Tom Stephenson and the struggle for walkers rights

Hilary Flockhart, Ramblers volunteer, has been digging through the archives to uncover the story of Tom Stephenson and the passing of the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. 

I have leafed through many books on the Pennine Way and other Long-Distance Paths, haunted the London Metropolitan Archives and sifted through boxes of newspaper cuttings and photographs stored at Ramblers central office. Two things caught my attention; first I was struck by how far back the struggle for walkers’ rights went and second, what an extraordinary man Tom Stephenson was.

The industrial revolution, which started in the late eighteenth century, brought about huge changes in the way people worked – a social leap from an agrarian society to an industrial one. Huge numbers of workers left the land and migrated into the large industrial towns of the north which sat cheek by jowl with some of the most beautiful landscapes in England. People worked long hours and their free time was precious; they wanted access to the countryside around them for walking, picnicking, rock climbing and general relaxation. However, such activities on private land constituted trespass and there were frequent confrontations between land owners, gamekeepers and walkers.


Tom Stephenson leading a group of MPs along the Pennine Way in 1948

It wasn’t until 1884, that the Right Honourable Viscount James Bryce MP, a Liberal MP introduced the Freedom to Roam Bill which was re-introduced every year until the outbreak of WWI without any success. I thought that this university educated man, who was a lawyer, historian, traveller, keen mountaineer, ambassador to the US and author would have been more than qualified and have all the right contacts to get the Bill through Parliament but he did not.

By contrast, Tom Stephenson came from a working-class family, the eldest of nine children, he started work at the age of 13 as an apprentice block printer in the same calico printing works as his Dad. He lived in the Ribble Valley (now part of the Forest of Bowland AONB) and in his free time (like the other workers around him) he started walking and climbing the local hills and dales and his appreciation of the countryside and life-long connection with the natural world was established. He began writing about his walks and at the same time studied geology at an evening class with the idea of winning a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Science in London. His hard work and determination paid off and he won a scholarship and headed south. However, WWI intervened and as a conscientious objector he was imprisoned and his scholarship was lost.

After the war, he stayed down south and his links with other conchies, many of whom were involved with the Socialist Party, led to him becoming a part-time agent for the Labour Party. In 1933 he took up a position as a journalist for the Daily Herald, writing about his passion – walking. Around the same time, he became involved with the National Council of Ramblers Federations as he covered their annual conference in 1933. Luckily the Daily Herald supported his activities with the Ramblers as we can see from the many articles he wrote covering campaigns such as the mass trespass in Winnats Pass and stories about individual ramblers and their fight for access. He lobbied, campaigned and wrote tirelessly using all his political and journalistic skills.

Tom Stephenson addressing 200 walkers who had explored parts of the Yorkshire Wolds Way in 1968. The long-distance path opened in 1982.

Tom Stephenson was an inspired leader of causes and is accredited with the eventual passing of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act in 1949 and with the opening of the first long-distance path, the Pennine Way in 1965. What made him succeed where others had failed?

Possibly the difference between Tom Stephenson and those who had gone before like James Bryce, was that Tom Stephenson was able to convey his own inspiration to others and succeed in motivating them into action. Inspiration comes from within and Tom Stephenson certainly was inspired; he said that he was terrified at the thought of addressing the 3,000 ramblers at the Winnat’s Pass demonstration but “he was inspired by the enthusiasm and dedication of the young folk who were campaigning for the right to walk on their native hills, the preservation of footpaths and the creation of national parks”. He inspired others through his activities as press officer of the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, the Hobhouse Committee 1947, secretary of the Ramblers from 1948 for 20 plus years, working on the National Parks Commission and the Gosling Committee, he motivated others by his passionate campaigning. He was a true activist – he led marches and rallies, he wrote in the press and magazines, he gave speeches, he lobbied MPs, he got on committees and he didn’t give up the fight. His final gift was that he left most of what he owned to the Ramblers including a generous legacy – it was the largest received by the association at that time, 1987.

So, where does this motivation and inspiration fit with the Ramblers today? I feel that the Ramblers really does follow the lead set by Tom Stephenson - we all need motivation which comes from having a motive to do or achieve something. The Ramblers has over 100,000 members and draws on this talented community to support campaigns, maintain existing footpaths, to act as the eyes and ears of the Ramblers to report problems and of course, to run the 550 local groups. Volunteers working for the Ramblers are motivated by their love of walking, the countryside and a desire to get other people interested and involved. Their most important activity after all, is to lead the hundreds of walks which get people together out walking every day of the week appreciating the freedom of the countryside just as Tom Stephenson did.

Inspiration is a little different and comes from within; you can be inspired by many things – listening to a piece of music or a speaker, reading an article etc. Ramblers recognises “inspiring walkers” see Walk Summer 2019 and continues to inspire walkers by articles in its magazine and on the website, by going out to work with local groups and continuing the campaign trail.

Ramblers volunteers and staff celebrating the opening of a stretch of the England Coast Path

I have been asked what’s my personal motivation for volunteering to work for the Ramblers? I’ve always been a walker and have a few long-distance paths under my belt. I live in a wonderful part of the countryside between the High Weald AONB and the South Downs National Park, the newest of our national parks. Fantastic walking country – not the fells and dales of the north but equally wonderful. I have been introduced to the wonders of the Lake District; Blencathra, Skiddaw and the Derwent Valley area. But wherever you walk, we have a wonderful network of footpaths, in my opinion unrivalled. I want to ensure that these are maintained for the future and that is why when my son asked me what I wanted for Christmas three years ago, I replied “ Ramblers Membership please”.

Keep on Rambling

This year is the 70th anniversary of the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, legislation that led to the creation of National Parks, National Trails, the definitive map in both England and Wales, and National Nature Reserves across Great Britain. 

With growing issues around mental health, well-being, loneliness and obesity, our ability to access nature, and open, wild spaces is more important than ever. 

By keeping alive the ambitions of the 1949 act, we can ensure more people become happier and healthier because they ramble. 

That’s why our growing Ramblers movement is going to #KeepOnRambling

Download our limited-edition poster commemorating the 70th anniversary and hear all the latest news about our campaigns and find out more about what we’ve achieved then and how we’re continuing to campaign today.