How I learnt to hate the landowner and love the rambler

Here were all those country types come to London telling us urbanites to stay out of the meadows and copses
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The Independent Culture
ALMOST EXACTLY 500 years ago, at Wormleighton on the border between Northamptonshire and Warwickshire, a court official, William Cope, had his manor enclosed. As a consequence 12 farms and three cottages were pulled down and their 60 or so inhabitants evicted. Eight years later Cope sold up to a John Spencer, who built himself a manor-house there. Unfortunately for Spencer there were rules against depopulating the countryside, and he found himself up before the beak for the acts committed by Cope. Spencer was ordered to pull down his hedges, fill in his ditches and restore the land to farming.

This brought forth a great wail of protest. As recorded by WG Hoskyns, in The Making of the English Landscape, Spencer argued that he had done great works on his land. He had maintained the parish church (vestments, chalice, the lot), built four houses for retainers, bred and fed more cattle than before, and sown acorns for trees. Furthermore, he lamented, were he to be forced to restore the land, "it should be his utter undoing" economically. Nevertheless, Spencer lost his case and down came the enclosing hedges. It was not, however, as history records, quite his "utter undoing"; the Spencers of Althorp have long had a bob or two.

Each of Spencer's arguments seems eerily familiar to anyone who has been listening to the Country Landowners' Association (CLA) and the countryside lobby since the last election. The promise of the Bill to increase public access to private land (published yesterday) led to a perfect compendium of ingenious objections to any presumption of a right to roam. Rare red kites will no longer fly over carefully husbanded land, tended and watched over by loving rural custodians. Instead, an ignorant (if good-natured) townie army of picnickers and Rottweiler owners would scare the birds, pick the flowers, scatter litter and destroy the fragile economy of the countryside. No, access by the public to private areas should be a matter of voluntary agreement, sensitive to local needs and inexpensive to enforce.

In a lazy way I had, for a long time, bought most of this argument. When I was young, and used to camp a lot, we were taught always to seek pitching permission from the landowner, and to be pathetically grateful if he or she permitted the corner of a far-flung field to be occupied for a night or two. And, to be fair, permission was usually granted, and often with good grace. But I had no real concept of exercising a "right". All the rights were on the side of those who owned the land; we were there on sufferance.

Furthermore, I like the word "voluntary". It is the opposite of "compulsory", and would seem more liberal. Indeed, the "lefter than thou" Lib Dem leadership candidate Charles Kennedy recently argued that a right to roam would be a legal minefield, and that any move to increase access should depend upon "consultation, co-operation and compromise, and a positive attitude by landowners and managers". All those warm "co-" words appeal, especially when contrasted with the apparent impossibilism of the Ramblers Association, New Age travellers and the Byronic Dr George Monbiot.

But I've changed my mind. Paradoxically it was the Countryside Alliance's great marches to London that started me thinking that perhaps old Monbiot et al might be right. Here were all those country types come to London, telling us that we urbanites should stay out of the meadows and copses because they alone understood how to manage the land, and we would only wreck things. All of a sudden I wondered whether this were true. Like others I began to examine the record, to ask questions.

For instance, if it was the case, as the CLA claimed, that their members wanted to see greater public access to their land, why hadn't they already seen to it that this was granted? And even now, when legislation was approaching noisily, like a distant steam train, why was their own voluntary scheme, the "Permitted Access" register, so utterly pathetic? I looked up the access for walkers in Shropshire. In the whole county, there were 20 schemes listed.

The conclusion to be drawn from this (and the Government has drawn it) is that landowners do not want the public on their land. And that they will invent any number of plausible-sounding reasons as to why the public needs to stay away, or should be allowed in only under the most restrictive circumstances. Yet there is no evidence whatsoever (I mean none) that properly regulated public access damages rural business, the environment, the survival of the red kite or anything else. Indeed the opposite appears to be the case. Oh, and as you might expect, in Scandinavia rights to roam exist without creating "legal minefields" or proving to be anybody's "utter undoing".

So why not here? I blame it on the monarchy, The Archers, the National Trust and the English desire for all paradises to be exclusive. Together these have produced in us a serf psychology, whereby we have acceded to the idea of owning land from which we may be excluded, in the hope that we too may one day exclude others. We think it both natural and culturally desirable that rich people should have large estates (call it "heritage"), whose enjoyment is predicated on keeping the riff-raff out. We have been taught by Phil, Jill, Dan, Doris and David that outsiders on your land equals poaching, open gates, dead sheep and loss of profit.

And yet, until 300 years ago our forebears walked more or less wherever they wanted. Paths marked the most convenient ways to travel, not - as today - the only permitted ways. Land ownership conveyed the right to profit from land, not the right to exclude all others from it. And then we allowed all this to disappear, and - for the best part of two centuries - the rights of landowners increased at the expense of all the other subjects of the Crown. Forests were enclosed or destroyed, common land was seized, rights of way were barred and the right to hunt wild animals was aggrandised by the few.

This continues today. Oliver Rackham, in The History of the Countryside, remarks on the practice of purpresture, or annexation by stealth. It "begins with a householder mowing the verge outside his garden, continues with boulders placed to prevent people driving on the verge, and ends with the ditch filled in and the verge absorbed into the garden". Some of what landowners hold, they have no right to; it was simply that - at the time - no one had the time or money to contest their actions.

Yesterday all that ended. The Bill announced by Michael Meacher is the first substantial attempt in several centuries to try to redress an imbalance that has been made, falsely, to seem natural. It represents a break with our serf psychology, our forelock-tugging deference, our elevation of property rights over human rights. And never mind the Spencers.