THE Test Valley around Andover is notable for its walking opportunities, most famously the Test Way, which offers a link from north to south.

While such opportunities are now taken for granted, they were hard fought-for and this year marks a milestone.

The legal rule that a path becomes a right of way after 20 years’ unhindered public use is 80 years old this January. The Rights of Way Act 1932 came into effect on 1 January, 1934, and applied throughout England and Wales.

The Open Spaces Society, Britain’s oldest national conservation body, is celebrating the anniversary. The society, formerly known as the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society, played a seminal role in the passage of this Act.

The 20 years’ use rule remains the legal standard today is “a vital milestone in the long struggle for public access to the countryside,” says Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society.

“To this rule we owe thousands of public paths.”

The Rights of Way Act 1932 also benefited landowners, by introducing a provision (against the wish of the society) whereby landowners could rebut the presumption that a route had been dedicated as a public highway by posting notices on it.

It would then be for the public to prove 20 years’ uninterrupted use, in order to claim a public highway there. In addition, a landowner could deposit with the local authority a map and statement indicating which routes he admitted as public highways. Any routes not thus shown would need to be claimed by the public in order to gain the status of public highway. The map and statement had to be renewed every six years.

This provision has remained in legislation ever since but was recently updated in favour of landowners so that the map and statement only need to be renewed every 20 years.

The Commons Society encouraged local authorities to carry out their own surveys of public highways and to record them on maps, and to check every map and statement deposited by landowners to see if existing public highways were being challenged.

It was not until the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 that local authorities were required to prepare official maps of public paths.

Kate Ashbrook added: “We are proud to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Act in which our society played such an important part.

With good reason we were known as the People’s Watchdog.

Eighty years later the society and other members of the Stakeholder Working Group on Unrecorded Ways, which consists of representatives of path-users, local authorities, landowners and farmers, are encouraging the Government to introduce legislation to improve further the process for claiming public paths.

The society supports the draft Deregulation Bill which was published last year and contains many of the working group’s recommendations for reducing the burden on local authorities by streamlining the process for claiming paths and making it less contentious.