By Kerry Lindeque
Feeling a bit battered by wind and rain, me and my housemate Caitlin ascended the peak of Kinder Scout, the highest point in the Peak District. We looked out across craggy rocks for the famed view of the national park’s hills and plateaus, but instead saw nothing but pure white mist. Straining for a view through the heavy fog, I remarked to Caitlin that it was probably a very different view that 400 ramblers saw that sunny April day in 1932 when they took part in arguably the most successful direct action in British history: the Kinder Scout trespass.
During lockdown, walks in the Peak District have become a necessary escape for many Sheffield students. It’s hard to imagine that these moorlands were once private, used exclusively for grouse shooting by the wealthy elite. Benny Rothman, secretary of the Manchester branch of the British Workers’ Sports Federation (BWSF) in 1932, wanted to change this. Rothman bemoaned that industrial workers, “after a hard week’s work, in smokey towns and cities, [want to] go out rambling for relaxation and fresh air. And we find the finest rambling country is closed to us”. His division of the BWSF were forced to trespass on private land in order to enjoy the countryside around Manchester.
After their expulsion from Bleaklow on a walk three weeks prior, Rothman organised a group of 400 ramblers from Manchester and Sheffield to walk up the peak of Kinder Scout in protest. Intrigued by the story of the ramblers, I decided to walk the route they took myself and managed to convince my more experienced housemate, Caitlin, to come with me.
Starting our walk just outside of the village of Hayfield, Caitlin and I would have not been far from the campsite of the main organisers of the protest, including Rothman, who hid out the night before from the Derbyshire Constabulary. Having notified the local press in advance, the ramblers were well aware that police and groundsman alike would be out in full force, attempting to stop the trespass before it had even begun.
Hiking up William Clough, the valley that the trespassers followed up to the Kinder, we came upon the spot where that inevitable clash with authority occurred: a violent scuffle with gamekeepers. On this cold November day, the heather-carpeted valley is serene, a winding stream cutting through it – it’s hard to imagine the violent clash between working-class and elite that occurred here 90 years prior.
A gamekeeper was injured, and ramblers were victorious. Pressing on up the ridge, the group reached the top of Kinder Scout. Unlike us, they would have been greeted by a panoramic view of the Peak District, slightly hazy from industrial smoke from the mills and coal mines that many of the ramblers would have worked at during the week.
After their ascension, Rothman and four of the other trespassers were arrested and jailed for up to six months for unlawful assembly and breach of the peace. But their imprisonment, instead of quashing Rothman’s call for access to uncultivated land, unleashed a tidal wave of public sympathy and outcry for the right to roam. Sparked by the trespassers’ direct action, decades of political activism resulted in the passing of the 1949 National Parks Act and, two years later, the Peak District became Britain’s first national park. In 2000, walkers’ rights to travel through public countryside was finally enshrined in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act.
The Kinder Scout trespass is one of the most successful, and criminally under celebrated, acts of protest in the UK’s history. Their walk was symbolic of a “working class struggle for the right to roam versus the rights of the wealthy to have exclusive use of moorlands” – a demand to free Britain’s countryside from the restrictions of class, to make it open and accessible to everyone.
Caitlin and I finished our Kinder Scout walk wet and tired but gone was the feeling of cabin fever that lockdown had imposed on us. It’s clear that, in 2020, being out in nature is vital to our well-being. But the privilege to trudge down a muddy public footpath through the rain would never have been granted to us had it not been for the work of the Kinder Scout trespassers, and their efforts should be celebrated, now more than ever.