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‘No-one should control this land. Everyone should have a say over it.’

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With the issue of access to green space amplified by the pandemic, can the act of trespass provide a way of reconnecting with nature and challenging the privatisation of land in England?

Photos by Chris Hoare.

Just after lunch on the last day of July, around 60 people, mostly from Bristol, clambered over a waist-high stone wall that separates private land from a public right of way. The land they were trespassing is part of the Badminton Estate, a sprawling, 52,000-acre site owned by the Duke of Beaufort.

The trespass was one of a series organised by the Right to Roam campaign, which seeks to extend the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act 2000 in England so that “millions more people can have access to open space, and the physical, mental and spiritual health benefits that it brings.” 

In England, we have the right to access 8% of the land, and only 3% of waterways. As Nick Hayes explains in The Book of Trespass, this goes all the way back to William the Conqueror who, after defeating Harold at the Battle of Hastings, stole the land and made it the possession of the monarch, subsequently parcelling this out to his trusted barons.

This violent seizure of land is the legacy on which modern conceptions of ownership in the UK are still based, conceptions that seem increasingly incongruous with democracy in practice. As Bobbie, a university worker who attended the trespass, argued: “No-one should control this land. Everyone should have a say over it.”

Another process that historically infringed on the common rights people enjoyed over the land was enclosure, the dismantling of the ‘open-field’ system of farming and reconstitution of small portions of land into larger fields enclosed by hedges or fencing. Ostensibly claimed to increase efficiency, it was often a method used by the aristocracy to consolidate their wealth and may have begun in England as early as the 12th century.

After 400 years of informal land-grabbing, parliament took over the process in the 17th century, and between 1604 and 1914 “there were over 5,200 bills enacted by parliament” relating to acts of enclosure that effectively seized “a little more than one fifth of England.” 

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This assault on the physical, political and cultural landscape of England remains more relevant than ever. The recent Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 criminalises ‘trespass with intent to reside,’ which as Guy Shrubsole, environmental campaigner and co-founder of the Right to Roam campaign, points out “effectively criminalises the way of life for Gypsies, Roma and Travellers.”

The government also recently commissioned the Agnew Review into the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act, with the aim of dramatically improving access to the outdoors ahead of the 2021 Spending Review.

James MacColl, head of Policy Advocacy and Campaigns for The Ramblers, argues that the eventual £30 million, plus a £9 million Levelling Up Parks Fund, was “a disappointing outcome,” considering “reams of scientific evidence support what we know instinctively – that connecting with nature wherever we are is good for us physically, mentally and emotionally.”

For The Ramblers, some of the urgent things to tackle include setting targets for connection to nature, using future legislation to remove the deadline of 2026 for recording historic public rights of way and providing opportunities for farmers to be paid for improved paths and public access. 

This final point is something the Right to Roam campaign seeks to address. Between 2020 and 2022, the Badminton Estate received over £1 million pounds of public subsidy. Though some of this money has been used for good, campaigners argue that subsidies should come in exchange for land access.

For many of the trespassers in attendance on Sunday, land access touches on a myriad of other issues – from education, to health, to community empowerment – and as David, a trespasser intent on exploring Bristol’s hidden stories, explained: “Until we are holding a culture of closeness to land, I don’t know if we can have that [political] conversation, we don’t have the language.”

For Ed, who works in adolescent mental health, the benefits of access to nature are obvious: “I had access to nature as a kid and that’s with you for the rest of your life, and the more we can facilitate that for young people, the better.” With multiple systems – economic, ecological, geopolitical – experiencing instability, providing access to land and sharing the knowledge of it can give people a strong foundation.

“The re-empowerment of people with this knowledge is really important and we need land to do that, because lots of us live in the city,” explained Maria Fernandez Garcia, one of the botanists leading the walk who runs foraging workshops in Bristol.

A cursory glance at England’s northern neighbour throws the situation in England into sharp relief. In Trespass, Hayes describes how the Scottish Land Reform Act 2003 “opened up the vast majority of land in Scotland that isn’t designated for schools, industry or national monuments,” and the Scottish Government also produced a Scottish Outdoor Access Code.

England also fares poorly compared to some of its European counterparts. The Swedish have allemansrätten, the Finnish jokamiehenoikeus, the Norwegians allemannsrett, and the Austrians Wegefreiheit, all of which provide extensive roaming rights. 

Maria, a Bristolian from Poland, told me she found it bizarre that, legally, she couldn’t just walk through a field in England: “The main difference [in Poland] is that there’s way more public land.” Nils, a trespasser from Sweden, explained: “I feel like in Sweden everyone gets it hammered in from a very young age, don’t destroy anything, be sensible… There’s no reason why we should not trust people to be responsible.”

Ellen, who works as an aromatherapist and in environmental communications, reinforced the belief of many on the trespass that nature is an invaluable educational tool. She explained that enough knowledge can enable people to “feel confident to navigate wild spaces.”

Indeed, the trespass, organised by Jon Moses of the Right to Roam campaign, made education its key focus and was led by botanists, who drew people’s attention to different plant species, the stories behind them, and their practical uses. 

Yarrow can be chewed into a paste and used to stem bleeding – little wonder it was once known in the vernacular as ‘staunch wound.’ King Alfred Cake – a black, bulbous growth that emerges on dead ash trees – can store and sustain embers, making the rekindling of fires a walk in the park (or a walk on private land).

The logic behind this learning is that it can lead to a greater sense of connection, love and desire to protect and nourish the land. Tobias and Meg, students of Environmental Management, argue “that’s something we need more than anything right now.” 

Land crisis

But what about access to land in cities? Bristol, like much of the country, is experiencing its own land crisis. Though the council was one of the first in the UK to introduce a Community Led Housing Land Disposal Policy in 2020, Maddy Longhurst, member of Tiny House Community Bristol and the UK Urban Agriculture Consortium, points out that the competitive environment community-led housing projects are encouraged to join can be exhausting for volunteers. 

Three projects are currently bidding for the same piece of land in Easton, meaning that two of those groups will not see their plans come to fruition anytime soon. Bobbie told me she had recently joined a community-led housing group who have been battling for land for the past nine years. In contrast with this, according to the Private Eye Land Registry Map released in 2015, roughly 300 properties in Bristol were owned by companies registered overseas, with many of those properties valued at over £1 million. 

With the pressure on land particularly acute and the looming climate and ecological crisis, some have argued that we should keep parts of the land free from human footprint. Ed points to some of the dire consequences this can have for accessible land at a local level: “The spaces that we do have access to can be overcrowded, which can lead to soil erosion and land erosion.” What’s more, much of the land that many of us think of as ‘natural’ is anything but. 

Llama, an amateur botanist inspired by the book Radical Remedies who campaigned against government’s HS2 project, stated plainly: “We don’t have access to nature in this country, and what we do have access to is generally arable or pastureland, it’s all been treated with herbicides, pesticides.” Perhaps what the Right to Roam campaign is about – at least in part – is understanding what ‘nature’ is exactly, which might also involve understanding what we’ve lost. 

That is not to say that private land is always managed badly. ‘Land sharing’ is a cornerstone of the philosophy of Jake Fiennes, conservation manager for the 25,000 Hockham Estate in Norfolk, who speaks of creating “veins of nature through the landscape.” This shows that even within current models of land ownership, responsible management can be practiced, but people arguably need to be given a physical stake in the land if they are to feel they also have a political and cultural one.

More broadly, the Right to Roam campaign challenges conventional ways of relating to and managing the land and its resources. With the pandemic amplifying the issue of access to green space, it is little wonder that the Right to Roam campaign now has 20,000 sign-ups, as well as support from 100 artists, actors and writers, including Stephen Fry and Brian Eno. Not bad for a campaign, as Shrubsole wryly comments, “run on a shoestring.”

In the Bristol context, Longhurst argues that changing the way land is managed would involve removing land from the speculative domain of the market and putting it into community ownership, via community land trusts. Alanna, a trespasser who works at social enterprise working specifically on shared access to land, made the point that “people in cities need some sort of food sovereignty.”

MacColl of The Ramblers argues that a network of walking routes linking up green spaces and providing easier access to the countryside for urbanites is another piece of the puzzle, and a new Right to Roam Bill tabled by Green MP Caroline Lucas could partially address this. 

As the group passed in front of Badminton House, its grandeur seemed emblematic of the barriers to land access – physical, legal, cultural, psychological – constructed throughout the last thousand odd years of English history. Shrubsole is clear about the part that trespass can play in changing the course of this history: “Ramblers and swimmers can become nature’s whistleblowers… Calling out the damage wrought by landowners behind barbed wire fences and Keep Out signs.” 

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  • Thanks Jonathan/Cable, a very welcome and informative piece. Would like to see more from you on land use, land rights, ownership and resistance. How about working with Shrubsole to drill down from “Who owns England” to a focus on “Who owns Bristol?”? Some worrying privatisation of the urban public realm taking place, I believe….meaning good opportunities for investigative journalism! Thanks!

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