Free-roaming writer Nick Hayes shares his best advice for explorers taking the road less travelled
1) Live as if you’re free already
My book [The Book of Trespass: Crossing the Lines that Divide Us] doesn’t encourage you to trespass. It finds nothing titillating in the act of transgression. Instead it makes a case for how our rights to access nature should not be over-ridden by the owners of thousands of acres of woodland, meadow, river and open country, and their right to exclusive access. In fact, trespass can be a deeply unsettling act, knowing that every step you take could be met, out of the blue, with an aggression and latent threat of violence (called ‘reasonable force’ by landowners). But, if you have studied the history of exclusive ownership, if you have gone into the blueprint of the architecture of property law, and you have found a trail of bias and unequal share of power that has led you to a conclusion that these walls that divide us from nature are in fact ethically unsupportable and completely at odds with a just and fair society, then like that old anarchist maxim, live as if you’re free already. Ignore the walls.
2) Be polite
The whole structure of exclusive ownership rests of violence and aggression. The brute force to enclose formerly common lands, the eviction of commoners who were once housed, fed and warmed by the land, and in modern times, that blunt interruption of your gentle walk or swim, all these dynamics operate along an assumption of aggression. More often than not, when strolling through a duke’s 5000 acre woodland, the gamekeeper will approach you with a hostility fuelled by outrage. As disproportionate as this seems, it is not their fault – the law defines a trespass onto land as a direct assault on the personhood of its owner – to the gamekeeper, and the law, they are reacting to the first act of aggression – your digression. The fact that this is palpably absurd should not lead you to respond with a similar ire, because this would in itself be acquiescence to this absurd line of thinking. Instead, be polite, leave the land, and campaign harder to change the law.
3) No, I don’t want someone tramping over my backyard
By and large, the most common opposition to a right to roam as practiced in Scotland is the line: ah, but would you want me coming and tramping over your back garden? This line is almost always intoned as the mic-drop moment, the irrefutable line that checkmates the argument, and proves that a right to roam is a ridiculous proposition. No, no one should have the right to invade another’s private property. But the issue is one of scale. The law of trespass does not differentiate between a stroll in thousands of acres of open country and the invasion of a suburban back garden, a legal fiction that is used to make property law coherent, but which in fact bears no relation to reality. Every right to roam legislation across Europe, in Scotland, Estonia, Latvia, or Norway to name just a few, has at its core principal, the protection of private property and a responsibility to nature. Every country protects the right to privacy. But all Right to Roam does is prioritise a public right to access large open spaces over a landowner’s right to exclude all others. Which seems reasonable enough.
4) Don’t listen to Bear Grylls
The walls that divide us from nature are the principle reason that the public can’t access the health giving properties of open space. However, there is a sort of machismo in its branding that also puts off many. The television trope of “Tough Guys In ‘The Wild’”, propagated most famously by Bear Grylls, equates the experience of nature with overcoming personal challenges, being the best one can be, conquering the ravines of one’s own riven psyche. But nature has a lot more to offer than therapy for the confused, anachronistic male archetype. I’d be surprised if Bear has slept out more than me, and not once have I ever felt compelled to eat an earwig or start a fire without matches. If it’s wet, I go home, and if I can’t be bothered to climb a hill, I take the valley. Why not? There is so much to see, hear and experience in the wild, so many thoughts to be had, the idea of proving myself to myself seems like squandering an opportunity. I subscribe to the Octavia Hill view of nature, that the countryside should be a sort of ‘open aired living room’ for everyone. Relax. Listen. Look. You don’t have to achieve anything. Bring an inflatable mattress, a bottle of wine, a book, a lover, find somewhere nice, and chill. It is cheap, easy and intensely nourishing to the soul. And the best sex you’ll ever have.
The Book of Trespass: Crossing the Lines that Divide Us by Nick Hayes (Bloomsbury) is available here.
Nick is a guest on A Drink with the Idler this Thursday 17 September. Register for free here.
To find out more about Nick’s advocacy work, visit righttoroam.org.uk.