The Edgelands: a zone of wild, mysterious beauty

The Edgelands: a zone of wild, mysterious beauty

Laura Gale, Underneath the M5

Laura Gale, Underneath the M5

You come across all kinds of stuff in the edgelands – mouldering leftovers from past endeavours as well as shiny, new hopes.  The book by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness, is like that, too – a bit of a jumble, but plenty that’s interesting and unexpected.

The book takes the form of around thirty short essays, each one sketching an aspect of the edgelands, from  Paths and Dens to Ruins and Woodlands, by way of Canals and Landfill. Organising their narrative this way, Farley and Roberts steer clear of the common form of landscape writing as an expedition or journey, though the accounts here are clearly based on many walks through edgeland territory, as well as childhood familiarity with the terrain. Instead they have presented us with a sort of gazetteer of generic types: paths, dens, landfill, ponds, sewerage, wire, bridges, ruins and woodlands – assorted topics, just like the motley objects that tend to accumulate in the tracts of ignored land that form the edgelands.

What, exactly, are these edgelands?  Robert Macfarlane provided one of the best descriptions, albeit in a review of the book that was not especially sympathetic:

The edgelands are the debatable space where city and countryside fray into one another. They comprise jittery, jumbled, broken ground: brownfield sites and utilities infrastructure, crackling substations and pallet depots, transit hubs and sewage farms, scrub forests and sluggish canals, allotments and retail parks, slackened regulatory frameworks and guerilla ecologies.

For the two poet-authors – both ‘edgelands comprehensive schoolchildren in the 1970s’ – the edgelands comprise a ‘zone of inattention’ in which all manner of interest and beauty thrive. They marvel at this ‘richly mysterious region in our midst’ and celebrate it as a ‘place of possibility, mystery, beauty’.  It’s a wilderness, yet so close to our urban centres and so familiar it is never seen, yet we see it all the time. Passed through, negotiated, unnamed, ignored, the edgelands have become the great wild places on our doorsteps, places so difficult to acknowledge they barely exist.

‘Somewhere in the hollows and spaces between our carefully-managed wilderness areas and the creeping, flattening effects of global capitalism’, say Farley and Roberts, ‘there are still places where an overlooked England truly exists; places where the city’s dirty secrets are laid bare and successive human utilities scar the earth or stand cheek by jowl with one another; complicated, unexamined places that thrive on disregard’.

The authors describe this as a book about ‘the blank spaces on the A-Z, the hinterlands of Britain that are not urban and not yet country’, the skuzzy, overlooked fringe of UK towns where homes end and motorways, business parks and Little Chefs reside. Sewage farms, disused mines, overgrown allotments and bridges daubed with florid graffiti are all grist to their mill. They once told an interviewer how the idea for the book came about:

It all began in the bar of a Premier Inn, somewhere on the edge of the Midlands. We had this idea to celebrate the vigour and diversity of these oh-so-familiar places, neither city nor country, wild or not wild, but the unnamed, ignored places which have a strange beauty all of their own. Research trips were planned to exotic locations – Swindon, Wolverhampton, Gateshead – staying in edgelands hotels, walking edgelands roads and talking to edgelands people.

The book – which I recall the pair reading extracts from a year ago on Radio 4’s Book of the Week – is a pleasure to read, with some essays, as you might expect from a couple of poets, bordering on the lyrical (though, sadly, although poems by others are quoted, Farley and Roberts offer none  of their own).  Some essays are more successful than others. There’s a feeling of the book running out of steam towards the end with accounts of retail parks, motels and golf ranges, weather stations and piers that seem less authentically edgeland. Canals, meanwhile, an edgeland essential if ever there was one, get a few short and somewhat limp pages.

Paul Farley spent his pre-school years just around the corner from where we have lived for thirty years:

The first house my parents lived in after I was born was on Ullet Road, near the Park. I have only the faintest memories of that house, and I’m not sure any of these are very reliable. My mum used to take me in my pram to the Palm House, and I really want to be able to recall this, but the story has taken on the shape of a memory. Then we moved round and lived just off Wavertree Road, in houses that backed onto the railway at Edge Hill. This area I do remember. It was overrun with mice. They ate my mum’s wedding cake! It must have been quite minty, but kids don’t really notice peeling wallpaper or mould. The trains shook past at night, and I loved it. All those streets were flattened and redeveloped years ago.

Then, towards the end of his primary school years, the family moved out to the edgelands of Netherley, one of those council estates built out in the fields on the edge of Liverpool in the 1960s.  This is how he described it in an article for Granta in 2008:

We all climbed into the back of this furniture van with our stuff, and were deposited a few miles away in a half-built place surrounded by fields and trees. Insects. Birds. I remember even the light seemed different. Everywhere smelt of newness: fresh-cut timber, putty, paint. But then over the coming months and years, the older city we’d moved from sort of grew and loomed in my imagination. I started to miss it, and as soon as I was old enough I’d jump on buses to revisit it. Similar kinds of things must have happened to kids all over the country, because most big English cities had housing clearance programmes like Liverpool’s.

Michael Symmons Roberts had a similar experience in Manchester, and the two writers begin Edgelands with this explanation of how the unique landscape of the urban fringe burrowed itself deep into their souls:

For a long while – an entire childhood, in fact – we wondered where the countryside actually was, or even if it really existed. Growing up on the edge of two cities – Liverpool and Manchester – in the early Seventies, it was easy enough to walk for a short while and soon find yourself lost in back lanes or waste ground; to follow the wooded perimeters of a golf course; an old path leading through scratchy shrubland, or the course of a drainage ditch. It was easy enough to find yourself on the edges of arable land; to follow the track bed of a dismantled railway or descend into an abandoned quarry. But none of this ever really felt like the countryside.

Anyone who has spent a childhood mooching around the fringes of four English towns and cities, where urban and rural negotiate and renegotiate their borders, might have come up with the word ‘edgelands’. If you know those places where overspill housing estates break into scrubland; wasteland. If you know this underdeveloped, unwatched territory, you know that they have ‘edge’. We might have come up with it ourselves, but geographer Marion Shoard got there first. Her writing on England’s edgelands; her call to arms, for poets and novelists to celebrate them and above all her naming of this ground, was the starting point for our study of these areas.

It was a landscape that entered my soul, too, growing up in a now-prosperous former coal-mining village in Cheshire. Poynton had been the centre of a small but thriving coal-mining industry from the 18th century until the mid 1930s.  As a kid in the 1950s I roamed freely through a classic edgelands landscape where farmers’ fields and woodland shaded imperceptibly into the ghostly industrial remains of mine-working machinery, railway tracks and slag heaps.

A favourite childhood haunt was ‘the Jigger’, a level path that was the remains of a railway spur that linked the collieries in Higher Poynton and Middlewood to the main line at Poynton station; straight and narrow and overgrown in places, it pushed past fields and through woodland.  The tracks were gone, but the path was littered with industrial remains: crumbling and overgrown brick buildings and shards of rusting metal machinery. For a child, it was an edgelands heaven.

‘Dens’ is one of the most evocatively successful essays in the book, also imbued with childhood memories. It opens with this vivid account of two makeshift dens:

Inside a large ditch overhung with whitethorn that marks the border between a few acres of unkempt meadow and the perimeter of a private golf course, a tepee-like vertical frame has been attempted using pliant elder branches, which in turn have been cross-woven then packed with grasses to disguise its presence; the floor inside has been carpeted with an offcut of ratty Axminster and the rubberised foot mats from an abandoned car; a red plastic milk crate, partially melted in one corner from the heat of a fire, serves as both chair and table, where a boy is studying a punished copy of Mayfair, pulled from a hedge full of empty vodka bottles in a lay-by.

A sheet of tarpaulin, stolen from a nearby lorry yard, has been used to insulate the inside of another hollow bramble hedge near a main road; the entry point is a crawlspace a few feet lower, hidden on the leeward side, and only the slimmest child can enter, beavers like, into its hidden space; a hole has been left in the crown of the construction to act as a chimney for the small fires that will kipper the clothes and hair of its occupants with woodsmoke; a few broken-down Golden Wonder cardboard boxes make a comfortable if slightly damp and spongy floor, where a boy has stripped down the spring-piston mechanism of a .22 air pistol.


The den: home of childhood memories

It was Marion Shoard who first coined the term edgelands to describe a terrain of ‘rubbish tips and warehouses, superstores and derelict industrial plant, office parks and gypsy encampments, golf courses, allotments and fragmented, frequently scruffy, farmland’. This was in an essay ‘Edgelands‘ published in Remaking the Landscape in 2002:

Britain’s towns and cities do not usually sit cheek by jowl with its countryside, as we often casually assume. Between urban and rural stands a kind of landscape quite different from either. Often vast in area, though hardly noticed, it is characterised by rubbish tips and warehouses, superstores and derelict industrial plant, office parks and gypsy encampments, golf courses, allotments and fragmented, frequently scruffy, farmland. All these heterogeneous elements are arranged in an unruly and often apparently chaotic fashion against a background of unkempt wasteland frequently swathed in riotous growths of colourful plants, both native and exotic. This peculiar landscape is only the latest version of an interfacial rim that has always separated settlements from the countryside to a greater or lesser extent. In our own age, however,this zone has expanded vastly in area, complexity and singularity. Huge numbers of people now spend much of their time living, working or moving within or through it. Yet for most of us, most of the time, this mysterious no man’s land passes unnoticed: in our imaginations, as opposed to our actual lives, it barely exists.

In this YouTube video, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts take a tour of Birmingham’s edgelands:

As you might expect from a couple of poets, there are countless references to poets and other artists, photographers and writers who have been inspired by these areas (actually, there are over 75 such references; I didn’t count them, but someone whose review I came across had done).  This is one of the joys of the book, as the remainder of this post will reveal: I encountered artists both familiar and previously unknown to me: here you will find cited names like Keith Arnatt, George Shaw, Michael Landy, Richard Billingham, William Eggleston, John Davies, Philip Larkin and many, many more.

George Shaw: The Time Machine, 2010

George Shaw: The Time Machine, 2010

I was already familiar with George Shaw’s wonderful paintings of nondescript landscapes of our inner cities and edgelands: scenes of typical urban desolation on Tile Hill housing estate in Coventry, where he grew up.  As Farley and Roberts observe, ‘this is the absolutely overlooked ordinary’.  His paintings speak  expressively of the landscapes through which we hurry each day, their elements so familiar that they become almost invisible.

David Rayson, The Shortcut

The Fire, 1999

David Rayson, The Fire, 1999

Another painter mentioned by Farley and Roberts was new to me; David Rayson is another Midlander for whom the edgelands are important.  He has made his reputation with meticulous, deadpan drawings and paintings of urban and suburban scenes, attempting to make sense of his immediate surroundings. ‘I want my work to tell stories, stories which take place all the time and everywhere’, he says; ‘I feel it is the familiar and the everyday that reveal our complex and private relationship with the world around us.’

Like his contemporary George Shaw, Rayson makes precise, almost photorealist images of suburban landscapes based on recollections of childhood and adolescence. Rayson draws and paints images of suburban Wolverhampton where he grew up and continues to live.

David Rayson, From Ash Park to Wednesfield, 2003

David Rayson, From Ash Park to Wednesfield, 2003

Farley and Roberts refer to one set of paintings by Rayson in particular: the series From Ash Park to Wednesfield, in which Rayson leads us along a canal path, past dens and places where he grew up:

There are no people about, just their traces in the old leaden water, the missing railing, the litter, all linked by the implacable path. It follows the backs of houses and passes under a busier road … a forgotten route, bypassed by the world as it speeds up.

Modern Painters – David Rayson from Tamara Pictures on Vimeo.

One important aspect of edgelands territory identified by Farley and Roberts is its mutability. They write that the edgelands feel anything but timeless:

Revisit an edgelands site you haven’t seen for six months, and likely as not there will be a Victorian factory knocked down, a business park newly built, a section of waste ground cleared and landscaped, a pre-war warehouse abandoned and open to the elements.  Such are the constantly shifting sands of edgelands…

There is a poem, ‘Scrap Metal’ in Michael Symmons Roberts’ collection Soft Keys (1993) that hints at some of this:

The whinings of light planes
half wake me.  In my sleep-half
the sky fills with so many
that their wings clack together
like beaks, bringing them down
in the field behind the house.

The rooks in the end trees
racket amongst themselves.
The house shifts on its rust
mattress of scrap metal.
The soil beneath is gorged
with bolts, chains and spokes.

I tear off finger-long strips
of the blue and gold patterned
wallpaper by the bed.  Underneath,
the old paint feels cold.
I decide to paint my room
completely orange – windows too.

The hill in the rooks’ field
is a long barrow for motor-bikes.
Sometimes in the night,
I hear one spark up
like a distant throat,
then settle again.

But, cheek-by-jowl with carefully-managed landscaping is a rough and ready wildness, a sense of entropy and decay, and slip-sliding disorder:

Somewhere in the hollows and spaces between our carefully-managed wilderness areas and the creeping, flattening effects of global capitalism, there are still places where an overlooked England truly exists; places where the city’s dirty secrets are laid bare and successive human utilities scar the earth or stand cheek by jowl with one another; complicated, unexamined places that thrive on disregard.

One such place visited by Farley and Roberts is Bidston Moss on the Wirral, ‘one of the most worked-over, altered, landscaped areas of landscape in the country’ in their words. Lying just inland of the Mersey near the northernmost tip of the peninsula, it’s a ‘blank zone’ criss-crossed by railway lines, Mersey Tunnel approach roads and the M53 motorway – and a network of paths.

We entered … by means of a tiny one at the back of the B&Q car park, leading through a gate in the dull, metal-spiked railings into a dark waste ground beneath the flyovers, greeted by undergrowth festooned with a spectacular array of moulded plastics: it seemed as if every colour and variety of polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene and polyvinyl has landed up here, snarled in the low scrubland and grasses, thrown from the roads overhead or blown from the loading bays to the rear of the superstores. It’s a huge litter trap, an open space surrounded by people passing through very quickly, an unacknowledged or quickly disregarded blindspot. Looking closer, you can see how trefoils and bindweeds have begun to grow back over some of the takeaway cartons and soft-drinks bottles.

In the 1930s the area became a landfill and tipping site for domestic and industrial waste. The mound that built up over the decades became visible from miles away across the water in Liverpool, a hundred-foot-high landmark of rubbish. And then, in the desperate 1980s, a new kind of salvager appeared. Tip scavengers – or ‘totters’ – began to work the site, sifting through the wreckage looking for anything of value: copper, lead, anything of value.

This was Merseyside’s economic nadir, and people were desperate. They were an image from antiquity, or the developing world, the grimy faced rag-picker and bone-collector. There is a photograph of a totter, taken by Peter Marlowe in April 1985.  Marlowe’s tip scavenger is cowled and furtive, a character from the Middle Ages; Brueghel meets Magnum Photo Agency.

Peter Marlowe, Totter, Bidston Moss, 1985

Peter Marlowe, Totter, Bidston Moss, 1985

What it has created is a very twenty-first century melange of low scrubby woods, footpaths and cycle paths, graffitoed bridges and finger posts, pylons and road pillars. Even here, where recent planning has proscribed pathways for all kinds of public use, desire paths are already worn into the earth, cutting off corners, creating short cuts, circuits within circuits. The unplannable edgelands, reasserting themselves.

In the chapter on Gardens, the authors elaborate their thoughts on landscaping – and note that railway embankments largely escape opportunities for orderly landscaping:

From a train entering a city, the rows of domestic back gardens abutting the railway have a familiar kludge of fencing, corrugated iron, doors and particleboard that marks the boundary between one kind of space and another. Escapees are common, seeds finding their way into a new corridor of opportunity, and blown along the tracks by the timetabled movement of trains. The verges easily slip into the category of edgelands. […] The result: a space that nobody takes much responsibility for. And so brambles and bindweed form a kind of slow-motion surf, rolling down the banks into the cutting. In winter, the snarled detritus of the decades is clearly visible, lost footballs and unspooled video- cassette tape, tin cans and plastics of every description, tangled and suspended. Maybe a glacier is a better way of thinking about railway embankments. The litter from both back gardens and train windows is caught like till in the ice, inching slowly towards earth with the general tumble of each season’s growth.

The references to  Ward, Rayner and Marlowe occur in the chapter on Paths, which begins with Farley and Roberts making this observation about ‘desire paths’, a feature of the urban landscape which I particularly enjoy encountering:

Planners love telling us which way to walk. Our built environment – especially our mercantile spaces, shopping centres and the like – is carefully constructed to control footflow and footfall. But we do like to collectively, unconsciously defy them. This is why we see desire paths in our landscape. Desire paths are lines of footfall worn into the ground, tracks of use. They are frowned upon in our national parkland, where they are seen as scars and deviations. PLEASE KEEP TO THE FOOTPATH. You often see desire paths in public gardens and greened city spaces, taking paved paths ‘off road’ into new trajectories, along roadsides and riverbanks. Our edgelands are full of them.

The post-war overspill developments seen on the edges of many of our cities were planned right down to every concrete walkway, subway and pathway. But their green squares and verges were soon criss-crossed with desire paths: a record of collective short-cuttings. In the winter, they turned to sludgy scars that spattered trousers and skirts and clung to shoes, and during hot summers they turned dusty and parched. Once established, they fell into constant use, footpaths which have never entered the literature. These footpaths of least resistance offer their own subtle resistance to the dead hand of the planner. They lead across borders, into open fields and woodland, along drainage brooks, away from the backs of the houses. On a housing estate, a path leading through a hole in a fence is still freighted with possibility. Each one offers promise and danger, whether what lies ahead is known or unknown. Each one has a flavour and mood (or several moods) all of its own. Desire paths are interesting because of the way they come into being: a ‘bottom up’ system against the ‘top down’ methodology of the planner, and proof of human unpredictability. Nobody decides to make a desire path. There is no ribbon-cutting. These are the kinds of paths that begin over time, imperceptibly, gathering definition as people slowly recognise and legitimise the footfall of their peers.

In the essay on ‘Landfill’ the authors observe that ‘rubbish is part of the texture of edgelands’ (reminding me of a line from Leonard Cohen: ‘I’m stubborn as those garbage bags, that time will not decay’). Rubbish, Farley and Roberts write, may be encountered here, often in surreal juxtaposition:

A fly-tipped sofa in a corner of a turnip field; an electric cooker rusting under a bridge arch; a mattress anywhere open to the elements. We see things on their journey through from one category to another, often losing their identities in the process, as in Sean O’Brien’s poem ‘After Lafourge’:

                 – ambitious settees in black frogskin
And minibars missing their castors, the catalogues
Turning to mush, the unnameable objects
That used to be something with knobs on,
And now they live here, by the siding, the fishhouse,
The building whose function is no longer known.

Eileen Inlanding, Edgelands sofa

Eileen Inlanding, Edgelands Sofa

Keith Arnatt, Boiler fuel

Keith Arnatt, Boiler Fuel

On the subject of decomposing rubbish, Farley and Roberts quote a poem by Jean Sprackland, one of a sequence inspired by the East Lancs Road (which, before the M62, was the main route into Liverpool from Manchester; I remember many traverses of the road as a hitch-hiking student in the sixties). Specifically the poems were Sprackland’s response to the detritus thrown or dropped from cars or ‘washed up on the shores of the central reservation’:

The rag-and-bone man would give away a balloon
 in exchange for a broken saucepan
 or a coat riddled by moths.
 My mum boiled the bones clean for soup first
 and kept the best rags for the floor.
 There’s no currency mean enough round here
 for trading in ring-pulls and plastic bottles,
 the loops that hold beer cans together,
 the polystyrene panels a fridge comes packed in.
 You can buy a roll of fifty black sacks for a pound.
 They hang flapping in trees and no one bothers to free them.

One road leads to another.  You know that convoluted bit of motorway where the M5 joins the M6? Have you ever wondered, the authors ask, what lies beneath? Most drivers, they write, are fixed only on the roadside landmarks – ‘the iconic Dunlop building, the muscular, futuristic shapes of the electricity subs station, the RAC Control Centre jutting out over the traffic like the prow of a flagship’.  But underneath this long, extended bridge, this complex of flyovers, is another world. This is the world of Tarkovsky’s dystopian film Stalker: dark, damp, intense and menacing.

Laura Gale, Underneath the M5

Laura Gale, Underneath the M5

A painter (not mentioned in the book) who has explored this territory is Shaun Morris. He has produced a series of nocturnes  framed by the motorway pillars and lit by unnatural light of the night-time motorway. They represent a response to the ‘necropolis of motorway pillars’ explored by Farley and Roberts.

Shaun Morris, Edgelands charcoal

Shaun Morris, ‘Edgelands’, charcoal (click to enlarge)

On his blog recently, Morris wrote about returning at night to a favourite location underneath the M5 between Oldbury and West Bromwich with photographer Laura Gale (one of her atmospheric images can be seen at the top of this post):

You enter a very intense, visually rich and murky world, that is at once quite frightening in it’s scale and darkness and with the noise of the traffic above, yet simultaneously beautiful and otherworldly. This otherworldly quality was further enhanced by the still water of the canal and the enormous, crystal clear reflections of the underbelly of the motorway. It looked like you were viewing a giant sunken ship in the water. It was quite deathly and unsettling.

Shaun Morris, Nocturne

Shaun Morris, Nocturne

In the chapter on ‘Wasteland’ I learnt that the buddleia, the archetypal marker of edgelands territory, gets its name from a 17th century botanist, Adam Buddle.  It was a plant then recently imported from Latin America; now it has colonised huge swathes of unchecked, uncultivated land around our towns and cities.  It’s a chapter that begins with buddleia, meanders via the photos of Don McCullin and Julian Trevelyan, the paintings of Michael Landy and edgelands honey, before arriving, inevitably, at TS Eliot: ‘poet of the city’ and representative of how, between the wars, ‘the idea of the wasteland seeped into British art like a brown fog’.

The authors note that Don McCullin, in photos made in the 1960s and 1970s, was “one of the greatest artists of our cities’ wastelands”.  They draw attention, particularly to an image taken in Liverpool 8 in 1961:

Two young boys, about ten years old, stand on a classic piece of wasteland, strewn with bricks, stones, abandoned cars and bits of industrial machinery.  A row of houses stands in the background, some smashed and empty, though one still has painted window frames and curtains.  One boy looks across at the camera, straight at us, but the other is coiled backwards like a longbow at full draw, blurred with speed.  He has a stone in his hand. This could be one of many traditional wasteland games: throwing stones at bottles, throwing stones at windows, throwing stones at passers-by.  But such is the strength of his backward arch that his stone will fly over the bottle, over the coal yard, out of the wasteland, out of Liverpool to drop in the icy shallows of the Irish Sea.

Julian Trevelyan, Rubbish May be Shot Here, 1937

Half a century earlier the painter and photographer Julian Trevelyan was working in Bolton for the Mass Observation project founded by Tom Harrisson and Humphrey Jennings:

He photographed a world of chimneys and rubbish heaps and rubble-strewn earth, of allotments and fences, the industrial dereliction where the people of Bolton existed, isolated figures moving through a desolate landscape or rummaging on tips. But his most striking work was made using collage. Using magazine cuttings, newsprint and paper, he recycled pieces of the ephemeral world to create images of the same dumps and pylon fields, standing pools and factories with their smoking chimneys. Trevelyan’s wastelands are dynamic places, alive as a result of their indeterminacy; their fragments appear caught in a kind of unresolved tension. They suggest to us a new way of looking at an ignored landscape, neither grimy documentary realistic nor entirely whimsical and surreal, but occupying a border territory in between.

Bolton mills, 1937, Julian Trevelyan

Julian Trevelyan, Bolton Mills, 1937

The artist Michael Landy (he’s the guy who famously destroyed all his possessions in Break Down, leaving himself with only the clothes he stood in) was drawn to wasteland, too.  He turned his attention to weeds, the common but overlooked denizens of the edgelands that he preferred to call ‘street flowers’, producing a series of etchings under the title Nourishment.  Here were the flowers that flourish on waste ground and in the cracks in the pavement: groundsel, herb robert, toadflax and creeping buttercup. Like Richard Mabey, he celebrated their names, neglected histories, medicinal qualities and the meanings that people used to attach to them: Canadian Fleabane hitched a boat-ride across the Atlantic to colonise these shores; Oxford Ragwort jumped the wall of the city’s Botanical Gardens to run wild, and hybridised with the native species.

Creeping Buttercup

Michael Landy, Creeping Buttercup, 2002

In ‘Ruins’, the authors meditate on how deeply the ruins of Britain’s industrial past have entered the collective consciousness: a favourite location for TV crime dramas and photo shoots:

Pieces of broken glass click underfoot. Every few paces, the floor becomes spongy with pads of mosses, until eventually you’re standing on a hard and level surface. The air smells cold and musty, uncirculated, tinged with motor oil, mildew, brick dust, black unguents. Somewhere high above there’s the ghost applause of a pigeon, before – a hundred yards or so in front of you – you hear the harsh metallic rattle of big shutters being rolled open. The screech of a car means you can feel the size of the echoing emptiness you’re standing in; the engine draws near, nearer. Even though you’re wearing a blindfold, you know this place. You’ve been inside here before many times.

Tim Edensor 1

Tim Edensor, Industrial Ruins

Farley and Roberts cite the work of geographer Tim Edensor, a connoisseur of industrial ruins (British Industrial Ruins is one of two websites he has dedicated to the subject).  Edensor says:

Most studies of ruins have concentrated on the noble piles of classical antiquity […]. Yet the 20th century has produced more ruins than ever before, whether through warfare or as a remorseless, short term-oriented capitalism turns solid things and places into air, rendering the contents and activities housed within industrial buildings instantaneously obsolete. In Britain, at the end of the 1970’s and through the eighties, the government of Margaret Thatcher allowed ‘market forces’ full reign, promoting an orgy of real estate speculation which produced a reconstructed industrial landscape. But not everywhere was able to capitalise on this economic reconstruction and in many areas, as old industries died, the buildings that housed them lay dormant and empty. This process persists and the material legacy of the industrial revolution, in the form of ruins, can still be found in most British cities.

Tim Edensor 2

Tim Edensor, British Industrial Ruins

Somewhere in the book the authors, appropriately, quote Phillip Larkin’s ‘Church Going’:

But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure.

Something of that poem’s sensibility permeates ‘In Praise of Flaking Walls’ in Michael Symmons Roberts new collection Drysalter:
To be alive is to throw shadows.
No mere ghost could obstruct the light
like we do. This much we know:
that to be made incarnate
is to be as solid as this limewashed wall,
t0 come from rumour, hope, to weight.
We  know  that  sheets  of stucco  crumble
under frost and sun, that every flaw
is nailed by lichen, that all
this is provisional. We know more:
that such beautiful distress – a stone
wall turned to mud and straw –
will be mirrored in our own,
that mountains will give way to snow,
that light will look through us again.

You come across all kinds of stuff in the edgelands – which is perhaps why this book by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts ultimately feels a bit like a bag of odds and ends picked up along a path across the terrain. Some of the pieces collected here are brilliant, and taken as a whole I rate this as one of the most stimulating and evocative books that I’ve read recently.  I think Geoff Dyer puts it fairly at the close of his FT review:

Inevitably, some components of the edgelands prove more creatively productive than others. Overall, though, the book can be fairly represented by any particular part of it. The effect is cumulative only in the sense that the pieces mount up. It’s not just that there is no sense of a developing argument; there is an absolute lack – and I mention this as a shortcoming precisely because I am the kind of reader for whom this is not a priority – of any kind of narrative drive. Two-thirds of the way through, it becomes evident that Edgelands is never going to be more than the sum of its parts – but the parts are often terrific.

See also

Paul Farley: Liverpool Disappears for a Billionth of a Second

The right to roam land and shore, ‘but for the sky, no fences facing’

The right to roam land and shore, ‘but for the sky, no fences facing’

Path Dorset

The other day I posted about how access to the river Mersey was restricted by the Cressington and Grassendale private estates. ‘As a freeborn Englishman’, I wrote, ‘I can’t understand the idea that a private estate should have the right to deny people access to a great river’.  That provoked a fair amount of debate, so I thought I’d look at the question of the right of access and the notion of public space in a bit more detail, exploring how the struggle for common land and the right to wander where you will has reflected sharply-differing interpretations of the legal and moral meaning of private property.  From the resistance to the enclosure of common lands to the hard-fought struggle for the right to roam, it’s a stirring story, and one that is far from over; new battle-lines are being drawn over access to the British coastline and its beaches, and the rapid privatisation of public space in our cities.

No man made the land, it is the original inheritance of the whole species. The land of every country belongs to the people of that country.
– John Stuart Mill, 1848

When you step back and take a historical view, what is clear is that access to the land has been a defining issue in British society for a thousand years.  Rebecca Solnit, a writer thrilled by the extent of the English network of paths and rights of way compared to her native America, has nevertheless observed that in this country ‘accessing the land has been something of a class war’. For a thousand years, landowners have been sequestering more and more of the island for themselves, and for the past hundred and fifty, landless people have been fighting back.

For some, it’s all down to the Normans; conquering England in 1066, they embarked on a swift land grab, establishing huge deer parks for hunting (the nearest here being Toxteth Park and the hunting forest of Mara and Mondrum, now known as Delamere).  Fierce penalties for poaching or in any way encroaching upon these hunting lands were visited upon the poor or landless in the centuries that followed – castration, deportation, execution (after 1723, for example, taking rabbits or fish, let alone deer, was an offence punishable by death).

The deer parks were gouged from the commons: lands which might be (usually were) privately owned,  but on which locals retained rights to gather wood and graze animals – and to follow their noses.  Over time a principle had been established in common law: that the public had the right to walk no matter whose property they traversed, following rights-of-way-footpaths across the fields and woods that were necessary for work and travel.

There’s a proud tradition of English folk rising up to resist the trashing of these entitlements by the rich and powerful, and it stretches back a long way.  Between 1509 and 1640 there were more than three hundred riots in England, many of them sparked off by the enclosure of common land or the denial of customary rights of pasture. Some were large enough to be regarded as risings or rebellions; others were small and insignificant, a handful of villagers levelling someone’s hedges and letting their cattle in.

The Norfolk Rising of 1549 began as a local demonstration against the enclosure of common land, but quickly developed into a revolt against the whole system of enclosures. It is considered, after the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the most significant of all the peasant risings.  In an organized response to the general oppression of the poor, 16,000 rebels attacked and took possession of Norwich, then the second city of the kingdom, and for three weeks administered the district until attacked and defeated by a government army. This is how a chronicler at the time reported the sense of injustice felt by those who rose up:

For, said they, the pride of great men is now intolerable, but their condition miserable. These abound in delights and compassed with the fullness of all things, and consumed with vain pleasure, thirst only after gain, and are inflamed with the burning delights of their desires: but themselves almost killed with labour and watching, do nothing all their life long but sweat, mourn, hunger and thirst . . .

The common pastures left by our predecessors for the relief of us and our children are taken away. The lands which in the memory of our fathers were common, those are ditched and hedged in, and made several. The pastures are enclosed, and we shut out: whatsoever fowls of the air, or fishes of the water, and increase of the earth, all these they devour, consume and swallow up; yea, nature doth not suffice to satisfy their lusts …

Shall they, as they have brought hedges against common pastures, inclose with their intolerable lusts also, all the commodities and pleasure of this life, which Nature the parent of us all, would have common, and bringeth forth every day for us, as well as for them? We can no longer bear so much, so great and so cruel injury, neither can we with quiet minds behold so great covetousness, excess and pride of the nobility; we will rather take arms, and mix heaven and earth together, than endure so great cruelty. Nature hath provided for us, as well as for them; hath given us a body and a soul, and hath not envied us other things. While we have the same form, and the same condition of birth together with them, why should they have a life so unlike to ours, and differ so far from us in calling?

We desire liberty, and an indifferent [equal] use of all things: this we will have, otherwise these tumults and our lives shall end together.

In the Putney debates of 1647, the Leveller Colonel Rainborough argued that, ‘the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the richest he’; two years later, on 1 April 1649, Gerrard Winstanley (who hailed from Wigan) and his fellow diggers started cultivating land on St George’s Hill, Surrey, and proclaimed a free Commonwealth.

We come in peace, they said
To dig and sow
We come to work the land in common
And to make the waste land grow
This earth divided
We will make whole
So it can be
A common treasury for all.

The sin of property
We do disdain
No one has any right to buy and sell
The earth for private gain
By theft and murder
They took the land
Now everywhere the walls
Rise up at their command.
– Leon Rosselson, ‘World Turned Upside Down’

In their first manifesto the Diggers asserted:

The earth (which was made to be a Common Treasury of relief for all, both Beasts and Men) was hedged into Inclosures by the teachers and rulers, and the others were made Servants and Slaves. … Take note that England is not a Free people, till the Poor that have no Land, have a free allowance to dig and labour the Commons, and so live as Comfortably as the Landlords that live in their Inclosures.

As well as joining in the collective labour on the occupied land at St Georges Hill, Winstanley wrote pamphlets defending the Diggers’ cause. This was not just a local matter, but a national issue. The traditional village was breaking up under the pressures of an emerging capitalist market. Richer farmers were beginning to produce for the market, employing the labour of villagers who had been evicted from their smallholdings and become dependent on wages. Yet, Winstanley (whose proto-socialist argument was couched in religious terms, as most debates were at the time) pointed out, one third of England was uncultivated wasteland –  barren while children starved:

Let all men say what they will, so long as such are Rulers as call the Land theirs, upholding this particular propriety of Mine and Thine; the common-people shall never have their liberty, nor the Land ever [be] freed from troubles, oppressions and complainings. O thou proud selfish governing Adam, in this land called England! Know that the cries of the poor, whom thou layeth heavy oppressions upon, is heard. […]

Therefore you dust of the earth, that are trod under foot, you poor people, that makes both scholars and rich men your oppressors by your labours, take notice of your privilege, the Law of Righteousnesse is now declared. All the men and women in England, are all children of this Land, and the earth is the Lord’s, not particular men’s that claims a proper interest in it above others, which is the devil’s power.  This is my Land …

Therefore if the rich will still hold fast this propriety of Mine and Thine, let them labour their own land with their own hands. And let the common-people … labour together, and eat bread together upon the Commons, Mountains, and Hills. For as the enclosures are called such a man’s Land, and such a man’s Land; so the Commons and Heath, are called the common-people’s, and let the world see who labours the earth in righteousnesse, and . . . let them be the people that shall inherit the earth. …Was the earth made for to preserve a few covetous, proud men, to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the earth from others, that they might beg or starve in a fruitful Land, or was it made to preserve all her children?


The Diggers’ occupation of the land on St Georges Hill lasted only five months before they local landowners went to court to have them evicted. In 1649, St George’s Hill was a stretch of wasteland. Today, ironically, it is an exclusive gated private estate, with multi-million pound mansions, golf course and private tennis courts. In 1995 and 1999 The Land is Ours, the group founded by George Monbiot, organised a mass trespass there in order to dramatise the issues of open access to the countryside of how the land is used.

St Georges Hill

In Scotland, common land was abolished in 1695, while in England enclosure acts and unauthorized but fiercely enforced seizures of hitherto common land accelerated in the eighteenth century.  Between 1760 and 1870, about 7 million acres (about one sixth the area of England) were changed by Acts of Parliament from common land to enclosed land.  In Das Kapital, Marx described how, from the 15th century to 19th century, ‘the systematic theft of communal property was of great assistance in swelling large farms and in ‘setting free’ the agricultural population as a proletariat for the needs of industry’.

Many did indeed see the process as a war; in 1803, the President of the Board of Agriculture, writing at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, saw the colonization of the commons around London as a patriotic duty:

Let us not be satisfied with the liberation of Egypt or the subjugation of Malta, but let us subdue Finchley Common, let us conquer Hounslow Heath; let us compel Epping Forest to submit to the yoke of improvement.

North of the border, in the Clearances, thousands of Highlanders were evicted from their holdings and shipped off to Canada, or forced to seek work as wage labourers in the industrial towns as landowners turned their estates over to profitable sheep farming. Some cottagers were literally burnt out of house and home by the agents of the Lairds. Betsy Mackay, who was sixteen when her family was evicted from the Duke of Sutherland’s estates, gave this account of their eviction:

Our family was very reluctant to leave and stayed for some time, but the burning party came round and set fire to our house at both ends, reducing to ashes whatever remained within the walls. The people had to escape for their lives, some of them losing all their clothes except what they had on their back. The people were told they could go where they liked, provided they did not encumber the land that was by rights their own. The people were driven away like dogs.

In England, as E.P. Thompson wrote in The Making of the English Working Class,’the years between 1760 and 1820 are the years of wholesale enclosure in which, in village after village, common rights are lost. … Enclosure (when all the sophistications are allowed for) was a plain enough case of class robbery’. In 1809, when John Clare was 16, an Enclosure Act was passed to enclose lands in the parish of Helpstone in Northamptonshire and in neighbouring parishes. This was the land where he had been raised, and it formed his world, his horizon:

Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene
Nor fence of ownership crept in between
To hide the prospect of the following eye
Its only bondage was the circling sky
– John Clare, from The Moors, 1824

The central aim of enclosure was to increase profits, but the price of ‘Improvement’ was the loss of the commons and waste grounds, which according to the Act ‘yield but little Profit’:

Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours
Free as spring clouds and wild as summer flowers
Is faded all – a hope that blossomed free,
And hath been once, no more shall ever be
Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave
And memory’s pride ere want to wealth did bow
Is both the shadow and the substance now
– John Clare, from The Moors, 1824

Clare was devastated by this violation of his natural and social environment. For Clare, the open-field system fostered a sense of community, the fields spread out in a wheel with the village at its hub. Fences, gates and ‘no trespassing’ signs went up. Trees were felled and streams diverted so that ditches could follow a straight line:

There once was lanes in natures freedom dropt
There once was paths that every valley wound
Inclosure came & every path was stopt
Each tyrant fixt his sign where pads was found
To hint a trespass now who crossd the ground
Justice is made to speak as they command
The high road now must be each stinted bound
–Inclosure thourt a curse upon the land
& tastless was the wretch who thy existence pland
– John Clare, from ‘The Village Minstrel’, 1821

George Monbiot, writing in The Guardian in July 2012, observed how, as Clare moved from his teens to his thirties, acts of enclosure granted the local landowners permission to fence the fields, the heaths and woods, excluding the people who had worked and played in them. For Clare, everything he sees falls apart:

Almost everything Clare loved was torn away. The ancient trees were felled, the scrub and furze were cleared, the rivers were canalised, the marshes drained, the natural curves of the land straightened and squared. Farming became more profitable, but many of the people of Helpston – especially those who depended on the commons for their survival – were deprived of their living. The places in which the people held their ceremonies and celebrated the passing of the seasons were fenced off. The community, like the land, was parcelled up, rationalised, atomised. I have watched the same process breaking up the Maasai of east Africa. […]

What Clare suffered was the fate of indigenous peoples torn from their land and belonging everywhere. His identity crisis, descent into mental agony and alcohol abuse, are familiar blights in reservations and outback shanties the world over. His loss was surely enough to drive almost anyone mad; our loss surely enough to drive us all a little mad.

For while economic rationalisation and growth have helped to deliver us from a remarkable range of ills, they have also torn us from our moorings, atomised and alienated us, sent us out, each in his different way, to seek our own identities. We have gained unimagined freedoms, we have lost unimagined freedoms – a paradox Clare explores in his wonderful poem ‘The Fallen Elm‘. Our environmental crisis could be said to have begun with the enclosures. The current era of greed, privatisation and the seizure of public assets was foreshadowed by them: they prepared the soil for these toxic crops.

In John Clare: A Biography, Jonathan Bate follows E.P. Thompson in describing Clare as a poet of ‘ecological protest’, a political poet angered by the destruction of ‘an ancient birthright based on co-operation and common rights’:

These paths are stopt – the rude philistine’s thrall
Is laid upon them and destroyed them all
Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine
But paths to freedom and to childhood dear
A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’
And on the tree with ivy overhung
The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung
As tho’ the very birds should learn to know
When they go there they must no further go
Thus, with the poor, scared freedom bade goodbye
And much they feel it in the smothered sigh
And birds and trees and flowers without a name
All sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came
And dreams of plunder in such rebel schemes
Have found too truly that they were but dreams.
– John Clare, from The Moors, 1824

No public right of way

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said ‘No Trespassing’
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
– Woody Guthrie, ‘This Land Is Your Land’

When Britain was still a rural economy of land workers, the struggle over access to the land was about economics, about survival. But by the middle of the nineteenth century, half the nation’s population lived in cities and towns.  It was in this period that the conflict over common land and rights of way changed from being about economic survival and became – as Rebecca Solnit puts it in Wanderlust – about ‘psychic survival, about a reprieve from the city’. As more and more people chose to spend their spare time walking, more and more of the traditional rights of way were closed to them.  The issue became the right to roam.


You can date the desire to roam freely in the countryside back to the Romantic poets.  Rebecca Solnit tells the story of a confrontation at Lowther Castle in Cumbria, where Wordsworth was being entertained by the Earl of Lonsdale. At dinner, the earl complained that his wall had been broken down and that he would have horsewhipped the man who did it. At the end of the table, Wordsworth heard the words, the fire flashed into his face and rising to his feet, he answered: ‘I broke your wall down, Sir John, it was obstructing an ancient right of way, and I will do it again.’

Solnit is a great admirer of the English tradition of establishing, and fighting to hold onto, rights of way:

Certainly one of the pleasures of walking in England is this sense of cohabitation right-of-way paths create – of crossing stiles into sheep fields and skirting the edges of crops on land that is both utilitarian and aesthetic. American land, without such rights-of-way, is rigidly divided into production and pleasure zones, which may be one of the reasons why there is little appreciation for or awareness of the immense agricultural expanses of the country. British rights of way are not impressive compared to those of other European countries – Denmark, Holland, Sweden, Spain – where citizens retain much wider rights of access to open space. But rights-of-way do preserve an alternate vision of the land in which ownership doesn’t necessarily convey absolute rights and paths are as significant a principle as boundaries.

Nearly 90 percent of Britain is privately owned, but Solnit expresses her admiration for ‘a culture in which tresspassing is a mass movement and the extent of property rights is open to question’.  The movement that fought – and continues to fight – for unfettered access to land and shore began in the late 19th century.  The Liberal MP James Bryce, who introduced an unsuccessful bill to allow access to privately held moors and mountains in 1884, declared a few years later:

Land is not property for our unlimited and unqualified use. Land is necessary so that we may live upon it and from it, and that people may enjoy it in a variety of ways. and I deny therefore, that there exists or is recognized by our law or in natural justice, such a thing as an unlimited power of exclusion.

Today, campaigns for footpaths and the right to roam may have support from people of all social backgrounds, but at the dawn of the 20th century, the issue was seen in class terms and became a significant strand in the socialist movement. In 1900 the Sheffield Clarion Ramblers -a socialist organisation – was formed, followed in 1907 by the Manchester Rambling Club.  In 1928 the nationwide British Workers Sports Federation and in 1930 the Youth Hostels Association began to provide lodging for young hikers and working class walkers with limited means. Historian Raphael Samuels observed that, ‘hiking was a major, if unofficial, component of the socialist lifestyle’.  By the 1920s and 1930s, tens of thousands of workers spent their Sundays walking; in 1932, some 15,000 headed for the hills from Manchester alone each weekend. But they found their access blocked by rich landowners.

Kinder Scout, the highest and wildest point in the Peak District, became the focus of the most famous battle for access.  It had been public land until 1836, when an enclosure act divided the land up among the adjacent landowners, giving the lion’s share to the Duke of Devonshire, owner of Chatsworth House. The fifteen square miles of Kinder Scout became completely inaccessible to the public. Walkers called it ‘the forbidden mountain’.

Fighting between gamekeepers and ramblers during the mass trespass of Kinder Scout in 1932

In April 1932, over 400 people participated in a mass trespass onto Kinder Scout. The event was organised by the Manchester branch of the British Workers Sports Federation. Walkers encountered gamekeepers with clubs and police with truncheons (above) during the mass trespass, and five men from Manchester, including the leader, Benny Rothman, were subsequently jailed. One of Ewan MacColl’s greatest songs, ‘Manchester Rambler’, was written in celebration of the Kinder trespass:

I’m a rambler, I’m a rambler from Manchester way
I get all me pleasure the hard moorland way
I may be a wage slave on Monday
But I am a free man on Sunday

I’ve been over Snowdon, I’ve slept upon Crowden
I’ve camped by the Waine Stones as well
I’ve sunbathed on Kinder, been burned to a cinder
And many more things I can tell
My rucksack has oft been me pillow
The heather has oft been me bed
And sooner than part from the mountains
I think I would rather be dead

The day was just ending and I was descending
Down Grindsbrook just by Upper Tor
When a voice cried ‘Eh you’ in the way keepers do
He’d the worst face that ever I saw
The things that he said were unpleasant
In the teeth of his fury I said
‘Sooner than part from the mountains
I think I would rather be dead’.

He called me a louse and said ‘Think of the grouse’
Well I thought, but I still couldn’t see
Why all Kinder Scout and the moors roundabout
Couldn’t take both the poor grouse and me
He said ‘All this land is my master’s’
At that I stood shaking my head
No man has the right to own mountains
Any more than the deep ocean bed

So I walk where I will over mountain and hill
And I lie where the bracken is deep 
I belong to the mountains, the clear-running fountains
Where the grey rocks rise rugged and steep
I’ve seen the white hare in the gulley 
And the curlew fly high over head
And sooner than part from the mountains
I think I would rather be dead

On its 75th anniversary, the trespass was described by Roy Hattersley as, ‘the most successful direct action in British history’ because, just over  a decade later, it achieved a result. The Ramblers’ Association had started its own right-to-roam campaign in 1935 and in 1945, within days of taking office, the Attlee Labour government set up a series of official committees which recommended establishing a system of national parks and establishing the right to roam across all open and uncultivated land.  Ten national parks were created but the only access improvement achieved was to strengthen the existing system of public footpaths.

No public right of way

In Finland, Norway and Sweden, the right to walk where you wish is enshrined in the principle of allemansrätt, or ‘every man’s right’. In Sweden, allemansrätt, guaranteed in the national constitution, is considered a central tenet of the national approach to tolerance, its origins stretching back in part to medieval provincial laws and customs.  In Scotland the Land Reform Act 2003 grants an extensive right to roam almost anywhere, as long as it is exercised responsibly. But England has always lagged behind.

On the fiftieth anniversary of its creation, the Ramblers’ Association began holding ‘Forbidden Britain’ mass trespasses of its own and in the 1997 election the Labour party promised to support ‘right to roam’ legislation that would at last open the countryside to the citizens. More radical new groups such as This Land Is Ours (founded by George Monbiot) began to take direct action to highlight a situation in which just 6,000 landowners, mostly aristocrats, own about 40 million acres – or two thirds of the land in the UK – over which public access was largely prohibited.  But, increasingly it’s not just about aristocrats: since the 1980s the trend has been towards land being bought up by multinational corporations and financial institutions.

Marion Shoard, author of A Right to Roam (1999) has written that ‘underlying successive skirmishes between owners and landless has been a simmering war of competing ideologies in which the supposed right of ownership of the environment has come up against a growing sense that the earth belongs in some sense to all’.

In A Right to Roam, Shoard wrote:

Seventy-seven per cent of the UK’s land is countryside, and this still includes much magnificent scenery. Yet the increasing numbers of people setting off in search of it find their simple quest ends all too often in disappointment and frustration. They can visit the ever more crowded country parks, picnic areas, and other enclaves provided by public and voluntary bodies, but if they try to venture beyond such places and roam freely they soon run up against a harsh reality. Most of Britain’s countryside is forbidden to Britain’s people. They may look at it through their car windscreens but they may not enter it without somebody else’s permission – permission which will be withheld more often than not. The rural heritage they may have loved unthinkingly since childhood turns out to be locked away from them behind fences, walls, and barbed wire. Where they have been expecting relaxation and peace they find instead warnings to keep out and threats of prosecution.

Our law of trespass holds us in its grim thrall throughout our country. Most of us are vaguely aware that those omnipresent ‘Trespassers will be Prosecuted’ signs are partly bluff. But all of us also know that trespass is indeed illegal, whether or not our wanderings are likely to put us in the dock. When an owner or his representative confronts us, we do not usually choose to argue the toss with him about our right to walk in our countryside. If we did, we should lose the argument. He has the right to use force to remove us. As a result, more than 90 per cent of woodland in Oxfordshire, for example, is effectively out of bounds to the walker. […]

Of course no one challenges today the idea of private property. But other societies hesitate to regard the land itself as something that can be owned as absolutely as a piece of jewellery. Our own laws of compulsory purchase and development control implicitly challenge this idea. Deep down we all know it is wrong. Throughout human history, the notion of which of the planet’s resources might reasonably be held as property by individuals has changed as different peoples at different times have developed different ideas of what is right.

In 2000 the Labour government of Tony Blair introduced legislation that established a limited right to roam over mountain, moorland, heath and downland. The bill was passed in the teeth of opposition from landowners (and from the Prime Minister himself, who backed landowners’ calls for voluntary arrangements instead of a public right).  Members of the House of Lords called the bill ‘an attack on property and the rights of ownership’ and ‘a travesty of justice’, and warned that it would lead to drug parties, devil worship and supermarket trolleys in Britain’s wild places.  Implementation of the Act was completed in 2005, but it didn’t grant a Scottish or Scandinavian-style right to walk anywhere you like, limiting access on foot to 936,000 hectares of mapped, open, uncultivated countryside.

All of this raises the question: Who owns Britain?  Some answers are provided in figures from a surprising source.  In 2o10, Country Life Magazine published ‘Who Owns Britain?’, thought to be the most extensive survey of its type undertaken since 1872.  The findings were revealed via another unlikely source: the Daily Mail:

The top private landowner, not just in Britain but Europe, is the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensbury, whose four sumptuous estates cover 240,000 acres in England and Scotland. But while his land is the most vast, it is not the most valuable, as the net worth depends on how much is farmland, as well as the value of the property and sporting and heritage activities on it.

The most valuable land belongs to Number 4 on the list, the Duke of Westminster, whose Grosvenor Estate, worth a whopping ­£6 billion, takes in the wealthiest areas of London, including ­Belgravia and Mayfair [and, I might add, a sizeable chunk of central Liverpool – more about that in a ‘mo].

Simon Fairlie writing in Land magazine highlights the undemocratic and increasingly unequal pattern of land ownership:

Over the course of a few hundred years, much of Britain’s land has been privatized — that is to say taken out of some form of collective ownership and management and handed over to individuals. Currently, in our ‘property-owning democracy’, nearly half the country is owned by 40,000 land millionaires, or 0.06 per cent of the population, while most of the rest of us spend half our working lives paying off the debt on a patch of land barely large enough to accommodate a dwelling and a washing line.

Yet the individual millionaires are now dwarfed by the incredible reach of corporate land-ownership, which barely existed 100 years ago.  As the biggest 19th-century landowners such as the Church have been sidelined by economic and social changes, their land has been snapped up by the private sector. Pension Funds  own 550,000 acres.  Catching up swiftly are foreign investors and even supermarkets. Waitrose owns a 4,000-acre estate in Hampshire, which it runs as a farm, while Tesco’s 2,545 stores alone take up 770 acres.

During the 18th and 19th century, before the advent of local government, the enclosures parcelled up so much of the countryside for country landowners that, according to today’s estimates, only 4% of land in England and Wales is registered as ‘commons’.

And it’s not just the countryside: in the last few decades the enclosures have moved into our towns and cities. Large sections of cities such as London, have long been owned by a small group of wealthy landlords. For example, the Duke of Westminster owned the whole of northern Mayfair, Belgravia and Pimlico, the Duke of Bedford owned Covent Garden while the Earl of Southampton owned the Bloomsbury Estate.

But, generally speaking, for much of the 20th century the ownership and management of property in cities has been in the hands of a diverse patchwork of private landlords, institutions, local government and private individuals.  In the last few decades, however, city centre regeneration, especially in declining industrial areas has often taken the form of very large new developments owned and managed by a single private landlord. In Liverpool, the city council handed a single private landlord, Grosvenor Estates, 42.5 acres of land extending over 34 streets for redevelopment on a 250-year lease.  This is Liverpool One – a highly successful retail development that has contributed to the resurgence of the city – but one of a type that raises concerns about the erosion of public space in our cities.

An aerial view of Liverpool One

It began with Canary Wharf and Liverpool One; now many commentators are drawing attention to a creeping privatisation of public space. Streets and open spaces are being defined as private land after redevelopment.  There are now privatised public spaces in towns and cities across Britain.

In the past decade, large parts of Britain’s cities have been redeveloped as privately-owned estates, extending corporate control over some of the country’s busiest squares and thoroughfares. These developments are no longer enclosed shopping malls; they retain much of the old street pattern, spaces open to the sky, and appear to be entirely public to casual passers-by.  But the land is private, and members of the public enter the area subject to rules and restrictions set by the developers – and enforced by their own security personnel.

The writer who has done most to map this process is Anna Minton, author of Ground Control.  In her book, Minton explains that the current wave of land privatisation started in the 1980s, with the development of Canary Wharf. New Labour gave the process a boost in 2004 when it changed the legal basis by which Compulsory Purchase Orders were assessed. Previously they had to show they were in the public interest; now they need only to demonstrate ‘economic interest’.

The opportunity to reconstruct urban space so radically, Anna Minton argues, was created by the de-industrialisation of the city, and the closure of the factories, works, warehouses and docks which used to dominate the urban landscape. What we’re seeing as a result is a rapid reversal of the long trend through the 19th century by which roads and highways were ‘adopted’ by the local authority.  Minton calls this ‘the creeping privatisation of the British public realm’.

From Liverpool One to Cabot Circus in Bristol, privately owned and privately controlled places, policed by security guards and featuring round the clock surveillance, came to define our cities. In London, Westfield Stratford City and the Olympic Park represent the latest stage of this process, based on property finance and retail, and underpinned by large amounts of debt.

The subtitle of Anna Minton’s book is ‘Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-First Century City’. She explains how urban space is increasingly owned by private corporations and watched over by CCTV as developers fear disruption, crime, filth, and chaos. The result, she argues, are standardized urban spaces that look and feel alike wherever they arise: spaces that are impersonal, anonymous, hostile and not inclusive. There are rules and security guards to police them: no music, no busking, no picnics, no  alcohol, no photography, no street theatre, no ball games, no skateboarding, no roller-blading, no cycling. And, above all, no protests. Surveillance is widespread, usually via CCTV. ‘The streets’, says Minton, ‘have been privatised without anyone noticing’.

In Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit, drew a bead on the political aspect of this enclosure of once open and public urban spaces. Writing about her native San Francisco, and its tradition of parades and protests, she wrote:

This is the highest ideal of democracy – that everyone can participate in making their own life and the life of the community – and the street is democracy’s greatest arena, the place where ordinary people can speak, unsegregated by walls, unmediated by those with more power. It’s not a coincidence that media and mediate have the same root; direct political action in real public space may be the only way to engage in unmediated communication with strangers, as well as a way to reach media audiences by literally making news. ….. Parades, demonstrations, protests, uprisings and urban revolutions are all about members of the public moving through public space for expressive and political rather than merely practical reasons.

Paul Kingsnorth writing in his book Real England, put it another way:

It is the essence of public freedom: a place to rally, to protest, to sit and contemplate, to smoke or talk or watch the stars. No matter what happens in the shops and cafes, the offices and houses, the existence of public space means there is always somewhere to go to express yourself or simply to escape. … From parks to pedestrian streets, squares to market places, public spaces are being bought up and closed down.

The economist Diane Coyle, writing during the Occupy encampment outside St Paul’s,  observed how public life is being designed out of our cities:

One of the striking aspects of the Occupy movement is its claiming of some open spaces in major cities, striking because it puts a line in the ground (literally) against the steady erosion of urban public space during the past quarter century.  […]

The enclosure of open space in private malls, the design of street furniture to make sitting down (never mind sleeping) a challenge, the bearing down on demonstrations and gatherings and even photography on the grounds of law and order or security, have all contributed to discouraging public gatherings.

It was the Occupy movement that brought into sharp focus the issue of urban land and its ownership. Occupy in London were camped on ground owned partly by St Paul’s Cathedral and partly by the City of London Corporation. The drawn-out, but ultimately successful legal moves to evict the camp symbolized how urban land is increasingly owned or managed by private interests, even when it appears to be public space. This is the new enclosure movement.

The resistance to enclosure in earlier centuries is an old story, narrated by historians; but the same battles are being fought today against the enclosure of common spaces in our city centres.  Once it was physical fences and hedges that demarcated the private ownership of the fields of England; now invisible, metaphorical fences mark out the new enclosures.   In a broader context, other common resources, such as the production and sale of seeds, have been enclosed by global corporations wielding intellectual property laws as they scour the world, extracting genetic material, and then patenting these finds as their discoveries.  In this way, Third World farmers have lost the rights to use the seeds they have harvested and shared for generations.

Waquoit Bay

But what about the question raised in my post about access to the Mersey shore? Should we have right of access to every inch of our country’s coastline and its beaches? For many, this is a dream to aspire to, alongside the right to roam through fields and across mountain and moorland. At present, it is only a dream, glimpsed fitfully in new legislation.

The Danes and the Swedes have complete right of access to beaches, the foreshore, dunes, cliffs and other uncultivated land. In France, Portugal and the Netherlands the foreshores and beaches are in public ownership. Polls suggest that most English people think they have similar rights. But they don’t. There is a legal right of access only to about half of the English coast. And there is virtually none to beaches.  At present, we are only allowed to visit the seaside by a system of often confusing ad-hoc arrangements: when we venture onto a beach we are technically trespassing.

The Ramblers’ Association has long campaigned for a right to roam the entire coastline and beaches of the British Isles.  Now the Marine Act 2010 has begun a process – which will take ten years to complete – that aims to achieve exactly that.  The intention is to establish a ‘coastal margin’ or ‘strip’ which will be a clear access route, with clifftop walks complemented by ‘spreading room’ such as beaches, dunes, headlands and viewpoints, to allow people not just to walk along a linear path but to take diversions to viewpoints or have a picnic. The Act requires Natural England to publish a coastal access scheme, based on stage-by-stage negotiations with landowners.  They’ve got a big job on.

The Crown Estate controls about 45 per cent of England’s foreshore; the remaining beaches are in a variety of hands, from the National Trust and Ministry of Defence, to local authorities and private individuals.  When it comes to those private individuals the response to the idea of access is often, in the words of one who commented on my earlier blog, that ‘those who have been successful enough to be able to afford a little privacy’ ought to be left to enjoy their just desserts. Kate Bush, for example, spent £2.5m on 17 acres of Devon coastline, complete with a 1920s cliff-top villa, and private beach.

Another high-profile example (though in a different jurisdiction) involved Jeremy Clarkson who bought a lighthouse on the Isle of Man and then blocked a traditional right of way with barbed wire, arguing that having a public path so close to his property breached his human rights. He lost a legal battle when the court ruled in favour of the rights and freedoms of the general public to walk in the area. The ruling said that although everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, the footpath should remain.

In an example of a successful individual taking a different stance, the novelist John Le Carre gave a stretch of coastline beneath his house near Land’s End in Cornwall to the National Trust in 2000 to protect it against future development and safeguard the rights of walkers using the Southwest coastal path.

When all the negotiating is done and Natural England produces its plan there will be no right of appeal, nor any compensation to the owners of private beaches, hotels, nature reserves, wildfowling clubs or golf courses for any loss of income or capital value. Reporting this, the Telegraph was typically incensed and quoted David Fursdon, the president of the Country Land and Business Association, as saying: ‘This proposal is the sort of conclusion that might have been reached by the Bolshevik politburo, with the same lack of recognition of the legitimate rights of rural business people and property owners. The coast means different things to different people and some have invested heavily in residential environmental and business assets that derive their value from seclusion and tranquillity’.

There’s a long way to go before, like citizens of other European countries including Scotland, we achieve complete freedom to roam where we will over hills and moorland and along the coast of this land we call home; until, as the troubadour sang:

But for the sky
There are no fences facing

See also