England’s green and forbidden lands: Nick Hayes on his battle for the public’s right to ramble

An illustrator and lifelong trespasser fights back against the English landowning elite, one walk at a time.

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On a blustery summer day in Oxfordshire, Nick Hayes began trespassing in Lord and Lady Rotherwick’s estate of Cornbury Park. Setting out on a short stretch of public footpath through fields and wooded canopies from the tiny village of Finstock, it wasn’t long before the 38-year-old illustrator veered towards the depths of Wychwood Forest, and on to private land.

Hayes looked like every groundskeeper’s nightmare: burly, bearded and bedecked in red Adidas tracksuit bottoms and a torn black T-shirt. Two fresh cuts on his upper arm glistened after a scramble over barbed wire. Yet his intention was not to poach, vandalise or rave. Hayes was retracing one of the trespasses he describes in his latest work, The Book of Trespass, to demonstrate the injustice of England’s land laws.

In England, 92 per cent of land and 97 per cent of waterways are out of bounds. Half of England is owned by under 1 per cent of the population, and a third of land in Britain is owned by the aristocracy. The Duke of Buccleuch, head of one of Britain’s largest land-owning dynasties, owns 270,700 acres: double the size of Birmingham, Derby and Leicester combined.

There are 117,800 miles of public footpath in England – half that of a century ago, and a mere fraction of what was once available to “the commons” before enclosures began fencing off public space for manorial ownership in the 12th century and beyond: the backdrop of numerous peasants’ rebellions over the centuries, and a process that was largely completed in the late Victorian era.

In a milestone victory for ramblers, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 restored the legal right to roam over mountains, moors, heaths and downs without sticking to paths. Yet most of English land remains off-limits. In Scotland, by contrast, all land is open to the public, so long as residents’ privacy is respected. “In England, we like tight pricks on horseback and we doff our cap,” sighed Hayes, when I joined him on his Cornbury trespass. All the trespasses in his book would be perfectly legal in Scotland.

“Public footpaths allow us to essentially walk in strips and ribbons across our countryside, but there’s only 8 per cent of land you have the right to roam across,” he said, stopping regularly to point out mushrooms, or shield and relight his roll-up cigarette against the buffeting wind.

The central message of his book is that everyone should have access to the joy of nature, and its mental and physical health benefits – a vision restricted by an elite circle of proprietors. “Areas of land we do have access to are basically nowhere near cities, or large conurbations,” he said, calling for public access to the green belt, which is “within easy access to 60 per cent” of the population. “Why do we exoticise nature as a holiday destination, or something you only visit on rare occasions? Why can’t it be part of everyone’s daily existence?”

Rivers and their banks, meadows and woods also do not count as “open access”. In Oxfordshire alone, the public is barred from 90 per cent of woodland. Originally a royal hunting ground listed in the Domesday Book, Cornbury’s 5,000 acres of ancient forest and farmland and its 16th-century manor house are today a green and pleasant land of private profit.

The Rotherwicks, a shipping family who moved into their estate in the 1960s, rent out office space for businesses, private lakes, and exclusive access to their portion of the River Evenlode for fishing, and even offer wild deer stalking.

Yet the land is best known for hosting Wilderness Festival – dubbed “Poshstock” by the tabloids, complete with a Pimm’s-sponsored croquet lawn and £2,199 “gypsy caravan” rentals. Prince Harry and David Cameron are past attendees. This is far removed from the land’s history of free and public revelry. Deep in the estate is a clearing called Newell Plain, where an annual fair began after a group of Methodists picnicked there in 1790. Back then, the land belonged to the Crown but was not policed by keepers, so navvies working on the railway line, revellers from London, Cornbury locals and members of the gentry themselves would attend the carnival – a scene of colourful lanterns, exotic animals and music.

The tradition died in 1857, after the Duke of Marlborough (Winston Churchill’s grandfather, of the neighbouring Blenheim Palace seat) bought the land rights, dug trenches to block wagons, and had his own gamekeepers police the woods.

Hayes, who lives in an east London tower block, was raised in the Berkshire village of Upper Basildon: Wind in the Willows country. When a groundsman chastised him for taking his mother to see some kingfishers on private farmland a decade ago, he began investigating England’s real Toads of Toad Hall – but he has been trespassing “forever”.

Ink stains on his hands and sunburn on the back of his neck reveal the true purpose of his lifetime of gentle intrusion: to draw. “I’ve got hundreds of sketchbooks full of scenes that I’m not allowed to look at,” he smiled. “I never used to see it in the context of politics – there was just a spot, a break in the fence, and you nip through.”

Before we reached Newell Plain, a keeper wearing the green and yellow Cornbury branding leapt out of a nearby tractor. “You’re trespassing! It’s not your place, what gives you the right?” Hayes questioned the law of trespass with his adversary. “This place is over 5,000 acres – how many do you own?” he asked. “F**k all!” came the reply. “But it’s just the natural law.”

"The Book of Trespass: Crossing the Lines that Divide Us" by Nick Hayes is published by Bloomsbury Circus

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

This article appears in the 25 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The autumn of discontent

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