Walking class heroes – pioneers of the right to roam

Cover of Walking Class Heroes

24 November 2020

Price: £9.99

Author: Roly Smith

Publisher: Signal Books

This is a good addition to the canon of works about the access movement. It has a refreshing new approach which, after a scholarly introductory essay about the history and politics of this important subject – public access to mountain, moorland, heathland, coast and uncultivated land in general – then gives us an incisive chapter each on twenty selected individuals whose lives have been spent in the cause. The book takes us from the seventeenth century, with John Clare, the ‘peasant poet’, who was the first to fulminate against the Inclosure Acts (‘a curse upon the land’), to campaigners of the present day with Kate Ashbrook, the writer and academic Marion Shoard, the climbing journalist Jim Perrin, the ‘grande dame of conservation’ Fiona Reynolds, taking in en route such luminaries as Octavia Hill of the National Trust, John Muir, ‘patron saint of the national parks’, GHB Ward, and the legends who were Tom Stephenson and Benny Rothman, the latter of the Kinder trespass.

If John Clare and Octavia Hill are household names, perhaps not all the subjects of the book can be so described. Gratifying it is then to see inclusion of the taciturn Terry Howard whose ‘sense of injustice of not being able to wander freely over the moorlands to the west of Sheffield’ led to his decades of campaigning for access to open country, and his inspiring of droves of youngsters to head for the hills. Great it is too to find a chapter on the Haythornthwaites, Gerald and Ethel, ‘guardians of the Peak’: the account of Gerald’s membership from 1951 of the inaugural Peak Park Joint Planning Board makes fascinating reading, and as the Peak Park is about to celebrate its 70th anniversary it is good indeed to read this timely appreciation of the work from which thousands of unknowing visitors to the Peak continue to benefit. Good too to see commemoration of Lady Sylvia Sayer, for 20 years the redoubtable chair of the Dartmoor Preservation Association whose zeal protected that last wilderness in southern Britain, and of Colin Speakman, among other things the passionate protector of the Yorkshire Dales, and of Rodney Legg and his work in conservation and defending commons.

Well-written and full of interest and with plenty of insightful anecdotes, this welcome book merits a wide circulation.

Review by Eugene Suggett, senior policy officer at the Ramblers, November 2020. 

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