Keith Savage & Langley Brown celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Peak National Park and the right to roam
Sunday, 24th April 1932: the date is the stuff of legend. Whatever happened that day on a moorland hill above the Derbyshire village of Hayfield is less important than the meaning those events came to have.
Between the wars life for many working class people was grim beyond imagining for us today. Thousands of homes were cold, damp and overcrowded. Healthcare was unaffordable for most, with millions out of paid work. In the pit, mill and foundry cities of northern England, the air was often choking and industrial deaths and injuries were common.
Opportunities to escape so poisonous an environment were few – especially for those with little money to spare. Cycling, rambling and camping offered affordable options – especially for younger people without families to support. Groups and clubs sprung up to organise trips out of the cities, especially on Sundays – the one day of the week when most in work had a day off.
Long-established ramblers’ federations had worked to secure access to footpaths across the countryside, but did little to challenge implacable opposition from landowners who insisted that grouse moors, for example, would become spoiled and unprofitable if ramblers had free access.
The slow progress of Access to Mountains legislation through parliament persuaded some that only direct action would bring results. The British Workers’ Sports Federation was short lived and in 1932 dominated by Communist Party members, among whom was Benny Rothman, born in 1911 in Manchester of a Jewish Romanian immigrant family. Benny got his first bike when he was 15 and quickly developed an appetite for the nearby hills.
The Peak District, between Manchester and Sheffield, is often described as ‘the lungs’ of these great cities. For Benny, and many like him, the hills and moors were a release “from the squalor and monotony of the towns”; and, for the politically aware, the landowners’ denial of access to the high moorlands had a class dimension.
Walking the moors of Kinder is not simply about beauty and pleasure; the peat makes it hard work and during mist navigation is tricky. Walking on Kinder in 1932 was about who controlled the land. A handful of wealthy landowners determined that working class people should be kept off land which the BWSF viewed as stolen from ordinary people.
Benny was secretary of the Lancashire district of the BWSF and he and his comrades – most of them under 25 – decided to organise a mass trespass to challenge the denial of access to moorland. As a group they lacked experience and were undoubtedly naive. They had not devised a clear strategy, other than that the Trespass should be well announced to ensure that ramblers—and the police, landowners and gamekeepers—were duly prepared.
Around 500 ramblers gathered in Hayfield village. They had none of the sophisticated equipment seemingly essential for 21st Century hiking. The Trespass was intended to be peaceful but the gamekeepers carried sturdy sticks and were prepared to use them. In the inevitable skirmish one gamekeeper was injured. A group of ramblers succeeded in ‘trespassing’ and celebrated the fact.
The action might have been a minor historical footnote had it not been that, on their return to Hayfield, a number of ramblers – including Benny – were arrested. Two months later they were tried in Derby on ridiculous charges; not for trespassing but for riotous assembly. Benny and four others received prison sentences of 2-6 months. This unsought-for martyrdom gave greater significance to the Kinder action, demonstrating all too clearly the class nature of what was at issue.
Change was slow. National Parks were not established until 1949 (the Peak District fittingly being the first). Long-distance paths such as the Pennine Way – starting near Kinder and completed in 1965 – are also part of the legacy. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act was only passed in 2000. The Kinder Trespass had been the pivotal moment.
19th century civic society ensured urban green spaces at the time of migration from rural areas to the industrial towns. Recent research highlights the health benefits of experiencing open country, prompting us to consider the health risks of not exercising those rights for which Benny and his comrades fought. Respite from corrosive environmental factors, arguably no less insidious than those of the 1930s, is not aided by the erosion of affordable public transport. Where people experience severe deprivation, it is only those with more than subsistence resources who are able to roam and breathe freely in the natural world beyond our cities.