What status do canal towpaths have in the UK?

I’m not sure whether I’m supposed to post this here or in the general questions and answers form. If this is the wrong one, then sorry.

What status do canal towpaths have? They are definitely open to pedestrians (though maybe permissively rather than by right - I don’t know). They appear to be open to bicycles, judging by their usage. Are they open to horses? They certainly used to be originally - canal boats would have been towed by horses before the age of steam - so presumably they still are. I would doubt that they are open to motor vehicles, because they are too narrow. What about motorcycles? I presume no.

I would therefore intend to tag the one I’ve done as “foot=yes;bicycle=yes;horse=yes”. What about the highway tag? It could be track - most towpaths that I’ve walked have been gravel. Equally, I could argue that it should be “highway-bridleway” since that seems to reflect the correct restrictions, I think.

Is there are concensus on this yet?

If not, then I propose “highway=track;foot=yes;bicycle=yes;horse=yes” unless I’m wrong about the access rights …


Most canal footpaths are now genuin footpaths, but some are still just permissive. What footpaths allow, and what has a legal basis to go there is different. A path may be a highway=footpath, but horses=permissive, but that doesn’t make it a bridleway. Highway=track doesn’t exsist in the UK though, the track is just a phisical thing, so I’m against the use of this tag.

In short, there is currently not a complete enough tagging scheme to really tag these toepaths correctly, so where I have added them, I am currently using some tempory made up tags to fix the problem.

With cycling it’s complicated because different canals and even different sections of the same canal have different rules. Most towpaths where cycling is allowed you are supposed to obtain a free permit.

There is a website that has the details of where you can cycle, for example the Oxford canal,
Unfortunately I’ve never seen that info signed on a towpath so I’m not sure how to get it into OSM.

Horses I believe are not allowed at all. At least many of the paths I’ve seen are in no fit state to support horses, many are bad enough on foot.

I’ve just been tagging them as highway=footway.
Also I’ve been taking note of bridge numbers and tagging the bridges with a bridge_number key. Bridge numbers are a quick and easy method to work out where you are on a canal so should really be recorded somehow.

Thanks for the views. It seems the situation is as complex as I thought.

Ben, just one minor point, but the official instructions on tags says that it should be “highway=footway” for a footpath, not “highway=footpath”. I realised a week or two ago that I’d been putting footpath, so I went back and corrected all that I’d done.

Now someone will point out that either is acceptable :frowning:

Tony Q: sorry typing error. I ment highway=footway.

thewinch: interesting that youve been taking bridge numbers. I have also been as I notice they are all clearly marked, and in some places there the only real good clue of where abours you are on the canal. I guess I’ll shift them from notes to bridge_number.

Canal paths are another example of the can/may debate that I keep finding myself in! You ‘can’ walk along nearly all canal footpaths, and ‘can’ take a horse down the wider ones, but it may not be a footway or bridleway. On the last bit of canal I added, there was a bridleway down there, but it was a narrow path, so it legally allowed horses, but phisically wasn’t really suitable for horses. In my opinion highway means legal though, So I have it marked as highway=bridleway. The bridleway then left the canal and the path continued, but wasn’t a highway=footway, but rather just a track that seemed like it was permisive to foot/bike. But as thewinch says it may need a permit to go on there on bike, but I would still class that as permissive.

Ben: if a sign at the entrance of a highway says it is a bridleway, but trees and scrubs make it physically impossible to go down the path with a horse, I would still mark it as bridleway (because it is) and add another tag: “needs_maintenance=yes”. :wink:

Yep, I agree, thats exactly what I was saying, I must have made it slightly unclear. Oh well.

Personally I use highway=footway for towpaths, but this is in Scotland where access rights don’t exist.

Ben : Could subsidiaries cover this, e.g. subsidiary=left_towpath or something like that.

I added Towpaths to the subsidaiaries page on my extension of the proposal. The problem is that as I said a sec ago, the path may be a footway, or just a phisical path, or even private. So it maybe subsidiary=left_private_towpath; right_highway_footway or something. Sometimes I think this just confusing to the extent that efficency may limit productivty. I guess this is why this area of mapping many elements of one bigger feature is rather achaic still.

Edit: note “name_left=” was the proposal for streenames left/right. So maybe it would be “subsidiary_left=”

Re: bridge numbers. “interesting that youve been taking bridge numbers. I have also been as I notice they are all clearly marked, and in some places there the only real good clue of where abours you are on the canal. I guess I’ll shift them from notes to bridge_number.”

So what’s the current thoughts on tagging canal bridges? I couldn’t find anything in the wiki. I tagged about 50 bridges on the Rochdale canal with under_ref= , as that seemed to be the recommendation at the time. But now I don’t know what they’re supposed to have.

Are towpaths not covered by Scotish access legislation then? From what I’ve gathered pretty well everywhere else in Scotland anyone can walk, ride a bike, or ride a horse.

in Dingwall

I think Bruce meant “there’s no such concept as restrictive access rights” rather than “there is no access”. Towpaths AFAIK are covered by the Scottish legislation as much as anywhere else.

Hi All

I’m no expert, but aren’t towpaths still accessible by horses, seeing that the canals were dug before the invention of the internal combustion engine & shire horses were used to draw the barges?

Maybe the regulations have been amended since then. Anybody know?

Dave F.

Riding a horse is expressly prohibited on British Waterways towpath. Using them for horse-boating is permitted, though not always easy.