It’s tempt­ing to think of the English coun­try­side as a bu­colic land­scape that, with mi­nor re­stric­tions, we are all free to roam. Pic­turesque rivers, hills, wood­lands and mead­ows criss­crossed with pub­lic foot­paths that we can ex­plore to our heart’s con­tent. Yet that’s far from the re­al­ity. In fact, most of Eng­land is out of bounds to the gen­eral pub­lic. To­day, around 92 per cent of land in Eng­land is off lim­its, as well as 97 per cent of the coun­try’s wa­ter­ways.

Nick Hayes, an au­thor, il­lus­tra­tor and po­lit­i­cal car­toon­ist, has spent con­sid­er­able time ex­plor­ing the great Bri­tish out­doors, on foot and in kayaks, while in­creas­ingly ig­nor­ing the ‘Keep Out’ signs in or­der to ac­cess the vast grounds of aris­to­crats, pri­vate cor­po­ra­tions and me­dia mag­nates. In The Book of Tres­pass he takes us on a very spe­cific tour around Eng­land, of­ten fol­low­ing old pub­lic rights of way that have long ceased to ex­ist and scal­ing walls to large pri­vate es­tates in or­der to show the re­al­ity of Eng­land’s land­scape to­day.

What he chron­i­cles isn’t pretty. Half of Eng­land is owned by just 36,000 peo­ple, less than one per cent of the pop­u­la­tion, with much of it hav­ing been in the same fam­i­lies for gen­er­a­tions. Mean­while, com­mons land – graz­ing and wood­land once ac­ces­si­ble to ev­ery­one – has, over hun­dreds of years, been sub­sumed into pri­vate es­tates, legally or oth­er­wise. Al­most half a mil­lion acres of Eng­land are now owned by off­shore com­pa­nies in or­der to avoid cap­i­tal gains or in­her­i­tance tax, fur­ther di­vid­ing the land from the peo­ple.

By fol­low­ing Hayes’ foot­steps we get to see

Eng­land as it re­ally is, the beau­ti­ful land­scapes but also the ma­jor so­cial di­vi­sions and re­stric­tions that are firmly en­trenched.

Ac­cess to land has long been a point of con­flict be­tween the haves and have-nots. Hayes high­lights some of the clashes over the years be­tween landown­ers and those who want or need ac­cess to the land, whether peas­ants, poach­ers, ram­blers, ravers, gyp­sies or many oth­ers. He also spells out the le­gal changes that have long favoured landown­ers, such as the 1994 Crim­i­nal Justice and Pu­bic Or­der Act which in­tro­duced the crime of ag­gra­vated tres­pass, by which you can be ar­rested and pros­e­cuted for cross­ing bound­aries and a num­ber of other acts that are eye-wa­ter­ing in their ba­nal­ity.

Hayes is a strong ad­vo­cate for in­creas­ing pub­lic ac­cess to land and a harsh critic of those with power who have, for gen­er­a­tions, found ways to take pos­ses­sion of pub­lic land and then wall it off to deny ac­cess to any­one else. ‘Walls look like or­der; but more of­ten than not a wall stands at the pre­cise ful­crum of an im­bal­ance in so­ci­ety,’ he writes. The book also makes it clear that the loss of ac­cess to com­mons land of­ten had a pro­found im­pact on nearby com­mu­ni­ties, with peo­ple in me­dieval times thrown out of their homes or pun­ished for col­lect­ing fire­wood or hunt­ing on lands that their an­ces­tors were able to use freely.

In many ways The Book of Tres­pass is a his­tory book of the English coun­try­side, vividly il­lus­trated by il­licit vis­its to some of its more pic­turesque and il­lus­tri­ous coun­try es­tates and pri­vate lands. We get a glimpse of Arun­del Cas­tle, Boughton House and High­clere Cas­tle (where Down­ton Abbey was filmed), as well as the Sus­sex es­tate of for­mer Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre.

We also get a sense of how the aris­toc­racy came by their land, be­gin­ning with the en­clo­sure of the English com­mons upon the ar­rival of Wil­liam the Con­queror, who took own­er­ship of all the land and par­celled it off to his barons (keep­ing a fifth for him­self, in­clud­ing prime hunt­ing land). A later wave of landown­ers, in­clud­ing many of the largest land­hold­ing fam­i­lies to­day, would gain their wealth through ex­ploits in In­dia and the Caribbean, as of­fi­cers of the East In­dia Com­pany or plan­ta­tion own­ers, and would go on to build fab­u­lous stately homes upon their re­turn.

To­day, around 92 per cent of land in Eng­land is off lim­its, as well as 97 per cent of the coun­try’s wa­ter­ways

Dur­ing his tres­passes, Hayes is oc­ca­sion­ally con­fronted by ground­keep­ers, who make it clear that his pres­ence is un­wel­come. How­ever, for the most part he finds him­self alone on the grounds of vast coun­try es­tates, able to wan­der, swim in lakes and sketch (many of his il­lus­tra­tions dot the book). He also points out that dur­ing all of his trans­gres­sions he’s never met the ac­tual owner of the land. He tries to rec­tify this, with com­i­cal re­sults.

There are roughly 118,000 miles of pub­lic foot­paths in Eng­land to­day, which might sound like a lot, but it’s half of what there were a hun­dred years ago. ‘A coun­try path is democ­racy man­i­fested in mud,’ Hayes con­cludes.

You wouldn’t describe An­dri Snær Mag­na­son as a cli­mate rad­i­cal

– as a for­mer Ice­landic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, he’s much more prag­matic. His main con­cern is that the bar­rage of en­vi­ron­men­tal news is start­ing to fall on deaf ears, leav­ing many cli­mate sci­en­tists ex­as­per­ated by a re­cep­tion of in­ac­tiv­ity. So, how do we move peo­ple to ac­tion? In On Time and Wa­ter, Mag­na­son dis­cov­ers a po­etic an­swer, us­ing fam­ily his­tory to con­struct a por­tal through en­vi­ron­men­tal time. We fol­low Mag­na­son’s grand­par­ents through slower, care­free days; wit­ness­ing

Cross­ing the Lines that Di­vide Us • Blooms­bury

• Ser­pent’s Tail

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