THE BOOK OF TRESPASS
By Nick Hayes
'Access to land is both a postcode lottery and biased against those that can’t afford it.'
The public are excluded from 92% of the land in England, and from 97% of our waterways. Can you truly love and connect with a country when you can only hope to see or experience 8% of it?
I nearly put The Book of Trespass on the ‘did not finish’ pile during the first chapter, but I’m pleased that I persevered. This book is an excellent exploration of the exclusion of the public from land in England.
Despite having studied property law for many years, worked in legal at a property services company for four years, and spent many an hour pondering land ownership and use, before I started this book I still had a hazy idea of what my view was on how the public should be given access to land.
Ideas about who should have access to land and who should make decisions about its use are deeply engrained within our socialisation and culture – to the extent that it’s difficult to unpack how your personal values translate on this issue.
There are many narratives reinforced by the media, from conflating huge estates with private gardens to claiming that keeping the public out is necessary for conservation, that act (deliberately) to reinforce the idea that private and exclusionary land ownership and use is the only logical way.
Hayes’ telling of the history of land use and the current model of land ownership and control is probing; I haven’t read a book that made me challenge my beliefs and reassess my view so much for a long time.
So why did I nearly cast it aside? Like many non-fiction books, the Book of Trespass is a string of personal experiences that provide a springboard for a discussion of a piece of history or information. I didn't connect with these parts of the book, but they were useful for another reason.
My aversion to the author stemmed from the difference between how I enjoy being in nature and how he does. For me, being in woodland is a time for reverence. For Hayes, it’s a time for building a fire, having ‘a piss’, and ‘dabbing at a small bag of MDMA’ or smoking a joint. Frequent references to drug use (plus an unholy over-use of the word ‘piss’ in the proximity of descriptions of beautiful ancient woodland) got me thinking that he wasn’t presenting a good pre-cursor to arguing that more people should have access to these spaces.
I realised later that this is part of the problem. The idea that there’s a ‘right’ way to enjoy connecting with nature has parallels with the idea that the public can’t be trusted to access open areas in the ‘right’ way. Hayes puts forward a convincing argument that (aside from damaging practices, which are never okay) there is no ‘right’ way to enjoy connecting with nature; it’s connection itself that’s important.
There aren’t informative chapter titles in this book because the content is extremely wide-ranging. At times this irritated me but overall, the collection of topics comes together to form the perfect mix of perspectives to get you developing your own view on land access.
There were parts that will be familiar to you if you’ve read the likes of Moneyland, Inglorious, and Who Owns England? There’s also plenty I’d never heard before; in particular, an excellent exploration of the right of access to waterways, a topic often neglected.
The book is a thought piece – and a thought provoker – more than a detailed manifesto for change, although the last chapter does present an alternative vision. Arguably, the solution is straightforward. Instead of presenting you with what he thinks about land access, Hayes takes you on a journey through the history and topics of the issue, letting you draw your own conclusions along the way.
The ramifications of the exclusion of the public from green spaces in England are wider than most of us appreciate. Let Hayes introduce you to new ways of thinking about this issue.
'If England is full, it is full of space. And the walls that hide it.'
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