The mood was tense at the foot of Kinder Scout on 24 April 1932. Four hundred men and women stood in quiet defiance, in Bowden Bridge quarry which rose up around them as a steep, rocky amphitheatre. At a signal, they set off for the summit through the private slopes of Sandy Heys, where they got into a scuffle with a group of gamekeepers. When they came down the hill, six participants were arrested for ‘riotous assembly’, five of whom were imprisoned for up to six months.
Today it is hard to imagine that heading up the hill was a crime, as illegal as jumping into a stranger’s back garden and wandering about. However, not many private tracts of land are as visible as Kinder Scout, whose sides rise to 638 metres between the industrial cities of Manchester and Sheffield. It is the highest point in Peak District as well as the whole of the East Midlands.
For the urban working classes it became a constant visible torment. ‘Walkers from the surrounding cities were increasingly frustrated by the blue, inviting moors that were strictly out of bounds to them,’ says this viewpoint’s author Roly Smith. The land was once open to commoners until it was enclosed by private landlords in the 1830s ‘and was still off limits to the public by the Great Depression of 1932.’ In fact, as little as one per cent of the land around Kinder Scout was legally accessible for the 15,000 or so walkers who would take to the hills to escape their city’s hard graft.
In the 1930s, these tortoise-shell hills would have been pitted with ‘Trespassers will be Prosecuted’ signs, made specifically to deter walking associations. Many such working class groups had sprung up to challenge the enclosure movement through the simple act of walking, and in 1931 they came together to form the National Council of the Ramblers.
Though the ‘Mass Trespass’ was spearheaded by the British Communist Party, which was frustrated by the Ramblers’ inaction, the arrests are believed to have rallied the groups. ‘The severity of the sentences united the Ramblers,’ explains Smith. ‘More than 10,000 people attended the next rally held south of Mam Tor in the Winnats Pass, just outside Castleton.’
The Trespass’s legacy became symbolic of the public’s right to the outdoors. It is often credited as a fundamental moment towards the creation of the National Parks in 1949, the making of the Pennine Trail and, crucially, the securing of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000. The law gives the public right to access all areas of open land, be it moor, mountain or heath. ‘Ramblers can now roam freely across Kinder without fear of assault,’ says Smith. One controversial hike by a few hundred brave walkers has ensured the freedom of countless walks since.
This was published in the November 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.