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Trespass, capitalism and land

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Simon Basketter looks at a new book examining how the rich have stolen huge swathes of public land—and passed centuries of laws keep everybody else out
Issue 2719
Just who runs Britain?
Ilustration by Nick Hayes from The Book of Trespass

Fences and divisions intersect Nick Hayes’s The Book of Trespass. It is a nature tour through the eyes of those who have scaled, dodged or broken the barriers that scar the land.

Hayes recounts an exchange with six fox hunters, who he meets when on the Duke of Beaufort’s grounds. 

They find him climbing over a locked gate and ask a question, that isn’t a question, “Are you lost?”

Fox hunting shows who is in charge of the countryside by riding roughshod all over it. Walls are for jumping over for the rich and for keeping the poor out.

A third of Britain is still owned by aristocracy. The 24 non-royal dukes own almost four million acres between them.

In 2016 fourteen marquises received just over £35 million worth of farm subsidies for their 100,000 acres. 

The seventeen dukes who received farm subsidies got £258.4 million between them.

After William conquered, the ancient tradition of the poor hunting became redefined as a poaching. The food ordinary people relied on was redefined as “game”, the objects of a wealthy pastime.

Hayes writes, “Grouse shooting is presented by the lobby groups as the only commercially viable means of maintaining a grouse moor, a rhetorical hall of mirrors, which is like saying golf is the only way of keeping a golf course running.”

The development of capitalism in Britain was tied to hundreds of years of land theft—enclosures.

Historian EP Thompson described it as a “plain enough case of class robbery, played according to the fair rules of property and law laid down by a parliament of property owners and lawyers”.

So between 1750 and 1860 over four thousand individual applications of enclosure were passed by government. These account for a third of the English agricultural land now in private hands.

There have been hundreds of years of battles as the rich took over the land—some large, some small.

At the start of the eighteenth century, fuelled by wider civil unrest, across Hampshire and Berkshire, poaching transformed into protests for equal rights. 

In broad daylight, groups of men and women would cross the fences and devastate the deer stock of local manor parks leaving carcasses stripped of meat. Occasionally they would leave the carcass of the gamekeeper.

Good nature writing evokes landscapes and ecologies of the countryside combined with history and facts you wish you knew already. 

What is rarer is interspersing that with anger at the “violence and theft” that shaped the land.


Hayes alternates his polite trespassing with a history of landed property in England.

In 1531 Henry VII passed the Egyptian Act which described “an outlandish people, calling themselves Egyptians who have come into this realm and used great subtly and crafty means to deceive the people”.

It was the one of many laws that use scapegoating to control land. The Tories are currently planning to restrict rights to access land, using anti-Traveller racism.

A supporter of such laws is “current MP for South Dorset and serial hoarder of syllables, Richard Grosvenor 

Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax”, whose vast Charborough estate was founded on his ancestors’ slave wealth. Slavery and colonialism are embedded in the stone of houses such as Charborough. 

Drax argues he “can’t be held responsible for something that happened three hundred or four hundred years ago”. 

Hayes notes that “he still owns the original sugar plantation in Barbados, and visits his Jacobean manor house there every year”.

Hayes links subjection overseas to servitude at home. His analysis of slavery stems openly from the black historian Eric Williams. 

Who owns Britain? How the rich kept hold of land
Who owns Britain? How the rich kept hold of land
  Read More

He writes, “Slavery was an extreme version of a time-honoured hierarchy in England, its impetus was profit, its disguise was race, but its mechanism was class.”

The imperial machinery of slavery and conquest bankrolled and legitimised the “cult of exclusion” that kept the people off their own turf. 

The “magical architecture” and contours of the great estates lent that dogma a veneer of beauty.

Much of the discussion over who gets a path or even into the countryside still has echoes of the origin of the wealth. 

The argument about access and rights of way is often extremely pasty-faced and as middle class as the queues for the Antiques Roadshow outside a stately home.

While trying not to scare people who like books about nature walks, Hayes is angry.

It is a truism that the sign “Trespassers will be prosecuted” is wrong. 

This underestimates judges’ insistence that property is inviolable. 

Even designated rights of way only confer limited permission. You are not entitled to deviate from the path, or to stop.

In 1994 the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act invented the crime of aggravated trespass. 

Since 2014, aggravated trespass has expanded to include engaging in additional legal activities while trespassing.

As Hayes points out, “If you are doing something that is not illegal (photography, dancing, playing the flute), while doing something that is not criminal (trespassing) you can be automatically arrested, and liable to six months in prison.”

And some of the queen’s land is covered by extra bits of anti-terror trespass law too.

Less than 6 percent of the land in England and Wales is “Open Access”.

Rights in Scotland are formally better but the realities of ownership are as bad.

People in England have the “right to roam” over only 10 percent of the country, and to boat or swim down 3 percent of rivers.

The length of public footpaths has halved, to around 118,000 miles, since the 19th century.

The book opens with the mass trespass of Kinder Scout in the Peak District in 1932.

The Duke of Devonshire’s land in Derbyshire had long been contested by walkers and campaigners.

In April 1932 400 young people were met with a police escort.

When they reached the duke’s land they were also met with gamekeepers hired for the event armed with sticks. 

After fights a number of the group broke through and got some 400 metres onto the land. Five people were jailed for up to six months.

As 21 year old Communist Benny Rothman said at his trial, “We ramblers, after a hard week’s work, in smokey towns and cities, go out rambling for relaxation and fresh air. 

“And we find the finest rambling country is closed to us. Our request, or demand, for access to all peaks and uncultivated moorland is nothing unreasonable.”

Battles over footpaths and rights of way can be problematic. First there is the process. As Hayes points out, battles with individual landowners with ancient maps and legal fights are weighted in favour of the rich.

There is a bigger issue with the idea of a right of way. Paths stem from an accumulated history of peoples moving in the same space. 

But they beg the question of who controls the land either side of the path. 


As Hayes puts it, “Our ‘rights’ to the land have become streamlined into thin strips of legitimacy to toe the line.”

And it is worth noting that this is not all about old money.

The backdrop for ITV’S Midsomer Murders is “the village of Hambleden, whose 1,600-acre estate and forty houses, pub and villages shops are all owned by a Swiss foreign exchange dealer. 

The village was bought in 2007 under the name Hambleden Estates, who are registered in the British Virgin Islands.”

This is modern capitalism. Hayes kayaks on the Thames through Wind in The Willows country.

He writes, “On the west bank of the river is Fawley Court Farm, said to be one of the inspirations for Kenneth Grahame’s Toad Hall, which was sold for £43 million to Fawley Court Inc., a company registered in the British Virgin Islands.

Village after estate is owned by offshore companies and the list continues for some time.

Perhaps the best contrast in the book is when Hayes visits the refugee camp in Calais. 

He counterposes it with him then trespassing on the property of Paul Dacre, former head honcho of the Daily Mail.

“If England is full,” Hayes points out, “it is full of space. And the walls that hide it.”

The Book of Trespass Crossing the Lines that Divide Us (Bloomsbury) £20 

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