Reviewed by Liz Dexter
A book that is in turns entertaining, lyrical and shocking, you won’t think about the countryside – or the rivers – of England in quite the same way after reading this.
Nick Hayes is an illustrator and print-maker as well as an author and this shows in both his fine attention to detail and beautiful descriptive writing and, more obviously, in the double-page black and white prints that accompany each chapter, which are absolutely beautiful. In chapters named after the animals you might find in the wild wood, Hayes puts his attention onto, variously, Gypsies and travellers, witches, ramblers, migrants and ravers, drawing out details with meticulous research on how it has come to pass that 92% of the land and 97% of the rivers are blocked from the general populace by the laws of trespass.
Going into the background of laws and acts of enclosure might seem a bit dry, but it’s well written and explained, and leavened by Hayes’ descriptions of his own acts of trespass, alone or with friends. Careful not to disturb wildlife or landowners on their property, he only encounters said animals, the odd other trespasser and the keepers of the land – for whom he has a huge respect for doing their job, but with whom he doesn’t manage to have a fully engaged conversation, much to his annoyance.
There’s a very strong vein of anger running through this book, but it’s not unfocused or ranty, but focused with precision on the landowners and rule-makers who have slowly but surely chipped away at our access to the land over the centuries (and by the way, did you know the exact date that “time immemorial” goes back to? You will if you read this book!).
The book opens very cleverly with the unwitting George Beattie Elliot coming up over the brow of a hill and encountering the Kinder Trespass. We then find out this was not the start of the people pushing against the landowners, as you might think, but one in a series of protests running back through time. We’re then thrown into Hayes himself camping in a dell near to his parents’ house, watching his fire, and the first indication of the beautiful descriptions that will be a feature of the book throughout:
The fire orchestrates the space. The thrumming light gives a rhythm to the static features of the dell, as if seen through water, causing the shadows cast from the exposed roots around us to seethe like snakes; its orange glow simmers up and down the steep slopes of the pit, and lights the underside of the yew tree bright white. The fire has the motion of a busy engine, a generator of light and heat, whirring and flaring.
Like Lev Parikian in Into the Tangled Bank (reviewed here), Hayes’ new explorations of the countryside are fuelled when he reopens childhood books, The Observer’s Book of Trees etc. and discovers how to recognise trees, flowers and creatures. He’s very good at pulling us into his path of discovery with him, not preaching but sharing. Other writers are acknowledged carefully, including Roger Deakin, whose house he visits, now inhabited by a friend, who of course was a big wild swimmer: Hayes both wild swims and kayaks during the book in very enjoyable sections.
The chapter on slave-owners and how their nefarious activities allowed them to claim, own and fence off large tracts of land is well-timed and makes this book even more up to date and timely. As well as information about the land in England, he goes into the divisions created between black and white slaves and indentured servants, the way the Establishment seek to divide and conquer (this comes up again in the section on migrants) and gives a shout-out to the Legacies of Britain’s Slave Ownership project. He’s scathing about one politician in particular, who claims to “ignore” the fact his wealth comes from slave-owning but still owns his family’s original sugar plantation in Barbados, and rightly so, of course, and also digs out statistics on the number of people from ethnic minorities who live in or visit the countryside. This is only one side of the many issues Hayes discusses, but perhaps one that will chime strongly with current readerships. I could write hundreds more words about all the points he goes into – the vilification of migrants, the shutting off of land that would feed people, the loss of the third space, the commons.
It’s not all anger and campaigning. There’s a sweet passage where Hayes goes to Basildon Park to visit his mum, who works as a re-enactor in fancy dress in the National Trust-owned property:
I head not over the fence, but to the ticket office, so I can meet my mum without her feeling like she’s colluding in the dark art of trespass.
and there’s a fair amount of recreational drug usage, too, which does fit in with discussions of the gradual illegality of gatherings, free festivals and raves and does not condone hard drug use or claim everyone should be drinking magic mushroom tea on somebody else’s land: it’s written as part of his and his friends’ life and part of a long tradition.
The book ends on a positive note, looking at how communities have come together to save trees in Sheffield or buy land to hold in common, how Scotland has rejigged its laws to allow sensible access to the countryside, and how in fact the Crown Estate is run in a transparent way, celebrates the mental health benefits of access to the countryside (it owns the entire coastline of England, Wales and Northern Ireland), is a world leader in renewable energy production, and sends funds to the Treasury.
There’s a resource list, copious notes, and an index, the first and last of these not being available to examine in my proof copy. I always like to find a note on the font, too, and here it is at the end.
I sometimes complain about how people’s family issues or personal struggles are shoehorned into books about nature and the land. Here, it’s the author’s journeys and trespasses and his rightful anger at what has happened in the country that provides the personal aspect, and in just the right balance to make it a satisfying and fascinating read.
Liz Dexter has, as far as she knows, never trespassed in her life, although she did climb over a fence to go behind a tree just off the Ridgeway, so maybe … She blogs at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com
Nick Hayes, The Book of Trespass: Crossing the Lines that Divide Us (Bloomsbury, 2020). 978-1526604699, 432 pp., ill. hardback.