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Cirencester Park: Why we trespassed in our hundreds on this historic estate

Aristocrats like the Earl of Bathurst, who wants to charge the public for entry to the historically open park, retain control over a third of British land for one reason: because they agree to behave like stewards rather than landlords. The more entitled they act, the more this implicit social contract will fray. 

March 23 2024, 11.24am

I’ve got nothing against Lord Bathurst. He’s got a great head of hair, hearty plum cheeks, and the manner of a man you’d be grateful to find yourself sitting next to at a wedding. When I organised a mass protest against his decision to pay-wall Cirencester Park last weekend, I spotted him leaning amiably on a nearby gate, a little bemused by a troupe of giant barn owls which had just arrived to denounce three centuries of his family’s dominion over the land.

Unfortunately, he also represents everything that’s a little bit silly about Britain. 

Cirencester Park is an unusual green space. Purchased as part of the wider Bathurst Estate in 1695 by the courtier Benjamin Bathurst, it was immediately opened to the public as a philanthropic gesture - a custom which, until last week, was respected ever since. Like many West Country philanthropists, Bathurst was a slave trader. As deputy-governor of the Royal African Company, and one of its major shareholders, he facilitated the forced transportation of an estimated 100,000 - 170,000 slaves from the West coast of Africa to the Americas. Thousands died in the passage, subject to unimaginable privations and violence, or were worked to death on the sugar plantations when they arrived.

This concerned the traders little in the 17th and 18th centuries. Mostly, the English state –all but inseparable from the Royal court – concerned itself with how to get in on the action. The Royal African Company was its answer: an inefficient, brutal and extremely lucrative state monopoly gifted to court flunkies like Bathurst, which utilised Britain’s emergent naval power to dominate the global trade in slaves.

You can’t both profit from a legacy of slavery and refuse all responsibility for its origin

No fault of his descendant, the current Earl – but clearly a relevant consideration for the status of his park. For it was the wealth Benjamin Bathurst generated through slave trade which helped pay for the land on which Cirencester Park sits. And for the magnanimous gesture it enabled - the promise of public access in perpetuity - which has helped fluff the family’s status and legitimacy in all the decades since. 

Debates about such legacies tend to drown in the brain-bog of Britain’s ‘woke wars’, so let’s keep the ethics here simple: you can’t both profit from a legacy and refuse all responsibility for its origin. Over the years the Estate has received huge sums by dint of its landholdings. Whether through the rents extracted from the buildings it owns, to its cafes, holiday cottages, car parks, corporate entertainment venues, horse riding fees and “heated dog washes”. Or simply the hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayer payments it receives (per DEFRA) every year for its farm operations and environmental works; incidentally, the sort of works now being used to justify making visitors pay.

When the Estate flogged three hundred acres for a new housing development in 2016, it was reported by Private Eye that it  ducked paying capital gains, by placing the proceeds of the sale in an offshore trust. According to its filings with Companies House, the Estate’s total annual equities rank in the tens of millions. The late Earl Bathurst left his heir a probate of £54.5m when he died in 2011. Britain’s aristocracy have, in general, not been this wealthy since the late Victorians.

The park’s flat, straight, asphalted routes are particularly important for the elderly and disabled – in other words, those least likely to afford the visitor fee

Nice guy or not, that kind of wealth can have mind-altering effects on one’s sense of reason. Lord Bathurst hit the radio waves to complain about how the “cost of living crisis” was affecting the multi-million pound Estate, which was why, he said, the little people now suddenly had to pay. A ten pound “deposit” (which the T’s and C’s note is “non-refundable, non-returnable, non-transferable” unless specified) for locals, and £4 a pop for visitors outside the selected local postcodes. As one of the local attendees at our protest told The Times: “Look at the Bathursts’ house and look at my house – who needs the tenner more?”. In an utterly bizarre debate on Jeremy Vine’s BBC Radio Show on Tuesday, Bathurst family friend, professional socialite and “etiquette expert” Liz Brewer, challenged local resident David Watts on whether he’d like it if someone made use of HIS garden. David could hardly conceal his luck at this chance to state the blindingly obvious: “I have a small, little garden. I don’t have a 15,000 acre estate which was bought with profits from the slave trade”. 

But this isn’t just about the money. Introducing the passes, contingent on an upfront charge and the submission of photo ID, will have all kinds of pernicious effects. Kids walk to school across the park. It’s Cirencester College’s back garden, used by students - many of them from less wealthy, more urban parts of the county - to catch a quick break at lunch. It’s often the only green space they encounter in their day. The park’s flat, straight, asphalted routes are particularly important for the elderly and disabled – in other words, those least likely to afford the visitor fee, or to be comfortable managing the fiddly website procedure to attain their pass. All of these are groups who, like the equivalent issues with Voter ID, are most likely to be de-facto shut out of the park gates.

Even those with no interest in the park’s tame, broad rides, need to pass through to reach the wider countryside beyond: the Bathurst’s made sure of that when, in the early 19th century, they nullified the historic public highway and other rights of way which once transected the park. The town has suffered a high price for the park’s preservation: all its roads, railways, would-be canals and development, has been either obstructed, redirected, or held hostage by it. A tolerable bargain for an open, public parkland. Less so for a private pay-per-wander theme park.

Well over a third of the land in England remains in the hands of families like the Bathursts. It is a legacy we inherit from a pre-democratic era, one built - in the main - on conquest, colonialism, slavery and breathtaking acts of exploitation, and for which we, as a democratic society, still pay a heavy price. Short of a revolutionary transfer of land and power (abortive attempts were made in the 17th century), this patently unjust equation continues only by an implicit social contract: that landowners see themselves as antiquated stewards of lands which they have no special right to, but which fate has bestowed upon them anyway. The more they act as entitled, commercial owners - shutting the public out and charging them for the privilege of being allowed back in - the more that contract will fray.