Tuesday 2 July 2013

Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene

"I thought of walks in the English countryside, where people start shouting at you as soon as you stray from the footpath".  

A statement by George Monbiot from his thought-provoking new work Feral that, like the book as a whole and the concept - rewilding - that it advocates, both resonates and slightly infuriates at the same time. 

'Rewilding' is certainly trending in environmental circles at the moment. However, its not so much the prospect of the return of the wolf, lynx, beaver and other predators and large herbivores to the uplands and wilder parts of the British Isles and Europe that is in my thoughts (though I do have some practical and intellectual problems with this idea that may be explored at another time). The above quote struck a chord with me because it also hints at a more basic, anthropocene concern when considering the future of landscapes and ecosystems; namely, perhaps before we rush headlong into facilitating the theoretical 're-introduction' of the straight-tusked elephant that roamed European forests and plains 40,000 years ago, we should address the more fundamental concern of land ownership, access and control. 

To be fair to Monbiot, rewilding is a useful and imaginative stalking horse for stimulating debate on this issue and future direction in the wider policy fields of agriculture, conservation, energy, housing, transport and land-use. My own ruminations on the bizarre situation that we in these islands find ourselves - an increasing population, in many ways more autonomous than ever before, excluded from living and working (or even visiting) the larger part of the land mass on which we dwell - have cooked up a righteous soup of thoughts around community food production, noble, peaceful trespass and the hidden history of the tyranny of enclosure. How can it be right that '...nearly half the country is owned by 40,000 land millionaires, or 0.06 per cent of the population, while most of us spend half our working lives paying off the debt on a patch of land barely large enough to accommodate a dwelling and a washing line' (Simon Fairlie)?

A number of recent readings and 'Twitter-leads' have helped to stimulate this well-spring. The most striking being Gerry Conley's blog post on The right to roam land and shore, 'but for the sky, no fences facing'which eruditely brings together many of the touch-stones of this subject: Norman land grabbing, eighteenth and nineteenth century Parliamentary Inclosure, John Clare, the Diggers of St George's Hill, the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, Marion Shoard, Right to Roam legislation, corporate land ownership and the creeping privatisation of public space. These themes have also been essayed in articles by Peter Lazenby and, again, George Monbiot. 

The Diggers, a radical group of proto-socialists who occupied St George's Hill in Surrey in 1649 are fascinatingly chronicled in the 1975 film, Winstanley. In many ways, this doomed five month attempt to establish the concept of the 'Common Treasury' of the land for all, ruthlessly quashed by the reassertion of the primacy of private capital and ownership, occured during a pivotal period in history for the English landscape and society; a course was being set for the processes of enclosure and 'improvement' of the land, of successive agricultural, industrial and post-industrial revolutions that sculptured the environments and socio-economic realities of subsequent generations, and still resonate today: 'Winstanley had a dream of a wonderful, gentler, more just and happy world; a dream that came again to other people in succeeding centuries, but for whose realisation we are still waiting' (David Gardiner).  

The arc of this story is well rehearsed, and well written, ground that I am not going to retread. Instead, I am leaving the path, plunging into the undergrowth; exploring the concepts of access, private ownership and enclosure, and maybe rewilding of the self, head on and with the 'muddy boots' of empiricism. Taking, in Richard Mabey's words, '...the opportunity to experience it (nature) face to face, with its qualities of wildness and renewal intact'. So, rather than using an Ordnance Survey map to pleasingly link up the anarchic network of dashed lines indicating public rights of way, hill tracks and unmetalled lanes, I have devised a mildly subversive circuit through hill and dale that studiously avoids legally prescribed routeways: a Trespass Way. 

 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. JoadThe People's Claim).

My Trespass Way

The terrain on which I have chosen to play out this little venture is in many ways an everyday landscape of deep England; and this is in no way meant as a pejorative term. Nine miles or so straddling the scarp slope of the southern-most slither of Cotswold Oolite limestone before it peters out above Bath. The route crosses an agrarian fieldscape of both planned enclosure of previously open common fields and more ancient pasture, assarted from woodland perhaps at any time in the 1000 years or so before the landscape was, in Gerard Manley Hopkins words, 'plotted and pieced' into a more orderly pattern of agricultural exploitation. Handsome post-medieval farmsteads, built by the 'middling sort' who prospered on the back of the increased demand for food and other products from rising urban populations still boss their surroundings, though not all are now tied to the land. There is still pre-modern muck, murk and intrigue here though. Much of the route follows limestone streams, busily finding their way from upland springs to Bristol Channel anonymity or the tree and scrub-choked ridgeline; the haunts of fox and badger probably little changed from centuries past. And the map gives up further antiquity: hachured terraces indicating the strip lynchets of medieval ploughing and the earthworks circling the plateau summit of Freezing Hill (topped off with an OS Tumulus symbol). 

Car parked near the ominously named The Lynch (perhaps the final spot for previous generations of transgressors) and off I go. Over one of many obstacles to be tackled during the day (a straight-forward gate), and down into the first unfrequented valley, the grassed over lynchets formed by medieval plough teams exploiting marginal hillsides to feed an ever growing population now sheep-cropped. George Monbiot's 'white plague' tribe welcoming the intruder with disdainful stares. And I do feel like an interloper as I pass through this magnificent country on a perfect midsummer day, eyes and ears alert to any sign of those who would find my presence here problematic. The words of an old Housemartins song come into my head: 'Me and the farmer like brother and sister, getting on like a hand and blister'. 

At one point I find myself, slightly disappointingly, on a diverted public footpath for a short while. An example of the common practise of moving a right of way that previously went through or up to a farmstead. A sensible compromise now that the original purpose of such paths - to take agricultural labourers to and from their place of work - no longer applies, or unacceptable interference with ancient rights, depending on your point of view. 

I'm now in my stride and, as a new vista appears, John Clare's remembrance that 'unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene' from his elegiac anti-enclosure epic The Mores comes to mind. But the sense of carefreeness that such a walk usually engenders is not yet quite there; particularly as I tackle yet another barbed wire topped fence, employing one of a number of different but equally inelegant techniques for crossing such obstacles without causing damage to myself or the barrier.

Now I happen upon an unexpected sight. As the Ancient Stones limber up for the real thing tonight, I come across a ghost Glastonbury. Backed by an idyllic pond populated by canada geese, dragonflies and water iris and at the base of a natural amphitheatre, the rusting and wood-rotten remains of what appears to be a stage come into view. Was this the scene of a back to nature hippy rave-up or a Young Farmers cider-fest? Binary opposed breeds who would both be at home here. The archaeology of festivals is surely a new research opportunity to be explored.

Into St John's Wood and a further abandonment is discovered. What at first I take for a bird watching hide turns out to be what can best be described as a privy. Close by are the remains of some kind of encampment: rotting tarpaulin, brick B-B-Q, piles of wood and an old tool kit. On leaving the wood and cresting the head of the valley I pass a tough looking gang of black bullocks but have time to limbo under an electric fence before they stamp their way along the perimeter, parallel to my progression through the next field, escorting me away from their bovine realm. 

A short stretch of tarmac road leads me to my first human encounter. Passing the entrance to a farm yard I realise that I will not be able to walk the next stretch without being in full view of the farmer who is fixing his tractor next to the barn. I therefore reluctantly seek a gap in the hedge where a nearby public footpath would take me to a further point on my route, safely away from his gaze. But there is no such gap and no sign of a path. I had always planned that, if I had contact with a landowner during the walk, I would follow Anthony Wigens tenet in The Clandestine Farm that 'the man who stands and looks, who stands his ground too and looks the farmer in the eye when he is asked his business, and talks to the farmer - such a one may be welcome'. Down the farm track I headed and with a 'morning, sorry to bother you' explained that I could not find the path and was looking for the best way to progress to Freezing Hill. Here serendipity stepped in to help me on my way. It became clear that the farmers crop was blocking the right of way further down the road and so, in friendly fashion, he directed me to take the very field boundary and stand of beech trees that was my intended route anyway as an alternative. So with the landowners permission, though without bothering him with the detail of how I would not be rejoining the public path, I proceeded.

Treading the turf of the bank and ditch bounding the top of Freezing Hill a vista of the city of Bristol, the Severn Estuary, Forest of Dean, uplands of South Wales and the Vale of Berkeley filled the canvas of my view, like a geography lesson in technicolour. The neatly manicured links of the Tracey Park golf complex at the bottom of the slope a jarring element in the scene; uneasily juxtaposed with the neighbouring meadows of grazing cattle that formed the next part of my route, pastoralism clinging on in the face of leisurewear blandness. Unfortunately golf was to become the extended 'middle eight' of the day's experience. As I reached a particularly impenetrable field edge I realised that the course had eaten further into the surrounding fieldscape since my OS map was printed. After a brief recce of alternatives it became clear that my only option for continuing was to cross the golf links.

Not looking like a golfer is generally something I would take pride in, but in the present circumstances this suddenly seemed a distinct disadvantage as I made my conspicuous way through this strange sporting ecosystem, seemingly taking 1950's suburban America as its template. However, none of the curiously apparelled (and all male) players pay me much attention as I walk briskly with an air of confidence and purpose. Then the noise of a vehicle approaching from behind, and a momentary sense of foreboding; security here to deal with an undesirable. But no, instead a polite woman in a golf cart asks if I would like a bottle of coke.

Now for the most difficult and dispiriting stretch of the walk. First a few hundred yards of the very narrow, overgrown verge of a particularly fast section of the A420 gives me the opportunity to mull over the grim decision as to whether speeding motorists or ambling golfers are the more dislocated from their surroundings. A relief soon to be back in the fields, but this time I have to wade through set-aside land on which new nature is arising in a particularly walker-in-shorts unfriendly way. Nettles, thistles and other spiked and harshly-stemmed vegetation at their peak in height and vitality tearing or stinging at my skin; each step an extra layer of throb and blood in increments.

Its with relief then that I drop - Macfarlane-like - into the lush, damp and shady calm of a holloway; walled in by hart's tongue fern. A pleasing section of wood pasture - an array of buttercups from the meadows of childhood memory - leads me to the ridgeline of Toghill and an empyrean stretch of the Cotswold scarp. Whilst I warily watch a muscular Charolais bull on the steeper ground above me, too dozy in the afternoon heat to be bothered with a mere human, the sound of my approach flushes out a goshawk or sparrowhawk a few yards in front of me; an effortless flash of yellow legs, in the sky before I have had chance to track its flight. The slope here is vegetated with gorse and hawthorn but I am following what I realise is a desire path made by cattle, plotting a sensible course of sun-dappled shade in much the same way as we would create a route through.

On this high ground is found the meeting point of three ancient parish boundaries mentioned in Anglo-Saxon Charters of 950 and 972AD. The Charters record 'Fearn Beargh' (Fern Barrow) as a landmark delineating this place, which may also be the 'Heathenan Byrigelsas' (Heathen Burial Place) mentioned in another local tenth century Charter. A pencilled circle had been marking this spot on my map for future exploration for several years. Sadly, although I found plenty of ferns, there was no sign of the barrow, or indeed any heathens. Distracted through tinkering with my camera I did though have my third and final human contact of the walk as a man with a baseball cap and a quizzical expression suddenly appeared. Was my confrontation with landed interest finally here? Ready for questioning I offer an 'afternoon'. A volunteer footpath warden for the Cotswold Way he says, out for a ramble with his wife on this new permissive path around Dyrham Wood: permissive path? how does that fit with my narrative arc of bold transgression against the Man? Grinning to myself, I continue along the ridge as it enters the wood, feeling thankful for the familiarity of a pathway after the hard grind of a couple of hours earlier; dead garlic abounds, smelling like the last embers of Spring.

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.     

For me, Matthew Johnson nicely nails the temporal journey such countryside has taken in his excellent study of the landscape and material culture of England from the later Middle Ages until the dawning of the Industrial Revolution, An Archaeology of Capitalism:
"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."
And yet, I have always been in thrall to the very features and characteristics - the iconography - of the British landscape that the pernicious processes of capital and land ownership have created: are not the dry-stone walls and hedges of enclosure, the romantically desolate, sheep-cropped uplands and 'rights of way' footpaths and tracks some of the very things that bring aesthetic pleasure and historical depth to a visit to the countryside? Perhaps with a less zealous, paternalistic approach to the husbandry of animals and the land we would now be faced with a binary landscape of endless semi-suburbia, filled with half-built concrete bungalows, co-existing with impenetrable scrub land and swamp, a haven for wildlife but visited only by the hardy few. This maybe so, but its surely the successive waves of exclusion that this polarised form of stewardship have brought about that has cast many in the wider population so adrift from their everyday relationship with the basics of living.  

So, what has this exercise in pedestrian disobedience shown me? Most of us are legally denied access to much of the land it is true but, because the countryside is largely unpeopled outside of the foci of roads, houses and farms and centres of other prescribed activities, it is relatively easy to access these notionally out of bounds places unmolested. At times, this was a hard-going and difficult tramp across what is, if following well-used and legal paths, a benign landscape. But compared to a regular walk I felt throughout unbounded, unboundaried: all the senses, and sense of adventure and discovery, in full effect; instinct and physical agility much more to the fore. Maybe I was feeling 'a more ancient wealth resurfacing' as identified in Fear of Farming, Caroline Whickham-Smith's history of the relationships and tensions between our hunter-gatherer instincts and our progression to more orderly ways of living and producing food. On a less spiritual level, whilst a hefty stick is essential for dealing with barbed wire, nettles, thistles, brambles and frisky or protective cattle, I have learnt that shorts are less so, as my scarred legs will attest.

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."


Clare, John, 2000 Selected Poems London: Penguin.

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

Gardiner, David, 2012 Winstanley BFI DVD release notes.

Joad, C.E.M., 1937 The People's Claim in Williams-Ellis, Clough (Ed.) Britain and the Beast, London: Dent.

Johnson, Matthew, 1996 An Archaeology of Capitalism Oxford: Blackwell.

Mabey, Richard, 1980 The Common Ground: A place for nature in Britain's future? London: Hutchinson.

Monbiot, George, 2013 Feral London: Penguin.

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.

Wigens, Anthony, 1981 The Clandestine Farm St Albans: Granada.

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


  1. Eddie, this is a great post-fascinating research and deeper context, compelling thoughts and ideas about getting out and about into the less isolated landscape around us. Bravo and thank you. I wrote about the experience of being challenged by an angry farmer http://theperegrinefiles.com/page/2/ - in a blog post 'Contested Ground' I tried to reason with him, but he had already made his mind up about 'people like (me)'! Sean

  2. Thanks Sean

    I'll have a read of your blog post. Think I was just lucky not to have a confrontation.


  3. It's good to read such a thoughtful and equivocal view of the complex issue of land ownership and access - I have been infuriated by the simplicity and point-scoring of Monbiot's view, which seem to be based on a process of finding the facts which fit his own political prejudices. It's enlightening to look over the border to see how the hegemony of the rich and powerful does not completely preclude public access. Of course, the best models are in scandinavia, with their 'allmansrait' legislation which presumes that access is the norm, as your Marion Shoard quote suggests, but the CROW legislation has done a significant amount to open up access, particularly here in the uplands.

    Great work - thanks Eddie


    1. Thanks very much Ian. I always like to read what GM has to say but he does tend to be so very absolutist in his views.

      As you say Scotland and the uplands across the rest of Britain are generally much more accessible (and, as Marion Shaord emphasises, our rights of way network is an underestimated jewel that other countries rightly envy). But for great swathes of the country things are far too limited.

      Scandinavia is the model but depressing to think that such a rational, progressive and important development would be seen as a fringe irrelevance to many people, and certainly to our politicians. We need a new John Clare.


    2. We certainly do! The obvious candidate is Robert MacFarlane, but I suspect someone more radical and visionary, more political even, is required in desperate times - a mix of Andy Wightman (the scottish land rights writer), Billy Bragg and Iain Sinclair would do for me.....

  4. Excellent post, an inspiration to keep on trespassing! 'The Clandestine Farm' sounds like a good read, will have to track down a copy.

  5. Enclosure, in taking the commons away from the poor, made them strangers in their own land EP Thompson, Customs in Common. Has a great chapter on the complex common rights origins of the issues explored in this post.

  6. Great post Eddie. I agree with your points. I enjoyed Feral although I don't agree with everything Monbiot suggests. I do think he is being deliberately provocative in order to get some debate going which can only be a good thing. Hence the responses so far and the article in the Guardian yesterday for example http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jul/06/nature-writing-revival?CMP=twt_gu
    The Clandestine Farm does sound worth tracking down.

  7. Fabulous post Eddie and a great read. Just caught up after being on holiday. It's a useful reminder of how restrictive the legislation is in England compared to North of the Border following the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. However, concentration of ownership is probably no different and raises a host of practical access issues. (Landowners 'forgetting to open gates for example). If you are not doing so already it's worth following Andy Wightman who keeps on top of the Scottish issues: http://www.andywightman.com/ and @andywightman. Thanks Eddie

    1. Thank you!

      Scotland is definately more progressive in this area. The rights of way network in England and Wales is a fantastic resource that its easy to underestimate, but its the restriction to these paths and the relatively modest areas of 'freedom to roam' access land that is the problem.

      On the case with Andy Wightman being a bit of a Scottish expert in such matters.

  8. Eddie, a thoroughly enjoyable post and what a great introduction to your blog. I welcome Monbiot's book - a timely stimulus to the wild imagination. It seems we both have our boots on the ground: http://radref.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/theogeography.html

    1. Thanks Philip. I enjoyed your post. Though I don't have a faith myself, there is undeniably a spiritual connection to be had when out in the landscape.

  9. Really interesting post. I enjoyed it so much I came back to read it again. A few times even when walking on designated public rights of way I've still had to be wary of glaring 'land-owners', employees of the former and, on one public path that shared some space with a golf-course, had enraged golfers driving balls towards us.

    1. Cheers Matt. Never really had much in the way of conflict whilst walking. As a kid I built a tree-house by a local stream with some mates. The farmer came shouting at us one day and ordered us to take it down; 'how would you like it if I brought my tractor into your garden' was his level of sophisticated argument. The seering sense of injustice has stayed with me ever since!

  10. Ha. My brother once had a funny reverse experience a little like that. He and a couple of mates were scrumping apples and picking blackberries in a back lane. A sudden roaring shouted 'Hey' came out of nowhere as a man appeared, running out of a house that backed on to the lane. My brother and friends started to run, but the man overtook them - and said: 'Would you like these too? We've got more than we can eat' as he thrust a couple of plastic cartons filled with blackberries and a bag of apples at them.


Please add your comments here.