Free Man on
Fay Sampson’s book for children, A Free Man on Sunday, first appeared in 1987, and the paperback came out in 1990; the book may only be available in libraries. So why am I writing about it now? I went last December to John and Caitlin Matthews’ gathering at Hawkwood on The Magic of Story, and one of the questions asked was “What is the story the land is telling you?”. I found that for me it was the story of Fay Sampson’s book, which is worth looking at now that we suffer under the Criminal (In)justice Act.
I was born in Manchester in 1934, and when I was a child my father often took me rambling in Derbyshire, in Edale, and around and up Kinder Scout. The Derbyshire hills were easily accessible from Manchester by train and bus in those days, and also by bicycle, and they were the nearest wild country to the big city.
People in factories and offices worked a five-and-a-half day week then, and on Saturday afternoon and Sunday many went walking in those green valleys and bleak hills. The big landowners kept the moorlands for grouse, and did not permit walking on the tops. Walking was restricted to pathways which were mostly at the lower levels. Gamekeepers would turn people away if they attempted to go further, and those paths which did exist were often blocked.
Sampson’s book is written from the point of view of a young girl who went walking with her father most Sundays. On 24th April 1932, they took part in a mass trespass on the moors of Kinder Scout, in protest against the restrictions on walking. Though only six people out of the six hundred or so present were arrested, sentences of six months for riotous assembly were imposed (doesn’t this sound similar to what happens to protesters today?).
The protests led some seventeen years later to the establishment of the Peak District National Park, but there is still no general right to walk freely on the moors, and footpaths continue to get closed (both legally and illegally). (Added 2005 — such a right was created by the current Labour government, but this is new enough that the effects are not yet clear.)
The “right to roam” exists in other countries (such as Sweden and Holland). It has been fought for in this country for many years. A limited right was created in the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, but, although this was brought in by a Labour government, this was more restricted than the proposal agreed unanimously by the advisory committee, although that included landowners and farmers. The history of the struggle, and of ownership (theft is often a better word than ownership when one looks at how common land was enclosed) of land and the restrictions placed by landowners on those who want to walk in and enjoy the countryside, can be found in a number of books. Among them are Forbidden Land by Tom Stephenson (it was largely due to Tom’s efforts that the Pennine Way, the first of our long-distance paths, was created), This Land Is Our Land by Marion Shoard, and Our Forbidden Land by the photographer Fay Godwin. Shoard reminds us that eighty years ago “From innumerable gramophone records and on innumerable occasions was sung the Land Song, culminating in the chorus
The Land! The Land! ‘Twas God who gave the Land!
Ewan MacColl wrote, in a song composed some years after the trespass
No man has a right to own mountains
and, in the lines which give the title to the book,
I may be a wage-slave on Monday
This book reminds us of the costs of the struggles against injustice and for freedom. And reading it now reminds us also, unfortunately, that freedom and justice can be lost as well as gained, and that the struggle may have to be renewed, perhaps not once but many times.
Water 49, Winter Solstice 1994