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The Book of Trespass: 'Every step on forbidden ground'

While the past year has seen the UK cooped up inside or exploring their local patch of woodland for the 17th time, The Book of Trespass transports the reader through the English countryside in an exploration of how societal structures have formed divisions in both land and community.

It’s been almost a year since The Book of Trespass was published, and the paperback version is due out in a week. Released into an entirely new context to when it was written, a world of lockdowns, limited exercise, a situation where people were finally rediscovering the paths and open country of their local neighbourhood, it caught a zeitgeist, a spirit that was alive but long dormant in English society – the idea that we should have greater access to our countryside.

The book takes the classic nature writing template as its structure – person walks through nature, describing what they see, giving historical context to the landscape. But in this case, every step it takes is on forbidden ground and, in one chapter, water. 92 per cent of our countryside and 97 per cent of rivers are out of bounds to the public, so finding places to trespass was not difficult.

The book takes the reader from the castle estates of dukes, through the farming estates of MPs and media magnates, describing the history of our exclusion from the landscape. It takes us to the real Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle, to the largest brick wall in England, built for the ancestors of current MP for South Dorset, MP Richard Drax, describing how new money entered the English countryside from slavery and colonisation of the West and East Indies.

The main aim of the book is to illustrate how societal divisions such as class, race and gender have been driven and intensified by the divisions imposed between communities and the land they once had access to.

Every trespass in the book was conducted in line with the Scottish outdoor access code, a code of responsibility towards the ecology and landowners of the area, written to accompany Scotland’s Land Reform Act of 2003, which opened up green space and blue space to the public. With a list of sensible exceptions, such as people’s back gardens, war monuments and MOD sites, the Scottish right to roam not only allows but encourages people to swim, paddle, camp and ramble through the beauty of its landscape.

England is surrounded by countries that encourage responsible public access, from Norway and Sweden to Finland and Estonia, and yet our nation – whose peculiar brand of private property includes the right to exclude all others, no matter how vast this property extends – remains stubbornly blind to the physical and mental health benefits of accessing nature.

I became used to the various reactions of landowners, or their representatives, veering from the snidely patronising to the outright aggressive

I first started trespassing entirely unconscious of the political and historical context. My main job today is as an illustrator and the book is full of drawings I made from sketches on site. I have always drawn, and as a teenager I would scour the countryside, sketchbook in hand, looking for things that caught my eye. More often than not, the great fallen oak, or the gorgeous scene by the river were out of bounds, beyond the barbed wire, so I simply slipped under or over and trespassed to get my drawing.

I became used to the various reactions of landowners, or their representatives, veering from the snidely patronising to the outright aggressive, but sensed that because I had caused no damage, left no litter, this all seemed strangely incongruous to what I was actually doing.

But it was only when I was evicted from a first-class carriage on the train back from Brighton one night that the idea started to form as a book. I had come into the first-class carriage because the second class was rammed to the ceiling with passengers. The first-class carriage was empty but for an older couple, in evening wear, who reported my presence to the ticket collector. I was evicted into a wall of armpits with a tone of moral outrage, as if I had sinned rather than sought some space, and I suddenly saw the whole event as symbolic of land rights in England. Vast areas of space reserved for an elite few, while the rest of us are rammed together in whatever space remains. I started researching.

Books 1469
Nick Hayes’ The Book of Trespass is out in paperback on July 8 ( Bloomsbury, £9.99) Book Cover: Waterstones

There is nothing about me that enjoys trespassing for the licentious thrill of breaking the law. My preference is to be as relaxed as possible in nature, and this is impossible when the threat of expulsion hangs over every step, paddle or stroke I make.

But it’s easy for me. I am white, middle class and male in an empowered situation in society. There are communities in England that have been traditionally marginalised from our countryside for so long that even the idea of accessing nature barely registers. Working- class communities, queer communities and people of colour all are disproportionately affected, in social and health parameters, by their exclusion from the countryside.

This is why the campaign that accompanied the book is so crucial. While The Book of Trespass sets out the context of our wholesale exclusion from nature, the campaign at righttoroam.org.uk seeks to change the status quo. In the slightly bastardised words of Gerrard Winstanley, a land reformer from the 17th century, “words are great, but action is all”.

Nick Hayes’ The Book of Trespass is out in paperback on July 8 (Bloomsbury, £9.99)

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