The Right to Roam

The Peak District extends over 542 square miles and can be divided into two uniquely different zones: wild gritstone moors to the north and limestone uplands and dales to the south. It finds itself in the heart of many important industrial towns and cities and was for that reason, the first national park.


The Peak National Park was a site of negotiation for access agreements between landowners and ramblers. During the 1920s and early 1930s, rambling grew in popularity as workers from the industrial towns looked for escapes from their crowded existence. The obvious place for this escape was to the moors, the vastness of which was closely guarded by landowners and their staff. Pressures caused by the demand for easy and fair access often lead to conflicts of interest between the two parties.

The open-air movement marked an important shift in the consciousness of the British people. By the mid-20th-century most people in Britain lived in towns and cities; industrial spaces that were more cramped and polluted than that of today. They were unsatisfactory places to live, particularly for the working class and the squalor associated with these urban livelihoods led to a revolt in pursuit of access to green space. 

‘Demand for leisure ranks high in the scale of human rights. If food, shelter and clothing are primary requirements, relaxation and leisure are what life is about’. As a result of the industrialisation of our 19th-century towns and cities, an increased desire to walk the moors and dales of rural Britain prevailed in the public consciousness. The Industrial Revolution created cities ‘of squalor and ugliness that was unequalled in Europe’. The workforce was held to ransom by their factory bosses; there was little enjoyment or relaxation and no opportunity to pursue leisure activities. People took on the roles of machines, with workers degraded, prevented from talking with co-workers and having rationed toilet breaks.

From the ‘Footpaths and Access to the Countryside Report’ of 1947:

“...fostered by the instincts of an urbanised population, torn increasingly from its ancient roots in the soil by the industrial revolution, an urban existence that pushes the primeval background out of sight, that makes it remote and unavailable, that deprives people of intimate contact with it…is unlikely to produce adequate men and women.”

The unspoiled, meadow green of Britain’s mountains and moors sat undisturbed, inspiring the poetry of Keats and Wordsworth. The squalor and struggle of life in industrial towns could be escaped with a collective awakening, driving people to the peaks. Wordsworth was an early proponent of the right to roam: ‘a part of national property in which every man has a right to interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy’. His view was correct, people deserved access to the countryside. Not only to wonder at the beauty of nature but to briefly escape from the antagonistic relationship of the factory. For ‘men are grown mechanical in head and heart as well as hand’. The bard believed strongly in access rights and on one occasion, during a visit to Lowther Castle where he was attending a dinner in his honour, felled a wall that was blocking an ancient right of way. 

The mental health benefits of fresh air, unspoiled views and exercise were recognised in the early part of the 19th-century and inspired the open-air movement and many regional rambling groups. Members of the open-air movement, encompassing all groups that sought to harness the mental and physiological benefits of activity in green space, began with walking associations or ‘Gentlemen’s Clubs’. As their name suggests, the members of these early rambling groups were upper-middle-class men, holding influence in ‘legal, literary and political circles in Victorian Britain’. Their class and personal wealth did not alleviate these groups from tussling with the shooting gentry. The London-based ‘Sunday Tramps’ was established by Leslie Stephen in late 1879. Within its number were regular attendees such as Norman MacColl, editor of the Athenaeum, and James Cotter of the Saturday Review. The group was once invited to dine with Charles Darwin along a walking route that bordered London. Initially walking from Stephen’s home, the idea of travelling via train to begin a route later became popular. Despite their stock of wealthy and celebrated men, the walkers would trespass across the game reserves of aristocracy, drawing fire from gamekeepers who suspected them of thieves.

Before people were seeking enjoyment and respite in the open air of the British countryside, the battle for access was being fought against private enclosers. To this day, only 8 percent of our rural green spaces are open to the public and a mere 3 percent of our rivers are accessible to all people. ‘From the earliest times to the present day, no issue has aroused a longer history of struggle than has the uses and ownership of land’. Before the city populations of industrial England were pursuing their right to air and exercise, people had been fighting to retain their right to land from private enclosers. Epping Forest is considered significant within the history of this battle. As of 1792, the forest consisted of 9,000 acres of open land, of which much was utilised by the public for recreation. A half-century later, by 1848 the acreage had reduced to 7,000, with lost land being claimed by speculative builders. By 1884, the Forest Ramblers Club had formed, intending to walk through Epping Forest and report obstruction that was seen along the way. Deer forests across Britain sought to establish solitude, optimising conditions for hunters and removing unwanted human populations. Elsewhere, the Lake District had lost twenty-two public rights of way. When a footpath through Fawe Park over Latrigg was closed, the Keswick and District Footpath Association was formed. In September of 1856, upwards of 400 walkers, a ‘mob of loafers’ hiked to the summit of Latrigg. Within their number were people of repute: ‘Ministers of religion, doctors of long-established reputation, solicitors, a Member of the House of Commons, ladies and gentlemen’. In the case of Latrigg, the right to ascend British mountains was challenged.

Other walking clubs were formed throughout the 19th-century. Their leadership was willing to battle for access rights, yet the gentleman ramblers of this period frequented the Swiss Alps, where they walked undisturbed, ‘an escape from ourselves and our neighbours’. Few of these people were members of the industrial rambling associations, and those men had little time or resource to walk in the valleys of Chamonix, at the base of Mont Blanc. 

The world of rambling was finally stirred, when on the 24th April 1932 a party of ramblers set out for the sacred grouse moor of the Kinder plateau and its summit Kinder Scout. A young unemployed motor mechanic from Manchester called Bernard Rothman, along with a group of friends, organised with the British Workers Sports Federation to storm the fortress, beyond the stick-wielding gamekeepers. Hundreds of people joined the walk, setting the walking world ‘ablaze with excitement and controversy’. Their action was inspiring to some, whilst it drew the ire of others who claimed their campaign would be ‘set back 20 years, at a time when we were beginning to break the power of the owners’. Rothman and his comrades felt that the only course of action, to get beyond the reach of grouse shooters, was to execute a mass trespass. Their demonstration was such that grouse moor owners were not able to sufficiently prepare themselves. Trespass was an inevitability.

In the words of Rothman himself:

‘It was impossible for the police to stop us - there were too many of us. It was a really dense crowd of young people, all picturesque in rambling gear, khaki jackets, khaki shirts, abbreviated shorts, colourful shorts, colourful jerseys - away we went in a jubilant mood, determined to carry out the assault of Kinder, also determined that no authority whatsoever would stop us.’

Their number was such that they were able to protect Rothman from arrest. The determined police were unable to get their man, cut off at each stile, the walkers moved as one up and down the plateau. Some were met with violence, the gamekeepers wielding sticks with disdain for the walkers who shielded themselves with their rucksacks. Ramblers from Manchester, Stockport and Sheffield shared congratulations for a successful ascent of Kinder, before swiftly planning their descent. 

Rothman and five other ramblers were eventually remanded into custody, each charged with unlawful assembly, breaching the peace and riotously assembling to disturb the public. John Anderson, Julius Clyne, Harry Mendel, Walter Gillet, David Nussbaum and Rothman were tried in Derby. Anderson faced the additional charge of ‘maliciously inflicting grievous bodily harm’ on Edward Beevers, one of the gamekeepers that so fervently defended the land upon which the ramblers were trespassing. Under cross-examination, a police witness agreed that the keepers were the only ones with useful weapons and that violence only took place when they met with the larger crowd of ramblers. Anderson was witnessed in a struggle with Beevers and reports claim that the keeper was knocked unconscious, dragged by the crowd to Stockport Infirmary. A photograph published by the Sheffield Independent contradicts such reports, showing the wounded adversary being tended to by the persecuted walkers. 

Bernard Rothman, defending himself in court, testified:

‘We ramblers, after a hard week’s work and life in smoky towns and cities go out rambling for relaxation, a breath of fresh air, a little sunshine. We find, when we go out, that the finest rambling country is closed to us, because certain individuals wish to shoot for about ten days a year.’

The accused were sentenced to 17 months imprisonment. Anderson received the lengthiest prison term of 6 months, despite the agreement that he acted in self-defence and that the keepers were decidedly heavy-handed, the judge and jury concluded that he had caused harm to Edward Beevers.

Despite failing to attain support from the Ramblers’ Federation and other large walking groups, the initial mass trespass inspired these groups into acting. An additional mass trespass event in September of 1932 took place in the Derwent Valley. Differing from the first event, the second trespass involved several different walking associations. The subject of access is political, proven at the second trespass with members from the Brightside Independent Labour Party, Spartacus (a subsect of the Sheffield Young Communist League) and the Independent Labour Party Guild of Youth. Their number exceeded two hundred, with the ramblers predominantly being from Sheffield. On arriving at Abbey Brook in the Derwent Valley, those on the walk were faced with a far larger number of gamekeepers than present in early 1932. Stoked on by the Duke of Devonshire’s head keeper, they attacked the walkers with sticks and ‘pit props’, encouraged by the police to aim for the legs to prevent serious injury. However, the gamekeeper's frustrations turned to the police, who exhibited hesitancy to make an arrest. The first number of trials at the courts in Derby had caused great embarrassment for the police and subsequently, walkers were invigorated, their fight to restore rights of way had finally gained momentum. 

The access granted by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CRoW) of 2000 far exceeds what had previously been open to the public, but this bill has stymied any further progression. In Scotland, as in Norway and Sweden, the public has the freedom to roam over thousands of acres of open countryside. There are exceptions to this, with ‘strict responsibilities to both the ecology and community of an area’ considered by planners. Yet the importance of private property in England, the right to exclude, supersedes any notion of collaboration or collective improvement. From behind the barbed wire fences, many cannot envisage themselves participating in activities in the English countryside. Groups such as Flock Together, Black Girls Hike and Boots and Beards continue to battle against these exclusionary thoughts.

‘Everyman’s right’ has been battled for tirelessly by groups such as the Ramblers Association. Established in 1935, the past 80 years have seen the organisation campaign vigorously for walkers’ rights. Their advocacy for access, of which several bids have been submitted, have often faced opposition. The CRoW Act, which allowed public access to mountain, moor, heath and downland, was a great success for the group. This is bettered by their influence in passing the Land Reform (Scotland) Act, ‘which gave Scotland the most progressive access rights to land, coast and water in Europe’. Their current agenda, to save the thousands of lost paths, will only improve access to green space for the general public.

The fight for access continues; we can participate in the battle by being present in, caring for and celebrating our green space.


'Freedom to Roam': The Struggle for Access to Britain's Moors and Mountains, a book by Howard Hill, provided photographs and context for this article.

Additional reading about access rights can be found here: https://www.righttoroam.org.uk/

If you are interested in enjoying the outdoors with others, the following groups are but a few from a vibrant community of nature-lovers:

Ramblers Association: https://www.ramblers.org.uk/
The Long Distance Walkers Association (LDWA): https://www.ldwa.org.uk/
Flock Together: https://www.flocktogether.world/
Black Girls Hike: https://www.bghuk.com/
Boots and Beards: https://www.bootsandbeards.co.uk/

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