Research suggests that 70% of Britain’s land is owned by an extremely wealthy 1% of the population. This goes some way to explaining why trekkers and hikers have such difficulties exercising their right to roam.
Trekkers keep moaning about the lack of access. Image: Flickr/ Konrad Andrews
But, so the landowners counter, there are over 140,000 miles of Public Right of Way trails that lead to almost every corner of the country, so why do people who go on walking holidays keep moaning about lack of access?
Is this “baron versus vagabond” debate a waste of time or does it cut to the heart of a serious issue confronting modern Britain?
Those fortunate enough to own acres of beautiful and walkable terrain often cite the risks of vandalism and littering as good reasons to keep out the hoi polloi. In reality, though, the vast majority of those wanting to explore this green and pleasant land on foot do so with respect and care.
Many trekkers’ associations promote fairly strict codes of conduct such as the Countryside Code. This was established in 2004 but based on sensible ideas that date back to the 1930s, and explained more here on the National Trust website.
Hikers should leave no trace of their visit to the countryside, ensuring that they clean up everything from picnic leftovers to dog faeces. Failure to do so is not just an aesthetic consideration – it can cause hazards to wildlife too.
Above all, the Code advises hikers to cooperate with local people – especially those working on the land – at all times. Avoid herds of farm animals, listen to directions from farmers and, when walking on bridleways, give way to those riding horses.
Of course there are isolated incidents of idiots who abuse our natural environment, but in no way do they represent the overwhelming majority of people who visit the countryside.
Exercise your right to roam. Image: Flickr/ Tim Dobson
The Land is Ours
Another defence that landowners use is that they have worked hard to earn the money to buy their property, so why should they share it with people on family walking holidays and weekend jaunts?
Then again, others claim that the countryside is a national treasure for all to enjoy and to carve it up amongst a tiny elite is immoral, whether they can afford to pay for it or not.
But even if we take that argument on face value, many landowners belong to the aristocracy and so inherited rather than earned their personal meadows, valleys and forests.
In a modern democratic society is it really rational to cling on to outdated notions of birthright and lineage that essentially boil down to someone’s ancient forefather killing someone else’s ancient forefather, stealing their land and passing it down to their descendants?
A Draconian Future
According to Jeevan Vasagar of the Guardian, more and more public space in Britain – both rural and urban – is being privatised. This is bad news for hikers, as these new private owners are legally allowed to keep out whoever they like.
So what were once free and open community gathering places – a park or a beach, for example – are becoming mini-police states that criminalise citizens for simply wandering over an often invisible boundary.