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Fighting for freedom to roam – a history of walking in the UK

Other posts by  |  Patrick Norris on Google+ |  April 9, 2012 | 0 Comments
Kinder Scout is in Derbyshire and was the site of a mass protest which resulted in access to the countryside

Kinder Scout is in Derbyshire and was the site of a mass protest which resulted in access to the countryside

In Patrick Norris’s first article for A Walker’s Guide, he takes a look at the history of walking in the UK and explores its origins. He gives a dramatic recounting of the mass trespass on Kinder Scout, Derbyshire, in 1932. The action was opposed by the official ramblers’ federations but in time it served as a major catalyst for the Right to Roam and led to the creation of our National Parks, of which the Derbyshire Peak District was the first in 1951. Northumberland National Park was five years later in 1956.

Walking guide Patrick Norris

Walking guide Patrick Norris

By Patrick Norris

During the time I was working as a volunteer leader in Swindon for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, young people would occasionally ask about the history of the Award and its origins, which were easy enough to explain, they are well documented.  This would inevitably lead to a wider discussion about access and its associated issues.

So, if they were following an expedition route along a footpath or a bridleway, that was OK, but if they wandered off it, they were trespassing. The Countryside and Rights of way Act 2000 added a level of complexity to the equation, which meant they could now walk off the footpaths and bridleways and not be trespassing as long as they were walking on ‘Access land’; it got confusing to say the least.

In addition, the mix of National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a number of other official designations are if you understand these matters as clear as crystal, if you don’t, then you cannot be blamed for being a little puzzled to say the least.

Access for walking as a leisure pursuit to the wider countryside in the UK is a fairly recent addition to our way of life; it began in the 19th Century, gathered momentum over the next 75 years or so and culminated in the 1949 Access to the Mountains and Countryside Act. This Act saw the creation of our National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and provided the legislative framework, which saw the mapping of the network of footpaths, bridleways and other tracks in England and Wales.

Various groups of people began walking in the British countryside for recreational and leisure purposes in the 19th Century.  The history of that is well documented by the Ramblers’ Association,  which can trace its lineage back to those early groups, which consisted broadly of often well to do and professional people.

However, the pastime increased in popularity, across the social classes and walking or rambling groups were set up all over the United Kingdom.  This lead to an increase in demand into areas hitherto denied to the public, particularly the high moors and mountains in the centre of the country, which were then and still are largely managed as grouse moors and walkers and grouse did not mix particularly well.  

In the 1930s then, Derbyshire and what is now the Peak District National Park became the focus for protest activity; violent confrontations took place and the mass trespass movement on Kinder Scout was underway.

The British are very adept at recognising a social injustice, so early in 1932, when a group of walkers were halted in their tracks at Bleaklow by gamekeepers, accused of trespassing and ordered off the land, a fire began to smoulder.  Later in the year, April 24 to be precise, 400 walkers, mostly from the Manchester area set off from Hayfield near Glossop, heading for the summit of Kinder Scout, determined on mass trespass, to fight for their cause and tackle what they deemed to be a social injustice.

On the way up, scuffles broke out between the gamekeepers and the walkers; a keeper was injured and a fractious atmosphere lay over the moors and mountains as the two sides skirmished, neither really getting an upper hand.  Eventually, the walkers reached the summit and met other walkers who had approached from different directions; they celebrated their achievement and turned for home.  

On their return to Hayfield, a total of six arrests were made and those walkers who were arrested were locked up in the tiny village jail to await trial.  The outcome was harsh and sentences of between two and six months were handed down to the six men.  However, as often happens in cases of social injustice, the six were celebrated, became famous and this lead to further protest and mass trespass.  Shortly after the men were sentenced, some 10,000 walkers assembled in Castleton in Derbyshire; they were in no mood to be halted in their tracks, they were going to walk and the rest as they say is history.

There is a plaque in Hayfield, which marks the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932. If you’re there like I was with a group of young people on their Gold Expedition, then do pause a while and consider the social movement that lead ultimately to the creation of our National Parks and our right to walk in the mountains, hills, moors and countryside.  It was hard fought and hard won and I for one am eternally grateful for that.

Patrick Norris is an independent walking guide and owns and operates Northumberland guided walks company Footsteps in Northumberland – Read more about Patrick in our Q&A interview In the Know.


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Category: Northumberland Walker's Guide

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