Walk the Walk

April 25, 2024

7/13 8:33:48 UTC
Why it’s time to reclaim the countryside.

Something is stirring in the English countryside. A spirit of revolt has taken afoot, from Right to Roam’s summoning of Old Crockern on Dartmoor (who, legend says, chased a rich landowner off the moors), to the ‘Save Stonehenge’ campaign. These individual examples are evidence of a nationwide mood, a reaction against the sense of powerlessness in the face of government policy and private greed that is restricting our access to nature. 

Shockingly, the Right to Roam campaign reveals that only 8% England is ‘open access’ land (defined by the government as land where the public ‘have the right to access… for walking or certain other leisure activities’). This is in sharp contrast to Scotland, where there is a clearly defined ‘freedom to roam’ across nearly all land and inland water in the country (with a few listed exceptions), as defined by the Land Reform Act 2003.

In a wider sense, it feels as though the so-called ‘culture war’ is drawing battle lines in the rolling fields of England: a new civil war where political ideology is dividing the nation. Attempts to criminalise the right to protest (a cornerstone of democracy) are coming to a head, with some unlikely alliances being formed to prevent irreversible damage being done to the natural environment.

All of this has come to a head thanks to the surge in people reconnecting with nature in the past five years. This is one of the more welcome, unforeseen side effects of the lockdowns introduced to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, where, having been restricted to just an hour’s outdoor exercise, the public found new value in the landscape around them. The clear benefits that nature has on mental health soon focused minds on the paucity of public access to our countryside. 

What also became quickly apparent is that a safe space for one is not a safe space for all. A pivotal 2021 report by CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England), entitled Access to Nature in the English Countryside found that only 20% of children from a BAME background visited the countryside – exactly half that of white children. The report concluded that, ‘despite the clear and well documented benefits of engagement with the countryside, it is evident that these benefits are not enjoyed by everyone equally.’

The monopoly of a certain type of the demographic – typically rich, powerful, white and male – has ugly echoes of the feudalist mindset that first saw common land divided up by wealthy landowners during the Enclosures Acts from the early 1600s.

But this time, the disenfranchised are making a stand (or a walk, or a climb). There is a growing movement for reclaiming the countryside in the name of diversity. Among the many organisations aimed at righting the wrong that CPRE identified are Flock Together (a birdwatching collective set up specifically for people of colour); ClimbMuz (a climbing group for Muslim women); the self-explanatory Muslim Hikers; Athene Club (a safe space for women to hike, run and climb) and the beautifully simple message defined by long time Early Majority collaborators; We Go Outside Too. All these groups recognise that there is something magical and even radical about the act of walking, and that access for some, but not for all, is not enough.

As such, there is a link with the druids, hippies, pagans, and outraged middle class ramblers protesting against an authority that doesn’t seem to care about its own land. What is fascinating is how this common ground is now being explored in new and fascinating ways. Witness Nadia Attia’s Verge (‘a deeply atmospheric, folk-horror road trip inspired by British folklore, landscape and superstitions’) and Zakia Sewell’s forthcoming Finding Albion, in which the writer elucidates her ‘yearning for a connection to this ancient land and for a sense of identity beyond the toxic myth and symbols of empire’. 

From mysticism to the frontline battle to defend our democracy, it’s time to Make Walking Radical Again.

Mark Hooper is an award-winning editor, author, journalist, copywriter & brand strategy consultant. His book The Great British Tree Biography is out now.

Photography by @livjank / @atheneclub