The Book of Trespass: Crossing the lines that divide us
‘Private Property – Keep out’ is a constant sight in the English countryside. It has always infuriated me. And now, after reading Nick Hayes’ thoroughly fascinating, engaging and challenging book I think I know why. Because the attitudes that created that sign are intrinsically unfair, unfounded and damage society every day by needlessly excluding us from the land.
I loved Nick’s book for large passages, it challenged me and made me uncomfortable – and annoyed me a bit in parts. Which is what a good polemic should do I think – and this is deeply political, deeply polemic. The basic thesis is this – that our private property laws in England are designed to exclude us from the land to which we once had a right and should have a right again. Once upon a time (as you’ll know from the History of England podcast), and for much of our history, we have recognised that land ownership is qualified – yes there is an owner with ultimate rights, but the community also has rights of access over it. Slowly up landowners have eroded those rights – until there is precious little left – we are excluded from 92% of land and 97% of waterways. The process whereby we have been removed from the land is long and arduous and based on violence – enclosure, brute force, or legislation by the propertied classes, who have made laws for centuries in their own interests.
It simply doesn’t need to be like this – other societies, like Norway, Sweden, Austria – and now Scotland have proved that giving everyone a right to roam is perfectly manageable. Whenever I talk about a Right to Roam the response is almost always a tiresome ‘Huh, you won’t mind if I came into your back yard then’. Well of course privacy, sensitive sites and so on are protected. And look – all those other countries don’t seem to have gone up in smoke, do they?
To be honest there were a few things I didn’t like in the book; there are poor interpretations of history (Anne Askew didn’t die simply because she was a woman; Witchcraft prosecutions were not just an attack on women, for example). There’s constant stream of fury over historical injustices – with no context or attempt to understand why societies thought or behaved that way in the past. I do not believe history is about making judgements on today’s moral code, it gets in the way of the real task – understanding. Understanding, so we can make society a better place based on that knowledge. Nick’s demand is that we should be ashamed, it feels almost like religious fanaticism – we must stand in white at each corner of the churchyard to be whipped for our sins before we can deserve to make society better. For that reason, I fear the book will speak only to Nick’s constituency – and not, as he clearly wishes, help us to ‘cross the lines that divide us’. Personally, I think guilt and shame has no part in designing a better future, they simply obscure and divide, I refuse to be held responsible for the actions of my ancestors. Let’s change things for the love of it and the love of all of us.
But what I did love is that Nick’s book is also a wonderful book about nature, about folklore; it’s intellectually powerful, blending thinkers from all sorts of fields. It is just delightful in its description of his days trespassing in countryside seen only by a small group of the very rich and their employees – a real sense of his love of nature, a sense of discovery on land and waterways. I am nowhere brave enough to emulate his trespass – I am by nature deeply compliant, which is maybe one reason I admired Nick’s work so much. In those passages, we escape from the anger and reach the way things could be, and the beauty we could all share.
There were some big moments for me.
It is horrifying the extent to which we collaborate in our own servitude. For example, on a community site local to me, a local landowner has posted just twice – both times ranting about walkers on legal rights of way. Everyone supports him – ‘Put up an electric fence and lock them out that’ll show ‘em’ yells one – thus voting for their own exclusion repression. Leaving litter, letting dogs savage animals – these are crimes like any other. We don’t remove everyone’s rights to prevent other crimes – why are landowners so different! We need to free our minds.
What we take to be the natural order of things ‘it’s private property, get off!’ is nothing but a construct rooted in private interest. We can change it in a way that respects the needs of landowners, the environment, and especially farmers. This issue does not need to divide us.
There have been victories – such as the vicious Nicholas Van Hoosgstraten. But they are so hard to win, so hard. Every victory against property has been won by dedicated, brave, tireless people and I take my hat off to them. I am not strong enough, and I admire their courage and determination.
What should we campaign for?
Withdraw our consent to the tyranny of private property. We don’t agree any more will not participate in our own servitude. A better way is possible, and will make England a better place to live in
A right to roam modelled on the many other successful examples, which balance community, environment and landowners’ needs and right
Start with Crown land – over 300,000 acres on land managed for public good – yet still without a right to roam
Defend our footpaths and rights of way – and expect landowners to maintain them as they are required to do
Scots have the right to buy land as a community interest. This is a law we need in England immediately, Communities have a right to have a say in the land they inhabit.
Transparency about who owns land
Safety in numbers I think! Join Jarvis Cocker and Stephen Fry and make yourself heard. There are great organisation out there you can support: