British Ramblers campaign for greater access to right of ways and the right to roam (1985-2000)

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Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
While the campaign lasted for fifteen years, the larger and more prominent actions happened in the fall of each year.
Fall
1985
to
30 November
2000
Location and Goals
Country: 
United Kingdom
Location Description: 
Actions took all over the country. Many actions focused in the Peaks District
Goals: 
Preservation and Restoration of Right of Ways

Legalization of the Right to Roam

 

The enclosure system involved fencing off plots of arable land. The land would then be deeded to an individual or group of owners who could use it as they saw fit. Despite slowly losing access to the commons, commoners preserved their access to rights of ways (the right to pass through someone else’s or public property on a specific path), even those now enclosed on private land, through the countryside. Foot paths, roads, carriageways, and trails were considered highways to which all individuals had the right of way.

In the early 1900s, British urban workers, who came to be known as ramblers, started to escape the city to the countryside for the cleaner air and relaxation of the rural landscape. They planned walking excursions, and the workers used the paths and roads that had speckled the rural landscape for centuries. However, private landowners and aristocratic estate holders tried to keep the ramblers off their land. In response, the ramblers claimed that they had a right to use any path or road, even on private land, due to their inherited right to use the country’s highways.

The rambler community was split on how to pursue their goals of greater access with some factions opting for more gradual reform, while other more radical ones (often closely linked to socialist groups) opted for nonviolent action to push their agenda. On 25 April 1932, the British Workers’ Sports Federation organized a trespass ramble up to Kinder Scout, the highest peak in the Peak District (a popular rambling area). Despite police and game warden attempts to stop them, the ramblers made it to the top of the peak. This action propelled rambling to the forefront of British news and helped launch a multi-decade struggle for access to all highways and rights of way in addition to the right to roam, which entails being allowed to walk off marked trails.

The ramblers achieved a few victories over the decades. Hugh Dalton, a labor politician and rambler, created the National Land Fund in 1946 to fund national parks and then, in 1951, he created Pennine Way, seventy miles of trail. However, general right of ways to all trails and the right to roam eluded the ramblers. In 1985, the Ramblers’ Association launched a major campaign to fight for both the right to roam and the use of all rights of way. At the start of the campaign, which they called “The Forbidden Britain Campaign,” the Ramblers’ Association had 55,000 members. Furthermore, the organization primarily organized through local chapters in different towns across the United Kingdom. They launched the campaign with an action at Snailsden Moor (a moor is a tract of uncultivated grassy hills), located 25 miles east of Manchester, in the fall of 1985 and called it “Forbidden Britain Day.”

The following year, the Rambling Association expanded Forbidden Britain Day. On 5 October 1986, the Ramblers held 35 rallies across the United Kingdom. One rally took place in Bronte County, where the Ramblers brought attention to the lack of access to Stanbury Moor, 35 miles north of Manchester, after the privatization of the Yorkshire Water Authority. A central component to the Forbidden Britain Day actions was hiking in groups on rights of way, some that were still well maintained, others that had come to disarray. In addition, the Ramblers’ Association tried to bring attention to certain closed areas that Ramblers thought would be valued and frequently used by the community; to help accentuate that point, the Ramblers’s Association held ceremonial gate openings on trails that had been closed by land owners.

The Ramblers’ renewed efforts to gain more rights of way and roaming rights increased tensions with both estate owners and farmers. Farmers grievances stemmed from the fact that ramblers tried to reclaim rights of way, some of which had long been defunct and had not been in use for over 100 years. In addition, farmers and estate owners argued that ramblers could damage crops and disrupt the functions of both the estates and farms. A further concern of the farmers and estate owners was that the right of ways were intended for community members who were accountable to their neighbors, and the ramblers were outsiders who would lack local knowledge and respect for the community. Farmers and landowners coordinated their defensive efforts through the Country Landowners Association and the Countryside Movement.

By 1988, the Ramblers Association had 65,000 members, and during Forbidden Britain Day on 18 September 1988, the Ramblers focused on tactics that would present them as respectful and non-confrontational when the press reported on their actions. For example, the organizers told march participants to turn back if they came across crops planted on a trail and find an alternative route.

Over fifty rambling groups walked in the countryside during the 1989 Forbidden Britain Day on 17 September. The Ramblers Association had adopted another tactic for opening right of ways. Legally, farmers could not close right of ways. Yet, while some of the right of ways disappeared due to a lack of use, some farmers also actively destroyed or blocked right of ways. Often, farmers would ploughed over rights of ways, planted over them, or just destroyed the trails. Other farmers settled for simpler tactics of blocking right of ways with fences, junk, and barbed wire. When the ramblers found an officially mapped right of way that had disappeared or been blocked, they filed a complaint with the local council that the right of way be maintained and reopened. However, most local councils stalled or ignored the requests of ramblers.

The Ramblers managed to expand their angles of attack when, in 1990, Edward Leigh MP introduced The Rights of Way Act to Parliament. The Act bolstered protections for existing rights of way, and Parliament eventually passed the act in 1990. In addition, the Ramblers started to get more aggressive with their actions. The Forbidden Britain Day of 21 September 1990 featured five major walks. The organizers specifically stated that they would trespass during the rambles. One of the five rambles involved returning and trespassing at Stanbury Moor, which was still owned by Yorkshire Water.

The Ramblers Association continued to conduct small trespasses into 1991. The Association even published mini trespassing guides to help members ramble and trespass in a safe and effective way. In mid July, the association organized a trespass at Thurlstone Moor in the Peaks District. Benny Rothman, an 80-year-old rambler, who had been one of the six arrested at the original 1932 Kinder Scout trespass commented that, “Grouse might only be shot on ten days a year, leaving 355 days free for ramblers. But walkers are banned from Thurlstone Moor on all 365 days, just to satisfy the whims of grouse shooters.” Rothman’s comments represent a common argument of Ramblers that their usage of the land would rarely come in conflict with the landowners’ activities.

While the Rights of Way Act passed, Ramblers were not satisfied and fought for further concessions. Some farmers and estate owners started to focus on a strategy of negotiation so that, instead of legislation determining the rules, estate owners and farmers could negotiate arrangements that would not disrupt their lands. On 26 September 1991, Lord Andrew Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire, whose estate included Kinder Scout, opened up 1,300 acres of his Chatsworth Estate in the Peaks District to rambling. During the announcement, the Duke said, “I know that people feel we are not as receptive as we might be to the ramblers. I know we had a bad record. I like to feel that those days are in the past and that there is now room for all. All that is needed is a little goodwill on both sides.” However, this decision amounted to only 10% of his estate. The Peak National Park Authority also announced expansions to the amount of land available for rambling in the Peak District.

While the ramblers were satisfied with the recent announcements of the Duke and the Park Authority, they did not cancel their trespass that was planned for 29 September at Thurlstone Moor. Instead, they merely shifted the target of the ramble from the Park Authority to Yorkshire Water. The trespass ramble was expected to be the largest trespass since the original 1932 Kinder Scout trespass, and over 500 ramblers came on 29 September, including some octogenarians and other older people.

The Ramblers generated a large amount of press coverage during the start of 1992. Marion Shoard, a prominent activist and writer of the countryside, wrote in her column in The Times about the march in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Kinder Scout Trespass and the importance of the Rambler movement. She lamented the need for trespass actions six decades later: “Germans enjoy the right to walk anywhere in their country’s forests and most roughland, and the Swiss have the right to go anywhere in their woods and mountains. It is time we caught up. A mass trespass ought to be as out of place in the 1990s as a hunger march.” The Independent published an exposé on the illegal efforts of farmers to keep ramblers off right of ways that passed through their farms. The Ramblers continued to attract media attention throughout the year, and on 17 August 1992, the Association published a list of shame naming individuals and organizations who hindered efforts to gain access to right of ways and the right to roam. The national government was one of the organizations the Ramblers shamed.

Furthermore, the Ramblers took more aggressive actions to regain rights of way. In the late summer of 1992 after the Devon County Council did nothing for years about farmers closing and encroaching on right of ways, the Geriatric Commandos, a group of older local Ramblers, took to the paths with wire cutters and started to clear paths of barbed wire in their village of Blackdown Hills. Many local chapters of the Rambling Association would spend most of the year conducting these smaller actions focused on gaining access to their local rights of way. In certain cases, chapters would spend years fighting for stretches of path that were only a couple hundred feet long.

The Rambler Association planned the 1992 Forbidden Britain Day for 27 September. The Ramblers in part focused the year’s rambles on unsafe crossing. One rambling group came to highway A127 near Brentwood and talked to journalists about how two ramblers had died in the last six weeks trying to cross the road. The Assistant Director of the Ramblers Association, David Beskine, stated, “these paths are part of the Queen's highway and those who obstruct them are breaking the law.” Farmers and estate owners also took greater efforts to protect their lands on Forbidden Britain Day. Solicitors acting on the behalf of three landowners in Kent and East Sussex threatened legal action against any rambler who trespassed. Amusingly, the Ramblers who planned on going to Bayham Abbey estate in Kent and East Sussex had announced their route that involved no trespassing.

In 1995, the Rambling Association renamed Forbidden Britain Day as “Free Britain Day.” The association planned the day for 24 September, stating that there would be no trespasses that year. They instead planned a variety of rambles on already public trails. Their most prominent rally involving over 150 people took place at Haworth Moor, also known as Wuthering Heights. In addition, the Labor Party announced that it would support rambling as a part of their platform.

On 21 May 1997, the Labor Party gained the majority after a landslide victory in parliamentary elections. The Rambling Association also broke 120,000 members that year. After the Labor Party gained power, the Ramblers looked forward to the passage of pro-rambling legislation. However, Prime Minister Tony Blair started to waver and discussed pushing for local negotiations between landowners and ramblers instead of national legislation. The pro-landowner forces anticipated an impending threat and increased the speed at which they published writings, focusing on the risks and wrongs that more rambling created. The writings primarily emphasized the harm rambling could bring to both the land and people whose livelihoods relied on the land.

In response to Blair’s wavering, Ramblers and their allies started to publish op-eds calling out Blair and declaring support for pro-rambling legislation. The Association also continued to keep up the pressure and on 20 September 1998, it hosted another Free Britain rally.

During the start of 1999, rambler activists started to worry that the Labor party would cave to the landlords’ lobbying and focus on individual agreements between property owners and ramblers in the place of a comprehensive national law. Marion Shoard published another op-ed for the right to roam on 20 February 1999 in which she stated “Grace-and-favor access would only rub salt in the wound of exclusion. As Wells said, we should have the right to walk anywhere in the countryside where our presence will not do harm.”

On 8 March 1999, the Environmental Minister, Michael Meacher, announced that the government planned to open 4 million acres to rambling through new legislation which came to be known as the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. The Ramblers had a rally planned on 14 March at Shirburn to push the government to act; however, due to Meacher’s announcement, the Ramblers changed the demonstration to a celebration rally that over 2,500 people attended. Another celebration occurred at the edge of Midhope Moor in the Peaks District on 17 November 1999. Attendees listened to the Queen’s speech over the radio as she announced the progress of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act.

The Act received royal assent on 30 November 2000. Due to Scottish Devolution, the Act only applied to England and Wales. Implementation would take several years, as the act required extensive mapping of all rights of ways and what land could be roamed on. Access would only be granted by region once mapping was completed. While the bill maintained rights of way, provided the mechanism to create new right of ways, and opened wide swaths of uncultivated and upland (hilly) terrain to rambling, it had its shortcomings. Not all grasslands that the Ramblers wanted were opened, nor were landowners required to provide access to open land. That clause caused one rambler to quip: “if it is inaccessible from a public highway, you can only get there legally by parachute!” Scotland passed its own Land Reform Act in 2003 to maintain rights of way and grant the right to roam the whole countryside unhindered as long as roamers took care not to damage the land or disturb the activities of landowners.

Research Notes
Influences: 

(1) The campaigners were influenced by the 1932 Kinder Scout Trespass

Sources: 
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Additional Notes: 
Part of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act was that it set a deadline of 1 Jan 2026. Any right of way not cataloged and claimed for the public by that date will be turned over to private land. Ramblers are actively coordinating efforts to reclaim as many right of ways as possible.
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Zach Lytle, 16/05/19