After a 120-year campaign, ramblers step out to celebrate their right to roam

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Stretches of the British countryside were opened to the public for the first time in centuries yesterday. Thousands of ramblers took to the hills in celebration of their right to roam.

Stretches of the British countryside were opened to the public for the first time in centuries yesterday. Thousands of ramblers took to the hills in celebration of their right to roam.

The long-awaited legislation - first proposed 120 years ago and defeated 10 times since - came into force in parts of north-west and south-east England. Other areas will follow.

Showers greeted walkers as they set off for the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire yesterday morning. A spokesman for the Ramblers' Association said the mood was nonetheless very cheerful, with local people joined by representatives of the Countryside Agency, the Country Land and Business Association and Moorland Association on the inaugural hike across previously forbidden territory.

The main launch celebrations yesterday were at Goyt Valley in Derbyshire, a few miles from Kinder Scout, where a mass trespass in 1932 led to clashes and the jailing of six walkers. The scene at Goyt Valley yesterday was entirely peaceful, with the landowner, United Utilities, welcoming the walkers. A spokesman said: "We have had open access for many years and this is an extension and celebration of that."

Nick Barrett, chief executive of the Ramblers' Association, said: "This is a truly historic day, these landscapes are as much a part of our national heritage as structures like Stonehenge. For many the joy of walking is about getting off the beaten track. Everybody in this country now has a right to do just that and I hope people will take the opportunity to discover these beautiful areas for themselves."

Access to more than 350 square miles (91,000 hectares) of land in the Forest of Bowland, Ribblesdale and Peak District and nearly 14,000 hectares in Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire was granted under the terms of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. "Central southern" England will be the next area to be opened, in December, and over the coming 15 months 7,000 sq miles of land will become accessible. Nearly all areas designated as open country or common land are covered by the legislation.

Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs minister, decided not to join the celebration - he had planned to join the Forest of Bowland walkers - after learning that he would be the target of demonstrations by pro-hunting members of the Countryside Alliance. In the event just eight demonstrators gathered in the Lancashire village of Chipping to protest against MPs' decision last week to ban fox hunting.

Some landowners have expressed concerns the law may lead to invasions of privacy and damage to crops or property. Ramblers' groups hope the updated Countryside Code, introduced last year, will encourage responsible behaviour. Mr Barrett said: "I am confident the respect and love walkers have for the countryside will prove that this is a wise, fair and beneficial piece of legislation."

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