Frustration leads to roam

Campaigner wants to challenge trespass laws

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The author of a new book about trespass is calling on the public to claim its right to roam.

Nick Hayes said he was hoping for a more proactive response to his latest offering, The Trespasser’s Companion. The book is a follow-up to 2020’s The Book of Trespass, a Sunday Times bestseller in which Hayes highlighted the fact the public is excluded from 92 per cent of the land and 97 per cent of the waterways in England, and that just 1 per cent of England’s population owns 50 per cent of its land.

But while The Book of Trespass described the need for change, The Trespasser’s Companion explains how.

“It’s a plan, and a provocation to change the definition of how we connect to nature – from a crime to a birth right. It’s not an incitement to break the law. It’s a call to change it,” said Hayes, an illustrator and co-founder of the Right to Roam campaign, who lives in a houseboat on the River Thames.

“The focus of the campaign, and the book, is asking people to research their local area, find who owns it, trespass it, take some photos, and write a small account about why access to nature means so much to them, which they can publish on our website ( Maybe it’s too early to tell, but I just don’t know if many people are actually doing that,” Hayes said.

“It seems there’s almost an inertia in England – that nothing can be done anyway, so don’t worry about it. I’ll get messages like: ‘This woodland was beautiful, but they’ve just fenced it off. You and Guy Shrubsole [author of Who Owns England and fellow campaigner] need to come and do a trespass here.’ I’ll say ‘Well, you could set up a trespass with a group of friends’ and we hear nothing from them again. I guess, I lament the idea that people always look to others.”

Ancient custom

But Britain has a history of trespass and The Trespasser’s Companion was published in April, the same month that marked the 90th anniversary of the Kinder Scout mass trespass.

The grassroots gathering in 1932 saw hundreds of defiant ramblers roam the Peak District’s plateau, and is widely believed to have prompted a movement that led to the foundation of Britain’s national parks – the first being the Peak District in 1951 – and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, demonstrating that change can happen if enough people are willing to convert enthusiasm into meaningful action.

The right to roam is in fact an ancient custom, one that’s still embraced across Europe, including in Norway, Sweden and Scotland, with the understanding that people should be allowed to tread gently and respectfully through the countryside to reap its nurturing benefits.

“I’m a bit sick of this notion that going for a nice walk is a recreational activity when we all know, deep in our bones, that access to nature is about a lot more than just recreation. It’s something more akin to sacredness. The countryside is about love, and learning and also about belonging,” Hayes said.

“Lockdown gave people a visceral sense of just how good their bodies and minds felt when they were in nature. It also underlined the absurdity of how much of it we’re cut off from.”

“Snooty and aggressive”

The extraordinary limitations on our freedoms throughout the pandemic also highlighted how people are willing to accept a situation without questioning why it’s happening, which might go some way to explain people’s tentativeness with regard to trespassing.

“Totalitarian authority is insidious these days,” said Hayes. “There are just ways you’re supposed to be, and going against that is difficult, so wanting an easy life is a strong force. It’s socially and financially easier, and you get more sleep if you go with the flow.

“I don’t say that dismissively but the crisis we’re in is urgent with regard to obesity, and mental health, depression, anxiety – all the things that science has repeatedly proven can be ameliorated by regular access to the outdoors.”

Hayes’s interest in trespass was piqued by two particular incidents. The first was the exaggerated reaction of a landowner who evicted Hayes on discovering him sketching on his land. The second was on board a train from Brighton to London.

Campaigner Nick Hayes
Campaigner Nick Hayes. Main image: among a group watching a trespass gig on the Mapledurham Estate in Oxfordshire. Photo: Nemone Caldwell

“Everyone was rammed in second class, so I took a seat in first class, where it was basically empty except for a couple who came over to me. They were so snooty and unnecessarily aggressive and called the guard. I was socially shamed out of this carriage and basically plastered onto this wall of humans,” he said.

“It was like the perfect analogy for what land rights are like in England. You get so much space reserved for the rich, and so little space for the rest of us to share.

“What really galls me is that sense of moral superiority the people evicting you from their land have, whereas if you look at every piece of evidence of historical fact about the laws of trespass, the crime is the erection of the fence in the first place, not the crossing of it.”

He explains the aim of the Right to Roam campaign is to expand the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.

“The places available in the 8 per cent of land we have a right to roam are the mountains, moors and peaks, which is great for people who live in Hayfield, but bugger all use for people that live in Birmingham.

“We want the act to include rivers, woodland, and the green belt because those are the places closest to the densest populations.

“Access to nature should be regular and immersive, part of people’s routine, not a nice weekend break for those affluent enough to be able to consider it,” said Hayes, who will be participating in more organised trespasses this year and implores people to organise their own.

“We’re not asking people to bang drums or to get aggressive with anyone. It’s a gentle, joyful, whimsical, very English campaign and involves nothing more than asking people to go for a swim in a river, or a walk in the woods, or a picnic with friends, and record it.

“All we need to do is highlight the absurdity of aggressive responses and have a public conversation. No one wants to talk about access to nature because there’s no way you can look at it that doesn’t make it a complete social injustice, and there is so much we could win with people power.”

Trespassing – what’s the legal standpoint?

“Generally speaking, trespass is a civil tort, or wrong. In the context of land, trespass is simply the act of entering on or doing some act to a person’s land without consent,” said Adam Boyd, property litigation partner at law firm Freeths LLP in Manchester.

“The landowner can seek a number of different remedies depending on the circumstances, such as damages, applying for an injunction – a court order to do or refrain from doing an act – and issuing possession proceedings. It is also possible for a landowner to physically remove the trespasser using no more force than reasonably necessary. However, if the force or violence is excessive, the landowner commits a trespass on the trespasser.

“If the land or buildings are not residential, then generally speaking the landowner will either verbally ask the trespasser to leave or serve a letter of claim requiring the trespasser to leave. The police can be called to assist a landlord owner from removing a trespasser, depending on their availability, but the trespasser cannot be arrested. However, a trespasser could be arrested for a breach of the peace if they do or threaten to do some act that causes harm to a person or their property, or is likely to cause such harm.”

The Trespasser’s Companion: A Field Guide to Reclaiming What is Already Ours by Nick Hayes (Bloomsbury) is out now

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