As I listened to Woody Guthrie singing, “I roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps” from his 1940 song ‘This Land Is Your Land’ I thought how lucky we are to have more or less unrestricted access to vast tracts of England’s beautiful and varied hills and mountains. I thought how easy it would be to take this freedom for granted and forget how it had been a long, hard fought battle to establish the “right to roam”.
Even before Northumberland-based W. Ford Robertson published his 1926 guide, ‘Walks from Wooler’, a ‘freedom to roam’ bill had been introduced into Parliament each year between 1884 and 1914 and had, on every occasion, been soundly defeated. With this in mind, Robertson included a short section in his book entitled, “Note on the Law of Trespass”, where he pointed out that in respect of the Northumberland hill country, “there has always been a generous latitude shown by proprietors and tenants with regard to trespass upon unenclosed land”. In the circumstances, his advice to walkers was that, “if you conduct yourself as ladies and gentlemen should…you are welcomed, and not regarded as a nuisance”.
Landowners and tenants in other areas of the country were not quite as enlightened, and the long battle for greater access resulted in the mass act of wilful trespass at Kinder Scout in the Peak District on 24th April 1932. This trespass, which resulted in the arrest of five walkers, marked the beginning of a long media campaign by the recently-formed Ramblers Association for public access rights over upland areas of England and Wales. This campaign eventually paid dividends when the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 finally entered the statute books on 30th November 2000 with the ‘right to roam’ provisions coming into effect on 25th May 2005.
This landmark piece of legislation allowed walkers to roam freely on designated ‘access land’ with no necessity to keep to official footpaths or bridleways. However, the Act did give landowners and farmers permission to restrict, in certain circumstances, the ‘right to roam’ for up to 28 days each year. Despite these minor restrictions, the Act was a major, if long delayed, victory for the those walkers wishing to explore and enjoy England’s beautiful uplands.
Ten years have passed and whilst there has been little impact to walkers aware of the ‘custom’ of relatively free access to Northumberland’s upland areas, to less-informed souls this law is a liberating step forward. Previous uncertainty has been swept away; the ‘access land’ is shown marked with a light yellow background on Ordnance Survey Explorer maps and, at many entry points to the ‘access land’, stiles and gates carry a brown ‘stick’ man in a circle way-marking symbol.
Summer is now in full swing, wildflowers run riot and birdsong fills the air. It is time therefore, with Northumberland’s vast countryside at my fingertips, to make tracks for the hills. Then, as I brush past the dew-kissed bracken and stride out through the deep purple heather, I will once again remember how lucky I am to be able to wander far from the maddening crowd and to make my own unique steps through our beautiful northern hills.
by Geoff Holland © 2015
Geoff Holland has contributed to a number of magazines and is the author of four books of self-guided walks, ‘The Hills of Upper Coquetdale’, ‘The Cheviot Hills’, ‘Walks from Wooler’ and ‘Walks on the Wild Side: The Cheviot Hills’. All books can be purchased online from www.trailguides.co.uk. Geoff has lived in Monkseaton for over 40 years and operates the award-winning website www.cheviotwalks.co.uk. His poems have appeared in a number of publications.