The first steps on route to the right to roam

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Next week marks the 80th anniversary of the Kinder trespass when walkers took the law into their own hands. Terry Fletcher reports.

This weekend tens of thousands of walkers will step into their boots, shoulder their rucksacks and head for the hills safe in the knowledge that no-one is likely to try to stop them wandering where they will.

Most will take their legal Right to Roam for granted and few will give a thought to how it was won or the sacrifices it entailed.

But 80 years ago things were very different when, on a bright spring Sunday morning at the end of April, hundreds of defiant walkers set out from Northern cities intent of storming the 2,087 ft (687m) high plateau of Kinder Scout in the Peak District in a widely advertised Mass Trespass designed to challenge the right of the moor owners to keep the land closed for grouse shooting.

But what started as a cheery march from Hayfield village ended in a minor skirmish in William Clough on the flanks of Kinder between a group of trespassers and a band of keepers during which one temporary keeper was slightly injured.

The walkers went on to Ashop Head from where the Sheffield contingent descended to Edale. The Manchester group headed westwards and six walkers were arrested as they returned to Hayfield.

Despite what had been a relatively minor disturbance, five were jailed at Derby Assizes for up to six months each for various offences, including riotous assembly. Ironically, at the time supporters of both sides feared they had lost ground through the incident.

The harshness of the prison sentences sparked such a wave of public outrage and sympathy that a few weeks later 10,000 ramblers – a previously unheard of number – attended a mass rally at the Winnats Pass near Castleton.

Yet at the same time some of the official rambling federations, who had been lobbying Parliament and working behind the scenes to negotiate improved access, openly complained that their own cause had been set back 20 years.

Whatever the truth, the trespass quickly became a hallowed event in the history of the access movement and is widely viewed as a crucial turning point in the campaign which led first to the creation of National Parks after the Second World War and eventually to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000 which finally enshrined in law the Right to Roam over moorland and mountains.

When the 80th anniversary is marked this month, Terry Howard, President of the South Yorkshire and North East Derbyshire Areas of the Ramblers Association, hopes that at least one myth will be laid to rest; that it was Manchester walkers who won the victory.

“Yorkshire walkers, especially from Sheffield, had been active in the battle for access for decades before the Kinder Trespass,” he said. “I hope that this time the record will finally be put straight.”

Certainly the publicly-identified ringleader of the trespass, Benny Rothman, one of the imprisoned men and then a 20-year-old motor mechanic who gave an impromptu speech before the walkers set off from Hayfield, was a Mancunian. He was also secretary of the Lancashire District of the British Workers Sports Federation, a subsidiary of the Young Communist League, some of whose members had been turfed off the moors of Bleaklow by keepers that Easter.

Back at their campsite, the disgruntled pledged that next time they would go in such numbers that keepers would not be able to stop them.

With the harsh jail sentences the campaigners had their martyrs and soon they also had their PR campaign thanks to Ewan MacColl’s song The Manchester Rambler, written shortly after the trespass and for decades a standard in folk clubs and hostels or wherever walkers gathered. Its stirring chorus of “I may be a wage slave on Monday/But I am a free man on Sunday” rallied the campaigners. Mike Harding – born in Manchester but now based in the Yorkshire Dales – is a devotee and will perform the song during the celebrations. He recalls: “It was our anthem and we knew what every word of it meant. The Kinder Mass Trespass and Ewan MacColl’s song were constant reminders that the freedom of the hills had been won by people who had the guts to stand up to injustice.”

Terry Howard does not dispute that but would just like to see some of the credit given to walkers from the eastern side of the Peak District as well, not least the formidable GHB Ward.

He said: “I was brought up on the story of the Kinder Trespass and it excited me. It helped give me a purpose – that of equal rights and equal opportunities for all.

“But the story has been embroidered with inaccuracies and important events surrounding it have been ignored. The stories also often overlooked the fact that the struggle for access and the protection of the Peak District is much older than the Trespass. Sheffield had a long history of campaigning for footpaths and access going right back to the 1800s. And Bert Ward had been a campaigner since 1900. He was known as the King of the Clarion Ramblers, a very active working class walking group in Sheffield.

“He was such a regular trespasser on Kinder and other moors that he was even served with an injunction in the 1920s to stop him doing it or inciting others. But he was not a particular supporter of the Kinder Trespass because there were moves in Parliament at the time to get an access bill.

“Even so there were two or three groups from Sheffield who took part. One met at Edale and some made their way directly onto Kinder and had a full day’s walking. Another Sheffield contingent went up from the Snake Inn.

“After the Kinder Trespassers were imprisoned there was another trespass held at Abbey Brook near Bradfield. There was more violence on that occasion but no-one was arrested and in Sheffield at least the great tradition of trespassing kept going. Thanks to the hard work that had been done we finally got the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act in 1949 and the Peak District, including Kinder, became the first British national park.

“Sheffield people tend not to brag so it is only recently that we have had recognition of the effort that Sheffield walkers put in to win access not just in the Peak but nationally too.”

80 years since Kinder trespass

The 80th anniversary of the Kinder Trespass is being marked by a programme of walks, lectures, exhibitions and a ceilidh.

The Kinder 80 Festival will be launched by author and broadcaster Stuart Maconie at the Moorland Centre, Edale, next Tuesday, April 24.

Other speakers to the invited audience will include BBC Radio 2’s Mike Harding; Dame Fiona Reynolds, Director General of the National Trust, and Kate Ashbrook, secretary of the Open Spaces Society and Ramblers vice-president.

For more details see www.kindertrespass.com