England is a beautiful country, yet its inhabitants and visitors are restricted from seeing 92% of it, with over half of the country owned by less than 1% of the population. Private landowners keep all of the beauty for themselves, ensuring that only they can access it, jealously guarding it from the masses. A year of lockdowns has shown just how selfish this is, with millions of people deprived of any open space while a single family could have acres upon acres to themselves and the rest of us are crammed into the tiny areas which are left over.
It is time for this to change, and there are things you can do to ensure that it does.
Forests of towering pines, bluebell woodlands, hedgerow lined open fields, hilltops with views across valleys, meandering rivers and more are all kept from us by the wealthy landowners. These sites contain not just an abundance of beauty and the sounds of nature, but our history too - archaeological sites, crumbling ruins, sites of spiritual and historical significance.
“The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said "This is mine," and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau Discourse on the Origin of Inequality 1755
This land has been stolen from us by the landed gentry - people whose distant ancestors once picked the right side of a battle, who murdered or slept their way into positions of power, who grew rich from the work of the slaves in the colonies, or from the poverty-stricken agricultural labourers on their land - their spoiled and entitled descendants now dictating where we can or can't go, what we are allowed to see, how much access we have to the land our ancestors toiled over.
Just twenty-four Dukes own over 1,000,000 acres of England
The ordinary people with our small houses and small gardens are only able to visit local parks filled with hundreds of other people, or have to travel miles to access national parks and forests where we are expected to pay to get there, to park there, to follow the rules about where we can go, have specially curated picnic areas, trails, benches and more to keep us away from the depths of the forests where we can't be controlled, where we might feel free.
The year of lockdowns has proved just how important access to open spaces is for people; those in flats and without gardens were stuck inside for months with increasing claustrophobia and mental health problems as they could only watch the outside.
Their one permitted walk a day was spent in fear of getting too close to other people out for their one permitted walk, 99% of the population trying to avoid each other in the 8% of land they are allowed access too. Sites became overcrowded, over populated, they suffered increasing environmental damage due to the sheer numbers of people visiting them who had nowhere else to go.
Right to Roam and Slow Travel
What has Right to Roam got to do with Slow Travel? The obvious connection is that with only 8% of the land accessible to us, we are irreparably damaging that 8% by the sheer weight and volume of our numbers. It is never being given a chance to rest or repair, wildlife is being driven out of it and will never return. It is impossible to find peaceful places to roam, to explore, to sit still and listen. Tourist hotspots are often dangerously overcrowded, the roads are filled with vehicles, public footpaths are filled with walkers, public transport is packed with people. All of this makes Slow travelling far harder than it needs to be. We need more space for all of us, not just the elite few.
The history of the Right to Roam Movement
England has archaic right to roam laws, and the recent update in 2000 did little to improve them. English landowners have always kept the masses off their lands to protect their hunting and fishing rights, but with the Industrial Revolution and the growth of cities which became dirty, lung destroying places, people wanted to be able to escape them on their days off. Rambling societies and walking groups were formed, but found themselves barred from even moorland and hills which had no agricultural purposes.
Determined to change this, in 1932 a group of ramblers and members of the Young Communist League organised a mass trespass on the Kinder Scout, a moorland plateau in Derbyshire. Kinder Scout was just a small part of the lands owned by the Duke of Devonshire, who was determined to keep his thousands of acres for grouse shooting for fellow landowners and industrialists.
Protestors widely publicised a rally in the village of Hayfield as a smokescreen. Most of the police force descended on the village, while about 400 people approached the Kinder Scout from several directions in a coordinated walk. Five were arrested and given prison sentences.
“We ramblers, after a hard week’s work, [living] in smoky towns and cities, go out rambling on weekends for relaxation, for a breath of fresh air, and for a little sunshine. And we find, when we go out, that the finest rambling country is closed to us. Because certain individuals wish to shoot for about ten days per annum, we are forced to walk on muddy crowded paths, and denied the pleasure of enjoying, to the utmost, the countryside.”
A later protest saw 10,000 people show up at nearby Winnats Pass. These acts of civil disobedience led to the National Parks legislation, long-distance footpaths and eventually, the Countryside Code.
In 2000, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CRoW) came into being, which opened a few areas of the country as open land for free access for all (giving us the 8% access we currently have). One of the problems with this is that it only benefits the people who live near these areas. People can travel, but then you end up with increased congestion, pollution and overcrowding. What is needed is for all landowners to allow access to their wild areas across the country - their forests, woodlands, rivers and unfarmed fields.
The wealthy landowners have beautiful woodlands and ruins that they don't even bother to visit, just breeding grounds for the birds they wish to kill in shooting season. Most of them have acres just sitting there, untouched, unvisited and unappreciated. They selfishly refuse to share, either fencing off whole tracts of land, or prosecuting people who wander through under ridiculous laws - you can be charged with trespass even if you didn't know that the land was private - so landowners can not bother to put up adequate signs, and yet you can still be charged.
Incredibly, 97% of the rivers of England are off-limits to its population. Barbed wire is stretched from bank to bank, ensuring that no-one can swim or sail down a river, just to protect fishing rights. The wealthy are refusing to share the land and water so that they can kill animals and fish for fun - for some reason their 'sports' seen as far more important than anyone else's less murderous hobbies.
Other countries, such as Scotland, Norway, Estonia and others have a far more enlightened approach to the right to roam.
There are still landowners who can make money from the land, but crucially, they do not have the right to exclude. People can not only walk on the land, they can camp, swim, cycle and kayak.
This does come with responsibilities of care of the land on the part of the public, but people who grow up in these countries are taught from a young age how to treat their environment.
When people grow up with this knowledge, when they are allowed as much contact with the land as they want, they are more invested in keeping it unspoilt, they feel a sense of connection with it and a duty to preserve it.
When people are treated as if they are trespassers who have no right to be on land, even if it is in their local area, they will treat it with contempt because they have nothing to lose in doing so. They know they will not be allowed to return, they know they are not wanted and not welcome, they know that the rich landowners look down on them as 'common little oiks', and so they will act accordingly.
HOW CAN WE CHANGE THE RIGHT TO ROAM LAWS?
The aim is not to take the land away from the landowners, it is to stop them excluding us from it.
The first thing you can do is sign up to righttoroam.org.uk who have a whole website dedicated to this issue. They provide resources to help, and answer any obvious questions.
When you walk on public footpaths through private property, take some of the Right to Roam posters (which you can download from their website) and attach them to any private, no trespassing signs you may see.
Write to your MP, write to your local landowners, write to your local paper.
Extinction Rebellion plan 'This Land is Your Land' events of Mass Trespass. I am not a huge fan of XR, but on this aspect I agree with them wholeheartedly. Join in one of the events and get the landowners to wake up.
Make a point of following the Countryside Code, so that landowners know that we can respect our land - they just have to respect us in return, and stop treating us as a threat.