Access to the Countryside

Marion Shoard describes the centuries-long battle waged by Britons for the right to roam over the hills and vales of their island.

One way in which our new millennium looks like being different from the last is that our countryside – or at least a large part of it – may be opened to everyone. For much of the last thousand years we have been shut out of most of our own land. North of the Border, the Scottish Executive is shortly to publish a Bill to create a right of public access in principle to all land and water. South of the Border, the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill seeks to introduce a ‘right to roam’ over moorland and other kinds of open country in England and Wales, although this may be shelved for the time being through pressure of parliamentary time. Both measures provide for exemptions to safeguard privacy, wildlife and to reduce conflict with land management operations.

Supporters like to present these reforms as a revolutionary transformation of the balance of power between landowners and landless. So indeed they are, but they certainly have not come out of the blue. Far from being dreamt up overnight by some New Labour spin doctor in response to novel pressures, they are the product of a long and complex struggle which has been simmering quietly in our countryside for nigh on a thousand years.

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