The writer and environmental campaigner uncovered the secrets of land ownership in England in his recent book and is leading a campaign with author Nick Hayes to expand our right to roam.
By Rebecca Swirsky
Guy, north of Wistman’s Wood, after a night spent wild camping
Your book Who Owns England? states that 92% of land does not have open access and 97% of our rivers are off limits, tell us more.
Well, that we have access to 8% of England is huge testament and thanks to the work of the Ramblers. The Right to Roam is the core of what the Ramblers are built on. But that 8% is a powerful reminder of how much remains effectively off limits, and the abilities of landowners to exclude people from the land. Our generational disconnect from nature has been occurring for over two centuries. First, the Enclosures, written about movingly by the Romantic poet John Clare, then urbanisation, industrialisation, followed by the curse of the screen, whether TV, laptop or iPhone. As Joni Mitchell wrote, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.’ And our countryside isn’t faring so well. Plastic, poison, pesticides and sewage clog our rivers; the largesse of our wildlife steadily depleted. Yet, social psychology studies – not to mention actual case studies of countries including Norway, Sweden, Scotland, Germany and Switzerland – have proven that fostering a custodial relationship towards the landscape goes hand-in-hand with actually connecting to it. Proximity is essential. The more we can see what we’ve done to the countryside, the more there will be a desire to repair and restore it, so that the next generation may enjoy a richer and more vibrant experience.
There’s much secrecy around land ownership – why?
Historically, land ownership has been bound up with wealth, power and influence. Keeping it shrouded is one form of preservation. To this day, land ownership is one of the most closely guarded secrets. Food, homes, wildlife – all are impacted by land ownership. Yet 17% of England’s ownership remains unaccounted for, while the Land Registry [records] cost a fee to access. An indication of feudal history still bearing down upon us are the villages branded with their owners’ uniform symbols and colours. Noting this present-day feudalism helps you see the landscape through a different lens. Mapping out who owns England clearly wasn’t designed to be an easy or transparent process, and writing my book involved a huge amount of data crunching and mapping, and significant support. I have hope, however, that the Land Registry is being slowly opened up, and the curtain drawn back on the dark secret of who owns England. Conservative supporter Ben Goldsmith, for example, doesn’t see himself as a landowner who wants to exclude the public, and is happy for people to come and explore his little part of the land. But we have to keep pushing.
Walking along the Devon coast, near Brixham.
Why is Scotland’s approach to access so different?
It’s an interesting question. Perhaps it’s connected to the Highland Clearances – redressing a more recent, raw trauma than the English Enclosures. There clearly was a moment, post-devolution, when questions such as, ‘How do we want to be different?’ and ‘What do we want Scotland to be like?’ were foregrounded. I’m not a Brexiteer, but if there’s anything to be salvaged from Brexit, it might be a reappraisal of what it means to be British, to live in England and to experience an inclusive identity, which means no longer treating the land as something to be excluded from. Citizens should absolutely feel welcome in their own countryside. For the previous thousand years, trespass has been dealt with as a civil offence. Yet, in 2019, the Conservative Party Manifesto stated that they would make trespass a criminal offence. Creating a new criminal offence for something that doesn’t pose a threat to society risks wielding a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Last April, I began a petition calling on the government to halt their plans. This successfully reached over 100,000 signatures and was due to be debated in Parliament in January (before debates were temporarily suspended). It’s a chilling prospect setting a precedent for the right to exclude rather than the right to roam.
How does your campaign fit within the post-Covid recovery?
Never has access to nature been so needed. Coronavirus and lockdown have seen a huge public appetite for an extension to the right to roam. Sales of camping gear have rocketed while British Canoeing has welcomed over 25,000 new members since May. More than ever, we need the sublime and awe in our lives on a weekly, or even daily, basis. Scrambling up a mountain, witnessing years of history and evolution in a majestic landscape, or gazing up at a sky, seeing galaxies not ruined by light pollution, feels spectacular. It keeps us fitter, both mentally and physically. We become more resilient. Access to woodland areas even strengthens our immune system. Yet, despite all this, access to nature is unequal. In a recent open letter addressed to the Prime Minister, signed by 100 artists, including Ali Smith and Jarvis Cocker, we highlighted how shifting the burden from the NHS to the ‘Natural Health Service’ is the missing plank in the government’s health agenda. Physical inactivity exacts £1 billion per year from the NHS, and £7.4 billion per year from wider society.
How has your childhood influenced your career?
Growing up in Berkshire, I was constantly going for walks in the lovely bits of countryside to the west of Newbury. When I was about 10 years old, the government decided the estate in which my parents kept a few beehives would be a great place for the Newbury bypass. While the bypass was built, the eco-warrior protests sparked my interest in the environment. Specifically, my parents took me on a Friends of the Earth (FoE) demonstration.Years later, I campaigned for FoE. So, I feel grateful to my parents for a lineage of a different kind.
The Ramblers continues to campaign to bring the joy and benefits of exploring off-path to more people and places. We’re calling for a more equal freedom to roam that is connected, accessible and close to home: Find out more about access to the countryside in England and Wales
Dwarf oak trees in Wistman’s Wood.
What’s your favourite
Totnes, Devon – an ancient tunnel or holloway of hazels and oaks laden with magnificent fungi, leading up to a view of Totnes with tors glimpsed through Dartmoor’s mists
I once lived near London’s Hampstead Heath, where I enjoyed plunging into woods rich with wildlife. I saw a tawny owl, and a kestrel catching a mouse, all in daylight hours.
Rather than grand views, I love minutiae; shards of sunlight shining through the fern and moss-festooned branches of Wistman’s Wood in Dartmoor – a fragment of ancient, temperate rainforest.
I have a fairly trusty two-person Vango tent which has withstood protest camps and wild camps.
In happier days, a pint of IPA in a pub. I’ll happily admit to being a beer snob – Totnes has great craft beers.