Driving on The Ridgeway and what to do if you see illegal activity

18th April 2019

Some people may remember the days, over ten years ago, when The Ridgeway was a popular place to drive a car or motorbike ‘off-road’ – so much so that the Trail was churned to mud across its full width in some places.

These days, a visit to The Ridgeway is very different, with far fewer vehicles and also far less mud! This article provides an overview for the general public as to how the driving of cars and other vehicles is currently managed and what to do if you think someone is driving illegally on the Trail. The history and legislation is complicated but understanding where and when you can drive a car or motorbike on The Ridgeway these days is fortunately much easier to grasp.

In summary, the public can drive a car or motorbike on The Ridgeway only if it is a Byway Open to All Traffic AND there is no Traffic Regulation Order restricting this public right. There is not a public right to drive cars or motorbikes along The Ridgeway where it follows public footpaths, bridleways or restricted byways. When out on The Ridgeway, the public can refer to signage along the full length of the Trail to check their public access rights.

One of the most dramatic changes to The Ridgeway took place in 2006 when a change in the law brought about the immediate reclassification of former ‘Roads Used as Public Paths’ (RUPPs) to ‘Restricted Byways’. Restricted Byways are open to walkers, cyclists, horse riders and horses with carriages but not mechanically propelled vehicles (MPVs) such as 4x4s and motorbikes. This change of status affected the many miles of RUPPs along The Ridgeway in Oxfordshire, thus removing public rights to drive cars, motorbikes and other MPVs along those stretches of Trail.

Whilst traffic has reduced, it is still possible to come across cars, tractors and other vehicles on The Ridgeway. Firstly, landowners have private rights which are separate from legislative arrangements for public rights. Farmers, for example, can drive their tractors along The Ridgeway and landowners can give permission for people to drive over their land. Disabled people using mobility scooters or trampers can also legally ‘drive’ their trampers on footpaths and other rights of way.

It is also legal for anyone to drive mechanically propelled vehicles along Byways Open to All Traffic (BOATs), as long as there are no Traffic Regulation Orders in force. BOATs are open to walkers, cyclists, horse riders, horses with carriages and mechanically propelled vehicles (MPVs). In Wiltshire much of The Ridgeway follows stretches of BOATs. There are minor stretches of BOAT in West Berkshire, Swindon and Buckinghamshire too, all under 5 miles, and none in Hertfordshire or Oxfordshire. However, all of The Ridgeway’s BOATs except a short stretch in Swindon Borough are covered by Traffic Regulation Orders put in force by the councils in 2004/5. Traffic Regulation Orders restrict public rights and, for The Ridgeway TRO specifically, the order makes it an offence to drive mechanically propelled vehicles on the Trail in the winter months when the surface is prone to getting churned up. In Wiltshire, the 2004 order allows access for mechanically propelled vehicles only between 1st May and 30th September. To make the public aware of the TRO arrangements, there are signs on display along The Ridgeway’s BOATs. The police also patrol the Trail to apprehend people who are illegally driving on The Ridgeway.

Thames Valley and Wiltshire police continue to address isolated incidents - there have been vehicle confiscations linked to illegal driving of motor-vehicles on the Trail, as recently as 2019.

Members of the public witnessing illegal activity should:

  • first make themselves safe and then call 999 if a crime is in progress or, after the event, call the non-emergency number 101.
  • provide useful information such as registration plates, descriptions of the vehicles and drivers, accurate description of location etc.

In response to these restrictions and other opportunities, organisations have formed to protect and promote the interests of people who want to take their cars and other mechanically propelled vehicles onto BOATs and other rights of way. The Trail Riders Fellowship is an example and, in 2005/6, the TRF made an application under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 requiring Oxfordshire County Council to investigate whether the law allowed for the Restricted Byway stretches of The Ridgeway to be revised to the status of Byways Open to All Traffic. A BOAT is ‘a highway over which the public have a right of way for vehicular and all other kinds of traffic, but one used mainly for the purposes for which footpaths and bridleways are used…’. The council carried out consultation in 2018 to gather available evidence for their investigation. The Ridgeway Officer provided information about how the Trail has been promoted to walkers, cyclists and horse riders since it was designated by the Secretary of State in 1972. The Friends of the Ridgeway and other partners on the Ridgeway Partnership also responded to the consultation.

In January 2019, Oxfordshire County Council’s Countryside Records Team and Legal Team determined that The Ridgeway in Oxfordshire is correctly recorded as a Restricted Byway. The council concluded that any public rights of way for MPVs were extinguished by the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. The council’s report rejected a key point made in the TRF applications as follows: ‘In effect, NERCA [Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006] has drawn a line under the historic use of routes by horse drawn vehicles equating to mechanically propelled vehicles of today.’ For the public, this determination means it remains illegal to drive an MPV on the Trail in Oxfordshire unless you have a private right to do so. For more information about the decision, documents are available for inspection at the Council’s office at Countryside Records, County Hall, New Road, Oxford OX1 1ND - telephone 01865 810808 to make an appointment.

For anyone wanting to drive an MPV on The Ridgeway, it is important they make themselves familiar with how to do so legally. There are organisations offering advice and events, such as the Trail Riders Fellowship www.trf.org.uk for motorcyclists and GLASS www.glass-uk.org/ for 4x4 drivers.

Always plan ahead and think ‘Where and when?’ to ensure your use of The Ridgeway is legal. We will soon publish on this website a map showing the locations of BOAT stretches along the Trail, as well as details as to what dates any Traffic Regulation Orders apply to them. It is also important to check the Ridgeway’s News webpages (www.nationaltrail.co.uk/ridgeway/news) as sometimes temporary or emergency closures are put in place and sometimes at short notice, e.g. wet ground conditions in May 2018 gave rise to an urgent closure order near Avebury. When out on the Trail, also check for signage on and around the Trail so you know you are driving in the right area.

Anybody legitimately using The Ridgeway in a mechanically propelled vehicle should be considerate of other users and adapt their driving style to suit the weather and surface conditions. There are ‘codes of conduct’ promoted in various locations across the country but a few key tips for driving on The Ridgeway where it is legal to do so include:

  • Familiarise yourself with advice about responsible driving provided by the TRF and GLASS.
  • Check the Ridgeway website for Traffic Regulation Order information.
  • Postpone your visit or go elsewhere if the weather is making the Trail surface vulnerable to damage, i.e. surface is wet/soft.
  • Do not drive on the verges or create new tracks.
  • Drive considerately past other people and acknowledge them politely.
  • If you want more carefree driving and lots of mud, go to a specialist site or go to a club event.

Past articles linked to this article can be found here:

1st March 2018 https://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/ridgeway/news/consultation-about-vehicle-rights-along-ridgeway-oxfordshire

15th June 2018 https://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/ridgeway/news/update-consultation-about-vehicle-rights-along-ridgeway-oxfordshire-0

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Muddy Ridgeway National Trail near Gore Hill, West Berkshire in December 2002 - Kind permission of DG
TRO sign shows where driving is not legal from 1st October to 30th April