Nick Hayes is an illustrator, writer and activist. He latest book, The Book of Trespass, uses his trespassing escapades to highlight the inequitable system of UK land ownership and encourage people to join the campaign against the move to criminalise trespass.
How did you ‘get into’ trespassing? Was it for the book?
I first started trespassing in order to draw. I make my living today as an illustrator, but back in the day, either with pals or alone, I would go sketching the woods and fields around my home, wandering for miles until I found something I wanted to sit and stare at for an hour. Very often the best scenes, fallen oaks, deserted flint houses or great big chalk pits would be nowhere near the rights of way. It was then that I started to question who decided we should only be limited to these pathways. Who says so? In what way is that considered to be enough?
Have any of your trespassing escapades particularly stayed with you?
The escapades in the book, or rather their locations, were chosen in order to illustrate the history of how our rights to land were taken away. I hopped the walls of dukes’ castles, earls’ manor houses and the estates of current MPs and media magnates, either because the land they owned was the location of various (failed) battles to save common land or because their ancestors played large roles in the privatisation of land, allowing them to pass on these estates, and keep the land, and its value, out of the commonwealth, in private pockets.
The purpose of these trips was to engage directly with the politics that separates us from the land, but I’m happiest when trespassing for my original reason: very simply, the joy of being immersed in nature, a million miles away from the notion that one person deserves a bigger and better portion of the world than others. It’s the prosaic stuff that is so valuable, that stays with me the most powerfully: the glimpsed herds of deer, the stag beetle embryos seen in the loam, two egyptian geese fighting, the muntjac calling in the dark woods, the world that exists far outside of human concerns - I find this so fascinating, and often these sightings, or interactions, feel like magic.
How did the book come about?
I was told to piss off the land one time too many. I had to investigate this power they wielded - invisible, but incredibly potent. It wasn’t the rudeness of the land owner, or their representatives, that interested me so much, but my own personal acquiesce to their command. I not only obeyed their command, but apologised, as if I accepted their definition that what I was doing was not simply walking in hundreds of acres of woodland, but actually a moral crime. Why would I take their word for it? I needed to understand how the exclusive dominion of england had become accepted by the public that were excluded, how our need to access nature could have become redefined as an attack on the landowner - it all seemed so far fetched, but it is deeply ingrained in the orthodoxy of English culture.
In a nutshell, what are the main arguments against making trespassing illegal?
First and foremost, the proposed criminalisation of trespass will be an inhumane act against the travelling community. The last ten years have seen a massive reduction in council sites allocated for travelling communities, austerity being the excuse, and now, with nowhere to go, travellers will be criminalised effectively for just being travellers. Very plainly, this is immoral, and contravenes their human rights, not to mention encourages the kind of bigotry against marginalised communities that history has seen can take nations down very dark routes.
For the rest of the public, it will further turn the countryside into a forbidden land, and see a further deterioration of our mental and physical health. The government should be encouraging us to connect with nature, not turning it into a crime.
Did you learn anything especially surprising or egregious during your research?
Both surprising and egregious: the flexibility and bias of the law. The law of property has been written almost entirely by vested interests and many of the precedents that have been set were created by an unreformed parliament, in whose time you couldn't be an MP unless you were a landowner of very significant holdings. The House of Lords, until very recently, has been a cabal of inherited peerages, whose titles all came with swathes of land, so it is maybe not surprising, but no less egregious, that they have almost entirely been against any kind of land reform.
What changes would you make to this part of the system, if you could?
The laws of the land must encourage people towards nature. Either we follow Scotland’s 2003 example and pass a Right to Roam Act, which allows the public access to land and water, provided they use that access responsibly; or we need to extend the legislation we have already in England, namely the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) act of 2000. This piece of legislation opened up around 8% of land in England to responsible roaming - large areas of moorland, and the occasional bit of land in various other places.
However, the science is telling us that for our improved mental and physical health, we need easy and regular access to nature. Our campaign proposes four more terrains to this CROW act: rivers, woodland, greenbelt and downland, because they would give the most amount of people the most amount of access. We also want to see an extension of the activities encouraged: from just simple walking to kayaking, paddleboarding, wild camping, mountain biking, climbing and caving etc. Provided they act responsibly, why shouldn't people be allowed to do what they love doing?
How can people get involved?
We don't claim to have all the answers. We want first to introduce the conversation of greater public access to nature in public discourse, and then move forward on a resolution that works both for the public and land owners. We would love to hear from Adventure Uncovered readers, so please either sign up to our website to find out more about our campaign, or send us a message to tell us your concerns, or what might be a better solution. We know that something needs to happen, that England cannot go on so segregated from the nature that can keep us healthy and content, and we know that if you help us, it is a very realistic proposition.