Paul Salveson on pandemic peregrinations
The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t had many upsides, but there are some. In a previous Chartist I pointed out the resurgence of cycling. Predictably, the surge has lessened as car traffic reverts to near pre-pandemic levels and the weather gets worse. But there have been signs that, overall, cycling has grown in popularity.
A less quantifiable but equally important result of Covid-19 has been the increase in local walking. During the lockdown, a lot of people started to explore their surrounding countryside for the first time. Even in many densely-populated areas you’re often within easy reach of countryside, or if not, municipal parks. I met lots of people venturing out onto very local footpaths, asking for directions and almost apologetically explaining, “I’ve lived here for years but this is the first time I’ve ever been on this path…”
For many urban socialists, access to the countryside has always been important. It was a temporary escape from mill, mine and factory. Most of us will have heard of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass of 1932, led mostly by communists such as Benny Rothman of the Workers’ Sports Federation. Before then, Robert Blatchford’s Clarion newspaper inspired a hugely popular cycling club as well as walking groups, field naturalists and botanists. The ILP Clarion House at Roughlee, beneath Pendle Hill, is the last surviving example of the network of ‘club houses’ which sprung up across the North of England in the early years of the 20th century.
A less well known event was the Winter Hill rights of way battle of 1896. I first came across it reading Allen Clarke’s Moorlands and Memories, published in 1920. Clarke’s book was based on his articles, for a very local readership, which were published in The Bolton Journal and Guardian in the years during and just after the First World War. He wrote that “on Sunday September 1896, ten thousand Boltonians marched up Bran Hey to pull down a gate and protest against a footpath to Winter Hill being claimed and closed by the landlord”.
I delved further into the story and it emerged that huge demonstrations, organised by the local socialists, continued over two more weekends. The landlord, a notorious arch-Tory called Colonel Richard Ainsworth, issued writs against the leaders and he won his case, with costs. Local people rallied round and the fines were paid off, but the road remained officially closed until a hundred years later when the path was registered as a right of way.
It was the biggest ever rights of way battle in British history. What is particularly interesting is that – unlike Kinder Scout – the participants were local people. The marches gained in number as they tramped through working class areas of Bolton and out onto the moors. If the law was on the side of Ainsworth, the people of Bolton were on the side of the campaigners.
Allen Clarke, himself a former mill worker, continued to write about the countryside and how so much of it had been robbed from the people by unscrupulous landlords. His Moorlands and Memories, political in a subtle and entertaining way, encouraged readers to value their moorland paths and tracks. He wrote a popular song, in local dialect, called ‘Will Yo Come O’ Sunday Mornin’?’, which beckoned people to claim their rights:
“Will yo’ come o’ Sunday mornin’
For a walk o’er Winter Hill?
Ten thousand went last Sunday
But there’s room for thousand still!
Oh there moors are rare and bonny
And the heather’s sweet and fine
And the roads across the hilltops –
Are the people’s – yours and mine!”
Clarke was an active member of the non-sectarian Bolton Labour Church which organised family walks over the moors on Sunday afternoons. The walks were ‘educational’ with children taught to recognise plants, trees and birds. The main ‘tutor’ was John Fletcher, whose day job was working down a coal mine in Westhoughton. They were not shy about discussing politics. Clarke writes of one moorland walk on a summer’s day in 1904 where “we argued socialism, Tolstoyanism, and many other ‘isms’ before standing to sing Edward Carpenter’s hymn:
England arise! The long, long night is over
Faint in the east, before the dawn appear…”
The First World War literally killed off much of that popular working class culture, though the Clarion Cycling Club enjoyed a temporary revival. The rise of the car and other forms of entertainment killed it off in the 1950s, though Bolton Clarion Cycling Club, and many more – as far south as Brighton – continue to flourish. Hopefully, events of 2020 will further encourage people’s rediscovery of their own, very local, countryside.