Roam away from home


WE HAVE always had to fight for access to the countryside

"TRESPASSERS Will Be Prosecuted. Keep Out!" This is the most common sign in the countryside. Through the ages landowners have tried to keep "commoners", or "townies" as we are called today, off land which they stole in the first place. As Marion Shoard writes in her excellent new book, A Right to Roam, "The ordinary citizen is comprehensively excluded from the vast bulk of the countryside. The peeks and glimpses of our rural paradise available to those who seek them cannot compensate for the barriers against entry to most of it."

Shoard's book, although it does not go this far, makes you dream of the day when we seize the land off the parasites who squat on it. Shoard shows that hereditary landowners have attempted to carry out the most monstrous confidence trick upon us. They pretend that not only does the land belong to them but that they are the guardians of it, while we, the ramblers and picnickers, are the destroyers of it.

A handful of very rich and powerful people own the land. One person owns 50 percent of the foreshore of Britain. This "empire" also includes the sea bed up to 12 miles out, banks of river tidal reaches, large stretches of woodland and farmland, and chunks of the West End of London. We used to have the right to roam. In Saxon times much of the land was commonly held. The rise of large landowning feudal barons began the process of "enclosure" of land—which was to culminate hundreds of years later in the bloody Highland Clearances.

The shape of the land changed along with its use—from subsistence farming to the pleasure parks for the privileged few. Deer parks fenced off swathes of land. Grouse moors closed off even more. In 1723 the landowners who controlled parliament passed the Black Act, in which 50 new offences to do with the land, such as poaching, became punishable by death. Later they erected huge country houses with surrounding land sculptured by Capability Brown, providing a "refuge" for the London set at the weekends.

It is those represented by the Country Landowners Association who have done their best to destroy rural Britain—and they have the nerve to tell us not to stray from a footpath. Landowners have faced a growing mood amongst ordinary people for access to the land this century. Workers in cities such as Sheffield and Manchester, who slaved their guts out all week, demanded the right to walk through the countryside. The most famous confrontation was the Battle of Kinder Scout in Derbyshire in 1932 when Communist Party members led a mass trespass—and got locked up for their stand. Ever since, the landowners have tried to scale down this feeling by pretending they are willing to give more access while lobbying the government of the day to preserve the status quo.

Last month New Labour announced that it intends to pass a "Right to Roam" law. The proposals, although they upset the landowners, fall short of complete access. The government even appointed ex-president of the County Landowners Association Ewan Cameron as chair of the new Countryside Agency. We still have to draw inspiration from Gerrard Winstanley, the leader of the radical Diggers movement during the English Civil War, who insisted that "the poorest man hath as true a title and just right to the land as the richest man".


This one delivers


PLUNKETT AND Maclean has been likened to an 18th century version of Trainspotting or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. It does not disappoint. It uses contemporary language and a modern dance soundtrack to accompany the exploits of Plunkett and Maclean as they rob their way around the country houses of the English aristocracy. It is a welcome antidote to the typical English period drama churned out year after year for middle class consumption.

Robert Carlyle and Johnny Lee Miller play Plunkett and Maclean, resuming their partnership from Trainspotting with considerable comic effect. Plunkett is an accomplished artisan chemist who is thwarted by class snobbery and the landed aristocracy in his attempts to make a career. He is forced into the life of a highway robber, forcibly reappropriating the ill gotten gains of the aristos whose only talent is their status. He dreams of using the money to escape to America. This contrasts with his gentleman partner, Captain Maclean, who is able to regain the trappings of title.

They use the information Maclean's position gives them access to to mount an ever bolder campaign of robberies. In the process Maclean gains the notoriety he craves—his masked profile as the gentleman robber is pinned on the bedroom walls of thousands of young noblewomen. The threat to the property of the rich is too much for the government. They are determined have our heroes hanged on the gallows at Tyburn. This was at a time when the ruling class was constructing a repressive state to make sure profits flowed into their hands and no one else's. The plot may be unlikely, but this a fast moving and funny dramatisation.


THE POWER LIST—SCOTLAND (Sat, 7pm, C4). In the run up to the Scottish elections journalist Jon Snow promises to reveal the most powerful people in Scotland today.

THE WHITE HOUSE TAPES (Sat, 8pm, C4). This week's programme is very timely. It promises to look at the lies and cover up used by the US establishment to justify going to war in Vietnam.

CIVIL WAR: ENGLAND'S FIGHT FOR FREEDOM (Sun, 7.30pm, C4) should definitely be worth watching. Socialist comedian Jeremy Hardy tells the story of the 17th century English Revolution. The programme uses modern techniques to reconstruct the tumultuous events of 1649. The programme includes a "video diary" of the Leveller leader John Lilburne and "news reports" of popular revolt among the masses.

DISASTER: ATOMIC INFERNO (Mon, 8pm, BBC2) examines the fire at the nuclear plant at Windscale in 1957 which nearly caused a nuclear catastrophe in Britain. The programme shows how the authorities did not even evacuate the immediate area, and the Atomic Energy Authority admits that 100 people may have died because of nuclear contamination.