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Are users of a public footpath entitled to stop a while and have a picnic? The following article is reproduced with kind permission of the Open Spaces Society
co-author of Rights of Way: a guide to law and practice
and one of the vice-presidents, of the Open Spaces Society
advises on the law of picnicking on paths.
What is the effect of a notice with the words 'Public footpath. No picnicking'? Are users of a public footpath entitled to stop and have a picnic?
From time immemorial travellers have sat on a grass bank and taken bread and cheese from their pack and had these, with water or beer, from a bottle. When the greater part of the population moved around the country on foot or horseback, stopping for refreshment was part of the picture. No doubt many of the Canterbury Tales were told at such a time.
Stopping for refreshment is thus clearly a purpose reasonably incidental to the use of a way and therefore not illegal. But the practice will cease to be legal if the way is obstructed. Where the way is of a width that includes a verge, to sit on a verge and have a packed lunch will cause no obstruction (or, to the extent that the verge is obstructed, since the walked line is open, the obstruction is too small to be likely to found a successful action for trespass to the highway-the matter being merely de minimis).
Of course, if walkers leave the line of a right of way they commit trespass. So if walkers leave the path and move up the hillside for a better view, they are not within the law.
Would it therefore be correct to say that if walkers remain within the limits of the way and no obstruction is caused, there is a right to stop for a picnic? Since having a 'picnic' could include setting up a table, unfolding camp chairs, spreading a tablecloth, setting out cutlery, plates, bottles of wine (the whole caboodle, like a Victorian photograph) the word 'picnic' is perhaps too wide and a repast in such a form would not be reasonably incidental to the use of the way.
So it is a matter of degree. For walkers to stop for half an hour to have their sandwiches, eat an apple and drink coffee from a thermos, sitting on a grass bank within the width of the way, accords with what has happened down the ages, and is certainly a purpose reasonably incidental to the use of a footpath. A picnic in the fullest sense may not be.
Does a sign on a public path with the words 'No picnicking' misstate walkers' rights?
In that it seems to prohibit stopping to eat sandwiches, even without obstruction or trespass, it does.
But whether a court would hold that the words constitute an offence under section 57 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 (offence to display a notice on a public path deterring public use) seems doubtful, since the words might not be considered necessarily to deter use of the way.
What, then, is the legal effect of such words? It may be that, since a notice cannot of itself reduce walkers' rights, the answer is none, the words having no more effect than if a person erects a sign in his front garden saying 'Do not smile while passing this house'.
Does a local authority act improperly if it erects such a sign - for example, if nuisance is caused to a landowner by large numbers of people using a stretch of riverbank for picnics? Since an authority has no business to mislead walkers by seeming to suggest that people cannot even stop for sandwiches, it may be that the authority does act improperly in erecting the sign.
But no answer can be given unless and until the court, with knowledge of the circumstances, rules on the matter. For my own part, I would want to walk the path before deciding whether to recommend my local Ramblers' Association group to take action.
© 2003 Open Spaces Society
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Well that's the legal stuff sorted.
Should you decline to comply with this warning, a leather winged demon of the night will soar from the deep malevolent caverns of the white peak into the shadowy moonlit sky and, with a thirst for blood on its salivating fangs, search the very threads of time for the throbbing of your heartbeat. Just thought you'd want to know that.