Nick Hayes lives on a houseboat moored on the north bank of the Thames alongside Hardwick House in south Oxfordshire, the clues to his work and passion displayed on the vessel’s walls. On the riverside are copies of the woodcuts he fashions making his living as an illustrator. On the bankside bulwark are some of the trophies of his life as a land-rights campaigner and author of The Trespasser’s Companion, soon to be published to mark the 90th anniversary of the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the Peak District. The name of the boat is the Johanna Ferrour. Ferrour was the rebel leader who, during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, dragged the Lord Chancellor from the Tower of London to the block to be beheaded.
On show are several “Private Property, Keep Out” signs familiar to any walker with even passing acquaintance with the English countryside. Hayes “liberated” these signs from various estates, the locations and owners of which he prefers not to name. There is also a “Private Fishing” notice, a muntjac skull, a woodpile for the stove and, significantly, a Union Jack. Unlike many on the left, Hayes is not ashamed to call himself a British patriot. Indeed, patriotism provides his motivation.
“The right to roam,” he says (citing a mantra of what he calls “the new English countryside movement”, of which he is a leading member), “is the right to belong.” This new movement, he explains, “is radical, but in a devilish, David Niven type of way”. There is indeed something of the loveable posh rogue about Hayes, formerly of public school and Cambridge.
As we settle into the battered leather armchairs by the stove, I should declare an interest early on: I’m pretty much in total agreement with Hayes’s views on access to the land. Having spent a chunk of my childhood thrillingly invading the golf course opposite our house, I particularly enjoyed his section on how much land that sport denies to the rest of us. He’s well to the left of me on many issues. “An angler called me a ‘Corbynista’ when I was out kayaking and I thought, ‘Strange… but yeah, fair enough,’ ” he jokes, whereas I think Jeremy Corbyn was a disgrace to the Labour Party. But as to being able to tramp across the soil of my native land, I’m every bit as radical as he is. Not that either of us considers it particularly radical to seek admittance to the fields, valleys, hills and woodlands of our own country.
Your family can have lived in England for generations, fought for it, farmed it, educated it and entertained it, and yet you’re only allowed to enjoy a tiny designated fenced-off fraction of England. I’ve always thought this self-evidently unfair. As Hayes says, we don’t have “No Burglary” signs on our houses, because everyone knows burglary is wrong. “No Trespassing” signs in the countryside, he writes, “are evidence of our natural desire to ignore them”.
Indeed, in Hayes’s vision of England, you could be an old-school Tory yet still support greater access to the land. All that is required is to enhance and enshrine communal access to vast tracts of rural property owned by individuals, the state and the crown. And no, I wouldn’t want someone trampling over my back garden. Neither do I want to trample across anybody else’s. I don’t own the park opposite my house but I have access to it; I look after it; I respect it. Why shouldn’t the same access – respectful, peaceful, useful – be granted for us across England’s broad acres far from urban or national parks? The Nordic and Baltic states permit such access. “Try to put up a fence in Iceland and they’ll rip your head off,” says Hayes. The Scots enjoy a right to roam.
But despite the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 establishing a partial right to roam in England and Wales, that right still only covers eight per cent of England. Woodlands are exempt. Barely three per cent of the country’s rivers are legally navigable.
In even fewer is it permitted to kayak or swim. If you want to fish you generally have to apply, and then pay, often a lot, for a licence. Ever since the enclosures of the 18th century, almost all English people have been estranged from almost all of their own country. “We’ve forgotten what we’ve lost,” says Hayes.
Twenty minutes’ drive from Hayes’s houseboat, south into Berkshire, lies the Englefield estate, the biggest landowner in the western half of the county. (I’m guessing the royal estate at Windsor takes the prize for the eastern half.) Englefield House is home to Richard Benyon, a former Conservative MP and now life peer and parliamentary under-secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. One of Benyon’s duties is to promote access to the countryside.
Our plan is to take a little wander across Benyon’s land, “To win the right to roam by doing it anyway,” as Hayes puts it. You’d be hard pressed to say we’re tramping across Benyon’s back garden: the Englefield estate comprises 14,000 acres. Besides, Hayes explains on the drive over, “There is a lost right of way cutting through his deer park. If we walk this right of way, we won’t be trespassing, though the gamekeepers won’t see it that way. We have met before. It’s probable that they’ll serve me with an injunction this time.”
Clambering over a low brick and flint boundary wall alongside the A340, we make our way along the tractor track at the edge of a newly sown field. Hayes stops to pick up litter. “I don’t believe in leaving no trace,” he says. “I believe in leaving a positive trace.” Greater access, he argues, can improve the land, not spoil it, as landowners often argue. “I don’t buy the party line that only landowners can have stewardship over the countryside. It’s rubbish. They say, ‘Oh, ground-nesting birds will be trampled by ramblers.’ But the problem for ground-nesting birds is the industrialisation of agriculture.”
Ascending a slope we come to the inevitable fence, gate and sign: “No Public Right of Way”, it says. “Nature Conservation Area”. The first part we’re here to dispute; the second I find, to put it diplomatically, optimistic. We’re alongside a huge, unhedged monocultured field. Further up the slope is a copse and next to it an enclosure for raising pheasant chicks, which will later be run over or killed in the game-shooting season. “It’s not exactly a thriving natural scene, is it?” says Hayes. Although to be fair, it was still early in March when we were there.
Up in the trees, the reverse slope dips down to the River Pang, rising again to the M4, far enough away not to be audible. It’s a lovely spot. Looking at the estate website a week or so later, I enjoy a short post of “the beautiful sound of birdsong this morning in an area of mixed species woodland”, and I’m pretty sure the footage was recorded in this very wood. And yet almost everybody coming across the clip is not allowed anywhere near this wood or those birds. I had to ignore two signs and climb over two fences to be here.
Hayes and I stop and silently admire the view for a while. All is quiet. No sign of any gamekeepers threatening injunctions. A pair of red kites circle overhead. “I don’t like trespassing, because it’s illegal,” he says. “I like walking in nature and then rich white men call it trespassing. They draw a line in the mud and I’ve got to cross that line.”
Hayes, 39, was born in Chertsey, Surrey – “a God-awful place” – in 1982. He was adopted, his biological mother a youngster from Dublin whom he has subsequently met. His adoptive parents moved to Tilehurst, just next to where he is now moored, when he was a small child. His dad was a civil engineer, his mum a secretary. They were both second-generation immigrants, his mum’s family from Austria, his dad’s from Sicily.
“They weren’t radical in any way. They would have voted for Richard Benyon, for sure.” As for nature, “We were ‘going for a walk on a Sunday’ people.” No more, no less. “I was always sketching. If I wanted to draw a fallen oak tree that was beyond the boundary of the right of way, I couldn’t see the harm.” The young Hayes’s first encounter with the guardians of private property came when he was about 12: “I apologised and walked away.” The confrontations – often unpleasant, never violent, “insulted not assaulted” (unless you count “having a gun pointed at me”, which I guess you do) – have continued ever since. “The way they come at you, a mixture of condescension and aggression, is weird. It’s not just that it’s against the law; they want to make you feel bad about doing something totally harmless. And I didn’t and don’t feel bad.”
Anxious to assimilate, his parents found the money to send him to Abingdon School, an independent best known for being attended by all five members of Radiohead. “It was fine,” says Hayes. “Big art department. Lots of friends.” After A-levels Hayes read English at Magdalene College, Cambridge. He listened to a lot of Woody Guthrie and swam a lot in the Cam. He also came under the influence of a young don, Robert Macfarlane, starting to make a name for himself as a nature writer and chronicler of Britain’s landscapes and remaining areas of wilderness. “He taught me about postmodernism,” says Hayes. “And the semiotics of the countryside – the signs, the wire, the tweed, the heraldic motifs – combine to make one clear message: it is not for us.”
Macfarlane was a friend and disciple – and later literary executor – of Roger Deakin, another Cambridge graduate whose first book, Waterlog, published in 1999, is acknowledged to have given birth to the wild swimming movement, then a hippy eccentricity, now all the rage.
“I was Roger’s dog-sitter for a while in Suffolk,” says Hayes. I am impressed. Walnut Tree Farm, Deakin’s former home, is a place of pilgrimage for those concerned with greater land (and water) rights. Deakin died in 2006 at the age of 63. “He was a big influence. I had an incremental realisation that something was out of joint. All I was doing was drawing or listening to birdsong, yet I wasn’t allowed to be there.”
We proceed along the ridge, the big house peeking through the trees. Climbing over yet another fence, eyed suspiciously by a quartet of grazing horses, we turn parallel to the vast Elizabethan pile, keeping it perhaps a quarter of a mile away across the deer park. Nothing and nobody stirs. I admit I’m a bit disappointed.
“Ah well,” says Hayes philosophically, perhaps wondering why this man from The Times is regretting an absence of confrontation. “I don’t want to demonise gamekeepers. Some gnarly aggy lefties think they’re orcs, but they’re not. My friend Paul Powlesland from Lawyers for Nature once told one, ‘Look, we’re only doing what our ancestors would have been hanged for. We’ve a right to belong to this land.’ The conversation ended up quite civil.”
We meander back to the car and conclude our interview. After Cambridge, Hayes took a job with a charity while completing his first graphic novel. “It did OK. It allowed me to break out of a strip-lit office and go freelance.” He makes a decent income as an illustrator. After 15 years in London – Columbia Road in the East End – he moved back to his roots in the Thames Valley. “I couldn’t wait to get out when I was younger. Now I just love it.”
Inevitably a fan of the Wim Hof-style cold-water immersion (isn’t everyone these days?), Hayes swims in the Thames every day, naked when he can steel himself not to worry about the pike that lives under his boat.
“It works. My body is less tense, less stressed. I shock it every day. Who says walking is all we’re allowed to do in nature? It’s even harder to swim or kayak. There’s this amazing interest in wild swimming but the head of the Environment Agency tells us we shouldn’t swim in rivers! We hear a lot about green prescribing and the amazing mental and physical health effects of being in nature, but access to that nature is incredibly difficult.
And anyway,” he goes on, “access to nature shouldn’t just be about recreation, something middle-class people do at the weekend or on their holidays, but about spirituality and kinship for all of us with the non-human world. We hear a lot about rewilding, but the country can’t just be a theme park for those who can afford it. What about ‘recommoning’? Reconnecting everybody with the land, so how the trees are doing or how the rivers are doing is how you’re doing as well.”
Stirring stuff. There’s more. At an emotional, cultural and political level, Hayes thinks the time is ripe for a truly radical overhaul of the rights of all English people to commune with our English land and water. He cites, for instance – and I agree with him given the personal experience of several friends – the way people of colour simply do not feel comfortable or welcome in the countryside, even 60 or 70 years after their family’s arrival, even into the third or fourth generation.
As various upheavals – notably Brexit, the potential break-up of the union, huge no-going-back infrastructure projects such as HS2, the culture wars over colonialism and slavery – demonstrate, “England is crying out,” Hayes thinks, “for a new indigenity [by which I think he means a revitalised sense of national and communal, even tribal if you will, identity], but for that you need to talk honestly and openly about the vastly differing and unfair way English people experience their own land.” I profoundly agree. What’s more, I don’t think this conversation even needs to be controversial.
Nor need it degenerate into entrenched class conflict. Just as the reprehensible Nicholas van Hoogstraten behaved monstrously at High Cross estate in East Sussex, stringing razor wire across a right of way, so the estimable Sir Julian Rose, 4th Baronet, is a model of liberal access at the Hardwick estate where Hayes has his boat. In between those two poles, other big landowners can eventually be made accountable to reasonable public demands given enough pressure, just like any other vested interest. Or so I, perhaps naively, choose to believe.
The Trespasser’s Companion by Nick Hayes is published by Bloomsbury on April 14 (£14.99)