92 percent of the English countryside is off limits. With poetry, picnics and joy, it’s time to reclaim what was once ours, says Right to Roam’s Nick Hayes

“Private Property: Keep It Out.” “There is no track.” “Fishing: Permit Holders Only.” “Violators will be prosecuted.”

Want a breath of fresh country air? Feeling invigorated by a dip in the river? Well, choose carefully. Get off the designated trail or swim in the wrong place and you can be caught trespassing.

“More often than not, you will find that your advantage will be hedged on both sides. Basically, all we’re allowed to do is walk in straight lines behind the barbed wire.”

So says Nick Hayes, author, illustrator, stick carver and leader in the increasingly vocal movement to reclaim our right to roam.

On September 24, he and others with one “Right to Roam” campaign. (which Hayes co-founded) will participate in a mass violation to save the Forest of Worth, the largest forest in Sussex.

The event follows a recent letter to the Prime Minister in which Right to Roam set out a strong case against England’s “unfair” and “unreasonable” access to land laws. At the heart of this case are the benefits that access to nature brings, both to ourselves and to the natural environment itself.

An untapped army of countryside-loving volunteers ready to help save our wild spaces – if only the law would let them

Whatever our outdoor pursuits—walking, camping, swimming, foraging, birdwatching—being in nature has been scientifically shown to improve our mental and physical well-being.

As the open letter says: “Our love of nature resonates with millions of our fans, but in England it is actively discouraged by law.” Nature also loses out, argue the defenders of the right to travel.

Contrary to stereotypes (think litter, damaged gates, out-of-control dogs), most people heading into the countryside treat it with care and respect.

92 percent of the English countryside is off limits to ordinary people. Image: Sam Knight

Hayes argues that the landowners deliberately cast the disorderly public in a “misanthropic” light. why so Because if the reverse turns out to be true, then “their last remaining moral reason for excluding us” (namely: protecting the countryside from the urban hordes) will collapse.

But Hayes’ argument goes further. It’s not just that most of us don’t destroy the countryside, many of us actively want to help restore and preserve it, he says.

Whether they’re hobbyist entomologists counting bugs or scout groups picking up litter, an unsolicited army of countryside-loving volunteers is ready to help preserve our wild spaces – if only the law would let them.

Act as if you are already free

“We have a workforce that’s just crazy about moths or mushrooms or finding food, but they’re currently being actively forced to forego pursuing those interests,” Hayes says.

In part, the decision is legal. Two decades ago, the UK government passed the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. While this is a step in the right direction, its open access principles only apply to 8 per cent of land and only 3 per cent of rivers in England.

Hayes wants to widen the scope of the Act, both in terms of geographical coverage and the activities allowed (for example, if you are caught wild camping in England and Wales, you face a £2,500 fine).

“We don’t have any sense of indigeneity in England because the most important element of it – our connection to the land – was stolen from us hundreds of years ago,” says Hayes. Illustration: Nick Hayes

Just as the law needs to change, Hayes insists, so does the way we create the countryside in our own minds. His first advice to a would-be offender is: “Act as if you’re already free.” So don’t wait for permission. Instead, treat the land (with respect) as your own – or rather, ours.

Here, Hayes turns to the history books. The process of private ownership of land as we understand it today began 500 years ago with the infamous Enclosure Act, which was later strengthened by parliamentarians (landowners) in the 18th and 19th centuries.

However, earlier, as a rule, the land belonged to the collective property, and ordinary people had the right to use it for grazing animals, collecting firewood, cutting turf for fuel, etc.

The Right to Travel campaign will use picnics as a form of protest

The Right to Travel campaign encourages picnics as a form of protest. Image: Toa Heftiba

What landowners today call “grabbing,” Hayes sees simply as reclaiming what is ours by historic right.

“We have no sense of identity in England because its most important element – our connection to the land – was stolen from us hundreds of years ago,” he argues. “We forgot what we lost.”

His answer to the problem follows the same logic. In essence, we must become modern “common people,” he says; by this he means not only an assertion of our right to access the countryside, but also a commitment to steward it responsibly.

In his recently released book, The Trespasser’s Companion: A Field Guide to Reclaiming What’s Already Ours, Hayes offers insights into what this act of “reclaiming our shared culture” looks like in practice.

One idea is to recreate “old art” using materials collected in the countryside. Offerings here include corn doll making, wild clay sculpting, and herbal therapy (forget skin cream; burdock will not only clear your skin, it’ll also help your liver, apparently).

Another suggestion is to join a group trespasser, which Right to Roam is organizing opportunities for this year, such as the ‘trespassing gig’ it recently held with music activist Beans on Toast at a ‘forbidden’ venue in Berkshire. If you do sit down, he advises, bring a picnic basket or a book of poetry to debunk “the myth that we’re all vandals.”

Hayes’ new book offers practical advice on how to “reclaim commons culture”, from making a corn doll to herbal medicine. Image: Nick Hayes. Author: Antonio Olmos

Finally, consider choosing a local patch of forest or stretch of river, say, that is valuable to you, and with other members of your community, pledge to take responsibility for it.

In Cambridgeshire, a group of around 100 residents concerned about the deterioration of the River Cam have done just that – pledging, according to their Bill of Rights, to ‘engage with the river in a respectful and stewardship relationship’.

“In a way, it doesn’t do anything,” Hayes says. “But in another sense, now you have 100 people sticking their necks out to protect the river.”

At the heart of current trespass laws is the desire to stop damage to the landowner or his land. But what, Hayes asks, if that same law harms the general public by depriving them of the benefits of nature?

It’s a legal quandary that Hayes believes is best resolved by putting on the boots and jumping right in.

Main image: Nick Hayes. Author: Antonio Olmos

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Right to roam: a campaign to ramble freely in England

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