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Freedom in the fells: The blessing of the right to roam.

Note: The section on access laws refers to England and Wales. The development and current access code of Scotland (SOAC) is so different that it deserves a piece of its own.

Why do we go to the fells? While the reason will be different for each person asked, a common theme would most likely be: to escape. To be free from the order, the bureaucracy that is ever present in this modern world, and to live, even if only for a short while, in a world untouched by modernisation. Where we are surrounded by the rustic, replacing a world of plastic and metal with one of stone and grass. To be able to journey, to explore new places. To go aimlessly with no desire other than to be immersed in a joyous landscape. To be free.

I am standing on a mountain in New Zealand, a swathe of hills below me. I have not been here long, and already the amount of infrastructure on these fells has shocked me. Flights of wooden stairs with handrails for support, long raised boardwalks, hundreds of waymarkers, finger posts and signposts showing hill goers where they are and which direction to go, metal ladders bolted to simple scrambles, large huts with beds and cooking facilities, well-made, flat, graded paths with metal handrails, all serving to remind me that the modern world exists in this place that should be free from its hallmarks. Ahead of me lies a range of smaller hills, a curiously humpbacked ridgeline running along them, hinting at the prospect of tantalising running. Arriving back at the trailhead some hour later, I consult the large map mounted in the car park, intending to find the best ways to access these hills. While the map showed the path I had taken, which snaked over the larger hills, there appeared to be no access to the smaller ones I had seen. Talking to a local, I discovered that you could not access them. They were private, each of them being owned by the individuals who had purchased the houses below them. 

This would not be the only surprise I would have during my five months in New Zealand. During a road trip, I drove alongside a range of hills that I wanted to explore. I continued on, looking out for a car park, a layby, a flattened patch of grass, somewhere that would allow me to pull in and disappear into the hills. There was nothing. I eventually found a spot and pulled in, relieved to see a path heading off in the direction the hills were. Scarcely half a mile along said path, I came to a raised wooden viewpoint. Beyond it, a post and wire fence with a sign explicitly telling visitors that beyond was private property, and we were not welcome. A further surprise came to me a few weeks later in an announcement, after a storm had knocked a large number of trees over across the North Island.  An update from the Department of Conservation said that they had assessed the land and had, in effect, closed a number of its mountains for public access. I was confused at first. How could you close a mountain? Having worked in a forest in the past, I was well aware of the need to close paths to deal with windblown trees, and the damage storms can do to paths, but to close a mountain seemed bizarre. On top of  this, any organisation having the ability to legally close and bar access to a mountain seemed tantamount to lunacy.  In the Lake District, each fell has several paths, official and unofficial, going up them as well as the ability to stray off these paths and exercise your right to roam. Surely no obstacle could be big enough to be unable to be bypassed by some contouring and route adjustment? Over my time in this new country, I grew to understand why. Trails started at trailheads. There was a path that you had to stick to, you could not leave it. Exploration, in many ways, seemed curtailed. The ability to have a unique experience quashed. Quite simply, there was no right to roam.

In England and Wales, the right to roam (implemented in the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act in 2000), allows an individual access on foot to land classed as “Open Land”. This includes: mountain, moor, heath and down provided it is lawful and follows the Countryside Code. This means that, despite the fells being owned, they are accessible, and more, you do not have to stick to a prescribed route or path. This, however, was not always the case. In the past, wealthy individuals owned vast swathes of Open Land and barred access to them for the general public. While farmers do still own large amounts of land, there is a network of public rights of way running through them to allow access, which cannot be obstructed or closed by the landowner and, at altitudes of over 2,000ft, their land is classed as access land to members of public allowing right to roam. 

The history of access rights in England and Wales has been a long-fought one, starting long before the implementation of the CRoW Act. In 1884 James Bryce MP campaigned for public access to open land in the “Freedom to Roam” Bill. Unfortunately, it was not supported and failed to be implemented, but the ethos that drove him to campaign for this freedom remained. In a protest against path closures to prevent access, 2000 people unlawfully ascended Latrigg, above Keswick in the Lake District and, in 1932, after a long period of friction between landowners and the general public, there was the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the Peak District. These, and other protests were aimed at highlighting the loss of land that was historically accessible but was now owned by people who could, and did, lawfully bar the public from it. In 1949, the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was put into place, creating the first 10 National Parks in England and Wales. As well as protecting and preserving these areas, the act was also designed to allow access to recreational areas to the general public. Finally, in 2000, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act was implemented allowing access to open land. In 2004 the Countryside Code was created, a modernised and updated version of the Country Code that was created in the 1930s. This highlighted the expected behaviour of people in the countryside highlighting things such as closing gates, dogs on leads and generally how to act in a way that is considerate of landscape.

In contrast, there is no right of access to roam across private land in New Zealand, a freedom it feels perverse to lack in a place that is iconic for being an outdoor capital of the world. While landowners may grant access to land, there is no obligation for them to and, there is no requirement to honour the paths that have gone through their land in a similar fashion to the: Once a Highway Always a Highway law in the UK. But it's not just the access, there seems to be a lack of freedom in the hills that we take for granted. Even the most rustic and out-of-the-way tracks seemed littered with waymarkers, nailed to trees, with fingerposts telling you which way to go. There was little mystery, adventure or sense of escape. I was surprised to discover that their mountain huts were charged, with a fee payable to the Department of Conservation and even more surprised to discover that you need to book them in advance. In the UK, the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) maintains and looks after a number of shelters in remote parts of the UK. No fee is charged and no bookings can be made, they are a shelter for those who want them. This is not a fair comparison, as the mountain huts in New Zealand are positively palatial next to the UK’s bothies. But then again, when sleeping out on the fells, do we not want to escape the trappings of modern life? To sleep in rustic stone bothies, cooking on a tiny stove by the light of your head torch. Free to use at a whim, needing to inform no one or make no booking. Try as I might, the shackles of modern life seemed to follow me up the fells in New Zealand. 

As the UK fells become more of a destination, could these once embassies of nature become the victim of modernisation? Could large mountain huts, with premium fees be placed on top of the large fells? Already a train runs to a cafe on top of Snowdon, what is to stop this happening on more UK fells? Who amongst us could claim it would not be popular with those who cannot go to the fells on foot? Would it not also be safer if the fells were dotted with signs and waymarkers, showing popular routes? If large graded paths were built with an obligation to stay on them. Surely this would be a boon for mountain rescue, with people being far simpler to find. Should we not use every tool possible to make these fells more accessible and safer? Are we, the people who want the fells to remain untainted by the modern world, akin to the snobbish landowners as we, in effect, prevent people from accessing the hills?

Returning from New Zealand, a place many people refer to as a place synonymous with outdoor adventure, I felt a great restriction lift. I looked up at my fells. I could walk and run with impunity across them. I felt free. I could stand on top of a fell and go any which way I wanted. I could disappear. I could run where no one had been all day, where there were no signs, paths or other hill goers. Yes, there is still room for improvement in our access, only 8% of England and Wales is accessible but, standing on the fell, knowing I could run all day without seeing a fence, or a sign or a graded path, I felt something I had not felt in my time in New Zealand: freedom. Freedom to escape the modern world, freedom to roam. 

End point: This post is based off what I saw in New Zealand in my limited time there. 5 months is not enough time to see a whole country, and this post is not meant as a criticism, land is managed in a way that varies between places. The idea of this post is to highlight how grateful I am for the rights of access in the UK and how different my experience was in New Zealand .

tongariro crossing trail runner
Despite how remote it seems, there were many signposts all along this path

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