Right to Roam

RM: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

When producer Katie Mingle’s dad retired, he began walking.. A lot.

Katie Mingle: He’d always been a walker, but with all the new time on his hands, his walking took on a Forrest Gumpian fervor. He started doing these really long, multi-day treks through the countryside. And even though he’s American, he mostly preferred to walk in the UK. In fact, over the course of several years, he walked the entire length of Great Britain. On one of these many trips in 2003…

Jim Mingle: I was walking through these beautiful rolling hills and wooded area and there were just literally hundreds and hundreds of pheasants and grouse along this trail and you’d walk along and they would fly up in the air.

KM: That’s my Dad, Jim Mingle.

JM: I walked and walked, and it got later and later and I realized I couldn’t get back to my B&B where I was staying. So I decided I’d I would hitchhike back

KM: Hitchhiking is dangerous, dad, but go on…

JM: I stuck out my thumb and up pulled this jeep. I hopped in and there was this guy sitting there all dressed in a sort of traditional Tweed outfit with a funny cap, and there was a shotgun on the rack in the back which you never ever saw in in Britain. And we got to talking and I asked what he did and he said he was a gamekeeper for Madonna and Guy Ritchie.

KM: My Dad had been walking through Madonna’s private estate when he was picked up by her gamekeeper.

RM: Which is a thing a lot of wealthy landowners have in England – a person who manages the hunting activity on their land.

KM: Right. So this gamekeeper drove him back to the village where he was staying and dropped him off and no, his story doesn’t end with him meeting Madonna. I wish it did too.

JM: I ask about Madonna how this game keeper liked working for her, and he said he loved his job and he thought Madonna was just wonderful.

KM: What’s your favorite Madonna song, dad?

JM: (Laughs) I have no idea! I just like the idea of Madonna. I’m not very good at remembering those kinds of things.

KM: Now that we’ve established that Madonna is wonderful, and my dad can’t name a single one of her songs, you might be asking yourself, as I was: Dad, what were you doing walking across Madonna’s backyard?

JM: I was walking most of the time across private property I was walking from one field to the next, climbing over the fence where they are through a gate and going on, and this was this was permitted.

KM: It’s true, my dad walked the length of Great Britain, and was on private property a lot of the time. Which is different, obviously, than the way we do things in the US. If you wanted to walk across this country, you’d have to do it on a combination of public trails and roads; and you certainly couldn’t cut across Madonna’s property.

RM: This right in Britain, to walk through private land, is known colloquially as “the right to roam.” and the movement to win this right was started in the 1930s by a rebellious group of young people dressed in army surplus shorts and hiking boots, carrying canvas rucksacks and canteens. They called themselves “ramblers”

Roly Smith : “Rambler” is one of those quaint old English words dunno where it came from really but it means it means walking or hiking in the countryside.

KM: This is Roly Smith, a rambler-slash-journalist who says his rambling forefathers and mothers were toiling away in the factories of 1930s’ Manchester.

RS: Manchester was a very grimy town, and a very dirty, smoky, horrible environment. A product really of the Industrial Revolution.

KM: Outside Manchester was one of the most beautiful parts of England, an area known as the Peak District.

Roly: So if you can imagine, factory workers in Manchester and Sheffield could actually see these inviting moors from their homes and their workplaces and they weren’t allowed to walk on them.

RM: It hadn’t always been this way, for hundreds of years an idea of “The Commons” had existed in England.

KI: So The Commons, they were an integral part of medieval life for the ordinary villager in England.

KM: That’s Ken Illgunas, author of This Land is Your Land: How We Lost the Right to Roam and How to Take It Back.

KI: All the land, it was owned by either a King or a Lord; but the peasants had very substantial and real rights on these common lands.

RM: In this is feudal system, Kings and Lords controlled all the land, and the manor grew enough food to support itself and its tenants.

KM: The peasants lived on the land sometimes without written leases but with assumed rights to use it in exchange for various types of service.

KI: You know they could graze their cattle, they peasants could cut lumber, they could draw water, they could collect peat, they could use it for a whole bunch of purposes.

KM: All of that began to change in 1400s when wool prices rose across Europe. Landowners wanted in on the profits and in order to graze sheep more efficiently, they needed to fence off pastures. And that’s when we began to see a period of enclosure.

RM: Landowners cleared entire villages of people, making them homeless, and put up little stone walls and hedges to mark the boundaries of their property. In a county called Warwickshire, 61 villages were wiped out before the year 1500.

KM: Over the years, Parliament created more and more laws to keep people from using what was once common land. It all ramped up in the 1700s.

KI: There was nearly four thousand acts of Parliament between 1760 and 1870. That’s a sixth of England that went from common lands to enclosed private property; destroying people’s livelihoods and way of life.

KM: People were so desperate to continue hunting on this once-common land that they came at night and covered their faces in soot for extra camouflage. They became known as “the blacks,” and in 1723 Parliament passed the Black Act.

Ken: So this Black Act it created 50 offences that were punishable by by death for people who were accessing this land.

KM: Eventually the death penalty for trespassing was done away with, but the land remained closed to the vast majority of people.

RM: In the 1800s Britain industrialized, and people found themselves indoors all day, and unable to find places for recreation.

KM: England did not have a national park system at this time, and the trails that people could access were extremely limited. Still, the people longed to be in the hills. They walked where they could, and trespassed where they couldn’t. They climbed over fences and tried to stay hidden from the gamekeepers. And all over England, so-called rambling clubs started to form.

KI: The Forest ramblers Club, The Midlands Institute of ramblers, The Manchester Rambling Club, there were tons of these walking groups in the late 1800s and early 1900s forming to fight for access and walking rights. They oftentimes had socialist sensibilities, but at the heart there was a love for walking and a belief that it was their right.

RM: Access was no longer a matter of survival as it had been in the days when enclosure began. It was about recreation, and getting away from the polluted industrial cities.

KM: Which brings us back to polluted, industrial 1930s Manchester, and a rambling club called… The British Workers Sports Federation.

RS: The British Workers Sports Federation.

KM: In this group was a charismatic rambler named Benny Rothman

RS: A stocky little character with a very broad grin and great sense of humor, and a man of the highest principles; but he was exceptionally short. He was about five foot-nothing, as we say.

KM: Roly got to know Benny later in life.

RS: He was a man who I very much looked up to although he was very short.

KM: So, One day, back in 1932, a few people from Benny’s group tried to take a walk in the hills near Manchester, in that beautiful mountainous area near the city called The Peak District.

RS: And they were chased off by a group of gamekeepers, and when they got back to their camp. Benny Rothmann and others said, “You know, if there was enough of us they couldn’t stop us.”

KM: So Benny and the other ramblers came up with an idea: Let’s get a huge group together and walk onto this mountain called Kinder Scout.

KI: Which was the biggest mountain in this Peak District. It was called “The Forbidden Mountain.” And this area was guarded by a whole bunch of gamekeepers. These were intimidating men; I mean they would use telescopes to identify trespassers from afar. They carried these big sticks or clubs that they would sometimes use on trespassers.

KM: The British Workers Sports Federation did not keep their plans to trespass a secret, they gave an interview to the local paper saying “We feel we cannot any longer submit to being deprived of the beauties of the countryside for the convenience of the landowners. Wherever we claim we have a just right to go we shall trespass en masse, and Sunday will be the opening of our campaign”

RM: Not everyone was on board. More conservative rambling groups in the area wrote editorials denouncing their plan, saying it would hurt the cause for expanded access to the countryside. One editorial argued that trespassing was fine, but it should be done alone or with just one or two people “quietly, neatly and successfully.”

KM: The police were well aware of the plans to trespass at Kinder Scout, and Benny Rothman’s role in all of it. And on the day of the event, they tried serve him with an injunction to keep him from going.

Ken: The police knew he was coming and he arrived by bicycle and they all expected him to come by train, so they were kind of hanging out at the train station.

KM: Rothman made it to the trespass and finds about 400 other people are there too. Mostly young people, below the age of 21, a lot of men, but some women too.

KI: They’re wearing old army tops, and multi-colored sweaters, and khaki shorts, and worn work boots. This is kind of the standard hiking garb of the day and for whatever reason they carry these enormous rucksacks; they’re considered like the thing to do at the time.

Roly: They quite often wore berets on their heads. So it Was a very, very motley crew.

RM: This motley crew of hikers gathered with their berets and rucksacks at the base of the mountain, and Benny Rothman gave a speech about taking back the rights they lost during the enclosure acts of the 17 and 18 hundreds, and he emphasized that the trespass on Kinder Scout was meant to be peaceful. And with that, the group set off up the mountain.

RS: The other thing they did was sing. They quite often sang when they went out rambling, and em, they were singing songs like The Internationale and that sort of thing. And that of course showed their political leanings as well.

RM: [ahem] Communist.

KM: The ramblers were in a good mood as they hiked. They sang and talked. There were some police behind them, keeping an eye on things, and huffing to keep up with the pace of the young walkers.

RM: At one point a group of gamekeepers approached them wagging their sticks, and a small scuffle ensued.

KI: One gamekeeper kind of rolls over and kind of hurts his ankle, that’s the extent of the scuffle.

KM: It was all pretty anti-climactic. Eventually The ramblers made their way back to the bottom. The trespass had been a success. They’d openly walked on Kinder Scout, and no one had been able to stop them; and it probably all would have ended right there, with nothing much gained or lost on either side, if the police hadn’t decided to make some arrests.

KI: Rothman, and five other ringleaders, they’re arrested.

RM: At this time ‘Trespassing’ wasn’t even an arrestable offense, so the police came up with another charge.

KI: Incitement to Riotous Assembly

KM: One ramblers got off, but the rest were convicted. And they’re given prison sentences from two to six months.

RS: But when the sentences were handed down by the judge, that actually united the ramblers cause and they all thought this was terrible you know, just for walking on the moors people being sent to prison.

KM: Suddenly there was huge amount of awareness in the general public about walking rights,

Ken: This was like a a national news item at the time.

KM: And people were sympathetic.

KI: And it would set in motion changes that would transform how England thinks about private property.

RS: It’s been described as one of the most successful acts of civil disobedience ever in the history of this country.

RM: The whole thing is even memorialized in song. There was a guy on the trespass named Jimmy Miller, he eventually became a pretty well known folk singer in England, and changed his name to Ewan MacColl.

RS: And Ewan wrote the song based on the mass trespass called, The Manchester Rambler.

KM: Do you know the words?

RS: you’re not going to ask me to sing it are you?

KM: Yeah, I actually really want you to sing it.

RS: I can sing the chorus, but I think you should get a recording, really. (sings) I’m a Rambler, I’m a Rambler, from Manchester way, I get all my pleasure the hard moorland way. I may be a wage slave on Monday, but I have my freedom on Sunday.

(recording of song plays)

RS: It is the anthem for the trespasser in this country and it’ll be played at my funeral.

RM: After the trespass, the rambling groups continued to push for expanded access. There were more trespasses, and in 1951, when Britain opened its first national park, it was in the Peak District where the Kinder Scout Trespass took place. This was no accident; years of negotiations between the ramblers and the landowners and legislators in that area had paved the way.

KM: But it wasn’t until the year 2000, that the ramblers got what they always wanted; an act of parliament that opened up huge swaths of the country where people could roam free.

KI: The Countryside and Rights of Way Act and that opened up mountains, moors, heaths, downs…Those are just kind of fancy English words for unimproved grasslands.

RS: And now we do have the right to roam in open country which is what those lads in 1932 were fighting for.

RM: The 2000 act opened up about 7% of land in England and 21% in Wales on which you are free to roam, meaning you don’t even have to stay on a trail, you can truly just wander around. And 7% may not sound like a lot, but between that and other designated trails, where there are more restrictions, you can now pretty easily walk across England, just like Katie’s dad did.

KM: A small footnote: The year after my dad rambled across Madonna’s property, she actually sued to keep people from wandering around out there. The government ended up allowing her to close off a lot of her estate but did keep some small amount of it open to ramblers.

RM: Madonna wasn’t the only person with concerns about the ramblers. When the Countryside and Rights of Way Act passed, a lot of landowners feared the worst.

KI: You know, everyone was worried about people sniffing glue out the countryside and people being mowed down by tractors, and wildly fornicating… Like this was all in the newspapers, people were really worried, but none of that stuff turned out to be true.

KM: In addition to Britain, a bunch of other European countries also have “partial” right to roam systems. Meaning some, but not all private property is accessible to walkers. But then there are countries where the right is even further expanded.

KI: Norway, Finland, Sweden Sweden. Sweden has this thing called “Alla Monserrat” which means “every man’s right.” This means you walk over cow pasture, you can walk through the woods, this means you can access virtually the whole countryside.

KM: In the United States we have a system of National and State Parks, but we don’t have any rights to wander through private property. In some places you might even get shot for doing it.

RM: The idea of opening up private land to the public seems almost unamerican; but this wasn’t always the case.

Ken: Yeah this is kind of like a forgotten chapter of American history. Americans who were unenslaved, we had the right to roam from the colonial days up until the Civil War.

RM: In the early days of this country, it was common practice to hunt and fish on private land if it wasn’t enclosed by a fence. In fact, the Pennsylvania Delegation to The Constitution even tried to get this enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

KI:That’s how important this was to early Americans and the founders.

RM: Nearly a century later, in an 1862 essay entitled, “Walking,” Henry David Thoreau wrote that he feared that one day “Walking over the surface of God’s earth shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds.”

KM: This day may have come even sooner than Thoreau feared. Ken Illgunas says our concept of private property began to change just a few years later, after the civil war, partly because of the end of slavery.

Ken: One perfect example of this is in 1865. It’s the Louisiana Legislature and after the war they passed this resolution. They acknowledge the end of the war and they also do something else. They criminalize trespassing. Now why would they do that right after the Civil War?

RM: I think i know why.

KI: They did that because now you had a whole bunch of free and independent black people.

RM: There were other reasons as well. As Native mericans were forced onto reservations, Land grants to the railroads and the Homestead Act of 1862 turned great swaths of public land to private ownership. And then came barbed wire.

KI: Fences became a lot cheaper. So you could put fences up for livestock; so suddenly a whole bunch more the country is enclosed. You have a diversified economy, so people are no longer relying on the land for hunting, and fishing, and gathering as much as they used to. So when people start chipping away at access rights, you don’t have an impassioned group of proponents fighting to maintain their access rights.

KM: but Ken Illgunas thinks we should be fighting for recreational access in this country, where a lot of our public land is concentrated in places that are hard for most people to get to.

Ken: For instance, Alaska has 329 million acres of public land that’s forty one percent of all public land. You look at the five states with the highest percentages of public land that’s Alaska, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming. All of this all of this land is in states where there aren’t that many people.

KM: Illgunas believes a right to roam system could help connect all these disparate pieces of public land and give us a sense ownership.

KI: I think if we bring in a system like the right to roam, you know, we’re still going to look at the land as if it’s someone’s, but I think we’ll also begin to look at it as if it’s sort of ours.

KM: And, for what it’s worth, my father agrees. He says that there’s something really special about being able to walk wherever you want.

JM:I thought the whole concept of being able to walk respectfully across private land was extraordinary. And it was something that just doesn’t exist here. We have a lot of public land where you can walk in the U.S. but this seemed very different. There were so many routes and trails to choose from. It felt like the whole country was open to you.

RM: These days if you ramble across the open grasslands of England or Wales, you’ll see the remnants of enclosure – the stone walls and fences, and you’ll also see the the things meant to help you get past these barriers – the “styles” which are step ladders to help you get over fences, the so-called kissing gates, which are V shaped openings that people can walk through but livestock cannot. Because the fences aren’t there to stop you anymore – you just hop over and continue on your way.

Comments (20)

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  1. Eric Riley

    I loved this episode. I’m also surprised you didn’t mention the quintessential American rambling song “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie. The entire song is about the beauty of walking the American landscape. He passes the California redwood forest and the Gulf of Mexico, fields of waving grain and shimmering deserts, and then there comes this verse

    “As I went walking I saw a sign there
    And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
    But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
    That side was made for you and me.”

    No clearer message of a person who wants to roam freely.

  2. Love the show.

    When I moved from England/Wales to Scotland 25+ years ago the lack of red lines (foot paths and bridleways that were rights of way) on the maps was one on the first things to make me realise this really was a different country. There were no rights of way on official maps because you could go anywhere. It actually felt uncomfortable. Then it was codified in law just as I was getting used to the notion.

    It does beg the question about the USA though. What exactly does “Land of the Free” mean?

  3. Geoffrey

    I was dealing with an impressive amount of cognitive dissonance listening to this. I have seen many examples of government-owned land in the US that is closed to the public. We have undeveloped spaces in San Diego owned by F&G among others that do not allow people to enter them. Also, you cannot be in a state park after dusk. Also, all trail building must be approved. In addition, mountain bikers are forbidden from a lot of public land by the current WIlderness Trails Act.

    Accessibility is a hot topic for mountain bikers. Many sides, many opinions.

  4. Nicklas

    Having mentioned first Scandinavian right-to-roam laws and then the Scottish bothies I was surprised to not hear about the Swedish (and our neighbors too I would bet) right to camp pretty much anywhere in nature we want to.
    There are of course exceptions such as nature reserves, national parks, crop fields or pastures etc. and areas designated for specific uses such as around running tracks. But any area not near someones house is free game for a person or small group to pitch their tents and make a camp site freely for a few days. You can pack the family and drive out to the woods and walk a bit and just set up camp for a weekend of camping, swimming and nature walks.
    Of course there are rules to clean up after yourself and not cause unnecessary damage to the nature around you but in general it comes down to respecting the natural environment.

    It’s a pretty great thing we have going.

  5. I lived in Scotland and it was hard to understand the concept of the bothy. A friend showed me maids but even the type of location they used was a bit alien to me – I’m Brazilian and struggle with the whole miles / feet thing, but their maps used an even weirder location system.
    In Italy they call this kind of place it “rifugio”. Little frugal huts usually in the mountains.

    In August 02017 I spent my birthday in one up on the Etna volcano. I met some local Couchsurfers and we went there to spend the night and watch shooting stars. Amazing experience.
    This is the one we stayed:

    Bivacco Galvarina
    95031 Adrano, Province of Catania, Italy

    https://goo.gl/maps/kWmwDt5XnKK2

    It is made out of the black vulcanic rocks you see all over this area in Sicily. The city of Catania is famous for these black rocks too.

  6. Like so many of your stories, I enjoyed this episode and its sentiments. I can see that just talking about ‘right to roam’ when describing walking across England simplified things and helped with imagining the same access in the US.

    Katie and Jim will know that (outside the National Parks), the 7% of English ‘open access land’ on which you can roam is relatively tricky to identify and very unevenly spread. In my corner of rural Dorset there are just small pockets here and there, which you can find on a rather clunky website.

    Instead, 99% of the time, everyone and their dogs follow the umpteen thousand, mapped, signed, often ancient, lovely, footpaths and bridleways which criss-cross public and private land. These were mentioned only in passing.
    Public footpath kissing gates and stiles are not really connected to ‘right to roam’ … you just wanted to bolt in ‘kissing gates’, didn’t you.

    It’s just one of those moments when you are familiar with a subject, and what’s being said sounds a bit selective, perhaps to fit the narrative.
    Don’t mind me – keep up the good work.

    1. derek

      Stiles and kissing gates are pieces of infrastructure well designed to meet the potentially-conflicting needs of walkers and property owners: they let walkers through, but not cars or livestock. They do their job 99 percent invisibly :-)
      I disagree with the commenter who characterized right to roam as socialist. The history of the concept goes back to feudalism, as non-socialist a social system as it is possible to be. Land ownership was more about the right to harvest fruit and wood, and even then, the general public were legally entitled to pick up fallen fruit and wood off a property owner’s land. The modern American concept of real estate as private property like a cellphone or a house, something you can bar anyone you like from accessing in any way at your own discretion, is new even in America.

  7. John

    Interesting episode, which highlights the distinct differences between the socialist leaning European/Asian continent, and the American cultural perspective of property rights. Not sure what this has to do with design though. I know I wouldn’t want “ramblers” crossing or camping on my ten acres. And as for design, maybe more of a focus on the design and architecture variations of the bothies would have been truer to the intent of 99pi.

  8. Steven Chong

    Hawaii is in the US, and it has enshrined the right to move through private lands in the mountains, and furthermore harvest mountain resources in the native Hawaiian tradition. Furthermore all beach land is public property— it cannot be owned, and beachfront property owners must build and maintain paths for public access to their beaches to grade of regulations.

  9. Steve Davis

    As I listened to this episode, and thought about the cultural differences between the UK (and other areas that are supportive of “rambling”) and the US, the one word that kept coming to mind was “litigation”. Here in the US, sooner or later someone would fall and break a leg and sue the property owner, and win a large settlement, and that would be the end of Right To Roam. Or, say, a small campfire, insufficiently extinguished, gets out of control and burns down a neighbor’s barn. Who’s responsible, the ramblers or the property owner who allowed them there?

    More generally, the concept relies on a social compact that is, I think, stronger in some cultures than others. A assumption that users of a property will act responsibly and respectfully.

    And finally there’s an aspect of scale, right? A property owner who might be fine with occasional parties of half a dozen rambling across a distant meadow might be less agreeable when it looks like Woodstock :)

  10. Emily Vincent

    Loved this episode! It brought back childhood memories of Sunday walks with my dad through the neighboring farms of Abbots Langley. I’ve been living in Texas for 15 years but I still remember the routes, the sounds and smells, and how excited I was to climb over the stiles.

  11. Tim Corrigan

    There was a band in Ireland in the 70’s that my parents inflicted on me called “The Bothy Band”, and they had many songs about gypsies and ramblers. [Some of these terms have become a little fraught since then and the polite term now is traveller.] My dad being Irish assumed a right to pass through his land in upstate New York – he had 125 acres of former dairy farm when he retired. Culturally that’s generally an assumption in Ireland – I was walking with my cousin across fields in Claire a month ago and she said it’s generally assumed you can do it as long as you remember to close gates behind you. On the other hand, I talked to my father-in-law from Seneca Falls and he said the same generally applied when he was a kid, and this really started changing culturally in the 70’s.

  12. Allen Crawford

    No discussion of the “right to roam” is complete without also mentioning the “tragedy of the commons,” which is something we’re dealing with in many parts of the US, thanks in large part to people abusing wild public lands with off-road vehicles. In the New Jersey Pine Barrens, we have a huge problem with sensitive habitat for very rare species of amphibians and plants being destroyed in a single afternoon by destructive “jeep jamborees” that are organized on chat rooms online and attract many people from out of state who proceed to defy state law once they get here. Unfortunately, enforcement in many areas has been hamstrung by state budget cuts, as well as local law enforcement being unwilling to enforce existing laws.

    I agree with the idea of “right to roam” in theory, but it’s a far more complex issue in practice. I’ve seen what happens when public lands in densely populated areas are wide open to abuse: conservationists have a hard enough time protecting the last strongholds of wild lands in these developed areas without a significant portion of the public abusing them with impunity, simply because they feel entitled to do so.

  13. Ben

    Great episode! I think you guys could have done more homework in Vermont though. We have a land/private property rights system that is heavily in favor of the walker or hunter. All land is legally accessible for everyone unless it is posted in a very specific way: Signs every fifty feet around the entire property that are not only signed and dated yearly but also registered with the town clerk. This is a hard process to achieve leaving most of Vermont land accessible to everyone as long as they keep things civilized, which most people do; most likely because we do share a sense of collective ownership beyond the private property aspect.

  14. Alex

    I’ve stayed in a couple of Bothies in the UK and they are spartan but perfect. If you’re struggling to imagine what they are like the think of the film ‘Withnail and I’ and then take away the home comforts. In fact one I stayed in is in the same valley. They are perfect when the weather is against you and a warm fire will dry you off.

    There are still people who don’t want the right to roam. Some of our local farmers will make it clear you’re not wanted. Especially when it’s lambing season. It’s all about taking responsibility for your freedom to roam

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