20th Anniversary of the freedom to roam in England and Wales

For many, the joy of walking is getting away from the crowds and reconnecting with nature. The freedom to explore places, off the path, is an important part of many people’s enjoyment of the outdoors and research shows that walking in green, open spaces makes us happier and healthier.  

The Ramblers campaigned for decades for the right to walk across some of our wildest landscapes in England and Wales as part of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, which reaches its 20th anniversary on 30 November 2020. This was a huge step forward for our freedom to roam across open landscapes like mountains, moors, heath and downs. Roly Smith wrote about this for Walk magazine earlier this year.  

As we reflect, 20 years later, on the freedom to roam across England and Wales, we want to see these rights expanded and improved, to be more equal, more accessible and better connected. You can read more about what we want, and what we’re doing, on our countryside access page.  

To mark the anniversary, we asked a selection of people connected to the Ramblers to share their memories of the CROW Act, what these rights mean to them and what they want to see next. 

Kate Ashbrook – Chair of Trustees, Ramblers  

I remember the euphoria of walking—by right—away from any path up Parkhouse Hill in the Peak District, on Sunday 19 September 2004, the day the first new access rights under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act took effect. This day was the culmination of decades of hard work, of protests and photo opportunities by locked gates on the edge of enticing moorlands where we should be free to roam. 

There is a joy in wandering at will, to find a view, take a photo or, in my case, pursue and identify birdsong. The CROW Act makes this possible on mapped access land—not enough of it but a great start. 

I am lucky to live in the heart of the Chilterns. Cobstone Hill behind my house is chalk downland, partly mapped as access land.  I can roam here, enjoying pyramid orchids and Chiltern gentians.  When the landowner, the Getty Estate, renewed a dilapidated fence across the land and refused to install a gate I organised one, with the inscription Libertas spatiandi: libertas cogitandi (Freedom to roam: freedom to think).  That says it all. 

Stuart Maconie – Ramblers President  

Twenty years ago, Britain changed forever. Our high and wild places went, in the stroke of a pen, from being a land packaged and compartmentalised, hidden behind fences and barbed wire, littered with keep out signs and locked gates, to a country where, by and large, responsible walkers could roam where they liked in open country.  

I remember well the delight at seeing the new maps with their great swathes of pale orange shading that meant, essentially, you are welcome here to exercise your birthright. Great swathes of land, such as many hundreds of acres in Lancashire’s Forest Of Bowland, forbidden largely for decades from walkers, became ours again.   

There’s still much to do for we Ramblers. We want a better-connected footpath network and an extension of the freedom to roam across more of Britain. But we should celebrate that day twenty years ago when we took the first steps to a fairer, fitter, friendlier countryside. 

Dr Anjana Khatwa – Ramblers ambassador and Wessex Museums engagement lead

As the new Wessex Engagement Lead for Wessex Museums, part of my role is to understand the works of Thomas Hardy and bring them to a wider audience. Little did I know that my summer as a Ramblers Ambassador would prepare me so well for this task. I explored countless walks across the beautiful Dorset landscape that Hardy wrote about with such passion and eloquence. This freedom to walk footpaths and trailways across open country was an aspect of rural life that Hardy celebrated through his writing:   

“Still, to start on a brisk walk, and on such an errand as hers, on a dry clear wintry morning, through the rarefied air of these chalky hogs’-backs, was not depressing….”   

From Tess of the D’Urbervilles   

Like Tess, walking for me has always been a therapy of sorts. It eases my anxiety and quietens my mind. I believe that everyone should have access to places where they can roam free. 130 years ago, Hardy was writing of a country where people had a right to walk across footpaths and bridleways. As we mark the 20th Anniversary of the CROW Act, which gave us large areas of land to roam freely, let us remember how far we have come and commit ourselves to protecting and improving it.

Lord Chris Smith – Ramblers ex-President  

One of the proudest moments of my political life was putting my signature to the front page of the CROW Bill that we presented to Parliament over twenty years ago.  For more than a hundred years people had fought for the right to roam over open country, mountain and moorland.  I had myself from time to time been turned away and warned off by landowners; and I was determined to make sure that everyone – no matter who they were or where they came from – could have a right to fresh air and fine views and wild land beneath their feet.   

I was especially determined to see this happen after the sad loss of John Smith, because it was a cause he himself treasured and championed.  I saw the passing of the CROW Act as a tribute to him and his passion for open country and the hills.  We need to go further and do more and expand the Act, of course.  But it does still stand as something of which all of us – campaigners and legislators alike – can be rightfully proud.    

Andrew Bennett – ex-MP and Ramblers ex-President  

Having spent 30 years in Parliament helping the Ramblers fight footpath closures, and campaigning for the right to roam, it is now nice to be celebrating 20 years of the CROW Act.  

But I do so with a slight regret. I fear a lot of adventure has gone out of walking, especially for young people. As a teenager I attempted to follow my parents in walking moonlight over Kinder Scout. All I achieved in 1951 was to be soaked to the skin. However, there were other occasions when we evaded Stockport Water Bailiffs, or game keepers.  

Just before Andrew abandoned moonlight over Kinder due to rain in 1951

There was a certain excitement about running down scree slopes, wading over peat bogs, clinging to rocks, or navigating through thick mist. Satnavs have replaced map and compass for many and more and more routes like the Pennine Way are now paved paths. The countryside has been tamed.  

Pam Warhurst – Incredible Edible founder, and Natural England lead non-executive board member working on the Countryside & Rights of Way Bill. 

What was it about those discussions of the National Countryside Access Forum more than 20 years ago that still bring a smile to my lips and lift for my heart? Those gatherings of leaders and experts from every interested party, who traditionally had not been on each other’s Christmas card lists, but who together forged a route through to the implementation of a historic right of passage for generations to come. 

It was the courage of a government to say, this is our end goal, now make it happen. It wasn’t up for debate. It wasn’t done on a whim. It wasn’t a tokenistic gesture that evaporated under scrutiny. 

It was a respectful resetting of people’s rights to enjoy the natural world around them, unhampered by anything but a sense of responsibility born of those rights. 

This legislative stake in the ground allowed all, from whatever organisation they came to put their collective heads together to make it work. And that’s exactly what they did, with the support of outstanding officials in the Countryside Agency. Good humour rippled round the table as well as recognition of the knotty issues still to be unravelled. 

Together we advised on a bit of history that took away the need for permission and replaced it with that so important word Right. Something quite magical happened 20 years ago and for my small part in it, I will be forever grateful. 

What does the freedom to roam mean to you?  

As we look back on 20 years of the freedom to roam across England and Wales, we want to know about the joy and adventures, the fun, escape and exploration that the freedom to roam has given you. 

Head over to our Facebook, or Twitter pages, or just email us, and share with us what it is about the freedom to roam that you’ve enjoyed and any memories you have exploring in the countryside,  be they rain-soaked expeditions as a schoolchild, holidays with friends and family, or a place of peace in troubled times.  

Next steps for the freedom to roam 

As we reflect on the anniversary of the CROW Act, we are also looking to the future and we’ll soon be starting a wide-reaching conversation with walkers about what changes would be most beneficial to them and their ability to get out and explore.    

Sign up to our mailing list here to be a part of the conversation 

We've achieved so much together over the years and, with your support, we'll continue protecting and improving our rights as walkers for generations to come. The Ramblers supports thousands of people every year dealing with threats to our hard-won access rights. Make a donation today to make sure those rights are protected.