The Book of Trespass-Crossing The Lines That Divide Us. Nick Hayes. 464 pages Hardback with Dust Cover and illustrated with Black/White Linocuts. Bloomsbury Circus £20.
‘The stately homes of England, how beautiful they stand, to prove the upper classes have still the upper hand’. Noel Coward (1938).
I believe this is an important book for it would be hard to read without agreeing the case it makes for the need to change and enhance Public access to the English countryside. The vast majority of our country is entirely unknown to us because we are banned from setting foot on it! By law of trespass we are excluded from much of the land and even less from its waterways. Blocked by walls whose legitimacy is rarely if ever questioned, behind which lies the history of the enclosures of what was once common land leading to exploitation and a dispossession of public rights of way.
The history of landowning in England is detailed in eleven chapters in The Book of Trespass, each one is illustrated with a double page linocut and is named after an animal the author believes characterises the history that is told within; Badger, Fox, Dog, Sheep, Cow, Spider, Pheasant, Cockroach, Hare, Toad and Stag. These take one on a journey over the walls of England, and into the thousands of square miles of woodland, hills, rivers, lakes, and meadows that are blocked for public access. By trespassing on the land of the media magnets, Lords, politicians and private corporations that own most of England, Nick Hayes argues that the basis of social inequality is the uneven distribution of land? He does this by weaving together the stories of poachers, vagabonds, gypsies, witches, hippies, raves, ramblers, migrants, and protestors, charting acts of civil disobedience that challenge orthodox power at its heart?
The author decides chapter by chapter to trespass in one of the private estates and stately homes that still dominate large areas of England. Sometimes with a colleague, most often alone, he identifies a weak area of access into these forbidden lands, quietly and with no worry he finds himself a comfortable hideaway, sketches the area, spends-a night, then retreats the way he came in, making sure he does not leave any litter/sign of his presence. This works well even when near the end of the book he takes to kayaking and following the Thames downstream, and includes a trespass (or not) into the Royal estate at Windsor. A little more information I guess is needed about who Nick Hayes really is; a well reviewed writer of four previous novels, a cartoonist, an illustrator, and a print maker, the list of the publications that have published his work is impressive; Time Out, Literary Review, The Spectator, the New Statesman, the Guardian etc, and he has held several exhibitions of his artwork in galleries across the country including at the Hayward. In a recent video he has made for the land justice net work about the need to reform land use and improved access, he still appears frighteningly young, to be such a high achiever.
The large landowners in England are still a privileged cohort, some are old money, descendants of the 180 Barons who arrived in 1066 with William, who kept a third of the land for himself and then parcelled out the rest to his henchmen. What these Norman aristocrats did with their time was hunt, and to do this deer forests were set up. And this was the real beginning of enclosure, the commoners who had previously had long-established rights, to graze their animals, to take wood, dig peat and fish the lakes were moved out, and within a hundred years there was 2,000 Deer Parks in England. This was the real beginning of exclusion, and trespass for commoners either had to do this or starve, poaching became a national sport, but the penalties for those so caught were usually severe.
Moving on the new money estates and stately homes came from lucrative service in countries of the Empire or the slave trade. I have winced at some of the anti comments I have read on the Internet about The Black Lives Matter campaign, even on some of the sites followed by fellow climbers; the demonstrators supporting this might be unsettling but sadly their cause is just. In The Book of Trespass there are so many instances of barbaric cruelty meted out on the sugar plantations of the West Indies, at the behest of slave owners, by men who garnered riches beyond the dreams of avarice. Across England the wealth of the sugar plantations was injected into English society, into buildings and infrastructure which remain to this day. And a similar story is true of the money that was transferred from India by men like Sykes, Clive, and Hastings. The scale is truly impressive for there are hundreds of estates and country houses that came from the wealth levered from those two sources. It seems what you had to do was go out to India as a young clerk, climb up the ladder of promotion, become governor of a Province or area, rip all off in bribes and back hander’s and come home with enough money to build a stately home, and an estate which you could then enlarge with help from your mates in parliament by enclosing land round and about. Once that was done you became an MP through a rotten borough (or Lord Mayor of London), then you became titled with a seat in the House of Lords. The history of the Slave Trade is truly awful, so anyone reading this who thinks the story of what happened might be exaggerated should read the sections about this in The Book of Trespass. And as an indication of the looting of the wealth of India when it became the Jewel in the Crown it enjoyed almost 27% of world trade, by the time it was handed over this had diminished to 3%!
Inevitably the Kinder trespass of 1932 is well covered and in fact the book begins with the story of a young climber from Preston, George Beattie Elliot who on the weekend of that event spent the night before in the cave at Laddow, and set off early the next day to walk over Bleaklow and then onto Kinder. Reaching its summit he started to descend but was astonished to see below him a large crowd of young ramblers, singing and shouting out loud and advancing towards a line of keepers. He had known nothing about the Trespass and although he was only a teenager he knew he was trespassing, and suddenly he was surrounded by a ring of keepers. He was punched to the ground but some of the crowd arrived and the keepers were hauled off him and George by then totally bemused was pulled to his feet, slapped on the back and praised for his heroic work for the good old cause. The scene ended as quickly as it had sprung upon him, the crowd moved on and poor George was left, as before, to the silence of The Peaks. Bruised, utterly stunned, with stars spiralling around his head, George continued his walk as planned, descending into the Goyt valley and out of history. Entirely unwittingly, George had fallen upon one of the most notorious protests in English history, the Kinder Trespass.
It seems that few in the modern climbing world know much of the struggles for access that have occurred over the years. For instance the late Dave Cook, organised a trespass at the MOD Castlemartin Range in Pembroke which although criticised at the time by some of the older generation of climbers, did draw attention to this area of world class sea cliffs, and eventually led to today’s individual access agreements. And I can bear personal witness to access difficulties at Brimham Rocks in Yorkshire before it was handed over to the National Trust to avoid death duties. When I returned to Leeds from my National Service in Manchester in January 1956, I persuaded my friends in the Rock and Ice Club to visit Brimham. We used to camp at the farm down below the Cubic Block, but from that base wander freely, climbing around the estate. I was one day gob smacked to receive an injunction from the landlord, via his solicitor forbidding me and my friends from visiting Brimham Rocks. We simply ignored this ban and kept on going there, the real reason for his intervention was he felt we should pay him for our visits, although we always did this to the farmer who allowed us to camp on his land. I am sure all will acknowledge the importance of access and conservation, for without the first it is not possible to freely climb, and thinking further about this, when I was at the BMC we obtained from Peter Boydell QC, an opinion as to whether rock climbs could ever be registered as ‘Rights of Way?’. He advised us that if a climb has existed for 20 years or more, it might be. This would be crucial to gain such a legal agreement. We decided not to go ahead and set up a test case to prove this at law, but we would keep it in mind if ever a long traditional climbing area was threatened as to having access removed. And unfortunately the access battles of earlier years might now to be revisited with the present government plan to make Trespassing a criminal offence, allied to a recent ruling in a High Court case that the defendant had the right to develop their property in any way they felt the need to do so!
I do remember when I was Secretary of the Hunt Committee on Mountain Training, when John Hunt and I were drafting our final report he insisted that we include a statement advising all our readers the need to observe and recognise the rights of landowners. I was not as sure as he was about that but obviously as he was the Chair, I demurred. But in retrospect reading The Book Of Trespass one realises that many who do own the land in England obtained it against the wishes and well being of their fellow citizens by using the previously mentioned process of enclosure. What happens to the land is of immense public significance, but in England it has always been categorised as private information. A recent book by Guy Shrubsole ‘Who owns England?’ contains much material which should make Joe Public take note, of how many of the large estates and landowning’s are now registered ‘Off Shore’, pay no tax yet have received large taxpayer funding for many years. And abroad for instance in France if you wish to know the history and who owns certain areas of land, all one needs to do is head for the local Maire. The same is true in some of the States of the USA and in a State like Montana this is available on line.
Nick Hayes is a keen supporter of what he believes are ‘good and rightful’ historic causes; the ladies of Greenham Common in their fight against a nuclear Armageddon, the former migrant camp at Calais where he was a voluntary worker and supporter, the tree huggers in Sheffield fighting to save their wooded street environments, the poor flooded inhabitants of Hebden Bridge, who blame their situation on the management of the moorland above the town by the Walshaw Estate. Extensive burning takes place there each year, to encourage new plant growth to feed the Grouse, ready for the next shooting season, but in doing this it depletes the lands ability to retain water. Which flows off the moor and down into their homes. In the last twenty years, six serious floods have occurred in Hebden, in 2015 over 3,000 houses and businesses were so damaged.
The author’s major cause now is for a new ‘Right to Roam’ campaign. Along with Guy Shrubsole they are promoting this as vigorously as they are able. In countries as different as Sweden, Norway, Finland, Austria, Estonia etc this is the law, and in the Scandinavian countries it is one of long standing. It could have been so here in Britain if the Atlee government of the 1940’s had managed to get such through the House of Lords. They were deflected by the landowners who agreed with the setting up of the National Parks, but who refused to support a general ‘Right to Roam’. Nick Hayes is not calling for a revolution and for landowners to be dispossessed, but he points out so succinctly that the CROW act of 2000 is very much inferior to the Scottish Land Act of 2003 in allowing more and easier access for wild camping and onto hills and rivers. The late Alan Blackshaw played a major role in the drafting of that legislation, and it seems that to win access and or conservation campaigns you need a good acronym! The one that impresses me is STAG (Sheffield Tree Action Group). I think over the CROW act I should remind readers that 2026 is the cut off point for registering footpaths, access routes and rights of way.
I return to my belief of the importance of this ‘The Book Of Trespass’. Besides its claim of a need for improved access, it also enhances the way one sees and appreciates landscapes, whilst noting the health promoting effect of direct contact with natural environments for all human beings, bolstered by examining the belief of the Japanese in the beneficial effects of walks and stays in a wood or forest....shinyin yoku. This is a work of great erudition, the research it required is staggering and I must congratulate the author on the finished thought invoking result!
Dennis Gray: 2020