example by clearing drainage, the actual construction of paths is usually skilled, specialist work – and therefore costlier still. At the high end, in the most inaccessible and remote locations, path repairs can cost as much as £200 per metre. It isn’t always that much, of course, but it is never cheap.

#5 Why are you fundraising for path repair? Why can’t National Parks fund it all?

Funding upland path repair has always been a challenge, but it has got harder in recent years. Visitor numbers to the countryside are rising, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent, and the ability of National Parks and other bodies to cope with these factors has been significantly diminished by cuts. Since 2010, for example, National Parks have had their budgets slashed by an average of 40%. This ‘perfect storm’ of factors means that many paths are deteriorating faster than they can be fixed and are sliding into disrepair.

Richard Fox describes the stark funding situation in the Lake District, which Mend Our Mountains has addressed with its support for Scafell Pike. "With 19 million visitors to the Lake District every year and many of them accessing the fells, we need £500,000 per year to maintain the inadvertent damage caused by so many people," he says. "We currently maintain 330 fell paths across the Lake District, all of which need regular maintenance and minor repairs, with some needing larger project works to sort particular erosion issues.

"There is no statutory funding for this work, so we need to fund raise for all the work we do. Many folk don’t realise the issues that we deal with, or think that central government funding pays for it all, and therefore it is not a particularly easy cause to fundraise for.

"Despite tremendous support from the National Trust, Lake District Foundation, Friends of the Lake District, individual donors and our own volunteer fund raising, we face an annual shortfall of around £250,000, which means that access related damage is occurring faster than we can stabilise it.

Like other issues affecting National Parks and protected places, such as congestion, litter or overcrowding, the problem of path repair needs long-term thinking and action – ultimately it is the responsibility of policymakers and government to provide this. But in the meantime, erosion is not a problem that is going to go away, and we all need to step up and do our bit. The success of campaigns like Mend Our Mountains will send a loud, clear message that we expect people in power to play their part too.

#6 I have found some newly-built paths are unsympathetic to me as a mountain biker (either too hard to ride or too easy). What are you doing about that?

Mend Our Mountains is led by the BMC, which represents walkers, climbers and mountaineers. Nevertheless, we believe that good footpath repair should include consideration of the needs of a wide range of outdoor users where appropriate (for example, on upland bridleways), and this was reflected in the Mend Our Mountains: Make One Million appeal, which involves close collaboration with organisations and groups from the mountain biking community.

The Nun’s Cross bridleway on Dartmoor, used by 10,000 mountain bikers a year, is one example of Mend Our Mountains-supported work which benefitted the mountain biking community. But the most significant example is our partnership with Peak District-based mountain bike groups such as Keeper of the Peak, Peak District MTB and Ride Sheffield where we raised funds for the repair of the Cut Gate Bridleway, one of the best single track routes in the UK, within Mend Our Mountains: Make One Million campaign. You can read more information about this in this BMC article interviewing Chris Maloney from Keeper of the Peak.

Thanks to the dialogue around this joint effort, mountain bikers have been at the centre of the conversation around the specification of the repairs which will be undertaken on the route. When it comes to path repair, mutual respect, cooperation, education and dialogue between different kinds of users will achieve more than outraged finger-pointing or a 'them and us' attitude. Looking after the hills and mountains is our shared responsibility and the organisations at the frontline are acting in good faith with hugely limited resources.

#7 Who is involved in Mend Our Mountains?

It is coordinated by the British Mountaineering Council (BMC), funded by their charity BMC Access and Conservation Trust (ACT), and run in conjunction with a coalition of National Park authorities, outdoor enthusiast groups and charitable trusts. Headline sponsorship is generously provided by Cotswold Outdoor and Snow+Rock.

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