After climbing Cadair Idris in Snowdonia on Friday, I stayed with my daughter and her husband in the Manchester area and, with a better-than-expected weather forecast, on Saturday I headed for the Peak District.
I was brought up in Salford in an area dubbed by Friedrich Engels ‘The Classic Slum’ (yes! that Friedrich Engels … he had a cotton mill round the corner from where I was brought up). It is also the title of a book by Welshman Robert Roberts. Born and brought up there I never thought of the area as a slum but was somehow subconsciously aware of it as claustrophobic. From the age of 12, a number 77 bus into Manchester and a train from Piccadilly Station let me escape into The Peak District. When I could afford the fare. There in the mountains was freedom, I could breathe. That was my world, somewhere I felt at home and at peace.
Sometimes I would go with a group of friends, often on my own. I loved the isolation in the mountains. I learned from a number of potentially fatal experiences how to assess risk. I learned not to follow snow remnants up a gully because on one occasion I fell through the crust 15-20 feet into the waist-deep plunge-pool of a waterfall. I learned not to try to cut across the Kinder plateau in low cloud because of the danger of falling prey to the disorienting peat hags (deeply eroded peat bog, nothing to do with Macbethian hags). I learned the dangers of crawling into small limestone caves with nothing but a woolly hat and a torch with decaying batteries. And I learned the very great, immeasurable ‘suck-it-and-see’ pleasures of being alone and responsible for my own actions in the mountains.
That may be all a long time ago but we are all products of our own history. It shapes what we become, what we are now. What I didn’t realise at the time was the pivotal role that the Peak District and the Kinder Plateau in particular played in the UK history.
It all goes back to William the Conqueror. After 1066 the UK was divided up between his chums. The entire surface area of Britain was deemed by law to belong to one or other of his mates. And it still does. So, if the Lord of the Manor, in this case the Duke of Devonshire, decreed that the Kinder Plateau was only to be trodden on by himself and his pals for the purpose of shooting grouse, a particularly large and sluggish bird making an easy target for boozed up aristocrats of limited ability, then peasants were to be kept orf.
Urban peasants from the huge, smoky, dirty urban conglomerations of the Manchester and Sheffield areas got increasingly fed up with being denied access to the pleasures of a stroll in the mountains and on 24 April 24 1932 they organised a Mass Trespass. About 400 of them met up in an old quarry on the outskirts of Hayfield and set out to walk past the Kinder reservoir, up William’s Clough and onto the Kinder Plateau. There they were met by armed gamekeepers and violence ensued.
Strangely, only protestors were arrested by the police and only protestors were charged. Trespass was not then and is not today a criminal offence in Britain so protesters were charged with violence and affray. A number were sentenced to between 2 and 6 months in prison. In 2002, Andrew, the 11th Duke of Devonshire, publicly apologised at the 70th anniversary celebration event of the Kinder trespass at Bowden Bridge for his grandfather’s ‘great wrong’ in 1932. He said: “The trespass was a great shaming event on my family and the sentences handed down were appalling. When push comes to shove even the aristocracy recognises an elephant at the door.
The Trespass seemed to achieve nothing for many years but became the focal point of a long struggle which eventually, 17 years later under the Post-War Labour government, resulted in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949, a major turning point in UK environmental and social history. That Act not only changed public access rights, securing the ‘right to roam’, but also saw the designation of National Parks throughout Britain, the first of which was the Peak District designated in 1951. Today there are 15 national parks in all, covering 19.9% of the land area of Wales, 9.3% of the England and 7.2% of Scotland. Attitudes to access to the mountains gradually changed more and more over the decades and saw the passing of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000, again under a Labour government, which gives rights of access way beyond those of the 1949 Act. The Kinder Trespass is rightly seen as an icon of the struggle for access which culminated in the 2000 Act.
The walk I chose to do on Saturday was the route of that 1932 Kinder Trespass. It was a kind of homage to the efforts of those early ramblers and activists and a re-visiting of my own past. I was too young to have any part in the struggle but know from my own experience how slow to change were attitudes of landowners and their lackeys. In the late 1950’s as a young teenager, I was forcibly removed from a path outside Glossop by a gamekeeper with a dog and a shotgun. You don’t argue legal rights with a guy carrying a gun on an isolated mountain path.
Bowden Bridge Quarry, the start point for the walk is now a car park with a plaque commemorating the Trespass ….. and a van selling bacon butties. The weather was appropriately kind with some good spells of sunshine interspersed by the odd light shower.
The weather wasn’t the only contrast with Cadair Idris on Friday. There I had been the only person on the mountain. On Kinder there were people in sight the whole time and I must have passed well over 100 others out walking these iconic paths. I love the isolation of mountains but it seemed somehow appropriate that there should be a lot of people on this mountain, a breathing space for the millions in the massive urban areas surrounding it. This was what the pioneers had fought for and achieved.
A great day.
National Parks: http://www.nationalparks.gov.uk/press/factsandfigures.htm
Kinder Trespass Walk: http://www.trekkingbritain.com/kinderdownfallfromhayfield.htm