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Benny Rothman and the access campaign
This article by Andrew Bibby was contributed to Rambler magazine, 1992
Tired walkers struggling to avoid a soaking in the peat bogs of Kinder Scout and Bleaklow as they traverse the Dark Peak section of the Pennine Way should realise how lucky they are.
The miles of open moorland above Kinder - wild, remote, magnificent - are available today for all who choose to walk this way. Unlike other upland areas of England, the moors here are not fenced off or plastered with 'no access' signs - and that is due at least in part to the hundreds of young ramblers who scrambled up the side of Kinder Scout, past the gamekeepers and on to the forbidden lands hitherto reserved for the grouse, in what was the first 'mass trespass' in Britain.
That was in April 1932. The story has become legendary: how a small party of working-class walkers had been humiliated a few weeks earlier by keepers as they tried to climb Bleaklow, how they'd decided to return in greater numbers to assert their right to walk the hills, how they mobilised, set off from Hayfield quarry, outwitted the police and the keepers, how they reached the Kinder plateau and returned triumphant at the day's end. And then: how six of the walkers had subsequently been arrested on public order offences, tried at the Derby assizes by a jury ("consisting of two brigadier generals, three colonels, two majors, three captains, two aldermen and eleven country gentlemen"), and how five of the group had been sent to prison for up to six months.
The sixtieth anniversary of the trespass was commemorated at the end of April this year in a series of events held in Hayfield, at the base of Kinder, and in the nearby town of New Mills. There was, for example, a celebratory rally at Hayfield quarry (complete with mass singing of Ewan MacColl's famous 'Manchester Rambler' song), the premiere of a play about the trespass written by Mike Harding, as well as - naturally - the opportunity to take part in plenty of walks on Kinder itself. Benny Rothman, one of the imprisoned organisers of the 1932 event, helped to plan the programme.
Now eighty and still both an enthusiastic walker and activist, Benny Rothman was having a busy time arranging media interviews when I met him, a few weeks before the anniversary weekend. Journalists and TV crews have become frequent visitors at the semi in the Manchester suburb of Timperley where he lives with wife Lilian (Lilian had wanted to join the trespass, but to her lasting regret had been unable to persuade her father to let her go).
Benny is friendly and welcoming, and anxious to talk not just of the trespass but also about the issues facing ramblers today. "The present situation in many ways is even worse than in 1932," he says. "Although we've got a little more access than we had then, at the same time we're losing land at a terrible rate in all parts of the country to development. For example, the bloody motorways have swallowed up land at a ghastly rate."
He describes his involvement in recent campaigns in the Manchester area to save precious open spaces on the edge of the city from industrial development before the conversation moves further afield. We discuss the apparently unstoppable development of open-cast quarrying in parts of the west Pennine moors, the problems of afforestation in northern Scotland, and the threat to the landscape from acid rain and environmental pollution. "I've had the opportunity to fly over Kinder Scout for a BBC programme, and I photographed the great masses of peat where people don't normally go. A great deal of the heather is dying out, and it's due to atmospheric pollution, from the bigger number of cars, and from chemical factories too," he claims.
But surely, unlike perhaps the 1930s, people nowadays are much more conscious of environmental issues? "Yes, I know they are. But they haven't got more power, and that's the trouble," he says quickly.
The issue of securing the rights of ordinary people to walk the hills is, for Benny Rothman, linked to political issues of power and democracy. "It's profit at the base of all this, the fact that land belongs to private individuals in Britain and that if they can see a way of deriving profit out of this commodity, land, they'll do it," he argues. He has been active throughout his life in left politics and trade unionism, and on his bookshelves books about the Peak District and natural history mingle comfortably with classic socialist and communist texts. The Kinder trespass, indeed, was organised not by the established (and respectably middle-class) Manchester rambling clubs - who by and large disassociated themselves from it - but by a radical working-class group of the time, the British Workers' Sports Federation.
Disagreements about the tactic of the Kinder mass trespass were heated, dividing ramblers on class and age lines. "The people who took part in the trespass were essentially working-class boys and girls - they were only kids, you see. In Manchester there was quite a division. Some ramblers could occasionaly get passes to go on to the moors from the landowners. But we wouldn't have had a cat in hell's chance of doing that - in any case, we wanted to go on the hills as of right".
Extraordinarily, even after sixty years, a few echoes from this dispute still resonate today in parts of the ramblers' movement: not everyone has completely forgiven Benny and his friends for going outside the established procedures. Nevertheless the Kinder trespass, and the access campaigns which developed subsequently after the five ramblers had been gaoled, helped create the political climate which encouraged the post-war Labour government to set up the National Parks - and it is surely not coincidence that the Peak Park authority has been more active than most in negotiating access agreements.
Nevertheless, the battle for access to the hills is not yet over, according to Benny Rothman. "People are under the impression that they can go where they like, but of course you can only go where there have been access agreements entered into. In the Peak Park, they only cover about 50% or so of the possible moorland - the rest is still forbidden. In virtually every other country in Europe you have the right to walk freely on uncultivated land. We are right at the bottom of the league," he says.
Not surprisingly, Benny has been a regular participant in the annual Forbidden Britain day activities, organised by the Ramblers Association to highlight access problems. He is aware that some of the old arguments from the 1930s have re-emerged over this campaign. "You do occasionally get letters from people who object to Forbidden Britain activities," he says. "These people believe quite sincerely that we can achieve access by negotiation." He pauses, and adds "...possibly in another 500 or 600 years."
Fortunately Kinder Scout at least is now held in perpetuity by the National Trust. Not the least of the pleasures of walking in the Kinder area is the possibility of a chance meeting with Benny Rothman along the way (possibly being tailed by a London-based press photographer). Long may he continue to walk these hills.
[Benny went on to celebrate both his 90th birthday and the passing of the 'right to roam' legislation, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. He died in January 2002.]