Hiking is not something we do in England, we walk or ramble. A vast network of legally protected paths allow anyone access across private land. When I think of England I tend to think of the countryside and of walking or biking down these paths. I think of gently rolling hills, copses, hedgerows and picturesque villages. I think about the ‘green and pleasant land’ that crowds sing about at rugby matches. This pastoral image is one central to many people’s idea of England. It indicates a kind of timelessness; that the English countryside is as it ever was. Yet in April 1932 an area of the English Countryside that is now The Peak District National Park was the arena for class conflict between city workers and countryside aristocrats.
Trouble had been brewing for a while over access to the moors of the northern Peak District. The aristocrats who owned this land wanted these vast areas of moor empty so as not to disturb the grouse they liked to shoot. Working class walkers from the industrial cities of Manchester and Sheffield did not agree. William Blake did not only speak of a ‘green and pleasant land’ a few lines below he spoke of the ‘dark satanic mills’ that these walkers were trying to escape. They felt that on their rare days off from working in cotton and steel mills they should be allowed to enjoy England’s gently rolling hills.
To get their point across the walkers planned some civil disobedience. The instigators were the communist inspired British Workers Sports Federation. On Sunday April 24th groups set off from Manchester and Sheffield heading for Kinder Scout, the highest point in the Peak District. Reports from the Manchester side record that they sang the left wing standards of The Red Flag and The Internationale as they went.
As the group approached the moor they were met by a group of the aristocrat’s gamekeepers. A report which appeared in the leftwing Manchester Guardian records what happened next:
a fight started-nobody quite knew how. It was not an even struggle.
There were only eight keepers, while from first to last forty or more
ramblers took part in the scuffle. 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.
Having beaten off the gamekeepers the ramblers continued to the top of the hill where the contingents from Sheffield and Manchester met up.
While the immediate impact of these actions was the prosecution of several of the walkers its lasting legacy was to inspire further trespasses and to create the moral case for access. In the year 2000 huge areas of the country were opened up under ‘the right to roam’ legislation. One of the areas where access was gained was Kinder Scout.
In recent years the events now known as The Kinder Trespass have been celebrated by walkers retracing the original route. The trespass has become part of the mythology of the English countryside. The story most often told of the Kinder Trespass now is of peaceful civil disobedience. The Ramblers Association who took no part in the original trespass offer an account of the events that skips over both the violence that took place and the politics at play. Rambling is now seen as an activity taken part in by the middle aged and middle class and this narrative suits their tastes.
So next time you think of England, think of its green and pleasant land. Think of its rolling countryside of hedgerows and picturesque villages. But think also of the young working class men and women who emerged from those dark satanic mills to fight for your right to walk through it.