Fighting for the right to walk in the countryside

DIRECT ACTION by workers from Manchester and Sheffield 75 years ago is the most famous act of a movement to reclaim parts of Britain from the ruling class. The mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the Peak District on 24 April 1932 eventually led to the creation of eleven national parks in Britain.

Dave Gorton, Mansfield and North Derbyshire Socialist Party

The ‘right to roam’ the marchers demanded remains an issue today despite the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act. Without the illegal trespasses of the 1930s, it is highly unlikely any government would have voluntarily challenged the landowners.

In the early part of the twentieth century, rambling was mainly a working-class pursuit, particularly in the North of England – a break from the hard life in the factories, pits and mills of Lancashire, Yorkshire and further afield.

Growing unemployment in the early 1930s only increased its popularity – it was cheap and a few hours’ escape from the daily struggle to survive.

By 1932, an estimated 15,000 working-class folk left Manchester every Sunday and headed for the Pennines or the Peak District. Ewan MacColl famously wrote a song, Manchester Rambler, about this: “I may be a wage slave on Monday, But I am a free man on Sunday”.

From the 18th century, Enclosure Acts made it possible for landowners to enclose land without reference to parliament. Possibly 14 million acres were ‘out of bounds’ to the mass of the population, used for only a few days a year by the ruling class for grouse shoots (as was the case with Kinder).

In the Peak District less than one percent of the land was legally accessible. The only 12 ‘legal’ paths became crowded, forcing many onto private land to face gamekeepers armed with sticks, dogs and guns.

The official rambling movement however was more middle-class. They relied on occasional passes handed out by landowners to a select few – passes that certainly weren’t going to be given to factory workers dressed in old boots and hand-me-downs!

The Communist Party, at that time, had some influence in Manchester’s engineering factories. Several of their members played major roles in the radical British Workers’ Sports Federation, including Benny Rothman who was to lead the Kinder mass trespass.

It was this movement – overtly political – which organised the deliberate mass trespass from Hayfield, Derbyshire, on to Kinder Scout. Their actions were opposed by the more ‘respectable’, official rambling associations.

On 24 April 1932, around 500 set off up Kinder. Following a few minor scuffles with the hopelessly outnumbered gamekeepers, they met a small contingent who had walked ‘over the tops’ from Sheffield. But you might not read in the articles in the capitalist press this month what the Manchester Guardian reported the day after: “As they marched they sang. They sang the Red Flag and the International”.

Arrests followed and five trespassers were jailed for between two and six months – for riotous assembly – unleashing a huge wave of public sympathy. The jail sentences had the effect of drawing closer together the different ramblers’ associations.

Mass civil disobedience and the ruling class’ draconian response succeeded, whereas years of doffing the cap to the landowners had produced nothing. In less than 20 years the Peak District National Park was created.

It is an irony that will not be lost on workers today that the illegal trespasses are now lauded by government representatives. Benny Rothman, who died in 2002 will have a railway locomotive named after him; the nameplate `Benny Rothman – Manchester Rambler’ will be unveiled by Environment Secretary David Miliband!

The right to roam is not won – the CRoW Act only truly allows us to walk on an eighth of England and Wales. Recent government proposals to ‘open up’ England’s coastline are to be welcomed but these are likely to come under extreme attack by landowners.

Even accessing the national parks is not easy for everyone without their own transport. It is an irony of modern-day Britain that the easiest way to walk in the outstanding natural countryside that abounds is… to drive there! For me to get to Kinder, approximately 35 miles from my front door, by bus and/or train takes almost three hours!

There will be further movements seeking to win completely the right to roam, alongside environmental campaigns protecting areas of outstanding natural beauty or significance. All of these owe a debt to those socialists who took on the establishment 75 years ago arguing that the land belongs to the people and demanding it be returned to us.