History explorer: The fight for the right to ramble
Richard Smyth and Mark Cocker revisit the working-class trespass on Kinder Scout – the highest point in the Peak District – in 1932
Kinder Scout is a moorland plateau in the high, wild country between Manchester and Sheffield, which rises to more than 2,000ft at its highest point. There are many ways to climb it, but in April 1932, 400 would-be trespassers settled on one of the hardest. It was the route up William Clough – what naturalist and nature writer Mark Cocker calls “one of the worst walks I know in the entire Peak District”.
Red grouse, the iconic gamebird of the British uplands, cluck anxiously in the thin March mist as I pick my way up the lower reaches of William Clough. The upward path – eroded by countless walkers’ boots – intertwines with the down-tumbling river Kinder, meaning that, for much of the time, the route is through ankle-deep water. Peat-flecked banks of old snow line the route.
Kinder Scout is a desolate place; ravaged by acid rain and over-grazing, a site described by historian Merlin Waterson, as among “the most degraded and eroded upland areas in Europe”. Cocker speaks highly of the much-needed restoration work that has taken place on the peak over the last decade or so, but when I pause at the top of William Clough to listen for bird calls I hear only the odd goldfinch twittering in the mist and the gak-gak-gak of another grouse.
The stony path still carries signs of the iron smelting that used to take place hereabouts – the Clough supposedly takes its name from a local cutler. Like the gritstone quarry that marks the start of this walk – and where a plaque commemorates the 1932 trespass – it’s a reminder of how working people have left marks all over this wild landscape.
“Working-class people could see Kinder Scout from the middle of Manchester,” says Cocker. “But they could only walk on tiny fragments of this vast landscape. These working people had no access to nature, and Kinder Scout – the High Peak – was a magnet for them. It galvanised their imaginations, and they felt they should have access to it.”
The movement, Cocker says, “had its origins in the enclosure of common lands in the 18th and 19th centuries, which deprived working people of access to agricultural land. Its roots lay, too, in the land privatisation – in the denial of access to nature for a rural community that found itself trapped in industrial urban centres.” In the Peak District, persistent campaigning had secured some footpath rights, but in 1932 the 14 square miles of Kinder Scout remained off-limits.
“Of the 109,000 upland acres stretching from Marsden in Yorkshire to Matlock in Derbyshire, ramblers were allowed in just 1,212 of them – a fraction over 1 per cent of a landscape that stretches for more than 40 miles,” Cocker says. This was private land – reserved, for the most part, for grouse shooting.
Walking into trouble
The trespassers were drawn largely from Sheffield and Manchester, and led by the 20-year-old Jewish engineering worker Bernard ‘Benny’ Rothman and his British Workers’ Sports Federation (a grand title for a small, ad hoc organisation). Rothman and many of his allies were committed socialists. They made no secret of their plans to stage a trespass on the land – indeed, the Derbyshire constabulary made a number of failed efforts to serve Rothman with an injunction.
On 24 April, Rothman and his fellow ringleaders cycled from a campground some miles away to the village of Hayfield, where the walk was to begin. Leaflets and messages scrawled on local roads had helped spread the word, with the federation urging people to “take action to open up the fine country at present denied us”.
Joining the gathering protesters were composer Michael Tippett and historian AJP Taylor. As they walked, the trespassers sang The Red Flag and It’s a Long Way to Tipperary to keep their spirits up.
But not everyone was supportive. Many Hayfield residents resented the arrival of what they saw as troublemaking city interlopers. Even within the rambling community, the Kinder stunt divided opinion. The Manchester Ramblers’ Federation disowned the action completely, as did many others – it was widely seen to be unnecessarily provocative. Many believed it would set back the access-to-land movement by 40 years.
For modern-day ramblers, it’s not easy to see exactly where the trespassers walked or to figure out exactly how 400 of them found room to manoeuvre in this rocky moorland cleft. The path today follows the Clough bottom and the stream bed, though the National Trust suggests the trespassers would have made their way along a track further up the slope. What we do know, though, is that, at an elevation known as Sandy Heys, the trespassers ran into a posse of eight local gamekeepers.
Not generally being well-acquainted with the topography of the district, the ramblers were seldom aware of exactly when they were trespassing and when they weren’t. But the arrival of the gamekeepers made the question academic. An advance guard of perhaps 40 ramblers left the path and engaged with the keepers.
“It was not an even struggle,” the Manchester Guardian reported. “The keepers had sticks, while the ramblers fought mainly with their hands, though two keepers were disarmed and their sticks turned against them. Other ramblers took belts off and used them, while one spectator at least was hit by a stone. There will be plenty of bruises carefully nursed in Gorton and other parts of Manchester to-night.”
Only one man, a keeper, was seriously hurt, sustaining an injured ankle after being kicked in the crotch. He was helped down from the hillside as the keepers retreated and the trespassers clambered onwards. At Ashop Head, they met up with a party of hikers from Sheffield and toasted their victory. Aware that the scuffle with the keepers might result in some of the trespassers being fined, they passed around a collection hat. They had underestimated their opponents. “Little did they know,” Cocker says, “that all hell was about to break loose.”
On their return to Hayfield, the ringleaders were arrested. Six were brought to trial at Derby Assizes, and it was here that the Kinder Trespass legend was born. A jury “stuffed with military men”, according to Cocker, heard a case for the prosecution tinged with anti-Semitism and reeking of establishment revenge. Five of the six – including Rothman – were convicted and charged with riotous assembly, assault and incitement to riot. They were sentenced to between two and six months in prison.
“This was a very dramatic court case in which the authorities sought to teach trespassers and ramblers a lesson,” says Cocker. “They completely overreacted on the prison sentences. Six months for a guy who had trespassed on a moorland!”
The sentences brought to a head tensions over land access that had been simmering for decades. “They’d been campaigning for access since 1896; by 1932 there had been something like 16 different bills to try and get it. There was a definite sense of frustration, which made for a heady mix.”
A few weeks after the court case, a ramblers’ rally at Winnats Pass, near Castleton, attracted 10,000 people. The Kinder Trespass had clearly touched a nerve.
But the dispute was about more than hill-walking. Tom Stephenson – a walker, writer, pioneering campaigner for land access, and contemporary of Rothman’s – wrote that many ramblers believed the trespassers of 1932 “were more concerned with the class struggle than with the struggle for access to the moorlands and mountains”.
The Daily Mail certainly saw it that way: “The Communists,” it declared under the headline ‘The Crimson Ramblers’, “are determined that they shall tramp our footpaths… musing only on the iniquities of the capitalist system.”
Cocker, too, sees a militant class-consciousness at work in the trespass, but he warns against too narrow an interpretation of the access-to-land movement as a whole. “This was certainly an expression of the landlessness of the working classes, and also its lack of access to any aspect of land,” he says. “But we can’t see land access only as a class issue because historically many of the spokespeople – George Trevelyan, John Dower, Lord Bryce – were liberals, aristocrats and landowners.”
But, whatever the motivations of the trespassers, there’s little doubt that, in a few short hours in April 1922, they brought the furore over the right to ramble to the attention of the nation.
“The Kinder Scout trespass has acquired a sort of totemic quality,” argues Cocker. “One example of this is that many people believe the creation of the Ramblers’ Association was a result of the trespass, when in fact the ramblers long predated – and also condemned – it. We’ve boiled the whole story of access down to this one myth from 1932.
“But it’s a myth with real, substantial meaning. I don’t want to diminish in any way what Rothman did. He was a gutsy, working-class Mancunian who changed the world.”
Folk-singer Ewan MacColl took part in the trespass that day. The song that he wrote as a result of his experiences, The Manchester Rambler, has much in common with the event itself. While it may have been born on a stark Derbyshire hillside, it had its roots in the city streets of the industrial north:
“I’m a rambler, I’m a rambler from Manchester way. I get all me pleasure the hard moorland way. I may be a wageslave on Monday. But I am a free man on Sunday.”
Crossing the Line: Two More Mass Trespasses
Latrigg Fell, Near Keswick, Lake District
Where 2,000 people protested
On 1 October 1887, 2,000 people climbed pathways up Latrigg, near Keswick in Cumbria, singing Rule Britannia as they went. Local man Henry Irwin Jenkinson led the protest after landowner Miss Spedding closed off paths that had been used for generations. A subsequent court case triggered the re-opening of numerous other footpaths in the district. The Manchester Guardian reported that “the Latrigg case will affect the right of ascent to almost every mountain in Britain”.
Winter Hill, Near Bolton
Where rights-of-way were denied
It was on Winter Hill (pictured below) near Bolton, on 6 September 1896, that a crowd of perhaps 1,000 Lancastrians stormed the gates erected by landowner Colonel RH Ainsworth to keep people off his grouse moors. It was an early demonstration of the public anger that could be stirred up when ancient rights-of-way were denied. Today, on a clear day, you can see parts of Winter Hill from the summit of Kinder Scout.
Mark Cocker is an award-winning author, naturalist and environmental tutor. His latest book is Our Place (Jonathan Cape, 2018) Words: Richard Smyth