Kinder Scout, the highest of the Dark Peaks, is known for its risen plateau; a wild moorland that is twisted with bright heather in midsummer, yet achingly desolate come the cold. It is a moody, magnificent, fickle and arrogant place; blanket bog, dense and ancient, drags down the unsuspecting after the rains and, come January, the waterfall freezes into a wall of ice. Gritstone edges a contorted, shadowed frame to a landmark so long acknowledged that no one knows where the name came from.
These days people venture up to Kinder Scout from Edale and Hayfield. They will snag the trig at Kinder Low and observe the views across to Yorkshire’s three tallest peaks and, sometimes, on a clear day, across to Tryfan and Yr Wyddfa in Wales. Some of the visitors will be long distance hikers near the start, or their end, of the Pennine Way that stretches all the way to Scotland. The Peak District National Park, in which Kinder Scout sits, sees 13.25 million visitors a year enjoying the 200 square miles of open access land, and the 1,600 miles worth of public rights of way.
It wasn’t always this way. Not here, not in the Peaks, and not anywhere else. National Parks, open access land, long distance trails, thousands of miles of public footpaths over private land that any of us can just use today, tomorrow or next week? No. Land like the Peak District, the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales was kept private for use by the landowning gentry only.
Our Freedom to Roam was a lengthy, century long battle, and it was the events at Kinder Scout in 1932 that really got it going.
The rights for people like you and I to venture freely through nature had become more and more restricted since the Enclosures Acts started in the 1500s, tightening down the 30% of the country that was open to all down to just 3%. Now huge swathes of land lay nearly empty and unused, their ownership and access tied up with wealth and status and only accessible to an elite few.
The Mass Trespass was not the first event to attempt to bring attention to this; the very first Freedom to Roam Bill was introduced to Parliament in 1884 by MP James Bryce. It very soundly failed, but would be reintroduced every year for thirty more years. It would fail over and over, but it started a murmur that would become louder and louder.
Throughout the early 20th century the government ran campaigns to encourage those from industrialised cities to take breaks to the countryside for their health; many did and realised that the countryside that they had access to was really not that much and interest turned to insistence. The results of a government inquiry lead to a suggestion made in 1931 for a ‘National Park Authority’ to select and designate areas of countryside and wilderness as parks open to all. It seemed promising, but when it became apparent that this was just a balm and nothing was going to come of it, action needed to be taken.
After a run in between ramblers and gamekeepers near Bleaklow, 20 year old Benny Rothman had had enough. The young Mancunian was the son of Jewish Romanian immigrants and a proud young socialist. The access to land and freedom to roam was now a fiercely classist issue and he was more than just involved; he was going to change things.
He threw a diversion – a public announcement of a rally in Hayfield which successfully drew in a third of the Derbyshire police force – but instead, on the 24th April, marched from Bowden Bridge quarry with around 500 other men and women onto the private land of the Peaks with the Kinder Scout plateau in their sights.
At William Clough, gamekeepers tried to block their path and hand to hand scuffles broke out. Realising they were massively outnumbered, the gamekeepers backed off from the crowd who finally made their way onto the plateau, meeting up with the group from Sheffield that had marched from the other side. Maybe many touched their hands onto the trig at Kinder Low, triumpant in their ascent; the commoners conquering the Dark Peak for just a short while.
The group marched back to Hayfield, heads held high, well aware the police would be waiting. Rothman and five others would stand trial. As trespass on foot was not a criminal offence, and still isn’t, they were instead charged and convicted of crimes like ‘riot’, ‘inciting riot’, ‘assault’ (for the scuffles with the gamekeepers) and, bizarrely, ‘inciting unlawful trespass’. Rothman served six months.
This had not been Rothman’s first trespass; on his sixteenth birthday he had summited Snowden with a 6p map from Woolworths and, as the Lancashire secretary of the British Workers Sports Federation had regularly organised trips of smaller groups of cyclists and hikers into the forbidden hills. In fact, his arrest record would grow throughout his life as he firmly continued to be a celebrated and supported voice of socialist workers’ movements.
Perhaps surprisingly, there was huge public sympathy for the Tresspassers and their cause. The act of civil disobedience brought the issue of land access into the spotlight. In 1936, a group of parties came together; the Ramblers Association, the Youth Hostels Association, the Council for the Preservation for Rural England and the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales along with many smaller groups lobbied tirelessly until the voluntary sector Standing Committee on National Parks was formed to argue the case for action.
As momentum was building, it was interrupted by WWII, during and after which the British class divide was forced to observe itself. Men from all over left and fought together, many dying together, whilst women gathered to take over the businesses and jobs left vacant by their husbands, sons and fathers. A country that had lost so much together found everything beforehand archaic and wanting. It did not end the divide, but war injected compassion when the distance between different lives was made smaller.
The year the war ended, a committee was started to prepare for national park legislation. In 1949, the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was passed.
In 1951, fittingly, the Peak District became our first National Park.
There are accusations of revisionism in the story of the Trespass; it is debated whether or not the Tresspassers ever did reach the plateau, and its significance is accused of being overstated. Indeed, as the timeline here indicates the goal could not have been gained through Rothman’s protest alone; from James Bryce repeatedly bringing his failed bill to parliament, to the thousands of members of the YHA and the Ramblers from a variety of backgrounds, without the clamour and the year in, year out determination, the Tresspass would have been just a tresspass.
However the events at Kinder Scout have been embraced as the symbolic piece amongst a symphony of bureaucracy and class struggle. The Peak District National Park itself arranges organised walks up Kinder Scout in the footsteps of the Tresspassers; or you can just get your own map (it’ll cost a bit more than 6p these days) and go yourself. No one can stop you. Not anymore.
This freedom, initially only on public rights of way, was extended through the Countryside and Right of Way Act in England and Wales in 2000, now giving visitors the right to roam freely over open mountains, moorland, heath, down, and common land. Benny Rothman died in 2002, aged 90 years old, finally seen the full freedom he protested for the day he lead 500 men and women to the top of the Kinder Scout plateau.