Forgive us our trespass
Monday 23 April 2012
by Peter Frost
Eighty years on we still owe a debt to the brave Kinder trespassers.
In the shadow of mass unemployment, lads and lassies from northern mill towns with little or no money sought free entertainment by walking the high countryside, much of which was private shooting estates and grouse moors.
Frequently turned away by gamekeepers protecting the private shoots, members of the Lancashire branch of the British Workers Sport Federation (BWSF) decided they would make a public mass trespass on Kinder Scout, the highest point in the Peak District.
Many of the BWSF were members of Cheetham Young Communist League, and they advertised their trespass in the Daily Worker, the forerunner of the Morning Star.
About 400 ramblers set off from Bowden Bridge quarry on that fateful Sunday April 24 in 1932. The trespassers scrambled up towards the Kinder plateau and came face to face with the Duke of Devonshire's gamekeepers armed with sticks.
In the scuffle one keeper was slightly hurt, but the ramblers pressed on to the plateau. Here they were greeted by a group of Sheffield-based trespassers who had set off that morning, crossing Kinder from Edale.
Five ramblers were arrested by police accompanied by keepers. The day after the trespass, leader of the Trespass and a Cheetham Young Communists Benny Rothman and four other ramblers were charged with unlawful assembly and breach of the peace.
Rothman had a previous conviction - he had been jailed earlier for chalking slogans welcoming the Daily Worker's launch in 1930.
All trespassers subsequently pleaded not guilty and were remanded to be tried at Derby Assizes by a jury consisting of army officers.
Five of the six accused were found guilty and were jailed for between two and six months. Rothman got the longest sentence.
The arrest and subsequent imprisonment of the trespassers unleashed a huge wave of public sympathy, and ironically united the ramblers' cause.
Previously, other more respectful bodies - like the Ramblers and Holiday Fellowship - had strongly opposed direct action and the trespass.
But public opinion was shifted by the reports of the trespass and the prison sentences.
A few weeks later, more than 10,000 ramblers - the largest number in history - assembled for an access rally in the Winnats Pass near Castleton.
The pressure grew and grew, and led in 1949 to the first legislation of its kind - The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act - and to the establishment of Britain's first national park and the subsequent family of national parks protecting the jewels of our landscape.
It also led directly to the Countryside and Rights of Way legislation that we enjoy today.
Today the trespass and the trespassers are widely respected. Radio 2's Mike Harding - a former president of the ramblers - director-general of the National Trust Dame Fiona Reynolds and secretary of the Open Spaces Society and vice-president of the ramblers Kate Ashbrook will all speak at a meeting paying tribute to the trespass.
At the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the trespass, the present Duke of Devonshire and owner of the Kinder Scout grouse moor - whose keepers had battled with the trespassers - made an amazing admission. "I hope to have the opportunity of making an apology on behalf of my family," he said. "The ramblers were entirely in the right. My grandfather, I think, took the wrong attitude."
Today the fight to protect the British countryside goes on. Cameron and his coalition government have slashed National Park funding by a quarter and have sought to sell off much of our national forests.
Public bodies charged with protecting our landscape, like the Environment Agency and Natural England, have seen their budgets slashed too.
The right to enjoy Britain's landscape was never just handed down freely - it had to be fought for.
Like most things working people enjoy, it was the result of political struggle and activities like the Kinder Trespass. That fight must still go on today.