Years ago while I was backpacking through the Scottish countryside, we came to a wooden fence. We had been trudging beside a road, but the path appeared to veer off into what was apparently a private sheep pasture. I prepared to turn around.

A common gate in a private English field.

My traveling companions, however, knew better: In the UK, as in much of Europe, you can walk across many private sheep pastures. A quick survey of the fence soon revealed a notch with steps, and we went up and over. It was the first of many, many fenced fields and pastures we traversed.

The New York Times recently ran a story about this phenomenon, which goes by different names in different places:

In Sweden, they call it “allemansrätt.” In Finland, it’s “jokamiehenoikeus.” In Scotland, it’s “the right to roam.” Germany allows walking through privately owned forests, unused meadows and fallow fields. In 2000, England and Wales passed the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, which gave people access to “mountain, moor, heath or down.”

The argument of the Times piece — which grew from the author’s attempt to walk the length of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline — is that the United States might be better off with similar “right to roam” laws. In fact, in the early days of colonization, America was actually easier to roam in than Europe, which was largely owned by aristocrats. Oh, how the tables have turned.

Having experienced Europe’s roaming culture first hand, I can attest that it is indeed a wonder. I’ve seen endless rolling hills of flowers, muddy rivers lapping at stone castles, and anciently terraced mountain sides slowly crumbling back into wildland. Most of the time these places were free to explore and there were both laws and a robust walking culture in place to protect both sides; walkers agree not to destroy things and can’t sue if, say, they tumble over and get hurt.

Despite the plea in the Times piece, it’s hard to imagine a similar culture emerging in the U.S. at this point given our property rights and litigation culture.

That’s a shame — the system really does work across the pond — but it’s also all the more reason to get out and wander the European countryside. More than museums, monuments, and bustling cities, the quiet meadows and windswept cliffs are the things I look back on most fondly from my trips to Europe.

If you go: Walking the countryside is often free and easy to access from cities and public transit, but look up your specific destination for rules and customs. Scotland is one of my favorite places to wander, and there is an extensive culture and infrastructure there to enable walking. This website is a good place to start researching.

Further reading: 

Things to do in Scotland that are even better than Edinburgh Castle

Kerrera Island is one of the most beautiful places in the world

Favorite Hikes: Wye Valley, Wales is a Romantic riverside ramble

— Jim Dalrymple II


Written by Jim Dalrymple II

Urbanism and travel writer. Also a journalist covering the news.


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