92 per cent of the English countryside is off limits. With poetry, picnics and joy, it's time to reclaim what was once ours, says Nick Hayes of the Right to Roam campaign
‘Private property: keep out.’ ‘No footpath.’ ‘Fishing: Permit Holders Only.’ ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted.’
Want a breath of fresh country air? Feel like a bracing river dip? Well, choose carefully. Stray off the designated path or bathe in the wrong spot, and you could be had for trespassing.
“More often than not, you’ll find your right of way will be fenced off on either side. Basically, all we’re allowed to do is walk in straight lines behind barbed wire.”
So argues Nick Hayes, author, illustrator, carver of wooden stick, and a leading voice in an increasingly vocal movement to reclaim our right to roam.
The action follows a recent letter to the prime minister, in which Right to Roam set out a powerful case against England’s ‘unfair’ and ‘untenable’ land access laws. Core to that case are the benefits that access to nature brings, both for ourselves as individuals as well as for the natural environment itself.
An untapped army of countryside-loving volunteers is on hand to help conserve our wild spaces – if only the law would give them access
Whatever our outdoor tipple – walking, camping, swimming, foraging, birdwatching – connecting with the great outdoors is scientifically shown to boost our mental and physical wellbeing.
As the open letter sets out: ‘Our love for nature resonates with our millions of followers, but in England, it is actively discouraged by the law.’ Nature also loses out, right to roam advocates maintain.
Contrary to stereotype (think discarded litter, damaged gates, out-of-control dogs), most people who head to the countryside treat it with care and respect.
Hayes claims landowners purposefully cast the rambling public in a “misanthropic” light. Why so? Because if the contrary proved true, then “their last remaining moral reason for excluding us” (namely: protecting the countryside from the urban hordes) would fall flat.
But Hayes’ argument goes further. It’s not just that most of us don’t trash the countryside, many of us actively want to help restore and preserve it, he says.
Whether it’s amateur entomologists counting beetles or Scout groups collecting rubbish, an untapped army of countryside-loving volunteers is on hand to help conserve our wild spaces – if only the law would give them access.
Act as if you are already free
“We’ve got this workforce out there that’s absolutely crazy for moths or fungi or foraging, but they’re actively compelled away from pursuing those interests at present,” Hayes says.
In part, the solution is legal. Two decades ago, the UK government introduced the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. While a step in the right direction, its open-access principles only extend to 8 per cent of land and only 3 per cent of rivers in England.
Hayes wants to see the Act’s reach expanded, both in terms of geographical scope and permissible activities (get caught wild camping in England and Wales, for instance, and you could face a £2,500 fine).
Just as the law needs to change, Hayes insists, so does the way we frame the countryside in our own minds. His first piece of advice to a would-be trespasser: “Act as if you are already free.” So, no waiting for permission. Instead, treat the land (respectfully) as yours – or, more accurately, ours.
Here, Hayes turns to the history books. The process of private land ownership as we understand it today began 500 years ago with the infamous Enclosure Act – later supercharged by (landowning) parliamentarians in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Before that, however, land was typically owned collectively, with everyday folk entitled to use it to graze their livestock, collect firewood, cut turf for fuel, and the like.
What landowners today call ‘trespassing’, Hayes simply sees as reclaiming what is ours by historical right.
“We don’t have any sense of indigeneity in England because the crucial element of it – our connection with the land – was robbed from us hundreds of years ago,” he argues. “We’ve forgotten what we’ve lost.”
His response to the problem stems from the same logic. Essentially, we need to become modern-day ‘commoners’, he says; by which he means not just an assertion of our right to access the countryside but a commitment to steward it responsibly.
In his recently released book, The Trespasser’s Companion: A field guide to reclaiming what is already ours, Hayes offers ideas on what this act of “reclaiming our commons culture” looks like in practice.
One idea is to resurrect the ‘old arts’ using materials gathered from the countryside. Suggestions here include corn-dolly making, wild clay moulding, and herbal medicine (forget your skin cream; burdock will not only clear your skin, it will also help your liver, apparently).
Another proposal is to join a group trespass, opportunities for which the Right to Roam campaign is organising throughout this year, such as the ‘trespassing gig’ he recently held with activist musician Beans on Toast at a ‘forbidden’ location in Berkshire. If you do go trespassing, he advises, take a picnic basket or a book of poetry to undermine the “myth that we’re all vandals”.
Finally, think about choosing a local patch of woodland or stretch of river, say, that is precious to you and, together with others from your community, pledge to take responsibility for it.
In Cambridgeshire, a group of about 100 residents concerned about the deterioration of the River Cam have done precisely that – committing, in the words of their Declaration of Rights, to “engage with the river in a relationship of respect and stewardship”.
“In one sense, it does nothing,” Hayes says. “But in another sense, you now have 100 people who are sticking their necks out to protect the river.”
Underpinning current trespassing laws is the desire to stop a landowner or their land being damaged. But what, Hayes asks, if the same law is damaging the general public by denying them the benefits of nature?
It’s a legal quagmire – and one that Hayes believes is best resolved by putting on our wellies and jumping right in.
Main image: Nick Hayes. Credit: Antonio Olmos
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