The English countryside is restricted to 92%. Nick Hayes from the Right to Roam campaign says that poetry, picnics and joy are essential to reclaim the English countryside.
‘Private property: keep out.’ ‘No footpath.’ ‘Fishing: Permit Holders Only.’ ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted.’
Do you want to take a deep breath of country air? Do you feel like a refreshing river dip? Make sure you choose wisely. You could be charged with trespassing if you wander off the path or bathe at the wrong spot.
“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.”
Nick Hayes, author and illustrator, is a carver of wooden sticks and a leader voice in a vocal movement to reclaim freedom to roam.
He and others, all of the eponymously-named, were killed on September 24, 2007. Right to Roam campaign Hayes is a cofounder of Hayes. mass trespassWorth Forest, which is the largest forest in Sussex, must be saved.
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. This case is centered on the benefits that having access to nature can bring, both for us as individuals and for our natural environment.
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 popular belief (think discarded litter and damaged gates, out of control dogs), most people who visit the countryside treat it with respect.
Hayes claims landowners purposefully cast the rambling public in a “misanthropic” light. Why is this? 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.
As if you were 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.
Partly, the solution can be legal. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act was introduced by the UK government two decades ago. Although this is a good step in the right direction it only covers 8% land and 3% 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).
Hayes insists that just as the law must change, so must the way we view the countryside in our 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.
Hayes then 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.
However, before that, land was usually owned jointly, meaning that everyone could use it to graze their animals, collect firewood, or cut turf for fuel.
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 solution to the problem is based on 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. Here are some suggestions: wild clay moulding, corn-dolly making and herbal medicine. (Forget about your skin cream, burdock will not just clear your skin but also help your liver.
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”.
Consider pledging to take care of a particular area of woodland or river that you value and naming it as your community’s responsibility.
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.”
Current trespassing laws are based on the desire to prevent landowners or land being damaged. Hayes questions if the same law is harming the public by denying them access to nature’s benefits.
It’s a legal quagmire – and one that Hayes believes is best resolved by putting on our wellies and jumping right in.
Main image by Nick Hayes Credit: Antonio Olmos
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