This idea was firmly cemented when The Clandestine Farm, a 1980 book by Anthony Wigens in which the author describes how walking the limiting territory of the public footpaths around his Hertfordshire home '...put in his mind his inalienable right, based on Common Law, to run a clandestine farm from the hedgerows and waste round about'. As Wigens declares, ' "Trespassers will be prosecuted" is a threat as empty as ever it was, unless damage is committed'. Emboldened by this worthy precedent, and confident that a civil court case would be unlikely for merely passing through somebody's property, I set about devising the route for my less ambitious undertaking: a day's walk rather than night time planting and foraging. I also came across John Bainbridge's stories of the Compleat Trespasser, further bolstering my feelings of righteousness that '...the interest of the people in the English countryside and their consequent claim upon it are paramount' (C.E.M. Joad, The People's Claim).
|My Trespass Way|
For the last two miles of my route I'd deliberately chosen the contrasting landscape of the escarpment plateau; a more regimented scene, now rectilinear arable fields but previously classic 'sheep-corn' country as described by Tom Williamson: "Here open fields co-existed with extensive tracts of open grazing - downs, sheep walks, and heaths". That was in the sixteenth century, since then Parliamentary enclosure and the progressively more intensive arable farming that followed has transformed such areas, which now often hold little appeal to walkers, ecologists or landscape aesthete's. Certainly, in my weariness, this stretch was purely a means to an end, enlivened only by an inquisitive wren that circled me as I examined fox prints in the mud of a dried up pond. As if to drive home the victory of the landowning classes, the now mature mono-species hawthorn hedges planted for their fast growth during enclosure are now tight thickets that almost defy passage through them, as validated by the many cuts decorating my limbs as I reach journey's end.
"The green fields of England are famous. They occupy a central place in a myth of ethnic origins: in a narrative of Englishness, of notions of cultural and national identity in a changing world ...
... Yet, as is so often the case with such images, the placid surface of the rolling countryside is a thin skin over a deeper reality of rupture, of conflict, of human action, of change. Far from being an unchanging constant, much of the pattern of the English countryside we see today was an active creation of agrarian capitalism, and thus of the agrarian basis of industrial society. We may like to think of such a landscape as we see it today as a salve for urban alienation, a retreat from the harshness of the modern world. In reality the changing structure and perception of Blake's green and pleasant land played a central part in the constitution of capitalism.
Between 1400 and 1850 much of the rural landscape of England was transformed beyond all recognition: from a land of furlongs and strip fields, of medieval agrarian practises, of a different pattern of everyday work, of a different way of living and thinking , to a modern one, an iron cage whose frame was cast along principles of class relations, of farming for profit. This transformation created a rural landscape capable of feeding the urban masses created by the Industrial Revolution."
Returning to the opening quote from George Monbiot, nobody shouted at me for straying from the path but, despite modest advancement in access to marginal and non-agricultural land through 'right to roam' legislation since she wrote This Land is Our Land in 1987, Marion Shoard's call to arms should still be ringing in our ears:
"The character of land ownership in Britain needs to be redefined to exclude the landowner's right to bar his fellow-citizens from the face of the earth. We need to change from a system that treats presence on rural land as trespass except in special circumstances, to one that presumes a public right to walk on the land except in circumstances where there are good reasons why it should be withheld. In this way, we could break with our feudal inheritance and recover from the landowners a right which was taken for granted a thousand years ago."
Fairlie, Simon, 2009 A Short History of Enclosure in Britain in The Land Issue 7.
Fleming, Andrew, 2007 Don't Bin Your Boots! in Landscapes Vol 8 No 2 Macclesfield: Windgather Press
Joad, C.E.M., 1937 The People's Claim in Williams-Ellis, Clough (Ed.) Britain and the Beast, London: Dent.
Mabey, Richard, 1980 The Common Ground: A place for nature in Britain's future? London: Hutchinson.
Shoard, Marion, 1987 This Land is Our Land: The struggle for Britain's countryside London: Paladin.
Wickham-Smith, Caroline, 2010 Fear of Farming Oxford: Windgather Press.
Williamson, Tom, 2003 The Transformation of Rural England: Farming and the landscape 1700-1870 Exeter: Exeter University Press.
Archaeological Data Service web site http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/search/fr.cfm?rcn=SGLOSSMR-SG3453
John Clare, the poet of the environmental crisis – 200 years ago http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/09/john-clare-poetry
The right to roam land and shore but for the sky no fences facing http://gerryco23.wordpress.com/2013/04/01/the-right-to-roam-land-and-shore-but-for-the-sky-no-fences-facing/
Remember Kinder Scout – give back Britain's common land http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/apr/30/remember-kinder-scout-britain-common-land?CMP=twt_fd
Winstanley: A Vision of Albion http://psychogeographicreview.com/?p=1690