Kinder Scout trespass: How mass action 90 years ago won ramblers roaming rights – BBC

By Jennifer Harby
BBC News

On 24 April, 1932, a group of young workers decided to stake their claim to the English countryside by staging a mass trespass. The result was arrests, prison sentences – and an outcry that is credited by many as shaping the rural access we enjoy today. BBC News looks back at the uprising on the uplands – and asks what the future holds for roaming rights.
Just over 90 years ago, a typed notice began to circulate among the workers of northern England.
It called on people to join a Ramblers' Rally – a mass trespass – on Kinder Scout, the highest point of the Derbyshire Peak District.
At that time Kinder – and much of the moorland around it – was kept exclusively for grouse shooting by its owner, the Duke of Devonshire, and his gamekeepers patrolled the land to see off walkers.
The rally resolved to challenge this situation.
Organised by the British Workers' Sports Federation, a Communist-influenced group, it extended a "hearty welcome" to the "young workers of Eccles", whether they had been rambling before or not.
Hundreds of men and women saw the advertisement and decided to join the gathering, planned for 14:00 BST on 24 April.
Among their number was Benny Rothman, a young mechanic.
In a BBC interview in the 1980s, he said: "It was possibly a naive idea that if enough ramblers went on a ramble, no group of keepers could stop them because there would be more ramblers than keepers.
"We went up the bank from William Clough in one long line and as we went up the bank, the person in charge of the keepers gave instructions to the keepers to come down the bank and meet us halfway.
"They did that and there must have been a dozen or slightly more brandishing their sticks and shouting 'get back'.
"Of course we just ignored them or pushed them aside until we got to the top."
When the group from Lancashire returned, however, the police waiting were for them.
Five walkers – including Mr Rothman – were charged with unlawful assembly and breach of the peace and, at Derby assizes, were sentenced to between two and six months in prison for their part in the "riotous assembly".
The outcry that greeted the sentences has been credited by many with starting a movement that led to the foundation of Britain's national parks with the first – appropriately enough – being the Peak District in 1951.
Belinda Scarlett who manages the Working Class Movement Library, the home of the Benny Rothman archive and other archive material relating to the trespass, said the event was "one of the most important examples of direct action of the socialist and communist politics of the 1930s".
Broadcaster Stuart Maconie, who is the president of the Ramblers, the national walking charity, has chronicled the Kinder mass trespass in his book Hope and Glory and has previously called for it to be taught in schools.
He said: "Walking is tied into the history of politics and dissent and this was a foundation event.
"I love the fact people might think of the Ramblers as a very gentile organisation but it's also a campaigning organisation and its roots are in that trespass."
In 2000, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act was passed and Mr Maconie sees the trespass as part of a timeline of events that is still ongoing.
This weekend, he is joining a celebration walk from New Mills to Hayfield to mark the event's 90th anniversary.
"The history of ordinary people is often ignored in favour of that of kings and queens. But the Kinder trespass is a victory for ordinary people. We have a lot to thank them for," he said.
Rebecca Dawson, who chairs the organisation, said the trespass was a "real icon for our movement".
"For 90 years we have campaigned for better access to the countryside," she said.
"Interestingly, the Ramblers, which then consisted of many federations, mostly in the north and the Midlands, didn't support the trespass and didn't get involved.
"But they were horrified at what happened next, when five trespassers were jailed for their part.
"This galvanised more conservative ramblers into action.
"What followed was a legislative process to try to enshrine these rights in law."
And yet, Ms Dawson says there is still work to do.
"We had to wait until 2000 to bring those freedoms workers had been campaigning for for so long," she said.
"It's still not perfect and we are still galvanised by the same spirit of those trespassers.
"Access remains really unequal.
"The majority of it is in the national parks and what we have found is that there are parts of the country where people don't have access."
She said this was particularly evident during the pandemic, as people descended on popular beauty spots – an issue caused in part, she believes, by limited access rights elsewhere.
"We have great sympathy with landowners who are negatively impacted by littering, for example, but there is a great difference between saying 'people shouldn't be there' and 'people should be acting responsibly'," she said.
"We cannot be complacent – it's important to remember that in England and Wales, we don't enjoy the access rights that exist in Scotland.
"There's very little open access land around towns and cities. Some spaces are excluded [from the act] such as woodlands, rivers and lakesides.
"Ninety years after an event that really galvanised people, we are still fighting that fight today."
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