There was a High Court judge who was once heard to mutter “I trespass about once a week”, an obiter dictum that will strike a chord with anyone who has walked very much in the British countryside. I’ve long been a practitioner of the art of trespass and written a book on the subject.
So, it was fascinating to read Nick Hayes’ volume The Book of Trespass, which is published next week by Bloomsbury. And not just a book, a positive agenda on the art of trespass, right to roam and the whole issue of land reform. And appropriately timed too, with the present British government threatening a Criminal Trespass Bill which could turn the most innocent country walker into a criminal.
There’s no doubt that Nick Hayes is throwing down gauntlets of challenge, not only to the government but to the outdoor access organisations who have been slow to react to the plans of these mostly landowning politicians.
Indeed, the news release from Bloomsbury which accompanied my proof copy gives a stark warning: There are currently plans to further criminalise trespass which could impact every wild swimmer, kayaker, climber, rambler and protestor in England and Wales. And all printed in very bold letters. Not of course that this applies to Scotland, a more civilised country which has a universalist Right to Roam.
Part history and part polemic, Nick’s book takes a good long look at just how the majority of us came to be denied access to most of our own countryside, from the land grabs of Norman overlords to the wall-building antics of more recent enclosing landlords.
And walls are a big thing in The Book of Trespass – the walls that create boundaries and put up barriers. Not just physical structures, but a symbolic dividing up of our land – on this side us, and on that side the tiny minority who misuse the possession of land and suggest that they have more rights of citizenship than the rest of us.
A good example is the massive wall across a large chunk of Dorset enclosed by the estate of Richard Grosvenor-Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, more simply known as Richard Drax MP. If you’ve ever driven the A31 through Dorset, you’ll have seen this vast wall that seems to go on for ever. Nick Hayes relays what it feels like to cross the wall, not just a physical but a psychological crossing.
Back in the 1980s, I made several crossings of The Great Wall of Dorset myself and can attest to the accuracy of Nick’s feelings. But what I hadn’t grasped at the time of my own trespasses was that the wall and the 14,000-acre estate beyond was paid for by the Drax family’s profits from the slave trade.
Nick also points out the huge sums of money some landowners get – often the equivalent of fair-sized lottery wins – courtesy of we taxpayers.
He trespasses on the estates of both the proprietor and a former editor of the Daily Mail (a newspaper that spent much of the 1930s supporting Hitler, Mussolini and Mosley). More recently a newspaper that often attacks the poor who rely on benefits, while blithely ignoring the hundreds of thousands of pounds being paid to individual wealthy landowners every year by hard-pressed taxpayers in land subsidies – often with no requirement to do anything very much for the cash.
When Nick Hayes isn’t on foot, he’s in a kayak on the water. In Scotland their universalist access permits boating and swimming. The majority of waterways in England and Wales are closed to the public. Nick’s book ends with the author examining whether to seek out Herne’s Oak (immortalized by Shakespeare) in Windsor Great Park. But going in there is already a criminal offence thanks to the Crown Estates trespass legislation. Does he succumb to temptation? I’ll leave it to you to find out.
It’s pleasing that Nick hasn’t just written this book and moved on. He and Guy Shrubsole, author of the indispensable Who Owns England, have established a website, and rather a good one too, at www.righttoroam.org where would-be trespassers and land reformists can sign up and pledge their support and find out more. On their site Nick and Guy suggest the lands that should be next on the Right to Roam agenda. But why bother with any piecemeal approach? Let’s just adopt the Scottish model and put the presumption that you can roam ahead of unnecessary restrictions?
The Book of Trespass is a good brave book, essential for anyone who cares about how our countryside and indeed our country is run. Indeed, the points Nick makes pose deep questions about the latter as much as the former.
The Book of Trespass – Crossing the Lines that Divide Us by Nick Hayes, published on the 20th August (you can pre-order now) in hardback, audiobook and eBook at £20. ISBN 9781526604699