It’s tempting to think of the English countryside as a bucolic landscape that, with minor restrictions, we are all free to roam. Picturesque rivers, hills, woodlands and meadows criss-crossed with public footpaths that we can explore to our heart’s content. Yet that’s far from the reality. In fact, most of England is out of bounds to the general public. Today, around 92 per cent of land in England is off limits, as well as 97 per cent of the country’s waterways.
Nick Hayes, an author, illustrator and political cartoonist, has spent considerable time exploring the great British outdoors, on foot and in kayaks, while increasingly ignoring the ‘Keep Out’ signs in order to access the vast grounds of aristocrats, private corporations and media magnates. In The Book of Trespass he takes us on a very specific tour around England, often following old public rights of way that have long ceased to exist and scaling walls to large private estates in order to show the reality of England’s landscape today.
What he chronicles isn’t pretty. Half of England is owned by just 36,000 people, less than one per cent of the population, with much of it having been in the same families for generations. Meanwhile, commons land – grazing and woodland once accessible to everyone – has, over hundreds of years, been subsumed into private estates, legally or otherwise. Almost half a million acres of England are now owned by offshore companies in order to avoid capital gains or inheritance tax, further dividing the land from the people.
By following Hayes’ footsteps we get to see England as it really is, the beautiful landscapes but also the major social divisions and restrictions that are firmly entrenched.
Access to land has long been a point of conflict between the haves and have-nots. Hayes highlights some of the clashes over the years between landowners and those who want or need access to the land, whether peasants, poachers, ramblers, ravers, gypsies or many others. He also spells out the legal changes that have long favoured landowners, such as the 1994 Criminal Justice and Pubic Order Act which introduced the crime of aggravated trespass, by which you can be arrested and prosecuted for crossing boundaries and a number of other acts that are eye-watering in their banality.
Hayes is a strong advocate for increasing public access to land and a harsh critic of those with power who have, for generations, found ways to take possession of public land and then wall it off to deny access to anyone else. ‘Walls look like order; but more often than not a wall stands at the precise fulcrum of an imbalance in society,’ he writes. The book also makes it clear that the loss of access to commons land often had a profound impact on nearby communities, with people in medieval times thrown out of their homes or punished for collecting firewood or hunting on lands that their ancestors were able to use freely.
In many ways The Book of Trespass is a history book of the English countryside, vividly illustrated by illicit visits to some of its more picturesque and illustrious country estates and private lands. We get a glimpse of Arundel Castle, Boughton House and Highclere Castle (where Downton Abbey was filmed), as well as the Sussex estate of former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre.
We also get a sense of how the aristocracy came by their land, beginning with the enclosure of the English commons upon the arrival of William the Conqueror, who took ownership of all the land and parcelled it off to his barons (keeping a fifth for himself, including prime hunting land). A later wave of landowners, including many of the largest landholding families today, would gain their wealth through exploits in India and the Caribbean, as officers of the East India Company or plantation owners, and would go on to build fabulous stately homes upon their return.
During his trespasses, Hayes is occasionally confronted by groundkeepers, who make it clear that his presence is unwelcome. However, for the most part he finds himself alone on the grounds of vast country estates, able to wander, swim in lakes and sketch (many of his illustrations dot the book). He also points out that during all of his transgressions he’s never met the actual owner of the land. He tries to rectify this, with comical results.
There are roughly 118,000 miles of public footpaths in England today, which might sound like a lot, but it’s half of what there were a hundred years ago. ‘A country path is democracy manifested in mud,’ Hayes concludes.