Echoes of class wars linger in a law that permits us to roam only 12% of the countryside in England and Wales. But it could have been lot less. Roly Smith on the celebration of a challenging walk 70 years ago
Wednesday April 17, 2002
There's a famous story about a group of Sheffield ramblers out walking on the then-forbidden mountain of Kinder Scout in the Peak District in the 1930s. They were accosted by an irate gamekeeper, who told them they were trespassing and demanded they leave. When asked why, because the ramblers said they were doing no harm, the keeper replied: "This land belongs to my master. His ancestors fought for it." "Right," replied an enterprising rambler, removing his jacket, "then I'll fight you for it."
The story may be apocryphal, but it sums up the deeply-ingrained class struggle at the heart of the famous "Battle of Kinder Scout", the mass trespass that took place 70 years ago next week. That event, which resulted in five young Manchester ramblers being imprisoned for up to six months for riotous assembly, is seen as the single most important milestone in the campaign for open country recreation.
The culmination of that century-old campaign for the cherished "freedom to roam" across mountain and moorland was reached with the long awaited passing of the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act in December 2000. Many believe that another direct result was the creation of our 11 national parks, the first of which - significantly, the Peak District - celebrated its 50th birthday last year.
Eighty-five-year-old Jimmy Jones, of Northenden, Manchester, one of the last surviving trespassers, says: "We all supported the trespass because we were convinced that the land belonged to the people. It was in our blood."
The battle for the ramblers' holy grail of the right to roam can be seen as a direct result of the industrial revolution. Workers in the dark, satanic mills of the new industrial cities of northern Britain looked out longingly at the Jerusalem of rolling moors, seeing them as the perfect recreational antidote to the grim, crowded conditions of their everyday working lives.
But following the Enclosure Acts of the 18th and 19th centuries, many of the highest and wildest areas of moorland and mountains - previously common land open to all - had been acquired by landowners and were now out of bounds and private property. The owners employed burly, stick-wielding gamekeepers to patrol their estates, and ramblers without a permit were often forcibly evicted.
Frustrated by the lack of action by the official rambling movement, a group of young members of the Communist-inspired British Workers' Sports Federation, led by the late Benny Rothman, then a 20-year-old unemployed motor mechanic, embarked on a well publicised and deliberate mass trespass from Hayfield, Derbyshire, on to Kinder Scout on the fine spring morning of April 24, 1932.
What happened next is now firmly part of rambling folklore. The 400 walkers met a line of some 30 keepers and a few undistinguished scuffles resulted in one temporary keeper injuring his ankle. When the trespassers returned to Hayfield, six were arrested and variously charged with public order offences - but not, significantly, with trespass.
At the trial of the trespassers, the self-conducted defence by Rothman - who died in January this year, aged 90 - was a masterpiece of working-class rhetoric. "We ramblers, after a hard week's work in smoky towns and cities, go out rambling for relaxation, a breath of fresh air, a little sunshine," he told the court. "But we find when we go out that the finest rambling country is closed to us, just because certain individuals wish to shoot for about 10 days a year."
It was the severity of the sentences handed down to the five young defendants - ranging from two to six months' imprisonment - which was to unite the ramblers' cause. Even the official ramblers' federations, which had been opposed to the trespass, were appalled by the sentences.
Indisputably, the mass trespass brought the access issue to a head and acted as an important catalyst to the whole national parks and countryside access campaign. But according to Kate Ashbrook, secretary of the Open Spaces Society and chair of the access committee of the Ramblers' Association (RA), much still remains to be done. "Although a great achievement, the CRoW Act is modest," she says. "It gives us the right to walk on only 12% of England and Wales - and even that right could be subject to all sorts of restrictions.
"Landowners might also succeed in diminishing this access by appealing against the provisional maps of open country currently being drawn up. Worse still, some have already taken direct action to destroy access by ploughing up open moorland in an effort to keep the land private."
Almost 100 acres of moorland at Kirk Edge, near Bradfield, South Yorkshire, were recently ploughed up by a farmer shortly after draft access maps had been drawn up under the act by the Peak District Access Forum (PDAF). The architect of the act, environment minister Michael Meacher, reacted swiftly, ordering a 12-month moratorium on the ploughing of such land.
"Yes," concedes John Lees, secretary of the Peak Park Moorland Owners' and Tenants' Association and a member of the forum, "that was most unfortunate and we have been gently critical of the landowner involved."
But Lees claims that much more positive work has been done since 1932, including the successful management of voluntary access agreements covering more than 80 square miles of Peak District moorland. "I firmly believe that the mass trespass would not happen today," he says. "We have learned that sensible compromise leads to a level of mutual understanding, which makes confrontations of the kind that took place in 1932 highly unlikely. Genuine ramblers never have been, and never will be, the problem. It's the odd 5% minority, the ones who cause damage or let their dogs run off the lead, who give us the headaches."
Another member of the PDAF is Terry Howard, secretary of the still active Sheffield Campaign for Access to Moorland (Scam) and of the local RA area council. He is very aware of the political nature of the trespass and is in no doubt that, if placed in the same situation today, he would be there marching alongside the likes of Rothman and his friends.
"It highlighted the problem in a way that nothing else had before or since," Howard says. "The passing of the CRoW Act was a great step forward, but the access forums have still to get down to the nitty-gritty. We in Scam are keeping a watching brief, because undoubtedly there are still problems - as the recent ploughing-up incident showed."
The biggest private landowner in the Peak District is the Duke of Devonshire, at Chatsworth. He has always argued that ramblers and grouse shooters can peaceably co-exist and is "tremendously" in favour of access to open country. "Although I was only 12 years old when it happened, I have always been very influenced by the mass trespass," he says. "I am still horrified both by the attitude of landowners at the time, who included my grandfather, the 9th duke, in not allowing people to walk in open country, and by the vicious sentences handed down to the trespassers.
"I would like formally to apologise for the attitude of my grandfather, who owned part of Kinder at the time, for what happened. My ambition is to de-politicise the access situation through good neighbourliness."
For the past 20 years, Kinder Scout has been in the safe hands of the National Trust, which allows free access at all times. Stephen Trotter, manager of the trust's High Peak estate, says: "We declared that Kinder would be open country in perpetuity when we acquired the estate in 1982 - 20 years before the CRoW Act. This was seen as a fitting tribute to the place that attracted the trespassers in 1932 and inspired the wider access movement."
Although he has admitted he is no rambler, Meacher was the minister who pushed through the CRoW Act. He sees the 1932 trespass as "a potent expression of the desire of those in nearby towns to escape poor and cramped living conditions for a few hours now and again, to enjoy the fresh air and wildness of the open moor".
Seventy years on, the minister sees little need for confrontation - "not just because people will be exercising a statutory right, but because the new legislation also recognises the need of those who manage the land on which others will walk". Adapting a New Labour homily, Meacher adds: "Walkers will have rights, but also responsibilities - to respect the countryside and its wildlife and the needs of those who depend on it for their income."
But echoes of the class wars of the 1930s still linger. As trespass veteran Jimmy Jones says: "I always said that if the powers-that-be could can the very air that we breathe, and try to sell it back to us, they would."
Milestones on the road to freedom
1865 Commons and Open Spaces Society formed
1876 Hayfield and Kinder Scout Ancient Footpaths Association formed
1884 Liberal MP James Bryce introduces first access to mountains bill
1893 Co-operative Holidays Association formed by TA Leonard for rambling holidays
1894 The Peak & Northern Footpaths Society formed in Manchester
1900 Sheffield Clarion Ramblers founded by GHB Ward - the first working class rambling club
1905 First Federation of Rambling Clubs formed in London
1932 Mass trespass on Kinder Scout; five ramblers imprisoned
1935 Ramblers' Association founded
1938 Access to mountains bill introduced by Arthur Creech-Jones, becoming the severely emasculated and largely unused Access to Mountains Act of 1939
1945 Rambler and architect John Dower produces his report on national parks
1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act passed, allowing access agreements with landowners.
1951 Peak District becomes the first national park and negotiates access agreements to Kinder Scout the following year. Sixty per cent of access agreements are in the Peaks
1965 Tom Stephenson's Pennine Way long distance path opens, crossing Kinder Scout and Bleaklow
2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act passed, enshrining the right of walkers to roam freely in open country
2001 First access forums set up
· Roly Smith is president of South Yorkshire and North East Derbyshire Ramblers' Association. The 70th anniversary of the trespass will be celebrated at an event attended by Michael Meacher at Bowden Bridge, Hayfield, Derbyshire, on Saturday, April 27, at 12.30 pm. There is no parking and visitors are encouraged to go by public transport.
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