Beyond the barbed wire

Nick Hayes decries the barriers that exclude us from nature

In August last year, Bloomsbury published The Book of Trespass. The book is my account of hopping the walls and barbed wire fences of the dukes, lords, politicians and media magnates who own England; telling the thousand-year-old story of how the English public have been excluded from their land. Today, in spite of the proven benefits of nature to our mental and physical health, we are banned from 97% of our rivers and 92% of the land. What interested me was why, for so long, we have accepted this as normal.

Trespass is a strange phenomenon in our culture. On the one hand, it carries a kind of Last of the Summer Wine English quaintness with it: it’s naughty, but not that naughty, and most of us have done it, wittingly or otherwise. On the other hand, largely because of the way the law equates it to home invasion, trespass can often be met with an incandescent rage, a macho aggression that seems entirely disproportionate to the act itself. The word, referred to twice in the Lord’s Prayer, carries a medieval whiff of incense and candle smoke,
as if walking in the woods is an immoral, godless act.

To look behind the old stone walls that guard estates of many thousands of acres is to uncover a history of systemic power abuse, the privileging of an elite group over the rights of the many. Many of the laws that stand to this day were created by an unreformed parliament; in other words, a cabal of wealthy politicians who bought their place in parliament by virtue of the land they owned. These walls we have become so accustomed to encountering in our countryside don’t just block us from nature, they also mask the dark roots of colonialism, imperialism and ecological plunder that lie at the heart of our most celebrated manor houses and estates, the rotten core of our image of ourselves. To breach them is to break the flimsy spell that sustains English culture and that pretends, in spite of the age-old iniquities of race, class and gender, everything is exactly as it ought to be.

Two weeks after the book came out, my girlfriend and I watched our new boat being craned into Reading marina. An empty steel shell, it had an engine, a plywood floor, and little else. We spent the next few months chugging along the Kennet and Avon Canal, building the kitchen, the bathroom, the bedroom, painting, sawing, sanding and cruising our way west to the River Avon. Along the way, I was doing the coronavirus version of the publicity circus, Zoom book talks, podcasts, radio interviews, getting drawn deeper into the system of things just as we cruised further and further away from it. The photos in the paper, me with furrowed brow, staring like a pound-shop Shackleton into the middle distance, sat uncomfortably with me. I was being presented as the poster boy of sedition, as if I had invented civil disobedience.

Aside from the millennium-long struggle against the erosion of our rights to land, from the Peasants’ Revolt to Greenham Common, to the Occupy movement, these articles ignored the numerous ongoing organisations that had lent their working lives to the cause of greater access to nature: Land in Our Names, Black2Nature, Shared Assets, Landworkers’ Alliance, the Land Justice Network, to name just a few. This, I know, is par for the course, as newspaper columns are too narrow to incorporate the broad context – that’s what books are for. But there was a distinct danger that this book would be forced into the narrow stream of nature literature, a decorative palliative for those readers in England whose nature deficit disorder is remedied by the vicarious enjoyment of nature, through Springwatch and Attenborough. The Book of Trespass could actually serve to buttress the walls that divide us from nature; another brick in the wall.

We spent the second and third lockdown moored by the Dundas Aqueduct, just outside of Bath. On our journey West, I had been reading about the myriad of mental and physical health benefits of cold water swimming, drumming up the courage to break the seal, and jump into the cold. Now we had come to rest, we were woken every Sunday by the simian grunts of the Mankind group, a feminist coven of men who met to dunk in the cold water of the Avon and dissect their toxic masculinity. I had escaped lockdown London in order to swim and so one day, I put down my coffee, picked up a towel, and joined them. My first immersion into the cold flowing water was like connecting my veins to the mains, an electric current that charged my body for the week. I was hooked.

All the while, Guy Shrubsole (author of Who Owns England) and I were building a campaign to open up the countryside to more public access. Years before the book was released, we had hatched a plan: the publicity generated by publishers for our books would be a matchless injection of free publicity for a campaign. Every article written about my book carried our campaign website (righttoroam.org.uk). We were overwhelmed by the response, with nearly 15,000 signups in the first few months, and almost as many messages, we were suddenly aware of something close to a zeitgeist: people wanted to connect with nature.

Our campaign doesn’t seek to open all of England to a right to roam, as enjoyed by many countries across Europe, but to expand the existing legal infrastructure. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CRoW) opened up eight per cent of land to the public. It was the culmination of a 150 years’ worth of campaigning and has been an unprecedented success, but in terms of public health and social parity, it has been next to useless. Aside from occasional patches of designated land, the lion’s share of land you can access is in the peaks and moors. For those who live next to them, this is great news; but for the majority of us, this leaves access to the nature we so badly need relegated to occasional holidays for those that can afford them. The science has shown us that for a significant effect on our nation’s health, our connection to nature must be regular. Our campaign therefore seeks to extend the CRoW act to areas of land and water that can best serve the majority of our nation – to the woods, the rivers and the green belt.

But as seasoned campaigners will tell you, much of the work put into ecological or societal change is not spent on advancing our rights, but on emergency measures to stop their regression. The Government has long sought to criminalise trespass and, in their latest manifesto, they pledged to make “intentional trespass’’ a criminal act. Just like the Criminal Justice Act of 1994, which made vagrants of ravers, travellers, hunt saboteurs and protestors alike, this is a move designed to restrict the rights and way of life of people deemed incompatible with mainstream society. And just like the Egyptian Act of Henry VIII’s era that expelled gypsies, it uses a normalised bigotry against travelling communities to limit the rights of us all. So, we launched a petition and garnered 134,000 signatures, triggering a debate in parliament. This debate has been stalled, and further stalled, and now seems to have been roundly ignored by the Government. The Police Bill will criminalise all travellers who stop for a night in one or more vehicles, and also those who might be defined as having the intention to stay the night. It will ignore both the police’s repeated claims they do not need or want these new powers, and ignore the fact that as a direct result of austerity, councils have been closing designated traveller sites for the last ten years, leaving no legitimate space for them to stop.

As seasoned campaigners will tell you, much of the work put into ecological or societal change is not spent on advancing our rights, but on emergency measures to stop their regression

Because the wording of the bill is deliberately vague, it could encompass cyclists whose bikes qualify as vehicles, wild campers, protestors and boaters. And suddenly, for me, the campaigning steps out of the public, into the personal. The boating community is the bijou end of the travelling community. Like travellers, we live in our vehicles, our societies and cultures are more outside than in, we move constantly, we define our homes differently to what is called “sedentarism culture” (those with landed property). Like travellers, we are defined as one, but in reality the canals and rivers are home to a wide variety of people, multi-millionaires with yachts in marinas, socialist hippy types like me, and many for whom the tarp-strewn old butty is their last safety net before homelessness. The same applies to travellers, a loose term that includes Roma and Irish traditional travellers, but also new-age travellers, middle-class university types escaping the system, and people for whom their car is their last safety net before homelessness.

But since we are the glossy, acceptable side of travelling, we expose the hypocrisy of a time-honoured bigotry. It is not uncommon for right-wing newspapers to run opinion editorials on the blight of travellers, their “dirty” habits, whilst in the very same paper featuring weekend breaks away on narrowboats in their lifestyle magazines. This is a hypocrisy well known to the Roma and Irish travellers whose life on the open road has been appropriated and romanticised by popular culture, whilst simultaneously being banned by the law. Once again, trespass is being used to create society, to designate a line not just between what is acceptable in society, but who.

But it’s the swimming that keeps me buoyant; not just the constant immersion in the power of nature, but the place that hosts our dips. The land is owned by the local prep school and a sign stands by the river claiming it as private land, forbidden to all but the lucky boys whose parents can afford the £18,000 fees per year. But the place is so damn beautiful, so easily accessible, and has such a historic lineage of swimming, that there has been nothing the school can do to stop us going. Without recourse to politics or campaigning, petitions or council letter writing, a disparate stream of people just keeps coming back – children, menopausal women, young tattooed macho men, each coming to the river for the benefits it offers to physical and mental health. The power of people, like the current in the River Avon, is irrepressible.

Nick Hayes is a writer, illustrator and printmaker. He is the author of The Sunday Times bestseller “The Book of Trespass: Crossing the Lines that Divide Us”. He has published four highly acclaimed graphic novels with Jonathan Cape, including “The Rime of the Modern Mariner”, “Woody Guthrie”, the “Dust Bowl Ballads” and “Cormorance”

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