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8 January 2021updated 25 Jul 2021 11:45am

The true scandal behind Snowdonia’s Covid-19 lockdown rule-breakers

Car parks in the north Wales national park are closing because of a surge in visitors – exposing our warped relationship with beauty spots.

By Anoosh Chakelian

On Thursday (7 January), the Snowdonia National Park Authority in north Wales decided to close all its car parks to block visitors from breaking Covid-19 lockdown restrictions.

People in Wales have been instructed to stay at home and unnecessary travel has been banned under alert level four restrictions, which have been in place since 20 December and were renewed today for three further weeks.

Nevertheless, a “high volume of people” have been found ignoring the rules, according to the authority’s chair Wyn Ellis Jones. The national park has seen a rise in visitors to its beauty spots since Christmas, North Wales Police officers have “stopped and turned away” several hikers wanting to climb Snowdon (some who had travelled from London and Milton Keynes in south-east England), and staff manning the car parks have even reported “abuse” in the past week from members of the public.

Although there was reluctance at first to close car parks because of the likelihood of illegal parking on roads (remember the chaotic scenes last July), the move is now considered necessary to deter people from travelling to the area for exercise.

North Wales had the same problem during the first lockdown last March, when roads and mountain summits became crowded with people travelling to Snowdonia to walk, and Saturday 22 March was logged as the “busiest ever visitor day in living memory”, despite Snowdonia National Park Authority closing main car parks and urging people to stay away. Beaches on the English coast suffered a similar phenomenon during summer 2020.

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[see also: Beach-shaming Britain: The real story behind coronavirus crowds]

Why are people still defying the rules? Exercise and outdoor activity have been deemed “important” for people’s health by the Welsh government, which explicitly states that people are permitted to leave home “as often as you like to exercise”, with no legal limits on the kind of exercise allowed nor on the distance you can travel while doing it. The guidance, however, is that exercise “should start and finish from your home and generally, this should not involve people driving to a location away from home”.

There is leeway for those with specific health or mobility issues (such as wheelchair users) who cannot exercise straight from outside their home for access reasons. However, the Welsh government also states: “Where people need to drive to access exercise, the journey should be to the nearest convenient accessible location,” adding: “No long journeys should be undertaken unless absolutely necessary.”

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This means that, unless they were covered by the above physical reasons, or lived very locally, the influx of visitors to Snowdonia probably were in breach of the restrictions. (Although when the government explicitly applies no limit to the distance you can travel while exercising, and encourages physical activity, it may be that many have innocently misinterpreted the tone of the rules.)

Photos of rebellious hikers have been met with widespread contempt on social media, and officials have been firm. “It’s vital that we follow the current guidelines to avoid unnecessary travel and not to drive to some of Snowdonia’s beauty spots for the time being,” commented Gareth Jones, assistant head of Gwynedd Council’s environment department.

However, this focus on certain “beauty spots” and the attempts by people to climb Snowdon itself – the United Kingdom’s most-visited mountain – reveals a deeper problem than lockdown rule-breaking. It shows how little space people actually have to go to.

[see also: England’s green and forbidden lands]

Just 20 per cent of Welsh land and 8 per cent of English land is open access, compared with the freedom to roam throughout Scotland (access legislation is a devolved matter). Furthermore, as noted by Guy Shrubsole, a land ownership investigator and author of 2019’s Who Owns England? How We Lost Our Green and Pleasant Land, and How to Take It Back, the public only has a right to navigate 4 per cent of rivers in England and Wales (with the remaining 96 per cent either off-limits or disputed), and there is only one place in the whole of England and Wales where you can legally wild-camp (in Dartmoor).

Although the public has access to footpaths labelled “public rights of way”, and the landmark 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act (the Crow Act) gave us the “right to roam” off paths onto land classed as “open access” – a right that came into force in Wales in 2005 – the majority of land in England and Wales remains off-limits.

So while it may be easy to condemn the actions of visitors flocking to popular nature spots and national parks during lockdown, it is worth remembering that the majority of people have very little access to land. Even the areas opened up by the Crow Act are very specific: landscapes such as mountains, moors, heath and downs – with woodlands, grasslands and rivers and lakesides generally excluded. These areas are not evenly distributed across the country and are difficult for the majority of people to get to without a public path or a signposted route.

“A lot of downland, open country – like meadows and pasture land – is already part of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, but it exists in tiny little islands so you have to trespass to get to it,” Nick Hayes, an illustrator and lifelong trespasser who I interviewed about his book, The Book of Trespass: Crossing the Lines that Divide Us, told me last year.

“In England and Wales there’s 140,000 miles of footpath that allow us to essentially walk in strips and ribbons across our countryside, but currently there’s only 8 per cent of land that you have the right to roam across.”

For the more than 80 per cent of the UK population living in towns and cities, there is very little surrounding open access land – and no “right to roam”. Confined to their homes and banned from travelling to greener spaces, their lockdown experience has thrown these restrictions into the spotlight. Indeed, one of the many consequences of the pandemic has been to give renewed momentum to a campaign to extend the right to roam in England to all woodland, rivers and the greenbelts around urban areas. The Welsh government is currently looking into widening access to the countryside for recreation.

Until then, people seeking the solace, space and physical benefits of natural landscapes are bound to home in on the best-known beauty spots and well-trodden paths, whatever the official guidance. As Shrubsole told me last year: “People go where they feel they have permission, or a sense of permission, to go. There’s a huge other bit of the countryside out there where we could be going and exploring, if we had the right to – or if we felt comfortable doing so”.