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The Mass Trespass: How a mountain protest gave the English a right to ramble

The Kinder Scout is a legendary mountain located in the north part of England's Midlands. Its lore stems from a 1932 incursion that paved the way for every English person to have a right to roam in nature.

ON THE KINDER SCOUT, England (CN) — The story of how England's impoverished working classes won the right to ramble across moors, forests, hills and mountains begins here on this black hunk of gritstone called the Kinder Scout.

With its peat bogs and deep, grassy groughs, the Kinder makes for formidable walking country. Most of the year, it's a wet, damp, cold and nearly uninhabitable place. But in the warmer seasons, the fog-draped mountain is a delight with its tiny wild flowers, gorges and moorlands. When the sunlight hits the Kinder's craggy outcroppings and ancient rock formations, the mood becomes enchanting.

For centuries, only the hardiest outdoors men and women ventured onto its slopes: sheep farmers, hunters, mountaineers, land wardens, scouts, botanists.

But in 1932 the 15 square miles of the Kinder Scout and its spectacular high plateau, the tallest in the surrounding Peak District, were off limits. Anyone found up there without permission was deemed a trespasser and faced arrest.

That spring, groups of free-spirited khaki-clad youths from the soot-covered cities of Manchester and Sheffield cemented this austere mountain's place in history by carrying on a tradition of open-air walking that dates back to the 1800s.

Squads of gamekeepers, wardens and police were brought in, culminating in a violent standoff.

In the end, the ramblers won. The Kinder and the all of the Peak District became England's first national park in 1951.

Another half-century later, under the government of Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, the legal right to roam was finally adopted into statute by the British Parliament with the passage of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000.

Walkers in January 2018 hiking on a footpath in the Dark Peak, the name for the northern half of the Peak District. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News Service)

“My father got quite interested in walking and everything because, I mean, Sheffield in those days was just full of smoke, chimneys, right smoke and that,” recalled Clive Richardson, a Sheffield gardener and walker whose father, Charles Richardson, was a member of the legendary Clarion Ramblers Club and a participant at the Mass Trespass of 1932.

“So, he started rambling. But they could only go so far rambling because as soon as they got up here (on the Kinder) it was all private land,” he said. “These rich landowners owned it all; and grouse shooting, you see — it was all for grouse shooting, pheasants and that sort of thing.”

With city air so foul, workers like Charles Richardson increasingly spent their weekends in the Peak District to relish its warren of vales, rivers, pastures, moors, hills, villages, lanes and mountains. The Peak District has long been a beloved spot for artists, poets and nature lovers. Famously, Charlotte Brontë's “Jane Eyre” novel was set in the so-called “Dark Peak,” the northern side of the Peak District.

The closing off of the Kinder goes back to the Inclosure Acts of the 1600s, when Parliament began allowing landowners to take legal possession of property rights over lands held in common.

Between 1604 and 1914, Parliament passed more than 2,500 individual laws that removed roughly 10,800 square miles (28,000 square kilometers) of land away from the “commons.”

The Kinder began to be enclosed during the frenzied height of the Enclosure Movement, in the second half of the 19th century. Landowners argued they needed to restrict walkers from the mountain because the bevy of townfolk was scaring grouse. Grouse hunting was a lucrative hunt and a popular pastime for the wealthy in the early 1900s.

In the years that the Kinder was entirely off-limits to the public, ramblers in Manchester and Sheffield had long voiced their discontent. They argued that the mountain belonged to everyone, to the “commons,” and that the grouse hunters were unjustly laying claim.

A photo of Miller's Dale, a beloved beauty spot in the Peak District. Photo taken July 2022. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News Service)

Things came to a head on April 24, 1932. On that day, hundreds of youths from Manchester, Sheffield, and smaller cities and towns in the Peak District informally agreed to convene at a town near the Kinder called Hayfield, cross onto the Kinder en masse and trespass on purpose.

They announced their intentions to the press. Police were sent in to stop the protest, but journalists were on hand as well to document what ensued.

As planned, ramblers poured into Hayfield by train, bicycle and on foot. Police tried to stop the march in Hayfield, but they were outwitted.

Columns of young men and women, often arm-in-arm, boldly crossed onto the Kinder and were met with stick-wielding gamekeepers and land wardens.

Tussles broke out. Rebellious city youths leapt over stone walls and dashed across moor to stake their right to the Kinder and ramble.

That momentous day ended bloody with both gamekeepers and ramblers getting hurt in skirmishes. No one was killed, according to historians, though fierce clashes and arrests continued for much of 1932.

The battle on the Kinder caught the country's attention. Newspapers carried stories about daily developments; legal cases were brought before Parliament and the courts; parlor room debates raged over what should be the limits on the public's right to walk in nature, even if it is privately owned.

In these parts of northern England, the Mass Trespass is celebrated as a noble act of defiance by the working class, and it's a proud part of the region's history. Books galore have been written about it, and its story is told in museums and schools.

The protest's legacy is big: The events of 1932 are recognized as a pivotal moment in the campaign to have a right to roam unobstructed in nature.

“The Mass Trespass gave us the basic right to roam, access to the land,” said David Price, a longtime member of the historical society in Hope, a village lying near the Kinder.

Padley Gorge in the Peak District. The Peak District became England's first national park in 1951 after ramblers enacted a "Mass Trespass" to enforce their right to roam freely. Photo taken in July 2022. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News Service)

Like so many others of his generation, Price said he started walking in the moors, rivers and highlands when he was a boy, starting in the 1940s.

“The repercussions were profound,” he said about the Mass Trespass. “The right to roam was a significant breakthrough.”

Rambling and roaming are evocative terms Brits use to describe the pastime of walking in the countryside, hiking in the wilds and climbing mountains.

In the 1800s, rambling was a favorite hobby among English of all classes, spawning ramblers' clubs, yearly walking events, national associations, specialist magazines and stores, and many seasoned outdoors people.

Today, historians credit the Mass Trespass for serving as a major step in strengthening the public's right to walk in the countryside. The movement in England was inspired by Scottish and Nordic legal traditions that long ago enshrined the public's right to roam.

Opening up the countryside, of course, turned out to be a boon for Britain. Today, the British Isles are choc full of city folk enjoying the outdoors as they cycle, hike, canoe, run and wander over their charming landscapes.

“It was one of the best things ever. It opened up all this land,” Andy Plummer, a longtime mountaineer and mountain runner, said about the Mass Trespass.

“It's the right to roam,” he exclaimed. “That's what the Mass Trespass achieved. It's so that everybody and anybody can enjoy what's there.”

A runner participating in a January 2018 Kinder Scout trail run arrives in Edale, a mountain village in Derbyshire. The legendary Penine Way starts in Edale. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News Service)

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Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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