“If you want the moors to be free, you must free them for yourselves.”– Prof. C.E.M. Joad, spoken to Peak District ramblers.
Blanketed in green and ochre grasses, home to the aqueous wonders of Kinder Downfall and the Mermaid Pools, and yielding views of 100 miles from its peaty summit: Kinder Scout is not only the highest point in the Peak District but also Derbyshire and the East Midlands. Its name derived from an Old Norse phrase meaning ‘water over the edge’, it is fitting that Kinder Scout would be the backdrop for overflowing tensions effervescing into protest.
Nineteen years before the Peak District National Park would be established, on Sunday 24th April 1932, 400 ramblers trespassed upon Kinder Scout. Dissatisfied with the passive efforts of older generations to negotiate public access to the Peaks, the horde – comprised mostly of young people and led by a 20-year-old named Benny Rothman – headed defiantly up the steep hillside. After returning to the nearby village of Hayfield in triumph, five of the youths would be arrested and subjected to prison sentences of between two and six months. Considered senseless trouble at the time, the trespassers’ persecution is now heralded as a crucial turning point for the right-to-roam movement and, ultimately, lead to the creation of the UK’s National Parks.
Yet, almost 90 years on, enmities between landowners and ramblers still simmer. The government’s new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill recently proposed criminalising intentional trespass, which opposers argue could jeopardise the freedom of ramblers to enjoy the countryside. Sheffield MP Olivia Blake spoke on the issue in parliament this week – fittingly between the anniversaries of the Peak District’s creation and that of the Mass Trespass – condemning the bill as “an extreme, illiberal and unnecessary attack on ancient freedoms”. In her speech, Blake MP mentioned Ethel Haythornthwaite (1894-1986), a pioneer of countryside protection and a key player in both the establishment of the Sheffield Green Belt and the Peak District National Park.
Haythornthwaite’s adoration of the Peaks began when she started taking restorative walks to overcome the grief of becoming a war widow at only 23. This same conviction drove Rothman and co. in 1932: escaping to the Peak District from the polluted towns and cities of the industrial North vastly improved their sense of wellbeing. As writer and rambler Roly Smith wrote of the trespassers’ yearning: “The Great Escape offered by the misty, inviting moors of the Peak, just a sixpenny (2.5p) bus ride away from the grimy, back-to-back terraces, was a magnetic temptation”.
As a farmer’s daughter, though, I sympathise with landowners who wish to shield and preserve their acreage from those who would not enjoy it considerately. Recent images of litter-strewn parks after sunny weather underline the need to rebuild societal respect for natural spaces. Abandoned waste is, regrettably, not the only issue: a lack of regard for wildlife and livestock produces additional strife. Sadly, in 2019, a 40-year-old herd of Highland Cattle were forced to be removed from Baslow Edge after a run of incidents. Causing intense heartache to the cattle-owners, the absence of the grazing herd puts the area at increased risk of moor fire. Education of ‘Leave No Trace’ principles is vital if ramblers and landowners are to reach an understanding.
Recalling the story of the Mass Trespass and the broader debates around green space access, I think of the violent displacement of indigenous people from their homelands the world over and their ongoing fight to reclaim, protect and live peacefully upon them. Though the event recounted here pales in comparison to that plight, it bears a similar moral: land carries significance and sentiment. The Mass Trespass of 1932 was not born from a desire for chaos and disruption, as some would see it. It was born from a love of nature and the calm and wonder it instils. The attachments that humans have to land, and the competing desires and concerns that come with that, continue to fuel conflict. Whilst the benefits of nature should not be gatekept, admittance comes with a responsibility. “If you want the moors to be free, you must free them for yourselves” – but take care of them too.
Words + Featured Image by Hannah Wigley