Stuart Maconie’s feuds for thought

It may look serene, but our green and pleasant land has always been a battleground over where you can go and what you can do in it, says Stuart Maconie

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The story is well known. But some of the details less so. Eighty years ago this spring, angered by being barred from walking on the lonely, beautiful Peak District moors and mountains, sick of aggressive treatment at the hands of gamekeepers, a bunch of young working class walkers from the industrial north decided they’d had enough.

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The final straw came in early April 1932, when a group of walkers belonging to Lancashire branch of the British Workers’ Sport Federation were turfed off Bleaklow. Now, Bleaklow is the kind of place many people would be delighted to be removed from; a vast upland morass, boggy and treacherous underfoot, often wreathed in fog. But it has a bleak beauty of its own. And, moreover, it and its neighbouring hills had a symbolic meaning. For generations of factory workers in the big urban centres, it spelt freedom.

The rest of the tale is a justly famous one. Frustrated by what they saw as the lethargy and obeisance of official ramblers’ groups, on Sunday 24 April 1932, the trespassers convened a rally in a nearby quarry, addressed by one Benny Rothman. Then about 400 young men and women set off up William Clough headed for Kinder Scout, a forbidden moorland reserved for the ‘sport’ of grouse shooting, where there was a minor altercation with the Duke of Devonshire’s gamekeepers, whom the trespassers quickly brushed off.

At the summit, there was a brief celebration and then the different contingents returned to their bases; the Sheffield ramblers to Edale and the Mancunians to Hayfield, where the police were waiting for them. A third of Derbyshire’s entire constabulary had been mobilised against the ramblers, a group of whom were taken to the cells and later charged with ‘riotous assembly’. At Derby Assizes the next month, a partisan jury of landowners, retired military men and the like took little time in convicting them.

Five men from Manchester, including the leader, Benny Rothman, were subsequently jailed for their involvement in what Roy Hattersley later described as “the most successful direct action in British history”.

Breaking the law?

The trespass is widely credited with leading to legislation in 1949 to establish the national parks, to the creation of the Pennine Way and other long distance trails, and ultimately the Right to Roam enshrined in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CRoW) of 2000.

So the big picture is justly compelling. But it’s the details that fascinate me. Rothman always claimed that the reason he and his four co-defendants were picked out of the throng and arrested was their clearly Jewish appearance (this, remember, was the febrile decade of Blackshirts and Hitler on the rise). Copies of The Daily Worker and a book by Lenin in the group’s possession were used as evidence of their guilt.

But many, many years later, at one of the rallies held in honour and celebration of the trespassers, one of the five jailed heckled the well-intentioned speaker and disputed that he had ever broken the law, claiming that he had never actually left the permitted path. He was still irritated at being thought of a lawbreaker. Later, one of the jailed men became a policeman himself and was based at the very station, New Mills, where he had been dragged to as a young man and spent a night in the cells.

A place of peace?

All of this gives the lie to the belief that the British countryside is simply a place of pastoral ease, serenity and calm. The composer Thomas Beecham once sneered at Vaughan Williams’ A Pastoral Symphony as the sound of a “cow looking over a gate”. Like many, he had got Vaughan Williams and his music wrong. The symphony is as much about the desolate landscape of the Somme as it is about rural Gloucestershire. And when it is about the English countryside, it has a deeper, darker more intense relationship with the land than the one promoted in butter adverts. Yes, the landscape and countryside we love is a balm and a source of joy and relaxation. But never forget that passions, arguments and divisions run through here too as well as rivers and becks.

Take Wordsworth for instance, frock-coated lover of daffodils and “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. But the grand old man of Lake District verse was once a young firebrand swept up in the radical fervour of the French Revolution. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven!” he declared, his head full of poetry and politics – and passion for a young French woman called Annette Vallon. Was this the same Wordsworth who later became a staunch conservative, a friend of the gentry and an enemy of the railways, which he thought would bring the wrong kind of lower order oiks to his beloved Cumbria? Yes, much to the chagrin of young poets such as Southey, who relocated to Cumbria because of him. On the first day he arrived there, Southey went to Wordsworth’s door to see the great man, only to stomp away in disgust when he learned William was out canvassing for his patron the Tory Lord Lonsdale of Lowther.

More recently, issues surrounding country sports have exercised various groups of people. When the battle lines were drawn for a ban on hunting with hounds, the Countryside Alliance claimed class warfare and a fundamental misunderstanding of how rural people live and work. In turn, their opponents accused them of being out of touch and merely a front for large scale agri-barons, whose pesticides and factory farms were a long way from the Cider With Rosie vision of a rural idyll.

Walking with Wainwright

Even Alfred Wainwright, the Blessed AW as he is sometimes known, is a controversial figure. For every devotee, there’s a purist who regards his guidebooks as luring the hordes to the hills just like Wordsworth’s railways. He had a fairly loose appreciation of the laws of trespass, too. Once, while wandering around in the Longsleddale hills, I was forcibly told that by following Wainwright’s path, I was in fact encroaching on private land. “Wainwright’s not very popular with some of us round here,” the landowner grizzled. Hmm, well, I wanted to say, he may not be popular but he was certainly right about this particular right of way. But I decided to keep my own counsel.

Just recently, I was walking a Defra-approved path in the grazing lands of a castle in Cumbria when a lady in a 4×4 demanded to know who I was, what I was doing and then, as her excitable dog bounded around me, asked for my smartphone, which I’d had the liberty of taking pictures with. A full and frank exchange of views followed.

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And in some ways, this was perfectly in keeping with the great traditions of the countryside, which are as much about dissent and division as they are about forelock tugging and knowing one’s place. It may be a green and pleasant land. But it has never been a docile one.