Fighting for the right to ramble

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The right for working class people to roam Britain's countryside was won through struggle. Mick Mulcahy looks at why we celebrate the 80th anniversary of the mass trespass of Kinder Scout.

This month is the 80th anniversary of what is indisputably the most important event in the movement for free access to Britain's countryside. The mass trespass of Kinder Scout in Derbyshire's Peak District in April 1932 paved the way for the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act.

At the beginning of the 20th century workers in the dark mills of the new cities created by the Industrial Revolution of northern England looked out longingly at the beauty of the rolling moors and hills. They seemed the perfect recreational antidote to the grim crowded conditions of their everyday lives.

But the Enclosure Acts of the 18th and 19th centuries turned many of the highest and wildest areas of moorland, previously common land, into private property and placed them out of bounds to working people. The landowners employed gamekeepers to patrol their estates and ramblers without a permit were forcibly evicted.

It was, however, the events of 24 April 1932 which acted as a spark, igniting the campaign for ordinary people to have the right to access our moors, hills and dales.
The lead organiser of the trespass was 20 year old Benny Rothman, a Manchester Communist, Jewish by descent, tiny in stature and fiery in rhetoric. In the summer of 1925 Benny had acquired a bicycle and began to discover the countryside. He developed a lifelong passion for the outdoors.

As a member of the Young Communist League and the British Workers Sports Federation (BWSF), Rothman went on weekend camps. On one of the camps they were threatened by a group of keepers and it was this event that sparked the idea of a mass trespass.

The area chosen, Kinder Scout, was rarely used by landlords. The BWSF demanded one simple change: the landowners should open up Kinder Scout, allowing ramblers to walk upon it when the land was not in use. At the time only 1 percent of the Peak District was open to the public.

When news of the planned trespass came out the official rambling associations rushed to complain. With earls and dukes among their patrons the official clubs were very different in class composition from the young people associated with the BWSF.

On the day of the trespass itself 500 ramblers took part and were met by police. Benny Rothman was due to speak at the rally beforehand.

At the time, however, he was unemployed and unable to pay the train fare. So he cycled from Manchester only to subsequently learn that he had luckily avoided the police at Hayfield station who were waiting to serve an injunction on him. Before the march headed off towards Kinder Scout the crowd sang the Red Flag and the Internationale.

On the way to the top of Kinder Scout the walkers encountered a gang of gamekeepers. A scuffle broke out. The keepers had sticks while the ramblers fought with their bare hands. The keepers eventually fled.

One of the keepers had sprained his ankle during the scuffle on the slopes of Kinder. He had informed the police and on their return the demonstrators were met by one third of the Derbyshire police force. Many of the trespassers noted that the police seemed to be under orders to pick out foreign-looking faces and people with Jewish-sounding names.

Six of the trespassers, including Rothman, were arrested and charged with public order offences and riotous assembly, but not significantly with trespass.

The subsequent trial was a farce. Only two of the ramblers were represented by a lawyer. The jury included two brigadier generals, three colonels, two majors and three captains. One of the accused was said by the prosecution to have been in possession of a book by Lenin. Another was identified as having sold the Communist Party's Daily Worker newspaper. The judge noted that three of the defendants had "foreign-sounding names".

At the trial Rothman conducted his own defence, saying, "We ramblers, after a hard week's work in the smoky towns and cities, go out rambling for relaxation, a breath of fresh air and a little sunshine. But we find that when we go out that the finest rambling country is closed to us, just because certain individuals wish to shoot for about ten days of the year."

Eventually five out of the six accused were found guilty and sentenced to jail. It was the severity of the sentences handed down to the young defendants which united the ramblers' cause. Even the official Ramblers' Federation which had opposed the trespass was appalled.

During the weeks of the trial thousands of walkers illegally visited the route of the trespass. The arrests and subsequent imprisonment unleashed a huge wave of sympathy for the trespassers and their cause. Later in 1932, 10,000 ramblers assembled at Winnats Pass, near Castleton. Further trespasses took place on the Duke of Norfolk's estate. The campaign continued until the pressure became so great that legislation was eventually passed furthering the right to roam.

For nearly 30 years Kinder Scout has been in the hands of the National Trust, which allows free access at all times. Kinder Scout today is as popular as ever and is visited by rambling enthusiasts, fell runners and people just out for a picnic and respite from their working lives. Its history shows, however, that it was not given to us freely but was only reclaimed through struggle.