Something to CRoW about

The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 enshrined the right of walkers to roam freely across mapped areas of open country – a significant victory for the Ramblers. How has it changed access in England and Wales in the last 20 years?

Words by Roly Smith, Illustrations by Femke De Jong

Illustration of people enjoying access to lands, past a fence 

The following lines describing an encounter with a gamekeeper from Ewan MacColl’s 1932 trespass anthem The Manchester Rambler sum up the sense of injustice felt by many walkers before the advent of the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act, which passed into law 20 years ago. He said, “All this land is my master’s.” At that I stood shaking my head; No man has the right to own mountains Any more than the deep ocean bed.

MacColl – then known by his birth name of James (Jimmie) Miller – had been on the celebrated Mass Trespass on Kinder Scout in the Peak District that year, after which five ramblers had been imprisoned.

The mass trespass – which incidentally was opposed by the official Ramblers’ federations at the time – was perhaps the most iconic event in the century-old battle to regain access to our open country, mountains and moorlands. Before the coming of the iniquitous Enclosure Acts of the 18th and 19th centuries, most of this land was common land, where anyone could graze their sheep, cut heather or peat – or simply walk and enjoy the view.

Freedom to roam

There had been many previous abortive Parliamentary attempts to win back the cherished freedom to roam, from the first bill promoted by Liberal MP James Bryce in 1884, to the falsely named Creech Jones Access to Mountains Act of 1939. Inadequate provisions for site-by-site access agreements (most in the battlegrounds of the 1930s in the Peak District) were also made in the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act.

In 1985, the Ramblers launched its Forbidden Britain Day campaign, highlighting moorland where there was no public access with well-publicised rallies. By 1991, this annual event had organised demonstrations on a scale not seen since the 1930s, and active pressure groups such as the Sheffield Campaign for Access to Moorland (SCAM) continued the campaign. 

When he was Labour MP for Sherwood, Nottinghamshire, Paddy Tipping, a champion for freedom to roam and a former president of the Ramblers, promoted several private members’ and 10-minute rule bills to urge the government into action. So when, eventually, a sympathetic Labour government was elected in 1997, the Ramblers was primed and ready. Pledges for action had come from candidates of all parties before the election, confirming that they would back the right to roam, and the promise had been included in the Labour Party manifesto. 

A big step forward

In 1998, environment minister Michael Meacher confirmed the intention for legislation in a speech to the House of Commons, saying it would be a lasting tribute to the memory of former Labour leader and keen Munro-bagger John Smith. After some procrastination in the House of Lords, the resulting CRoW Act finally became law on 30 November 2000. 

Current Ramblers’ chair of the board of trustees Kate Ashbrook was chair of the Ramblers’ access committee, which was vitally concerned with the drafting and promoting of the CRoW freedom-to-roam legislation. Kate was also active in seeing the bill through Parliament, and she followed all the debates in both houses and in committee, promoting amendments and providing briefings.

Before the implementation of CRoW, many landowners, including moorland owners and the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), had expressed fears of a rise in rural crime and disturbance of wildlife, which have proved groundless. Perhaps the most positive thing to come from CRoW is the fact that owners and users have been able to talk to one another through Local Access Forums, in which all interests are represented.

The Ramblers’ One Coast for All campaign contributed to the passage of the Marine and Coastal Access Act of 2009, which called on government to create a 4,500km/2,800-mile path around the entire coast of England by 2020. The first section of the England Coast Path opened at Weymouth in 2012, and work on extending the path continues, with completion now expected in 2021.

Scottish access rights

The situation in Scotland, where de facto access to open country had always been allowed, was slightly different. Following intense lobbying by Ramblers Scotland, led by its then director Dave Morris, a Land Reform Act was introduced in 2003, which established a statutory right to be on land for recreational, educational and certain other purposes, and also the right to cross land. These rights have to be exercised responsibly, as specified in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year. 

Illustration of welcome doormat, leading to an opening in the fence, like a door

A long way to go

Scotland gives a sense of what is possible. But, where does that leave England and Wales? There’s much to be done to build on the CRoW Act and enable people to explore freely. Too often public access is seen as the poor relation in conversations about the future of the countryside. The Ramblers is fighting to change that: pushing legally-binding targets for access through the new Environment Bill and campaigning to improve access from people’s doorsteps to our wild, open spaces.

Threats remain: the Conservative manifesto pledged to ‘criminalise unintentional trespass’, which could see us combating yet another attempt to make trespass a criminal offence, something that was first suggested over 80 years ago in the hated Access to Mountains Act of 1939. 

As Kate Ashbrook confirms: ‘Our work is far from finished. We still have a long way to go in England and Wales. All open country should be included in access land. And what about woodlands and riverbanks, which also provide magnificent opportunities for walkers?  

‘There is still much to campaign for but, 20 years on, let’s celebrate the access we have won – our right to wander freely from the path over acres of glorious countryside.’

Open at last

Three areas where the CRoW Act has made an incredible difference

The Forest of Bowland, Lancashire

Rolling landscape of rocks, grass and hedges

Often overlooked by holidaymakers speeding north on the M6 towards the greater hills of the Lake District and Scotland, is the beautiful Forest of Bowland. A large part of it is currently owned by one of Britain’s richest men, the Duke of Westminster. Bowland was the forbidden area that most offended local man Tom Stephenson, Pennine Way creator and former Ramblers secretary. It is a wild and isolated place, yet close to the large conurbations of northern England. The highest point of the Forest is Ward’s Stone, which rises to 1,837ft, and perhaps the classic Bowland walk, now open to ramblers, is the 16km/10-mile route from Littledale across Clougha to Ward’s Stone and back via Haylot Fell.

Butser Hill, Hampshire

Wildflower meadow on top of a hill

The 1,400-acre Queen Elizabeth Country Park near Petersfield incorporates a large area of chalk grass downland to the west, rising to the 889ft summit of Butser Hill, the highest point on the chalk ridge of the South Downs. Much of this now-open area is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a National Nature Reserve, which sustains a rich variety of wildlife, including over 200 species of mosses, liverworts and lichens, and 30 species of butterfly, including the rare Duke of Burgundy. The circular 6.5km/4-mile walk from the park’s visitor centre goes around the top of Butser Hill. It traverses the 2,000-year-old ‘Celtic’ field systems on the way up to the prominent radio mast on Butser Hill. It then descends to the Bronze Age burial mounds on Ramsdean Down.

The Brontë Moors, West Yorkshire

Grassy moorland with a stone wall

Much of the wild moorland associated with the Victorian romantic novels of the Brontë sisters of Haworth was barred to the public until the CRoW Act came along. The Alcomden Stones, a fascinating outcrop of gritstone boulders scattered across the hillside, was the scene of the Ramblers celebrations when the CRoW Act was passed. The 1,502ft aptly named Crow Hill is gained by skirting the notorious Stanbury Bog, scene of a ‘bog burst’ witnessed by the Brontë children when they were out walking in 1824. Both places are close to the roofless ruin of Top Withens – reputedly the location of Emily’s Wuthering Heights. The round trip from Haworth is about 13–14km/8–9 fairly rough bog-trotting miles.

A man speaking in to a microphoneReader panel

‘We have had 20 years of enjoyment from the CRoW Act, but we should not forget it resulted from 100 years of campaigning. And the battle’s not over yet. It’s important that we have the same rights to countryside access as enjoyed by our Scottish and Scandinavian neighbours.’ Terry Howard, South Yorkshire and NE Derbyshire Ramblers