The Compleat Trespasser by John Bainbridge

This time, the review without any distracting rants. Probably.


Sub-titled Journeys into Forbidden Britain, it immediately sets out its agenda: it is both a potted history of how the land was stolen from the inhabitants of Britain, and the long struggles to regain access to much of it, with numerous anecdotes of the author’s own escapades trespassing.

The story of how the inhabitants of Britain came to lose their access to the majority of the land is a story that has been repeated throughout most of Europe and beyond. Land forcibly taken by invading armies and distributed partly to their soldiers, but mainly their officials or nobility. Land enclosed by lords and kings for hunting purposes, burning villages and evicting their inhabitants from the land. Land taken by acts of Parliament to further enrich the gentry. Land given by kings to the established church, so that peasants might labour only to feed the rich and corrupt clergy.

Land that has been kept private and jealously guarded both by strict and cruel laws, and by equally cruel methods by the landowners themselves. Thus laws that deemed the starving and dispossessed villager might be executed for taking a rabbit from land he once lived on, to feed his family. Thus the mantrap that would cut a mans leg off. Thus countless thousands beaten and sometimes killed by gamekeepers and owners.

When I attempted to review this a week ago, it ended up turning into a full-blown rant against grouse moors (I do rants so well, these days!), but even today it is not just grouse moors that are fenced off just so the idle rich can enjoy slaughtering wildlife – there is plenty of woodland and more open land enclosed around the country and dedicated to pheasant shooting, for example. There are country houses with huge estates. Land taken by the MOD for training purposes, and never returned. There are many landowners determined to block access to legal rights of way. Although the Countryside Rights of Way act of 2000 was supposed to restore access to most of the countryside, there is still much that is off-limits.

Yet there are good landowners, too. The tales of John’s own trespassing include several encounters with sympathetic landowners happy to see walkers on their land, with the obvious proviso that they cause no damage.

The improved access rights we do have today were earned the hard way. Since Victorian times there have been mass trespasses intended to both bring the issue into the public forum, and to try to force change. The Kinder Trespass of 1932 is probably the most famous, yet many preceded that. It is thanks to the countless trespassers and campaigners of those days that we have improved access rights today.

The book finishes, though, with a plea. Firstly to campaign for further land reform, for better access rights – rights that are enjoyed in Scotland, but not England, Wales or Ireland. And secondly with a warning – the current government campaigned at the last election on a promise to criminalise trespass, so that anyone who deliberately or inadvertently strays from a public footpath onto private land might find themselves on a charge in a criminal court.

Anyone who enjoys the countryside in any form, enjoys spending time there, and walking in it, should read this book. It provides a very good, clear, account of where we are, how we got here, and what has been done to get us someplace better.

But also that we still have some way to go.

39 thoughts on “The Compleat Trespasser by John Bainbridge

  1. When I visited Norway a few years ago, I was really happy to learn of their “Everyman’s Right” to walk on any undeveloped land. An awful lot of landowners in the area where I grew up post their land, with no trespassing signs, I think mainly out of worries over (the small percentage of) hunters who are careless and reckless, but also possible liability for anyone who is injured on their land. Luckily this state has hundreds of thousands of public acres. I hope this movement in England to reopen people’s access to their land continues to gather strength.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. John Bainbridge

    Very many thanks, Mick and everyone who has commented. It is lovely to get the book mentioned in this way. I suspect land access is going to be a big issue after Lockdown, regards John

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re welcome, John. And I think you’re right. I heard on the grapevine a local footpath has been blocked by the landowner this last week, although I’m not certain the person who passed the message on is referring to the right of way, but I’m going to check it out this week in case.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: The Compleat Trespasser by John Bainbridge — Mick Canning – Walking the Old Ways

  4. A nature lover will certainly advocate for the right to walk through land forcibly taken from people for personal gains. I had no idea about this situation in England, but now I do. I wonder why the law differs even in the union? Can’t the same logic apply in all these countries? Or maybe the plea included some local logic. Criminal charges against a harmless “trespasser” seem like going a little overboard.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The reason the law is different in this case is that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have two levels of ‘main’ levels of government – that of the British Parliament, but also a certain amount of devolved government with the right to pass certain laws applying only to themselves.

      And yes, criminal charges would seem over the top, but it’s part of the tradition of the landowner wanting to keep everyone off ‘their’ land.

      Thanks, Arv.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Of course, just now, the Scots have far less reasonable access to their land courtesy of their, in my view, over-stringent handling of it!

    Talking of land closed off for pheasant shooting – there is a hill near me which is officially a ‘trespass’ but, because it is a hill, many people target it for bagging (myself included). I was lucky the day I went up it that I didn’t leave it a day later. I did note there were spent cartridges all over the hill and, the very next day, over 400 poor pheasants were blasted to death. If I’d gone a day later, I think I’d probably have been included – either inadvertently or not!

    It was horrible around the area after they’d had their fun with no pheasants roaming the local area – seemed kind of barren not seeing them in the fields or anywhere nor hearing their familiar call.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not sure about the over-stringent handling of Covid-19. I rather fall into the camp that I’d rather be safe than sorry, although that’s because I suspect I’m more at risk than some. At least once it’s over, the land will still be there to enjoy.

      Yes, I’ve crossed a few pheasant shoots – horrible, as you say. There are two within about ten miles of me here. Even walking around the designated area I’ve had shot rain down on me.


      1. I’m extremely at risk as I have serious lung problems – but it only spreads from person to person so, if you’re away up in the hills on your own, you’re not near anyone to give it to or get it from. That’s my philosophy on it all. It’s also very unlikely to catch it outside.

        The trouble is, we’re not sure when, or even if, it will ever be over as current thinking is that it’s going to be like the annual ‘flu epidemic. Looks like society may well be about to change long-term!

        Let’s hope they manage to find a vaccine soon…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Agreed, a vaccine is the only long term solution.

          I also agree about the outdoors being so much safer, but appreciate it would be hard to legislate the details effectively, as people tend to interpret these these rules in whatever way they fancy.


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