by Yali Banton-Heath and Tesni Clare

As part one of this series warned, the Conservative government are pushing to make trespass a criminal offence, rather than a civil one. This iron-fisted extension of the long arm of the law would not only endanger – and indeed criminalise – certain groups and their ways of life, but it would also serve to stifle our collective sense of curiosity and affinity with the natural world which surrounds us. It has the potential to jeopardise our age-old freedom to roam.

To “move about or travel aimlessly or unsystematically, especially over a wide area”. This is the meaning of ‘to roam’ according to the Oxford English Dictionary. By definition, roaming is therefore aimless: so not travelling from A-B; unsystematic: not following a path or a map; and furthermore it requires a wide or expansive area in which to do it. In England, where less than 1% of the population own half of the country’s landmass, and access to the countryside for the rest of us is typically limited to footpaths and small pockets of open access land, it is increasingly difficult to ramble and roam – in its truest essence – without simultaneously committing trespass. 

On this topic, and indeed on everyone’s laps and social media feeds this autumn, is Nick Hayes’ The Book of Trespass. In it, Nick (author cum illustrator cum campaigner) weaves a colourful tapestry of social history, property law, politics and folklore along a weft of storytelling and personal accounts of his own, very deliberate, trespasses. 

At the beginning of the book, he recounts a day when he and his mum unwittingly trespass on a field en route to a spot on the River Pang in Berkshire to try and spy a Kingfisher, only to be accosted by a teenager on a quad bike, and told to get off the land. “Why do we accept this bizarre notion” Nick tells The Norwich Radical, “that me and my mum wanting to experience the wonders of nature was in fact some kind of moral abomination, worthy of recrimination?” This got him thinking about the history of trespass, of private property in land, and of systems of ownership and exclusion.

“All this empty space, reserved for the misanthropic exclusivity of a select group of entitled people, whilst the rest of the riff-raff are cramped into closed quarters.”

But the moment that spurred him to write his book was a few years ago on the train home from Brighton: “the second class carriages were full to bursting whilst the two first class carriages were empty but for a middle aged couple in evening dress” he tells us, “it suddenly struck me what a perfect analogy this was to land rights in England. All this empty space, reserved for the misanthropic exclusivity of a select group of entitled people, whilst the rest of the riff-raff are cramped into closed quarters.”

The stark contrast of unequal access to land of which he talks about is uncomfortably and infuriatingly apparent in Norfolk’s own countryside. Its landscape is characterised by large farms and estates, and littered with signs reading “Private Land: No Trespassing”. The largest and perhaps most well known estate in Norfolk is Sandringham – one of the Royal family’s many rural retreats – which takes up over 20,000 acres of land on the North Norfolk coast. Then there is also Holkham Estate, which owns and manages a total of 19,650 acres of private farmland, Blickling Estate which boasts 4,780 acres, Salle with its 4,200 acres, and Kelling Estate and its 2,300 acres.

Despite its extensive farmland, North Norfolk is a beautiful fusion of quaint yet wild landscapes, as is East Anglia as a whole. “I love it, the stark horizon, the ditches gleaming with rainwater, the wild woods reserved for pheasant shooting and deer stalking.” Nick tell us, “the flat lands are my ideal landscape”. By their very nature, albeit peppered with gentle undulations, the flatlands of East Anglia invites walkers to follow the intuition of their feet, rather than the logic of a map, and summon them to head off aimlessly in any direction they please.  

“every pathway that is secured by law further strengthens the fence between us and the land either side of it.”

Alas, just like the rest of England, public access to the countryside in Norfolk is marked and limited according to legal Public Rights of Way. These rights of way in Norfolk provide 3,200km of paths, with a further 9,000 hectares of land marked as Open Access land or registered common. Some of the large estates and farmland may have permissive footpaths, along which the public are allowed to walk at the discretion of the landowner, but to which they hold no real statutory right of access.

It must be conceded that following a footpath hardly permits the romantic sense of adventure you get from roaming freely. And as Nick writes in his book; “every pathway that is secured by law further strengthens the fence between us and the land either side of it.” To quench your curiosity by straying off the path, or to accidentally wander onto some private farmland for a shortcut to the shoreline, or to get a closer look at some wildlife – is to break the law, and currently entails the risk of being prosecuted by the landowner in a civil court. But, if trespass becomes a criminal offence, the public could face risks of police action and criminal prosecution, whether or not the property owner wishes to take legal action or not – nor whether they are aware that the trespass has even taken place. 

“The countryside will become more inhospitable than ever before…”

Norfolk’s large estates are difficult to avoid, but their streams, meadows and woodlands are reserved for the wealthy landowners who have inherited them through generations, and their exclusive use and access are protected by law. As Nick puts it bluntly, “If [the new legislation] criminalises wild swimming, wild camping, paddle-boarding and rambling, then our connection, fascination and love of nature will be limited to those that can afford it.”

“The countryside will become more inhospitable than ever before” Nick fears, “and the law will actively discourage people from experiencing nature”. Despite his concerns, he recognises his privileges: “I’m not too affected by the laws of trespass… it’s easy for me. I am a white, straight, cisgendered man, with a fairly posh accent, and the way society is structured right now, confrontations with gamekeepers carry less threat to me than were I otherwise.”

In order to encourage a more widespread and meaningful engagement with the outdoors, Nick Hayes and fellow activist and author Guy Shrubsole have set up the Right to Roam campaign. Championing ‘the right to reconnect‘, Nick tells us that the campaign “seeks to give the most amount of access to the most amount of people; for this reason, we have chosen the four terrains in England that offer the most easy access to the public, namely rivers, woodland, downland and Green Belt land.”

“In England, 60 per cent of the population live within easy access of green belt land” Nick says, “much of this land is reserved for farming, but if in Scotland’s right to roam act, people are encouraged to responsibly walk the verges of fields, then why not in England?” Sadly, Norwich has never even been granted an official Green Belt for its 142,000 residents. An an ongoing campaign by CPRE Norfolk is trying to rectify this, and has been given renewed salience and urgency since lockdown and the country’s subsequent awakening to the importance of green space for public health.

This is one of the main rationales behind the Right to Roam campaign. “Boris can do press ups in his office ’til he’s red in the face” Nick jokes, “but public health will always be in crisis until we are allowed autonomous access to health and exercise – in other words, to explore nature.”

The criminalisation of trespass would launch a severe blow to our ability, and indeed our right, to roam and ramble freely. Not only in Norfolk where large estates and private farmlands dominate rural areas, but across Britain as a whole, where land ownership and access to nature remains gravely unequal. We must defend our right to roam, and speak out against the criminalisation of trespass.

Featured image credit: Nick Hayes

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