News Access for All news What are access islands?

What are access islands?

Access for All news

The absurdity of access islands has made the national news headlines lately, but what exactly are they, what is the problem and what are the BMC doing about it?

Firstly, access islands are areas of open access land that we are legally allowed to walk on according to the Countryside Rights of Way Act, but they are surrounded on all sides by private land with no permissive footpath, right of way or road to actually access to them. In effect, this creates a paradox - an area of inaccessible access land…unless you trespass.

One of the biggest examples, thanks to Right to Roam, the group campaigning for Scottish-style responsible access throughout England and Wales, is a 520 acre access island at Gillcambon in the Lake District, surrounded by private land and forestry belonging to the Greystoke Castle Estate. “Exercising our right of access here would require an act of trespass,” says campaigner Lewis Winks.

In fact in this case, the estate does allow access, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that from the map, or where to access the land from. Lewis says, “There should be a statutory right of access created because permission can simply be withdrawn by the landowner - it’s not the same as a right of access.”

Wiltshire is a veritable archipelago of access islands, for example just south of Wylye in Wiltshire there are three clear areas of open access land to the east of the B-road with no paths leading to them, surrounded on all sides by private land. Meanwhile west of the B-road there is a clear bridleway (green dashes) running through the open access land at Wylye Cow Down Bottom as part of the Wylye Down National Nature Reserve, making it easy for people to enjoy.

You can see more of these in Wiltshire with Paul Whitewick as he hunts down some of ‘The UK’s Mystery Islands’ in his short film here.

You might think access islands are a rare, bizarre occurrence, but according to new research by Right to Roam there are about 2,500 inaccessible access islands.

Combine this with almost 32,000 blocked Rights of Way, an estimated 10,000 miles of historic footpaths lost from maps and the fact that we are only allowed to access 11% of the land in England and Wales in the first place, and the areas we are free to walk through, run over or climb in seem to decline rapidly.

Lewis Winks, from the Right to Roam group, says, “The absurdity of access islands is a clear example of why our current system of access rights in England is broken.

“It’s ridiculous that the public have to trespass to reach these fragments of land where they have a legal right to roam – all because of our piecemeal approach to access in this country.

“There are no access islands in Scotland, however, which created a default right of access to most land and water in 2003, to be exercised responsibly and subject to sensible exemptions and rules.

“With political parties pledging to increase access to nature in England it’s vital they learn from the mistakes of the past, and look instead to follow successful examples like Scotland.”

Senior Policy and Campaigns Manager Dr. Cath Flitcroft says, “Importantly, the CRoW (Countryside Rights of Way) Act is complicated and is now outdated.  Areas were mapped at a considerable cost and yet the maps today showing where the public have a freedom to roam have not been updated in England since 2000.  There were inconsistencies in the way land types were mapped (based on predominant vegetation), errors were made, and in some places, ‘islands’ of inaccessible open access land now exist.

“The BMC has been collating a list of mapped errors over the past 10 years (of which we have over 50 that currently affect key climbing areas) including these islands which in effect, are forcing walkers to trespass over private land.  These islands are not served by rights of way, roads or adjacent to other open access areas so are, currently, of no public value.

“It was our hope that the decadal review of open access maps (which hasn’t yet happened) but would address some of these issues.  However, access has been consistently kicked into the long grass - Government priority should be to make our countryside and green spaces easy and accessible for all. Promoting outdoor recreation and access to the outdoors is essential in tackling physical inactivity and the mental health crisis as well as helping to raise awareness of the value of our natural environment.”

BMC Access and Conservation Officer for Wales Eben Muse says, “Access islands are a great example of how current access laws don’t work. During the long and expensive process of mapping open access land as part of the CRoW act, around 2,500 ‘islands’ were created seemingly in mockery of an act that was made to connect us with these places. They are made up of open access land - but open access to who? Skydivers, paragliders and helicopter pilots? Access islands are an absurdity which have no place in a country that cares about connecting people with nature.

“The BMC is calling for reform – we need new access laws which are based on the simple reality that we all deserve responsible access to our countryside, and not based on a historically expensive, out-of-date, and arbitrary mapping process which leaves the majority of us without easy access to nature on our doorstep. That is why we are campaigning for a responsible right to roam. A strong majority of the public support it, and so do our members.

“Support our campaign by writing to your local MS or MP, organising in your community, or by joining the BMC.”

Write to your MP in England or your MS in Wales

We have included a template below which you can change or add to. If you receive a notable response, please share it with us at Enter your postcode here and personalise your letter at

Access Email Template

Dear [Your representative name],

I’m writing to you to call for your support for access reform, and a Scottish/Scandinavian style access system. We believe that a default of access with exceptions for cropland, private gardens, and other sensible exceptions is the cheapest, most effective way of bringing us all closer to nature and supercharging our path networks.

We only have a right to access 11% of England and Wales, and much of that land is far away from urban areas where people actually live. This creates an inherent inequality of access and barriers for people who live away from areas where there is access land freely available. We are also not permitted to swim in our rivers, lakes, or wild camp discreetly even in on ‘access land’, cutting us off from meaningful experiences and health benefits.

The BBC reported that 32,000 of our paths are blocked, and our councils are unable to process the registering of our historic rights of way in time for the 2031 cutoff. We are among the world’s least nature-connected people and it’s time for a change, and we are calling on you to support meaningful access reform as well as the abolishment of the cutoff date for registering historic rights of way.

Extending our right to roam would bring a host of benefits, from physical health and reducing the burden on the NHS, to helping to create the next generation of environmentalists and stewards for nature.

We believe that the Countryside Code should be properly funded, and introduced as part of the national curriculum, alongside essential skills for enjoying the countryside and connecting with nature.

Please, join the general public in supporting this cost effective, popular policy.

Thanks, and best wishes,

[Include your name and address here so your MP/MS knows you’re a constituent].

Support the BMC and Right to Roam campaign

BMC access work is funded directly by BMC members, so your membership goes a long way towards supporting this and other access work, to protect and to protect access to our hills, crags, and green spaces. Join the BMC for £2.95 / month