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.”
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.”