Did you get out today? Did you get the chance to stroll across the moors or take in a fell or a crag.
If you did, spare a thought for the five young men who, 75 years ago to the day, spent the night locked up for the crime of stepping off a footpath and on to earth claimed by an aristocrat.
Kinder Scout plateau
And it wasn’t just a night in the cells that Benny Rothman and his band of Manchester ramblers had to endure. The Kinder Scout trespassers would spend up to six months incarcerated after a jury of landed country gents decided they would teach the upstarts a lesson and, they hoped, deter any others who might be tempted to tread on the hallowed heather and bog grasses where they massacred their game.
Well, they were wrong. Far from putting a lid on the malcontent, they fired up Benny’s comrades and companions and even the timid establishment ramblers who baulked at upsetting their lordships. Almost 70 years on, the Labour Government introduced the Countryside and Rights of Way Act and the goal of the trespassers came within sight.
At the weekend, some of those who walked with Benny Rothman, with journalist and pioneer Tom Stephenson, and many who now benefit from their struggle, gathered on the western fringe of the Peak District, in an area seeped in rambling history, to pay tribute to those pioneers.
The atmosphere in New Mills town hall, scene of the Kinder trespass celebrations, was thick with eulogy. Mike Harding, a former Ramblers’ Association president and television performer, reminded more than 300 people crammed into the building that the bad old days were not that distant: “In this country in the 1980s and 1990s, we were more restricted than Soviet Russia.
Mike Harding speaks at New Mills town hall
“We’re here to celebrate the lives of not just Benny and Tom, but all those other ramblers from Manchester, from Sheffield and Stockport and Derbyshire or wherever who fought so that young men and women trapped in the industrial North could claim back the birthright to walk, to have sun, peace, tranquillity, fresh air and freedom.”
It was a common theme, repeated by almost everyone who attended, save the sole, inarticulate heckler whose single exclamation ‘Bollocks!’ punctuated Environment Secretary David Miliband’s address. Roy Hattersley, former deputy Labour Party leader and president of the Friends of the Peak District, was humbled by the less significant part played by his compatriots from the Sheffield ramblers but gave praise to the trespassers and their direct action. He said: “I don’t think we would have the right-to-roam legislation had it not been for the breaking of the law that was carried out on that day.”
Kate Ashbrook, who now leads the Ramblers’ Association, formed soon after the trespass as the disparate federations came together to battle for their walking rights, told the gathering: “There are a huge number of people who have been involved in negotiations for far, far longer than I have and who have campaigned for the freedom to roam: we have the Buntings and the Gaskells who have campaigned for access since the 1930s.
“Trespassing on those moors 75 years ago led to five young men being jailed and it’s an indication of the hostility of the landowners and the establishment at that time.
“It is a horrifying story but the fact that they demonstrated for freedom to roam and they went to jail for it and suffered for it – that led to the freedom to roam. It took a long time to achieve.
“The Countryside and Rights of Way Act does give a partial right to roam in England and Wales. Of course, in Scotland there is a much greater right that can be enjoyed. But whenever we enjoy those rights, we should be remembering the trespassers of 75 years ago.
Fittingly, the Buntings and the Gaskells were there to hear her words. John Bunting and his wife Irene are now both 89 and still walking the moors.
Centre: Irene and John Bunting with friends Eric and Pauline Gibbons, left, and campaigner Terry Perkins
John told grough: “My wife and I had our diamond wedding a fortnight ago. My first campaign was as a 16-year-old, in 1934. People like Benny Rothman and [George Herbert Bridges] Ward of Sheffield were the speakers and to us lads, they were like beings from another planet.
“They planted the seed and from we’ve walked together ever since.
“One of the reasons was, I worked in the steelworks in Sheffield and, apart from the works shutdown, we never saw the sun. I’m still walking, but not far now.
“I served on the committee with Benny in 1952. We formed an advisory committee for the setting up of the national parks. Of course I joined him on many rallies.
“He was a great lad. Everything seems to be concentrated on the mass trespass, but there were many hundreds of campaigners who are never mentioned and worked just as hard and worked all those years.
“After 1949, it all went quiet. People like Terry Howard and Kate Ashbrook, they brought it back again in the 1980s as a campaigning organisation.”
Elsie and Alan Gaskell, both 85, now live in Halifax, West Yorkshire. Elsie started rambling in the 1920s. Her hearing isn’t what it used to be, but they’re a remarkable sprightly couple, testimony to the benefits of walking the moors.
Elsie wanted to go on the 1932 mass trespass, but her father put his foot down. She tells the story: “I thought it was exciting. I was a bit fed up because when we were walking we had to be careful to get on the right footpath and the maps weren’t very good – they didn’t show rights of way – so you could easily go wrong then you were accused of trespassing.
“So it used to worry me. I was always frightened of gamekeepers and farmers. I never knew landowners in those days – I’ve got to know them since but I never knew them in those days – and so I wanted to go on the trespass and then Dad decided a week before if the gamekeepers had guns then it wasn’t safe for two children.
“Anyway, they didn’t have guns, they had sticks and there was a fight on. We wouldn’t have been in it, we would have kept away.
“I was going to the rallies at Winnats [Pass, near Edale, Derbyshire] from 1935 onwards and I heard all the speeches by GHB Ward. I remember Tom Stephenson speaking.
The audience at the Kinder Trespass 75 celebrations
“We joined the Ramblers’ Association when it was formed. That was an expression of getting access without actual confrontation.
“I was a member of the Manchester Ramblers’ Federation and there was always a lot of talk of whether we should go in with the Ramblers’ Association. We did think we were concerned about access and down south, they were more concerned about footpaths. And London had a lot of members and we thought they would have the sway, so it took a lot of persuading. But we did. We believed in it.”
Terry Perkins, another seasoned campaigner for walkers’ rights, vice-chair of the Manchester and High Peak Ramblers’ group, explained how he became involved. He said: “I was a decorator and sent to the Ribble Valley during the blitz in 1940. The contrast between where I was born in Ancoats and where I went – it was as if I went to Shangri-la.
“You have to remember that he [Benny Rothman] didn’t just go to prison for six months, but he was ostracised and blacklisted by all the bloody employers and he never had a job that matched his ability. But Benny was a very sincere guy. I got to know Benny more after he had a stroke. He lived in Timperley and I used to go see him. He was housebound and he got terribly frustrated.
“He was an activist in more than just the national parks.”
In contrast to some of the hostility shown by the people of the villages of the High Peak towards the urban visitors in the 1930s, there’s a sense that the local community has taken the trespassers into its heart and there’s an obvious pride in the fact that the actions of those young tearaways have brought fame rather than infamy to New Mills and Hayfield and all those little settlements in the Hope Valley and the rest of the High Peak.
The Kinder trespass 75th anniversary celebrations were a jolly affair, with a showing of the 1970 BBC film The Battle of Kinder Scout, with an amusing confrontation between Benny and some of his comrades and one of the men who had wielded sticks high on the plateau 38 years earlier. Benny’s warmth and humanity was evident as was the men’s determination not to let the cause of access rest.
Sally Goldsmith reprised her song Trespassers Will Be Celebrated, written for the 70th anniversary, and the High Peak Community Arts group performed part of its drama On Common Ground, which they are still working on and will be performed in its entirety later in the year.
High Peak Community Arts perform On Common Ground
And, of course, Mike Harding’s rendition of Ewan MacColl’s The Manchester Rambler was accompanied by 300 voices, old and young, including the poignant words: “No man has the right to own mountains, any more than the ocean bed.”
Jim Perrin was the final speaker on Saturday. A friend of Benny Rothman and a man who shares Benny’s vision and his fire, Jim told us: “Benny was a playful, humorous, wise and dignified man.
“There was a passion in him too, a judiciousness, and a first-hand knowledge of social circumstance. He knew the importance of the land to us.”
We would all do well to think a little more like Benny as we stride across the wild lands of Britain.