I know no easy way to break this news gently to my English friends, so I am going to come out and just say it: you are more indebted to the Americans than you are aware of.
I say that in reference to the leisurely walks the English are forever taking across land owned by folks they have not even the faintest of acquaintance. This would not have been possible, certainly not to this extent and with this level of accessibility, but for the unwitting but timely intervention of two Americans. Allow me to set the scene and explain.
As the naturalist John Muir once told me, in today’s England — anywhere in Britain really — it is possible to throw “a pack of crisps and a can of coke in an old rucksack and jump over the back fence” for a good old romp up and down the countryside. Actually, Muir may not have been speaking to me. Or about Britain. And he may have said it differently — something about a loaf of bread and a pound of tea — but the important point is that today you can step on to any one of the thousands of miles of footpaths across Britain and enjoy nature to the hilt without too many landowners yelling, “Get off my property, now!” You can pick any national trail — as long-distance footpaths are known in England and Wales — and be gone for months. You can walk from Land’s End, the southern-most tip of Britain, to John O’Groats, its northern edge, if you are willing to climb over enough stiles.
This right to roam across “mountain, moor, heath and down” and “registered common land” is protected by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, carrying the interesting acronym of CRoW. CRoW did not come about overnight. It was hard-won, the result of some marathon lobbying that began in 1906 by the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society (the precursor to the Open Spaces Society) and taken up by the Ramblers Association (now The Ramblers, the largest walker’s rights organisation in UK), and passed through several versions of parliamentary acts and implementations before acquiring the shape of CRoW, which essentially gives you, a member of the public, the right to wander across, well, other people’s land. The act protects public access to only wilderness (developed land, gardens, and certain designated areas are specifically excluded from it), so unfortunately you cannot go peering into someone’s kitchen, but other than that you can take in all the nature you want without furious farmers setting snarling dogs on you. Make no mistake, there are plenty of farmers furious about opening up parts of their land still, but they can’t set snarling dogs on you too easily.
So CRoW is a fantastic piece of legislation, which came about only because of sustained lobbying. And it is here that two American women made an unintentional but nonetheless significant contribution — by the simple act of writing a letter to an English journalist named Tom Stephenson. The letter prompted Stephenson — who was to emerge a leading figure in the said lobbying — to think bigger, beyond local access, spurring some enlivened activism by the Rambler’s Association, which proved to be a turning point for those fighting for better walking rights in England. But I fear I am getting ahead of myself.
The year was 1935 and the American women were planning a visit to England for a “tramping holiday”. Being dedicated walkers who had walked around the trails in the US, they wanted to know if they could do something similar in England. This was before Google, remember, when cross-national research was a bit of a complex affair, so they took a short-cut and looked up a journalist who might have the answer. Thus was that they wrote to Stephenson, the editor of Hiker and Camper and an open-air correspondent for the Daily Herald, asking him “advice about a tramping holiday in England”, particularly if there was something along the lines of the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail.
Stephenson responded, rather shamefacedly, that there wasn’t, that England was bereft of even modest trails, let alone one on the scale of the Appalachian. That would have been that, but two months later, when Stephenson was forced to come up with a feature at short notice for the Daily Herald, he wrote a passionate piece called ‘WANTED — A Long Green Trail’. The article was based on his correspondence with the two Americans — in fact I would go so far as to say the women proved to be his muse on the topic — and sketched out a 150-mile walk that he called the Pennine Way, starting from the “moor-rimmed bowl” of Edale in the Peak district and passing through “the level brow of Pendle, where Lancashire witches held satanic revels” and “the dark moors which inspired the Brontes”, to finally reach “the great heaving swells and deep-set glens of the Cheviots” on the Scottish borders.
Stephenson made his case smartly, from what I can see not just drawing inspiration from the Appalachian and John Muir trails across the Atlantic, but also utilising the historic Anglo-American rivalry to sprinkle a healthy dose of we-can’t-let-the-Americans-beat-us sentiment in his article. Thus, he asks what the two Americans would “think of one of the most prevalent features in our landscape — ‘Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted’?”, and “if at the end of their tour, these visitors from across the Atlantic are over-loud in their praises of their native ‘Land of Liberty,’ who shall blame them?” The article struck an immediate chord among activists — whether it was the distaste for Americans or the common sense in Stephenson’s proposal, I do not know — and one direct result was the formation of the Pennine Way Association. As journalist Geoff Lean writes, it took another 30 years of “lobbying, persuasion and conflict” before the Pennine Way — the first national trail in the UK, England’s modest answer to the Americans — was opened in 1965. Stephenson of course took a lead role in the campaign, particularly as the secretary for the Rambler’s Association from 1948.
Today there are 19 long-distance footpaths in the UK — 15 in England and Wales, and 4 equivalents in Scotland (known as the Scottish Great Trails), with a combined total of 3,029 miles. The shortest of them is the Great Glen Way at 73 miles in Scotland, and the longest the 630-mile South West Coast Path, a stretch of which I was walking (the photo is of the SWCP at Sidmouth). An even longer one is currently being put together: when finished in 2020, the England Coast Path will be 2,795 miles. And let’s not forget that these trails bring serious money into the UK economy. For instance, the SWCP recorded 8.7 million visitors in 2014. That’s a lot of people, doing a lot of walking, spending a lot of money — £468 million, in fact, which supports 10,610 full-time jobs, according to the SWCP 2010–2014 Economic Impact Report.
It was lucky indeed that the Americans wrote to Stephenson that day in 1935. And he got stuck for a feature two months later.