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.