After a century of protest, last 'right to roam' areas open up in England

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The Independent Online

After a campaign of mass protest and often angry confrontation that has lasted more than a century, the right of walkers to roam freely across previously closed tracts of open country in England and Wales will finally be completed today.

The last two regions of England where walkers have now been granted unrestricted access - without the need to stick to paths - will be formally opened up today, completing a five-year programme of implementing the Countryside and Rights of Way (Crow) Act.

The move represents an almost complete victory for campaigners for the so-called "right to roam", led by the Ramblers' Association, which had fought landowners reluctant to allow unrestricted access. It means that a total of about 6,250 square miles of mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land, much of which was previously off-limits to walkers, are now open for people to walk across freely. This equates to 7 per cent of the total land in England. The right still does not extend to areas of riverbank, coastline and woodland.

The two areas being opened up today are England East and West, the regions stretching from the Welsh borders to East Anglia and including Yorkshire and Derbyshire,comprising more than 28,000 hectares of new access. The occasion will be marked by a ceremony at Milford Common, in Cannock Chase, Staffordshire.

Hailing the date as "a historic day", Pam Warhurst, deputy chair of the Countryside Agency, said: "By giving every member of the public more opportunities to get out and enjoy the countryside, we can in time build a healthier, more environmentally aware society."

Lord Smith of Finsbury, president of the Ramblers' Association, said: "The Crow Act, which enshrines on the statute books a genuine freedom to roam, is based on a very simple principle - that every citizen of our country, no matter who or what they are, where they come from or how much money they have, should be able to walk freely over the open country, mountain and moorland that forms such an important part of the landscape of our islands."

He added: "What is now needed is a serious look at what might be done on access to coastal land, particularly to shore and foreshore; then perhaps a look at riverbanks and woodland."

New Ordnance Survey maps showing the open access areas are gradually being published.

Today is the culmination of a process that began in 1884 when James Bryce MP introduced the first Bill for freedom to roam, articulating a desire among the growing urban working class for access to the countryside, which they could reach via the new trams and trains. However, the Bill failed and in the face of stiff resistance from the established landowners, the cause became a long-standing objective of the growing socialist movement. The mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the Peak District in 1932, which led to six people being jailed, attracted widespread public attention and resulted eventually in the creation of the Ramblers' Association; the "right to roam" campaign was launched in 1935.

Although the creation of the National Parks in the 1940s allowed much greater public access to the countryside, not until Tony Blair was elected in 1997 did it become government policy, and not until November 2000 did the Crow Act enter the statute books. The process of mapping and registering all open access country and common land in England and Wales has taken until now to complete; the first areas were opened up in September last year. In Scotland, walkers have always enjoyed relatively unrestricted access to most areas, although that has now also been put into law by the Scottish Executive.

10 of the best new places to ramble

* GLACIAL BOULDER AREA.

Large swaths of this ancient hunting forest at Brindley Heath, Cannock Chase, Staffordshire, were granted to the Bishop of Lichfield by Richard I in 1189. They include a mere pool formed by melting ice from a glacier.

* RENDLESHAM FOREST

One of four Forestry Commission sites in the Suffolk coastal area being opened for the first time, this is a 1,420 hectare area of mixed conifer and broadleaved woodland. A Site of Special Scientific Interest, it is home to the woodlark and the nightjar and also one of the main places for UFO sightings.

* SUTTON HEATH

Also in Suffolk, this is part of the Broxted estate close to the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon burial ground. An area of dry, flat heathland, it is popular with ground nesting birds, such as the Dartford warbler and the wheatear, which may mean restrictions on access at breeding times.

* WEAVER HILLS

Lying just to the south of the Peak District in Staffordshire, this limestone landscape has never enjoyed the same protection as the rest of the Peak District National Park until now.

* IVINGHOE BEACON

Part of the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty this Iron Age hill fort in Buckinghamshire commands spectacular views across the Vale of Aylesbury and has long been a popular location. The area is nationally important for wildlife, plants and insects, especially butterflies.

* THE QUARTZITE TORS, STIPERSTONES

These were well-known even in Roman times, when the area was used for lead mining. Designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Natural Nature Reserve because of its unique geology and heathland, the Shropshire Way long-distance footpath follows its ridge.

* THE DRAGON'S BACK HILLS

Situated south of Buxton, in the Peak District National Park, Derbyshire's Dragon's Back hills offer beautiful new walking opportunities and stunning views of the surrounding countryside. The new access land links existing rights of way.

* WHARNCLIFFE CHASE

The opening up of this area of Yorkshire, flanked by two nature reserves and newly opened woodland, creates a large swathe of countryside now with unrestricted access.

* CHARNWOOD LODGE, TIMBERWOOD HILL AND WARREN HILLS

Areas of heathland and woodland just outside Coalville, in Leicestershire. Moat of Charnwood Lodge is a National Nature Reserve, part of the ancient Charnwood Forest and previously accessible only either along one public footpath or by permit. A breeding home for bats and butterflies, it is full of scarce ferns and fungi.

* CASTLEMORTON COMMON

This is a huge area of common land in the Malvern Hills, beloved of Edward Elgar, which offer fantastic views both east and west. The area is famous for its birdlife, which includes green woodpeckers, ring ouzels, stonechats, kestrels and buzzards.

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