Forgive us our trespassers

How the Charter of the Forest marked the start of the chequered 800-year history of countryside access in Britain.

Words Roly Smith | Illustration Femke De Jong

There’s an old story about a group of Sheffield ramblers caught trespassing on the Dark Peak, in the days before we enjoyed free access to mountain and moorland. They were approached by an irate, stick-wielding gamekeeper, who brusquely ordered them off his master’s land.

‘But we aren’t doing any harm,’ said the ramblers’ leader. ‘We’re just out enjoying the fresh air.’ Incensed, the red-faced gamekeeper retorted: ‘This land doesn’t belong to you, lad, it belongs to my master. He fought for it, y’know.’ ‘All right,’ replied the rambler, calmly taking off his jacket. ‘I’ll fight you for it then.’ The story may be apocryphal, but it serves to illustrate the long and turbulent history of the fight for access to Britain’s countryside.

In England, that story starts exactly 800 years ago, just two years after a reluctant King John was forced to seal the Magna Carta at Runnymede. The Charter of the Forest, signed in 1217 by the nine-year-old Henry III, re-established the rights of access to royal forests for freemen, which had gradually been eroded by the Norman kings. Common land, including most forests, is land over which commoners have traditional rights, such as to walk, graze their livestock, collect firewood or to cut turf for fuel.

The erosion of these ancient rights started in the Middle Ages and continued with the aim of increasing the amount of land owned by manorial lords. The majority, however, was enacted by the landed gentry during the Enclosure Movement from 1750 to 1860, ostensibly in the name of agricultural efficiency, but, particularly in moorland areas, for the rearing of grouse. This stealing of common land from the people enraged many social commentators, none more so than the Northamptonshire peasant poet, John Clare. He fulminated:-

"Inclosure, thou’rt a curse upon the land

And tasteless was the wretch who thy existence plan’d"

Peak pressure

Nowhere was this wholesale land larceny felt more strongly than in the Peak District where, even as late as the 1930s, only 12 footpaths more than two miles in length crossed 215 square miles of Dark Peak moorland. An 1880 booklet, published by the Hayfield and Kinder Scout Ancient Footpaths Association, claimed that the greater part of Kinder and its adjoining moors had formerly been known as ‘King’s Land’ – ‘over which the public might ramble at their pleasure.’ But by about 1830, the whole of this land had been allotted to various local landowners. ‘Trespassers will be Prosecuted’ signs had appeared and strong-arm gamekeepers enforced this legally-false premise.

No surprise then, that it was in the Peak District that the pressure for access to those forbidden moors, plainly visible from the back-to-back terraces, mills and foundries of citizens in the teeming industrial cities of Manchester and Sheffield, came to a head. The celebrated Mass Trespass of 1932 saw a group of five ramblers imprisoned for daring to walk on these jealously guarded moors. Significantly, the ramblers were not charged with trespass but with public order offences, and the grand jury which convicted them, according to Prof CEM Joad in his Untutored Townsman’s Invasion of the Country (1946), consisted of two brigadier generals, three colonels, two majors, three captains and two aldermen – 11 of which were landed country gentlemen.

Increasing pressure

Pressure was also increasing from the fast-growing Ramblers’ Association, formed in 1935 after a meeting of all the English federations (which, incidentally, had been opposed to the Mass Trespass) at Longshaw Lodge in the Peak four years before. Growing leisure time and increasing population mobility soon saw Ramblers’ membership exceed that of any political party.

Ramblers couldn’t see why they should not have the same freedoms enjoyed by walkers in Nordic countries and also in Scotland, where access across most land had long been taken on the basis of custom and tradition.

In 1949, the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was passed. The Act provided the framework for the creation of National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in England and Wales, and National Nature Reserves in Scotland. It also addressed public rights of way and access to open land. 

Further milestones followed, but the major opportunity for change finally came with the election of Blair’s Labour government in 1997. The passing of the Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act in 2000 at last granted public access to mountains, moors, heathlands and downlands as well as registered common land in England and Wales.

In Scotland, the situation was different. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Scottish Lairds – hereditary aristocratic landowners – had forcibly evicted many Highland communities through the Clearances, taking the land for grazing. The campaign to safeguard public access rights began its fightback in the 1890s when Liberal MP James Bryce first placed his unsuccessful Access to Mountains (Scotland) Bill before Parliament. Over the succeeding century or so, however, as new landowners ignored access traditions, and countless paths and tracks were destroyed, political will began to grow. Ramblers campaigning contributed to the establishment of the Countryside Commission for Scotland in 1967, and in 2000 the National Parks (Scotland) Act led to the creation of Scotland’s two national parks.

In 2003, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act gave the nation arguably the most progressive access rights in Europe. Based on the Scandinavian model of allemansrättan, or ‘every man’s right’, this legislation established statutory rights of access on most land for walkers, cyclists and horse riders, as well as access to inland water for paddlers, as long as the right was exercised responsibly. In addition, landowners had a legal duty to manage their land in a way that respected access rights. Guidance for the public on responsible access and responsible land management were set out in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, which was approved by the Scottish Parliament.  

Of course, the campaign for access continued after the passing of CROW and the Land Reform (Scotland) Act. More recently the issue of coastal access came to the fore, and Ramblers Cymru celebrated the opening of the Wales Coast Path in May 2012, while public access to the coast in England is well underway thanks to the England Coast Path, scheduled for completion in 2020. Yet other significant challenges remain. The Welsh Government has just consulted on proposals to permit horse and bike riding across access land, as well as revoking restrictions on camping and organised games. Is this the next stride forward for public access to the countryside?

Access to forest and woodland is also a key concern. Today, only 38% of woodland in England is available for people to fully explore. Worryingly, that figure also includes a great deal of permissive access, which can be closed off at any time because there is no legal right to ensure it is open to use. However, a recent YouGov survey revealed that woodland and forests were the type of landscape to which most people wanted greater access. As such, the Ramblers is calling on the government to make this happen. Chief executive of the Ramblers, Vanessa Griffiths says: ‘The Countryside and Rights of Way Act opened up more than a million hectares for everyone to enjoy. Now we have the right to walk over many areas of mountain, moorland, heathland and down and common land, a right that people treasure. But what next? We know how people love to wander through their local woodlands, enjoying the peace and beauty, but not everyone has access to enjoy these simple pleasures. And, although the government pledged in 2013 to increase access to woodland, very little progress has been made. With compelling evidence that a walk in the woods can do wonders for wellbeing, we want to see this change.’ The Ramblers is urging people to sign its petition to secure better access to woodland. You can support this at ramblers.org.uk/forest.

In many ways, the Charter of the Forest of eight centuries ago can be seen as the first step in a very long walk – a journey that is still underway. The anniversary is an opportunity to reflect on progress, while also looking ahead to what the next 800 years might bring. ‘This anniversary brings to life the long history of the struggle for greater access to the countryside – now is the time to help shape its future’, says Nicky Philpott, director of advocacy and engagement at the Ramblers. ‘That’s why we’ve also created a survey that enables people to share their views on the future of access.’

Get involved

Where can I walk?

  • England and Wales

    There are estimated to be 223,000 km (138,500 miles) of public rights of way in England and Wales. They enable the public to walk recreationally and to get from one place to another on foot, sometimes by using paths which have been walked for thousands of years. These public rights of way should be maintained by your local Highway Authority and are recorded on official maps (called definitive maps) in England and Wales. Public rights of way are not just footpaths - there are bridleways and byways which the public has a right to use. Unfortunately not all public rights of way are recorded on definitive maps or shown on the Ordnance Survey, and neither are other paths which are open by permission or under other arrangements.

    You also have the right to walk off rights of way on designated ‘access land’ as marked on OS maps. Access land includes mountains, moors, heaths and downs that are privately owned. It also includes common land registered with the local council and some land around the England Coast Path. Your right to access this land is called the ‘right to roam’, or ‘freedom to roam’. In Wales there are 367,000 hectares of Open Access Land – 21% of the total land area.

    To help more people make the most of their existing rights, the Ramblers has produced a free guide to open access. Containing information on where you can and can’t walk and knowing your rights and responsibilities, this guide will give you everything you need to confidently explore the countryside. View the guide at ramblers.org.uk/advice/access.
  • Scotland

    There is a public right of access to most land and inland water, provided this is enjoyed responsibly. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code gives guidance on responsible access and responsible land management. Land managers are encouraged to facilitate access wherever possible. Access authorities have a duty to uphold access rights and prevent obstructions. They also have powers to take appropriate measures, including legal action when necessary.

    There are also around 18,000km of core paths in Scotland, and many more paths in the wider network including numerous rights of way, which are of largely ancient origin and connect public places.

    Download the Ramblers’ guide to Scottish access rights and responsibilities for walkers at ramblers.org.uk/scotlandonfoot.