Winning the right to roam

In the year 2000, following a long-running campaign led by the Ramblers, walkers won a ‘right to roam’ over wild, open countryside in England and Wales. The new legal right to walk over mountains, moorland, heath, downland and common land, without having to stay on paths, was set out in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. Winning this right remains one of the most significant milestones in Ramblers’ history.

Attempts to achieve a right to roam began in 1884 when James Bryce MP introduced the first Parliamentary bill for a right to roam. The bill was re-introduced every year until 1914 and failed each time. In 1932 six people were sent to jail for leading a mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the Peak District, causing national outcry and bringing the case for a right to roam into the public eye.

The campaign suffered a set-back in 1939 with the passage of the Access to Mountains Act. The Ramblers, officially formed in 1935, was bitterly opposed to this legislation which compromised walkers’ rights and made trespassing a criminal offence in certain circumstances. It was later repealed.

In 1947 the Hobhouse Committee recommended legislation for public access to open countryside. This led to the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. Under this legislation, local authorities were required to survey open countryside, assess the level of access provided to walkers and to secure further access by means of agreements with landowners, by orders or by purchasing the land. In practice the legislation has secured very few improvements for walkers.

In 1985 the Ramblers launched the Forbidden Britain campaign, with the aim of securing a legal right to walk in wild, open areas of countryside without having to stick to paths. By 1991 the annual event was seeing increasing mass trespasses, on a scale not seen since the 1930s. 

Following on from the success of the Forbidden Britain campaign in raising the issue of access to the countryside, the Ramblers began lobbying the major political parties for a commitment to introducing legislation which would give the public a ‘right to roam’. This commitment would eventually appear in the Labour Party's 1997 general election manifesto. In 1998, Michael Meacher MP - the then Environment Minister - confirmed this intention in a speech to the House of Commons. The resulting Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CRoW) became law on 30 November 2000.

Walkers would, however, have to wait a few more years to enjoy their right to roam. First, maps had to be produced showing where the new right could be exercised. Following a long and complex exercise to identify and map wild, open countryside, the right to roam came into effect across the whole of England and Wales on 31 October 2005.