In a few days time, on 24th April 2012, it will be the 80th anniversary of the Mass Trespass on Kinder Scout, an event which was pivotal in the public gaining access to the hills, but what was it all about and how did it happen?
Kinder Scout (generally known simply as ‘Kinder’) is an area of moorland in the Dark Peak. It rises to a wide plateau above the surrounding landscape and includes the highest point in the Peak District. Its landscape is deceptive: on a bright summer’s day, Kinder is a fine place for a walk, with views stretching out as far as Greater Manchester and even – so it’s said – the Welsh mountains. But if the light fails, or the clouds settle down over the moors, Kinder can be an unforgiving place, with many dangers to trap the unwary wanderer.
Kinder was presumably in a welcoming mood in April 1932, when around five hundred walkers set off from Hayfield to walk to Ashop Head on the plateau, to hold a ramblers’ meeting.
You might think this would be a good place for such an assembly – but at the time there was a complication. The land was the private property of the Duke of Devonshire, and he hadn’t given any permission for the ramblers to walk there. This, in fact, was the purpose of the exercise: this well-attended walking event would become known as the Kinder (Scout) Mass Trespass, and its aim was to highlight the dissatisfaction of the walking public at the continuing failure of landowners to recognise a general ‘Right To Roam’ (as the ramblers termed it).
The British Workers’ Sport Federation, amongst other bodies, had been engaged in talks with landowners for some time in the hope of opening up some of those vast swathes of countryside that were at the time off-limits to walkers. Frustrated at the lack of progress and with few other cards in their hand, the BWSF decided that a mass trespass would be a suitable form of peaceful protest. So, on 24 April 1932, a group assembled in the village of Hayfield and set out to climb onto Kinder.
They hadn’t gone far before they were met by a group of the Duke’s gamekeepers – at which point ‘peaceful protest’ became simply ‘protest’. A reporter from the Guardian newspaper had gone along to record the proceedings, and reported the confrontation as follows:
“There followed a very brief parley, after which a fight started – nobody quite knew how. It was not an even struggle. There were only eight keepers, while from first to last forty or more ramblers took part in the scuffle. The keepers had sticks, while the ramblers fought mainly with their hands, though two keepers were disarmed and their sticks turned against them.”
The Kinder Trespass information site reports that there was only ‘one minor injury’. The Guardian correspondent reported the situation slightly differently, suggesting that ‘plenty of bruises’ had been sustained amongst those involved, and the ‘minor injury’ was to a gamekeeper, one Mr Beaver, who was “knocked unconscious and damaged his ankle”. I’m not medical, of course, but I’m reasonably sure that being knocked unconscious isn’t considered a minor injury by today’s docs. Still, times have changed. The reporter’s full piece is available in the Guardian’s archives HERE.
Having overcome the keepers’ resistance, the ramblers reached their goal at Ashop Head, and were met there by another group of trespassers who had set off with the same objective in mind from the village of Edale.
The ramblers weren’t misguided enough to imagine that the police would just let the matter be, and it was anticipated that at least some of the ramblers would be prosecuted. A fine being thought the likeliest outcome, the combined group held a collection at Ashop Head to gather monies which might be used to pay any penalties imposed. In the end, the returning group was indeed Caught By The Fuzz (ouch), and five men were charged with unlawful assembly and breach of the peace, with a number of these being sentenced to relatively short – but still surprisingly harsh – terms at His Majesty’s Pleasure.
The Mass Trespass – and the heavy sentences imposed on the five participants – stirred up a wave of public sympathy for the ramblers’ cause, with widespread support for the idea that privately owned lands should now be opened up for the public to walk on. There was a further gathering of ten thousand people at Winnatts Pass in the Peak District village of Castleton, followed by the outbreak of the Second World War (though it bears pointing out that there’s no clear causal link between the two).
Once things calmed down in Europe and British life started to return to something approaching normal, attention started to be given again to domestic matters. In 1949, the first national park – the Peak District National Park, which includes Kinder – was created under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, which enshrined the earliest model of the Right To Roam. This was only the beginning of an ongoing evolutionary process, however. The Countryside Rights of Way Act of 2000 – implemented in full in 2005 – further developed public access rights over privately owned countryside.
The Kinder Trespass has been embraced as a crucial event in the development of the modern approach to land access and is celebrated each year with a walking event, organised by the Peak District National Park Authority and the National Trust, which traces the route of the Mass Trespass.
In 2002, Andrew Cavendish, the then Duke of Devonshire, made a public apology on behalf of his grandfather for what he called a “great shaming event on [his] family”. He welcomed the developments that stemmed from the persistence of the countryside access movement.
So the next time you walk on Kinder Scout, or any number of other bits of the UK countryside, take a moment and reflect on the possibility that you might not be able to do so at all had stout Mr Beaver not been knocked out in 1932.
(Oh, and by way of a Public Service Announcement, if you do decide to walk on Kinder Scout, please, do treat it with a healthy amount of respect. His Grace might be more welcoming these days, but the terrain is as inhospitable and unpredictably changeable as always. So: map, compass, GPS if you can, suitable clothing and footwear – yes, people do go up there in t-shirt, shorts and flip flops – and provisions; and let someone know your planned route and return time. Check the weather and be very careful if it’s not warm and clear and daytime. Ta muchly ~ Tiro)