why activists are reviving the mass transgressions of the 1930s

Climbing the plateau of Kinder Scout – a mountain in the Peak District of England then owned by the 10th Duke of Devonshire and guarded by gamekeepers from his nearby Chatsworth estate – some 400 walkers committed one of the most famous acts of civil disobedience in British history over the weekend of April 24, 1932.

The Kinder Trespass, as it came to be known, included members of the Young Communist League and the British Workers Sport Federation. Their transgression that day was met with violence. Six men were arrested for assaulting the gamekeepers, illegal assembly and violations of the peace. Supporters, landowners and newspapers like the Manchester Guardian followed the ensuing trials with fascination. Ultimately, the episode drew attention to several clubs and organizations campaigning for better public access to rural England.

The Peak District was a symbolic choice for the offenders. Not only was the area rich in outdoor space and natural beauty, it was also accessible to several industrial towns in the north and center of England, providing a weekend away from working life. World War I was still a fond memory, and many hiking clubs included former soldiers who remembered being asked to fight for the fields and woods of home.

The residents of Totnes in Devon and their supporters have recently invoked the spirit of the 1932 mass trespass of an organized offense at the Duke of Somerset’s Devon estate 90 years later. Their reception, however, was distinctly different. These invaders could sit, play music and have a picnic. Some explored the forest, clearing empty shotgun cartridges and debris from the estate’s pheasant shoots.

Despite the environmental and agricultural subsidies paid to many landowners, it is claimed that only about 8% of the land in England is open to the public. According to another claim, only 1% of the population owns half of the land in England, although the secrecy of property trusts and large landowners makes it difficult to give an exact figure.

Unlike the massive violation of 1932, there will be no high-profile lawsuits. Instead, the Devon offenders have been able to use more modern methods to raise awareness of their case. Discovered someone in the group a pit with garbage and dead pheasants on the Duke’s land and shared the images on social media, comparing the trespassers’ concern to the landowners’ behavior.

Yet there is much that unites the offenders of 1932 and 2022. Groups lobbying for wider land access have always been environmentalists and ecologists eager to study and protect enclosed wildlife. Both generations of campaigners have also drawn attention to the power imbalance between landowners and the general public, urging that more be done to unite people with a countryside that should legally belong to everyone.

The right to roam

So what has changed since 1932, legally and socially? In 2000, access activists would be forgiven for thinking the battle was won. The Labor government was about to enact its comprehensive Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CRoW Act), which promised to open large swaths of the English and Welsh countryside to public access. When Environment Secretary Michael Meacher proposed the bill to the House of Commons, he even claimed it was “the dream of… [prime minister] Lloyd George that no one should be an intruder in the land of their birth”.

A sign that reads 'private forest no public right of way' on a wooden gate.
Much of Britain’s forests remain under lock and key.
D MacDonald/Shutterstock

The CRoW Act introduced a limited compromise between hikers and landowners. People were given the right to explore mountains, moors, heather and down (unfertilized, calcareous grassland) and registered common land. Campaigners estimate that this only covers about 8% of the land in England and Wales. The CRoW Act exempted privately owned forests, grasslands and waterways, which remain closed to the public. Some landowners were even able to spread fertilizer to alter the plant species growing on their land to exempt it from the new rules before the mapping process could be completed.

That the Guardian recently claimed that “there is no right to roam in the English countryside” is testament to the restrictions of the CRoW Act of 2000 and the frustrations of the access lobby two decades later.

The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of outdoor recreation space for our physical and mental health. The right to enjoy footpaths and moors became another controversial issue as some walkers were targeted by the police for exercising in the Peak District during the first national lockdown.

With the cost of living rising, many people must be wondering how private landowners are financed and whether the public is getting value for the money it pays in taxes. Offenders on the Duke of Somerset’s land noted that the Duke received public money to maintain his forest, but this funding was not a requirement to share the land with the public. As in 1932, the political and moral arguments for a broader right to roam are compelling.

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