This December on the Land Lines Blog, we are delighted to share with you a miniseries of reviews of key contemporary nature writing texts – including creative nonfiction and poetry – contributed by some wonderful writers and academics. Keep a look out for more instalments of the series over the next few weeks!
“There are boundaries in nature,” writes Hayes. “There are rivers, forests, escarpments, ravines and mountain ranges… areas of transaction, semi-permeable membranes. The notion that a perimeter should be impenetrable is a human contrivance alone.”
I am here to trespass. It is easy to do in the West Country, where green fields back onto military sites, lazily roped with netting. There is a thunderous bellow as an aircraft carrier passes overhead. A training exercise on distant Salisbury Plain adds booms like crisp-packet-pops to the stillness. These are reminders that I am not where I should be.
Ahead is a crumbling manor house in an abandoned Royal Air Force station. As a military brat, such forgotten places were once my playground and the signs ‘ASBESTOS’ a familiar (heeded) warning. I pass a squalid swimming pool. It’s piled with rot, shopping trolleys and, known only to me, a diary I once dropped into the water with the hope it would corrode my secret teenage yearnings.
Thirty-eight RAF bases in the UK have been closed over the past two decades. These monuments to history have since become accidental rewilding projects. Nature goes rampant, buckling cement and warping wood, to create Hollywood scenes better suited to an apocalyptic epic. Such sites are teaming with wildlife, such as the great fox-spider. This critically endangered species was thought to be extinct in this country until recently and was discovered in a military training ground in Surrey. Its exact location has not been disclosed. What more could be found by taking back such unwanted places?
I ignore the ‘KEEP OUT’ signage due to two particular reasons. Firstly, the blackberries here are temptingly pluckable. Secondly, after reading The Book of Trespass by Nick Hayes, I see all that should be unforbidden in such forbidden ground.
Hayes’ book – and the laws concerning land and its ownership – begins with a fox, its chase and a man’s desire to kill. Hayes takes us back as far as William the Conqueror, who did what any Norman nobleman would do in such times: hunt. Unfortunately for William, however, his grounds were inhabited by peasants. Such commoners used the land to graze their livestock, take wood for their fires, fish in the ponds and make a living. These acts did not sit well alongside hunting, as deer are easy to scare. The solution? Oust the peasants, remove common land, demolish villages, re-route roads and burn farms – all to create a forest playground for the king and his barons.
Paradise! Well, for the nobles. Has anything changed? One could easily liken such a devastating act to today’s High Speed Rail (HS2) project, which could “stop nature’s recovery in its tracks,” according to the Wildlife Trusts.
But who are we to question such grand works?
The Book of Trespass not only reveals physical barriers as the mind’s manifestation, it also confronts the established order. The work shines a light on the perverse fortunes that dominate England’s establishment. One chapter denotes the valuable work of Dr Catherine Hall, whose UCL research team created a map project called the Legacies of Britain’s Slave Ownership. It charts the stories of the individuals – and their descendants – who benefited from the slave trade. Such individuals still have influence in Parliament, retain their fortune and their land. Hayes names and shames the vast country estates whose gains were won through bullying, violence and intimidation (with both historical and modern day examples).
The Book of Trespass further challenges how we define ‘Englishness’, using packaged costume dramas as an example. He explains where the money to build such grand stately homes came from, whether it be Hatfield House or Highclere Castle (better known as Downton Abbey). Under those polished veneers and beneath crystal chandeliers is buried an obvious truth, writes Hayes:
‘These gleaming, cream-stoned treasure chests, stuffed to the eaves with violent plunder, are in fact radiant monoliths to the myth of white supremacy.‘
Equal access to the land is tightly connected to racial equality, not to mention barriers surrounding class and gender. Plus, how much land does one person need? Through Hayes’ words we learn how trespass is defined – and how the laws surrounding it have changed to benefit the wealthy and punish those with lesser means. And when we have less, we have more to lose. After all, who can afford to challenge property law?
In The Book of Trespass, Hayes identifies that Panopticism often curtails our movements in the countryside; it is the constant sense that we are being observed. The term comes from the philosopher Jeremy Bentham who designed a prison called – you guessed it – the Panopticon. Its circular form ensured that prisoners always felt monitored. As a result, the inmates would modify their behaviour – exactly as we do, the walkers, when meeting barbed wire and a chain-link fence. And that’s not to mention the paths sacrificed to maximise crop yields. Block access and a byway falls from use: a forced forgetting.
Hayes’ book is more relevant now than when it was first published, for the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how important green spaces are. After all, it’s hard not to compare an over-crowded public park with the lush near-empty golf course a stone’s throw away. I reached out to Hayes while writing this review, and he commented:
“More than ever, this year, lockdown has made us realise the visceral need we have to connect with nature and open spaces. Not only this, it has further highlighted the social inequalities of our ability to access nature, along the same old fault-lines of race and class.”
But should we be optimistic that change can happen and the laws around trespass can be challenged a meaningful way, I asked?
“Absolutely we should, if only that our neighbours – Scotland – won such an important victory just over a decade ago with their radical new Land Reform Act in 2003,” replied Hayes. “The ability of people to come together, campaign and gain what we need is the sole reason for the human rights that we have today, so don’t let anyone tell you that protest doesn’t work.”
He touched on the new Right to Roam campaign which he began with Guy Shrubsole, author of Who Owns England? The project unites authors, actors, musicians and artists with an open letter to the Prime Minister, asking for change. And it goes further still, reaching out to under-represented groups and asking for their voices.
“Our job with the campaign is to highlight the connection between mental and physical health and nature, and to show how it could be different for us. Then people from all over England can gather together around a cause that will improve their lives. This is not a partisan campaign, it is not about politics, it is about health and happiness.”
I venture beyond a sign bearing the words ‘PRIVATE PROPERTY’. There is instant guilt. I double-check the map. I’ve passed a buried Roman road and now should meet a public footpath. A field of sweetcorn sentries bar the way. Only a fool would try to get through, although I am prone to such foolishness. Am I seen from the distant farmhouse on the hill? I anticipate a sudden shout and a quad bike’s growl. I never cared while I had a dog. She was a grumpy old girl whose bark could deter any man (noble or not) who came to confront me. Without her, I feel more watched than ever and weaker for it.
I should go back – and I don’t.
Instead I push onwards.
Come follow Hayes with me through The Book of Trespass, past ‘NO ENTRY’ signs and into spaces barred from the general public. Gently, yet with conviction and a touch of mischief, he’ll preach a sermon to convert us anoraked ramblers, fair-weather Sunday picnickers and determined hillwalkers. You’ll see a fence for what it is: no barrier now, not to us who can see past it.
About the Author
Rebecca Ferrier is an award-winning writer and journalist. Her work has featured in The Toast, the Weekend Read (For Books’ Sake) and more. She won Moniack Mhor’s Emerging Writer Award in 2020 and was shortlisted for the Tibor Jones Page-Turner Prize in 2015. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @rmlferrier.