Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Clashes on the road to right to roam

Eighty years ago today perhaps the most significant – and certainly the most iconic - event in the story of UK National Parks played out on the moors of the Peak District.

Mass trespass on Kinder Scout, 1932
On 24 April 1932, ramblers took part in a mass trespass on Kinder Scout, the highest point in the area, publicly declaring their belief in their right to roam in open countryside.

Scuffles with the Duke of Devonshire’s gamekeepers broke out, several walkers were arrested and five were imprisoned on charges of incitement and riotous assembly.

The trespass had a far-reaching impact. It led not only to legislation giving walkers freedom to roam over open country and common land - finally achieved by the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act of 2000 - but also to the creation of our National Parks, the Peak District being the first in 1951.

The first national parks had been set up in America in the 1860s when the government saw the need to protect wilderness areas from exploitation and make them available for all to enjoy.

Although Britain at that time had no such wild areas - our moors and mountains were nearly all farmed or managed in some way - influential individuals recognised that increased industrialisation was a threat to the beauty of our more remote countryside.
They founded conservation organisations such as the National Trust and began to lobby for more formal protection from the government.

At the same time social reformers pressed that it should be the right of all to enjoy the clean air and spiritual refreshment offered by walking in open countryside. Movements such as the Co-operative Holidays’ Association brought young factory workers on outings, even opening their own guesthouses such as the one at Hebden in 1909.

By the 1930s more and more working class people were seeking an escape from towns and cities - tens of thousands used their Sundays to go walking - and there was growing conflict with landowners.

At Kinder Scout, the trespassers were motivated by the issue of access. The moor was used for game shooting for just a few weeks each year and deserted the rest of the time, with walkers not allowed. The protesters wanted a public path, allowing ramblers access when the land was not in use. At that time less than 1% of the Peak District had public access rights and if walkers strayed onto private land they would be chased off by gamekeepers with sticks and dogs.

The arrest of the trespassers unleashed a wave of public sympathy. A few weeks later 10,000 assembled for a rally at Winnats Pass, near Castleton – the largest number ever - and the pressure for greater access continued to grow.

At the end of World War II, the government set up committees to examine long term land use and ‘nature preservation’ became part of the post-war reconstruction effort. In 1949 the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was passed and ten national parks were created over the following decade, the Yorkshire Dales National Park in 1954.

Thanks to the pre-war campaigns there was an emphasis on making countryside available for recreation for all, not just for nature conservation, and this principle remains at the heart of our National Parks.

John Dower
Malham Youth Hostel, opened in 1938, was designed by architect and rambler John Dower, and was the first purpose-built Youth Hostel in Yorkshire. Considered the founding father of National Parks, John – as Secretary of the Standing Committee on National Parks - was asked to prepare a report on how they could work in England and Wales. John believed passionately that the countryside should be there for all to enjoy, whatever their background, and the Youth Hostel movement was one of the ways that young working class people at that time could access these beautiful places. The hostel was dedicated to John’s memory in 1948.

For ideas on where to walk in the Yorkshire Dales National Park go to www.yorkshiredales.org.uk/walking

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