IT’S a perfect spring morning in 1982. Arkengarthdale slumbers green and shadowy beneath a blue sky as we sit in damp grass and drink tea from tartan Thermos flasks. Nothing moves except the wind in the heather and the birds in the sky – and a Land-Rover crawling towards us up a track from a nearby farm . . .
There are about ten people in our group. Blokes with beards mostly, one or two women and a couple of teenagers, out to enjoy the grandeur of the Pennine countryside and to poke about in the ancient mine workings that pepper the moors. This is my first visit to Arkengarthdale and I’m impressed by its scenery and wealth of history. It’s an enchanting place.
We are a group of like-minded people, members of the Cumbria Amenity Trust Mining History Society, with interests that include industrial archaeology, history, caving and potholing, the environment, and recording and photographing the remains of our industrial past for the benefit and enlightenment of generations to come. It’s a pretty worthwhile pastime, if you ask me.
The Land-Rover sighs to a halt on the slope above us and out jumps a chap dressed in tweeds along with two or three drab fellows carrying guns. They march towards us. I sense a confrontation looming. This is totally unexpected. And I haven’t finished my tea.
I don’t recall the exact words used, because 1982 is a long time in the past, but the chap in the tweeds informs us that the moor belongs to him, it’s private property, we are trespassing on his land, we are disturbing his nesting grouse, and we must depart immediately or the authorities will be summoned. His drab fellows stand behind him with their steely-cold guns over their arms, staring blankly but menacingly.
And, I must admit, I’m feeling anxious and more than a little intimidated. I’m one of the youngest of the group, and although I’ve been chased off land before by angry farmers and landowners (the most notable being a gun-toting Sir Leonard Redshaw, former chairman of Vickers Shipbuilding Group, when raiding his conker trees), this confrontation elevates things to a higher level. This is tense and mean; it is unnecessarily threatening. This is the landed interest cracking down with weapons and muscle, cockily confident it has the law and its enforcers on its side, and ruthlessly intent on clearing the unwanted from its domain.
We finish our tea and prepare to leave, but not before one of our number, a tax inspector named Alan Westall, gives the landowner a round of the floor over the morality of land ownership and the right to roam. Westall doesn’t hold back, and stands up to the landowner and the dull chaps with guns. The landowner, somewhat taken aback and obviously unfamiliar with the concept of rebellion, responds in conciliatory tones and suggests we visit the mines on the south side of the valley. “They are far more interesting,” he says. “And besides, that land isn’t mine – it belongs to the Duke of Norfolk.”
The Arkengarthdale Incident was my introduction to the social, moral, economic and political arguments surrounding land ownership and the exclusion of the British public from their own countryside. It was swiftly followed by the Welsh Incident, in which a farmer chased we same group of people off the side of a mountain he claimed he owned.
“How would you like it if I came round to your house and climbed up your drainpipe?” he growled from behind a fence. This wasn’t threatening at all. In fact, we laughed about it all night in the pub, mostly because it was the least plausible argument for restricted access we had ever heard. If we’d been caught climbing up his farmhouse downspout, he might have had a point. But an open fellside? Do us a favour.
These memories, and others, have come stomping back because I’ve just read John Bainbridge’s marvellous book The Compleat Trespasser. John has been an ardent trespasser all his life and knows his subject. Being chased by landowners and gamekeepers, and even being shot at and blundering into trip-wire guns (yes, they still exist as deterrents to ne’er-do-wells), are all part of an activity to which he has been devoted since childhood.
You might be of the opinion that wilful trespass is an immoral and unnecessary indulgence, especially since the Countryside and Rights of Way Act has allowed the public access to vast swathes of upland England and Wales. Is that not enough, for heaven’s sake?
But, as John argues, at one time this land was our land and we could walk where the fancy took us. Then we were squeezed out by vast Norman hunting estates and chases; forced from our native dales and villages by successive enclosure acts as the rich extended their grip on the countryside; had our rights to gather food and fuel eroded to the point of non-existence; and were banished from our moors as the 18th Century craze for game-bird shooting spread unhindered.
There was a time when we could wander the riverbanks (many of which are still private), the coastline (sections still private), the forests and woodlands (many still private), downlands and heathlands (ditto). We could ramble across agricultural land, taking care not to damage crops, but this is now exclusively private, access severely restricted to public rights of way.
Perhaps you think unlimited access is just too much – we don’t need it. But they have it in Scotland – the forests, the coastline, the riverbanks, the agricultural land (fields under crops excluded). The country whose people suffered the barbaric Highland Clearances – an act of ethnic cleansing if ever there was one – now has one of the most liberal access regimes in the world. So why not England and Wales? How come we’ve been short-changed?
I grew up on the edge of the Lake District and was accustomed to the open access of the national park, so private property and its restrictions weren’t really an issue until I ventured into the Pennine valley of Arkengarthdale on that morning in 1982. I was aware of the arguments surrounding access, for I had just read Freedom to Roam, Howard Hill’s book chronicling the mass trespasses of the 1930s, but I had never encountered anything more unsettling than the occasional truculent farmer.
Arkengarthdale was an eye-opener. It taught me several lessons: that land ownership signifies power and influence; that power and influence command the respect of the law enforcers; and that the rest of us are at the bottom of the pile and it would be convenient for all if we recognised this and kept quiet.
Here’s an example of what I mean. You trespass onto someone’s land and the fellow comes after you. He’s carrying a gun. Nothing out of the ordinary there. He’s a landowner or farmer. He is within his rights. If he calls the police they will listen to him sympathetically and try to resolve the issue.
But if you, an ordinary person, defended your house and garden while holding a gun (legally licensed), would you be treated with respect by the authorities? Or would you expect to see a police helicopter hovering above your chimney pots and an armed response unit at the end of your street? Exactly.
So why is it acceptable, and in some circles desirable, for a landowner to carry a gun while dealing with the public? Those buffoons in Arkengarthdale weren’t out shooting grouse or controlling vermin. They didn’t need their guns. Yet they took them along specifically because they were clearing the public from open moorland – and guns deliver a message where words might fail. Those fellows were, quite simply, threatening us with firearms – an act that would get an ordinary person thrown into jail.
Here’s something else to think about. As well as the forbidden riverbanks, coastal stretches, woodland and forests, downland and heathland – many of the listed ancient monuments of England and Wales are situated on private land and are therefore out of bounds, says John Bainbridge.
We are denied legal access to our heritage because the Countryside and Rights of Way Act is a half measure. The politicians sold us short. This is our country and we should have a right to wander at will in a responsible manner, he says. And I’m inclined to agree with him.
But The Compleat Trespasser is far more than an assault on the issues of land ownership and the exclusion of the public, it is a venture into the romance of walking our forbidden pathways. It follows the footsteps of poachers and tramps, delves into the works of writers, poets and politicians. It meanders through leafy glades, dips into dark pools, climbs ancient tracks to windy ridges. It is a celebration of the countryside and all its charms.
It also deals with the art of trespassing – because an art it is. Not everyone can trespass successfully. There are skills to learn and knowledge to acquire. The adept trespasser is like the poacher of old. He is swift and silent; he can melt into the undergrowth and evade his pursuers. Unlike the poacher, all he seeks is the peacefulness of his native land, which is his by birthright.
Arkengarthdale remains one of my favourite places and I have walked its moorland and valley paths many times over the years. Since the introduction of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, I have encountered several shooting parties and received nothing but courtesy, proof that all interests can exist quite happily in these wild places if the will exists – or is made to exist.
Since 1982 I have neither seen nor heard of the tweedy chap who accosted us that day, though we learnt in the CB pub that he was a relatively new landowner to the area and had connections with a North Sea ferry company.
There was no need to move us on, and certainly no requirement for chaps with guns – because the overwhelming majority of countryside visitors act responsibly and speak with civil tongues. But that’s the landed and their land. They are still out there with their guns and retainers – a race aloof and apart. Can we forgive them their trespasses against us? I don’t think the time has quite come.
- The Compleat Trespasser, by John Bainbridge, can be downloaded here for only £1.99. That’s great value for a great read.