We all need greater access to nature on a regular basis, for our physical and mental health.
The largest mass trespasses since as far back as Kinder Scout in 1932 took place in downland outside Brighton this weekend (24 July 2021) with one of the jewels in the undulating downs opened up to locals for the first time in decades.
The Landscapes of Freedom event attracted more than 300 people who met at Waterhall on the northern skirts of the city in dampening, mid-morning mizzle. Families, students, travellers, hunt sabs and councillors mingled and determined to access downland which is, by rights, theirs.
Dave Bangs, from Landscapes of Freedom, said: “In this one act we have ended the secrecy surrounding this secret place - a half mile long and a third of a mile wide - peaceful and silent, away from the blare of traffic on the A23 London Road.
"A place of Linnet and Song Thrush, Hare and Buzzard, Glow Worm and Chalkhill Blue, spangled with the yellow stars of Rockrose, Hawkbit, and Eggs-and-Bacon with Dropwort, Milkwort and Scabious, and the scarce fungi of archaic pastures.”
At the end of the day they re-grouped in dribs and drabs at the same place in glorious sunshine, tired-er, hotter, happier and invigorated by what had happened in between times.
Setting off the trespassers wound their way up the valley following chalk paths out into the inescapable beauty of the South Downs. The end point was to be steep, pristine, unimproved chalk grasslands of Pangdean Bottom, close to wooded, pheasant enclosures.
And here lies the rub.
The tenant farmers of the Brighton and Hove City Council-owned land use it for livestock farming but also lucrative, pheasant shoots and in so doing keep the public off as much of the land as is humanly possible.
The council as land-owner could step in to stop this, using their powers to ensure cross-compliance with its policy of opposing blood sports, by not re-letting extensive farmland currently rented to this shooting tenant upon the forthcoming end of his current letting period.
And so it was that the land as essentially public land was for the day at least, returned to the public and returned in such a way that all those on the walk will remember for a long, long time to come.
Avoiding any violent confrontation the walkers simply climbed over a fence and carefully removed a fence post in front of the farmer and keeping to well worn paths away from bemused cattle, made their way to the steep chalk hill for the impromptu picnic at Pangdean Bottom (purchased by Brighton Council in 1924).
There in sight of three farm pick-ups and two police vehicles at the foot of the hill, walkers took a well-earned rest in the sun and listened to impassioned words from Dave Bangs, botanist and author of A freedom to roam guide of the Brighton Downs; Ruth of Traveller Pride; Anna Selby a poet; Kelly Smith from Black Girls Hike; Andrea Brock, author and researcher; Guy Shrubsole author of Who Owns England; and Beans on Toast singing ‘Right to Roam’.
Picking up on other roaming freedoms facing curtailment slated in the latest policing bill, Ruth from Traveller Pride said: “The policing bill will further criminalise trespass and is a threat to the way of life of the Gypsy Roma Traveller communities.”
Under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CROW, 2000) there is now only a right to roam on roughly eight percent of English lands.
The South Downs became a National Park in 2010 but despite that hard-won designation, down to years of fierce campaigning, the downland is still mainly out of bounds without any statutory right of public access, including much wildlife-rich chalk grassland and thicket, which should have been but wasn’t dedicated as statutory access land.
Nick Hayes is the co-founder of the Right to Roam campaign, and illustrated the dramatic posters and leaflets to accompany the Brighton trespass.
He said: “We all need greater access to nature on a regular basis, for our physical and mental health and that’s one reason why we’re campaigning for a greater Right to Roam over our downland, woods, rivers and Green Belt.”
A South Downs National Park Authority spokesperson said: “The South Downs National Park is one of the most accessible green spaces in the UK. It’s important that people respect farmland, do not allow dogs to disturb livestock and wildlife, and stick to the extensive network of public paths running across the National Park.”
Jan Goodey is an environmental journalist who contributes regularly to the Resurgence & The Ecologist.