Skip to main content
CampaignsEqualityHousingEnvironmentGeneral ElectionSupport Our WorkFixing BritainMigrationEducationRaceCultureWorkGlobal

Right to roam? Maybe with a jetpack

How landowners have cropped out 'access islands' - isolating thousands of unspoilt natural landmarks across England and Wales - from the rest of the public. 

February 22 2024, 12.51pm

I sigh deeply as I strap my jetpack on. “Is this what sweet England hath become” I think, engines firing once, twice, thrice before exploding into life. My nostrils flare with the piss-sour odour of hydrogen peroxide and off I lift, drifting noisily o’er the blossom-rich hedgerows and idle fields of Albion. The most-carbon intensive walk since Taylor Swift last popped out for a packet of crisps.

What strange conundrum necessitated this bizarre and elaborate course? Why, naught but the insufficiencies of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 - CRoW - a venerable and ailing species of law designed to grant the good people of England and Wales access to a lowly smidgeon of their fair nations.

The policy, a much trailed and much beleaguered feature of the first New Labour government, sought to extend access rights to walkers and climbers (and, pointedly, nobody else) to ‘Mountain, Moor, Heath and Down’. It granted not just the right to walk along a linear rights of way, as had long been possible in parts of the countryside, but a ‘right to roam’ – the right to wander freely as one pleased. 

Or at least in theory. For little grace can be ceded to the regular folk of Britan without landowners organisations hefting in with the weight of one thousand years of feudalism to fuck it up. And so it proved. Lobbying efforts kicked into gear to dispute how areas such as ‘down’ and ‘moor’ might be categorised, with anything ‘improved’ (aka: damaged) removed from access. The result of these exercises in botanical legalese were more than 2,500 ‘access islands’: areas where one theoretically enjoyed the new right to roam, but to which no lawful route was available. Places one could reach by parachute and leave by trebuchet, arrive by jetpack or depart by hearse. But to arrive by honest toil of boot and soil? Nay, sweet peasant, not for thee. 

This weekend, Right to Roam planned a mass trespass of one such notorious island, at Vixen Tor in Dartmoor, until the prenaturally damp weather called off the sodden affair. The location - the highest free-standing rock formation in the National Park - is about as logical as it gets for access land: old, remote moorland in an area of wide, open countryside. It is a place of classic Dartmoorian myth: home to a legendary witch called Vixiana who dwells in a cave at the foot of the Tor, kindly built for her by the earth gnomes who frequent the granite. She passes the time by luring travellers into the Tor’s boggy depths, sucking them down for a good old-fashioned drowning.

More prosaically, it’s just  a cool place. Great for rock climbing and with stunning views out across the moor. A place whose cultural meaning has been moulded out of the collective psychogeographic soup that people tend to brew with a long enough relationship of access.

Or so it was, until the landowners ploughed up the joint. Subsequent legal wrangling meant this act of vandalism was sufficient to put the land outside of CRoW designation: it wasn’t technically ‘moorland’ anymore, you see, because it had been irreparably damaged - sorry, ‘improved’. And unless the public could painstakingly evidence an unbroken history of their footsteps – the old rights of way couldn’t be guaranteed either. Screw hundreds of years of cultural heritage. 

"Places one could reach by parachute and leave by trebuchet, arrive by jetpack or depart by hearse. But to arrive by honest toil of boot and soil? Nay, sweet peasant, not for thee."

A series of trespasses ensued. In a particularly foul incident, two climbers actually had their ropes cut, in one of those mind-melting acts of homicidal stupidity that the law of trespass seems to occasionally induce. But somehow, nothing came of it all. And the Tor stayed out of reach. 

A weird quirk of access law perhaps, but the implications are bigger. Last year, the Labour Party (a.k.a the de-facto future government), pledged to reform England’s access laws. But after this initial burst of assertiveness, it quietly changed course, dismissing the ‘Scottish’ approach (which created a default right of access to land and water, subject to responsible behaviour and sensible exceptions) and settling for stuffing fresh designations into clunky old CRoW. 

The story of Vixen Tor and thousands of other access islands - in total, encompassing an area the size of the city of York - should give them pause for thought. With agriculture covering nearly 70% of England’s land mass, all the low-hanging fruit for new access designations - woodlands, lakes, rivers - risk becoming marooned islands of freedom too, subject to endless technical disputes and obfuscations. At some point, access through agricultural land will have to be negotiated too. 

And by then, why bother with more elaborate and expensive mapping exercises that result in a complicated access law nobody actually understands and open themselves to yet more years of pointless legal wrangling? How many people, even experienced hikers, can even tell you what access land looks like on an OS map - or easily discern where ‘unimproved’ downland begins and ‘ploughed downland’ ends? What normal person thinks in terms of ambiguous geographical categories, rather than broad principles of respect and responsibility?

That should give landowners pause, too. Compliance with civil law depends on clarity and legitimacy. Yet a quick glance at Strava heat maps suggests that either Britain is a nation of serial trespassers, or most people don’t have a clue what the current laws of access are – and who could blame them? Meanwhile, the proliferation of misanthropic signage across the countryside, in part a product of enduring misunderstandings about liability, has made distinguishing between legitimate and arbitrary exclusion all but impossible. The more times I have to breeze past a random sign warning of certain death on my way to a peaceful swim, the less a well-founded health and safety notice is going to give me any pause for thought. 

While the access discussion remains the domain of political vibes, carefully triangulated around anticipating the outrage of a minority of landed objectors, logical debate won’t get a look in. The likely outcome of adding a few more trinkets to CRoW’s nest will be a less satisfactory solution for landowners. And jetpacks for everyone else.

You might also like...