The campaign that changed our access to the countryside

In the late 1990s – in the days before social media, the euro and 9/11 - I joined the Ramblers staff to help campaign for the right to roam.

A legal right to walk in the wild, open landscapes of England and Wales had been a long-standing aim of the Ramblers, and the organisation had recently taken the decision to revive the campaign. The new Labour government had pledged in its 1997 election manifesto to ‘give the people a right to roam’ and there was much for us to do to ensure this pledge was enacted. 

A man and woman, John Bunting and Kate AshbrookThree features of the campaign became apparent to me very quickly. The first was that this was a campaign with social justice at its heart. This was clearly illustrated by the experience of John Bunting (shown left, with Ramblers chair, Kate Ashbrook), an extraordinarily dedicated and passionate life-long campaigner for the right to roam. I had the pleasure of meeting John at a rally in the Peak District one misty December morning. He explained to me that during World War II, he was welcomed onto Midhope Moor, in the Pennines near Sheffield to train as an anti-tank gunner. Yet when he returned home after the war, he faced threats, harassment and even arrest for simply wanting to walk across the moor and enjoy its stunning beauty. John’s story, and many others I heard like it, were stark reminders of the long-standing social injustices we were seeking to make right. 

Newspaper clipping with headline 'Freedom may cause 'onerous inquiries'' 

The second feature was the determination of vested interests to oppose any public rights to walk over open countryside. As the Countryside and Rights of Way Act made its way through Parliament, there were many fierce debates - particularly in the House of Lords - as all interests came together to examine in detail how the new law would work in practice. Many newspaper headlines at this time contained dire predictions about the consequences of a right to roam; it would be a criminals’ charter and bring chaos to the countryside. Children would be mown down by combine harvesters. Land values would plummet. Wildlife and habitats would be destroyed. Decades on, none of these predictions have come to pass. Last minute promises were made that land would be opened up by voluntary agreement rather than by right, even though instances of public access being granted voluntarily were (and remain) extremely rare.

The opposition to the right to roam was in stark contrast to the third feature of the campaign - the enormous extent of public and volunteer support for it. Public opinion surveys consistently showed more than 90% of the public backed the Ramblers’ campaign. Many thousands of people wrote letters to their MPs and the Environment Minister in support of the Bill. Meanwhile, Ramblers volunteers worked tirelessly across England and Wales to write to local newspapers, phone in to radio discussions and organise public rallies, including one in the Chilterns which attracted thousands of supporters, who lined up on a public footpath for a photo that appeared on the cover of a national newspaper.

Protestors on the Thames with a sign 'A Labour Government will give people a right to roam'

There were many times during the campaign when it seemed the right to roam would not be won; that the Countryside and Rights of Way Act would be defeated or blunted in Parliament or that the opposing voices would overwhelm calls for social justice. But in the end, it was the indefatigable commitment of Ramblers volunteers and the unrelenting support of the public that tipped the balance. On the 30th November 2000, the Act received Royal Assent and established in law the important principle that our wildest landscapes would not just be accessed by a few fortunate individuals but could be enjoyed by everyone.

Read our Guide to Access and where you have a right to walk.