In The Book of Trespass, published earlier this year, author Nick Hayes dismantles the notion of private land as a public no-go zone. The convention by which most of England (and in this case it is specifically England) is fenced off from most of the people who live there has been entrenched over centuries, but it is based on shaky foundations. Access - if not ownership - is now ripe for reform, argues Hayes.
Only with a visceral, lived experience of nature can we grow to really care for it
The writer and illustrator helped organise a letter sent yesterday to the Prime Minister, urging an extension of England's Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act, which came into force 20 years ago this week. Its signatories propose a major enhancement of the right to roam in the English countryside - something many of England's neighbours already enjoy with little controversy.
Hayes and over 100 fellow signatories, including household names such as Jarvis Cocker, Ali Smith, Stephen Fry, George Monbiot and Sir Mark Rylance, as well as outdoor writers like Jim Perrin, Helen Mort and Robert MacFarlane, call on the Government to give people greater access to nature to improve the public's physical and mental health.
The letter states that: "In the books we write, the songs we sing, the art that we make, we celebrate the essential connection that we feel with nature. Our love for nature resonates with our millions of fans and followers, but in England, it is actively discouraged by the law. This is not only unfair; it is also untenable."
Its authors point out that in England the public has merely a partial freedom to roam, a right that covers only about 8% of the country, while just 3% of rivers in England and Wales are legally accessible.
Lockdown, they say, has shone a light on the inequality of access to green spaces in English society, while at the same time demonstrating the importance of the availability of nature to all people.
"There is now a body of scientific evidence showing just how essential nature is for our wellbeing" the letter goes on.
"A simple walk in the woods can boost our immune system for a month afterwards. Exercising in a green space can help combat ADHD in children, and obesity, stress and depression in adults. Physical inactivity costs the NHS around £1bn per year, and wider society around £7.4bn per year. So let's follow the science: to improve the health of our nation, to alleviate the pressure on the NHS, we need greater access to nature."
The letter calls on Boris Johnson to extend the right to roam to cover woodlands, rivers and green belt land across England. But this isn't a charter to trample and litter.
"Studies show that the more people experience nature, the more likely they are to protect it" states the letter.
"With new rights come renewed responsibilities, both to nature and to the people who work in our countryside [...] We need to strengthen and promote the Countryside Code, to teach respect for the essential work of farmers and encourage a culture of care and love for the countryside through early years education. Our children must learn about nature in the best way possible: by actually being in it. Only with a visceral, lived experience of nature can we grow to really care for it."
- You can read the letter here
Nick Hayes and fellow author Guy Shrubsole, are behind the Right to Roam campaign, which works to promote the extension of the Countryside & Rights of Way (CRoW) Act in England so that millions more people can have easy access to open space, and the physical, mental and spiritual health benefits that it brings.
Here Nick discusses his new book, the potential impact of Coronavirus on our engagement with the land, and the moral case for trespass:
UKHillwalking: What sparked the idea for The Book of Trespass, and was it a long time in the making?
Nick Hayes: The book was about four years in the making, about three and a half years reading and trespassing, and about six months to write the whole thing up. My interest in trespass, and the remarkable power of private property to orchestrate society came from being rudely turfed off some land in my twenties, walking with my mother. I was intending to show her a place where, for the first and only time in my life at that point, I had seen a kingfisher. The response to us walking along the verge of his field was so disproportionate to our act, his power over us was so total and implicit, and our response was so instantly acquiescent, that it sparked my interest. Why did we leave so readily, when we both knew we were doing nothing harmful, disrespectful, or wrong?
English law should drop the absurd pretence that a walk in a hundred acre woodland is in some way damaging to the person that owns it. The real damage of trespass is to the health of society.
Why was it important to you that all the instances of trespass you document in the book were carried out under the guidelines of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code?
I leave it to the end to reveal this, simply in order to make the point that if a walk in Scotland is encouraged by the law, and the same act in England is prohibited by the law, then the problem must not be the substance of the act itself, but rather how it is defined - either that or the Scottish government are encouraging actual damage and harm to landowners, which is how walking on private land is defined in English Tort law.
A country path is democracy manifested in mud, you write, while a wall is a dictatorship. Is there a moral case for trespass, for crossing walls and roaming free?
Absolutely there is, if only for the fact that in most instances, there is no moral justification for the wall that blocks us. The walls stand across our land, imposing, and look a lot like authority - but precisely because of their appearance, no one seems to question their legitimacy. Their age helps to establish them into the orthodoxy of the countryside, but whichever way you look at them, the walls that prevent access to the public formerly divested commoners of their right to food, shelter and warmth and still, to this day, are directly responsible for our 'nature deficit disorder', in other words, the mental and physical health problems, from heart disease to depression that plague our society.
Is it fair to suggest that there can be a thrill in climbing a fence and knowingly trespassing, and would stress-free rightful access ever be half as much fun?
My ideal experience of the beautiful English countryside is with as little adrenaline and as low octane as possible. I like to sketch in the woods, or, like the great Ivor Cutler song, I enjoy 'going in a field, in a field, in a field, to lie down'. The lazy English countryside is one of peace, tranquility and the sound of dragonflies buzzing overhead. Having a gamekeeper interrupt my snooze, eyes bulging with incandescent outrage, is entirely disruptive to my enjoyment of nature, and entirely undoes the good work done to my blood pressure and sense of peace. There are some that enjoy crossing the line, and need the illegality to be a part of the adventure, such as the UrbEx movement. However, my point is not that we should trespass more, but that English law should drop the absurd pretence that a walk in a hundred acre woodland is in some way damaging to the person that owns it. The real damage of trespass is to the health of society.
What have you personally gained from going places you're not really supposed to?
I have personally gained an understanding of just how much space there is in England hidden behind brick walls. One argument against extending public access to the countryside is that we are too densely populated as a nation. We have built on about 5% of England. Richard Drax, MP for South Dorset, once stood up during a Parliamentary debate on migration and said "this country is full". I have personally walked through much of the 11 square miles he owns in Dorset, and seen for myself how empty it is. The first repercussion of enclosure was to rid the countryside of its commoners, and it remains just as empty today.
Has lockdown, and our collective newfound appreciation for nature and the outdoors, changed the terms of the access debate at all? Might this be a rare moment for public access to gain ground?
Absolutely. Now more than ever before, we have experienced how desperately we need the outdoors. The first lockdown occurred during spring, and suddenly more and more people realised 1) how desperately they looked forward to their hour outside and 2) just how gorgeous nature is. Families who once were busy at the weekend, taking children to the cinema or birthday parties, now had no choice but to explore the land around their homes, and many will not forget the paths they have taken. But lockdown also highlighted just how unequal access to open space is in England. Lockdown deepened the old divisions of English society, and once again, race and class were the determining factors.
Lockdown highlighted just how unequal access to open space is in England. It deepened the old divisions of English society, and once again, race and class were the determining factors
On the other hand, there may have been recent setbacks too, as the first lockdown eased, and parts of the countryside suddenly seemed to be swamped. Anti-social behaviour, litter, fires, and turds under bushes can't have helped the argument for better public access. At least some of the public clearly cannot be trusted to treat the countryside with respect. Exclusion is often justified on the grounds of conservation - and on the evidence of this summer, do the self-styled custodians of the land have at least something of a point?
The increased litter in the countryside can be taken two ways. First, the right wing press, as ever, used it as an example of how the public cannot be trusted to access the English countryside. They ignored factors such as the next-to-useless funding given to promoting the countryside code (just £2000 per year, barely negligible) and the fact that we have been divorced from our countryside for so long, that noone has taught us how to act. Lockdown brought a new visitor to the countryside, one looking to replace the pub and club culture, having been shut out of their favourite venues.
The other way of looking at the litter is that by and large, except for the national parks and their rangers, it was public volunteer groups that went to clear it up. There are many millions of people in England who care for nature and if the government would only support some of the brilliant initiatives such as Trash Free Trails or Surfers Against Sewage, then these volunteer groups could guarantee a cleaner countryside. People see littering as a moral problem, that people should take care of their own mess. I agree, but I want to be more pragmatic - I think like lockdown has shown, there will always be a few, defined largely by a young age-group, who are at a stage in life where it's fun not to care. Instead of banning the rest of us from nature, we should create structures that ensure we, as communities, clear it up.
However, to go one step deeper, as someone that kayaks the Avon a lot, I always come back with half a bag of tattered plastic sheeting, Lucozade bottles and energy drink cans. What is dispiriting is that even by cleaning it up from the river banks, I haven't dealt with the problem. The litter will go from my kayak, into a bin, and then into landfill mountains, either in England or abroad. The real issue is the litter itself, and that needs to be taken care of systemically. That's ultimately the government's job, but you need the right government.
You trace the concept of trespass in England back to the historical enclosure of common land, which was in effect a land grab by the powerful, an appropriation over centuries that disempowered everyone else down through the generations to the present day. Why do you think the English public continue to acquiesce to their exclusion from huge parts of their own country?
Very simply, we have forgotten what we lost. If you went to Estonia right now, and built a wall around all of their lakes, banned people from them, and let a few rent access for holidays, there would be a national uprising. The walls would be uprooted, and your head would be on an Estonian spike in no time at all.
The same is you started charging the Scots to camp in their woodland. However, year on year, following the last heavy bout of Georgian enclosure, we have steadily become used to our separation from nature. Obesity levels rise, mental health problems rise, and though the science links this to a lack of outdoors exercise, no one makes the link between our health and our need to access land.
Trespass shines a light on the unequal share of wealth and power in England, you write, it threatens to unlock a new mindset of our community's rights to the land, and, most radical of all, it jinxes the spell of an old, paternalistic order that tells us everything is just as it should be. Is there a danger that putting the case in such radical terms might scare the rich and powerful into pulling up the drawbridge, entrenching their position rather than finding compromise?
As with every single right in the history of mankind, it will never be given by those in power, but has to be taken by the people. This involves organisation, relentless unpaid work, and as you get closer to the goal, vicious personal attacks and vilification in the media. The word radical comes form the latin word for 'root'. Though associated with left-field politics and extreme haircuts and piercings, it has always referred more to the location of change rather than the style. For radical change to happen, it must happen at the source. And as Henry George would say, and Winston Churchill, and Adam Smith, and a host of thinkers from the right and the left, the most fundamental root of social inequality is in the land, and how it is distributed, and who has access to it.
Angling, shooting, music festivals, luxury retreats – you seem to lump all paid-for recreational uses of the countryside together. But what's wrong with the commodification of access? In a liberal capitalist economy, why shouldn't the land's owners fence it off to turn a profit?
First, because this sets up access to the countryside as dependent on your financial income. Second, if the public so badly need it, then there is something immoral about charging for access to it - access to nature should be seen as the first line of the National Health Service, the ability for people to maintain their mental and physical health, before the need for medical intervention. If the NHS is free at the point of use, then why not the Natural Health Service?
However angling and kayaking, though ostensibly aggressively opposing pursuits, are good examples of things that people should pay to access - much of the fee goes towards the upkeep of the rivers and canals, which is a modern expression of the commons of old. This creates the means to keep the resource healthy, and in so doing legitimises your rights to access its wealth.
What can people do to get involved in campaigning for better public access in England?
Please join us at righttoroam.org.uk, and come trespassing with us next year.
- The Book of Trespass by Nick Hayes is published by Bloomsbury
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