Sunday book review – The Book of Trespass by Nick Hayes

This is my type of book. In fact, you could say it is right up my street given the quote on page 121 which points out that the Boughton Estate now sells firewood back to the commoners at £95 per cubic metre when once it was a right to collect such wood. That’s the source of my firewood and there’s some left over from last winter in our shed. By the way, the price is now £120 per cubic metre.

Boughton House, one of the many homes of the UK’s largest private landowner, the Duke of Buccleugh, who also owns Langholm Moor at the moment, isn’t far from where I sit reading this excellent book, and the author, in the chapter called ‘Sheep’ also visited the nearby Lyveden New Bield and relates some interesting tales of its former owners long before the National Trust acquired it.

This is partly a book about trespass, and going where you aren’t supposed to go, but it’s also a book about thinking the things that we aren’t supposed to think. What is property? Where did those rights come from? Should we take them back?

And in these pages we visit the homes of some historical baddies and some present characters who are difficult to see as goodies. We visit the historical Downton Abbey and the very real Highclere House, Paul Dacre’s place and that of the Drax family in Dorset, Nicholas Hoogstraten’s Sussex home and even the grouse moor of Richard Bannister on Walshaw Moor, and, of course, Kinder Scout.

And the book touches on common land, Pheasant and Red Grouse shooting, slavery, Enclosure Acts, rural racism, migrants and refugees and a whole host of other issues bundled up with the countryside, land ownership and what we take for granted. And the occasional gamekeeper crops up too.

I loved the story from early nineteenth century USA about the man with the gun who literally shot the huntsmen’s fox, and the legal battle over whose fox it was anyway.

And the chapter about water, called Toad, has a perfectly weighted and gripping opening paragraph.

This is probably not a book for the stalwarts of the Moorland Association (several of whom get a mention), nor of the Country Land and Business Association, except that they’ll find it useful to see what the peasants are thinking and which way the wind is blowing. But I loved it – and so will many of the readers of this blog.

For one thing, it is beautifully written.

The Book of Trespass: crossing the lines that divide us by Nick Hayes is published by Bloomsbury on 20 August.


24 Replies to “Sunday book review – The Book of Trespass by Nick Hayes”

  1. Sounds a very interesting book following on from a brilliant Hen Harrier Day yesterday when some important statistics about land ownership were quoted. Surely it is just obscene in this day and age that so few privileged people should own such vast areas of land. For example it is galling that the Duke of Buccleugh should be demanding 6 million pounds in the sale of Langholm Estate Community buy out when he already has such vast holdings and is amazingly rich. In the funding of this purchase the general public is contributing their hard earned money to make this person even richer. Surely a token 1million to buy the Langholm Estate would be much more reasonable.
    In the end something must be done to remove this current medieval right of ownership to so much land. In the 21st century this situation is a disgrace.

    1. I’ve always found it particularly galling that quite a bit of the land the aristocracy and others own was stolen from us during the enclosures as were rights on various pieces of land. The power of landownership is still with us despite those with that power pretending with the connivance of many politicians that they don’t have any power.
      Buccleugh is a classic example but by far not the only one and of course the pinnacle of this landowning power pyramid is the royal family.
      I agree with Alan over the Langholm moor buyout but then the appallingly rich didn’t stay rich by in their terms giving stuff away, all bastards the whole bloody lot of them. Shame we didn’t have a revolution like the French, of course that is why we supported the divine right bourbon kings there and were essentially at war with the French for a generation. Really on the wrong side!
      I will almost certainly buy this book sounds good.

    2. Absolutely Alan.
      This Channel 4 news item is very relevant:
      Also relevant is that Benny Higgins (Executive Chairman of Buccleuch) led (as Special Adviser to the First Minister on the Scottish National Investment Bank and Member of the Infrastructure Commission for Scotland) the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery which reported to the Scottish Government in June 2020. In my view it is little surprise that land reform, improvements in land ownership patterns, and changes away from the Victorian-era derived management of our uplands for recreational killing are all glacially slow.

  2. Surely it depends on envy and how far left you lean politically? For example, I have no problem with those who drive expensive cars or own old masters although I do not. When it comes to land, surely it is not the amount of land you own but what you do with it?
    I own eight acres. Is that too much? I have owned more when I farmed in the Welsh mountains. Now all I want is somewhere to graze my horses. Should I own horses? Should I even have a back garden?
    Of course Scotland has the right to roam law, which is probably a good thing. But having seen the filthy mess that some people leave behind them makes you want to raise a massive fence.
    I suspect this book doesn’t accord with my views but I shall read it nevertheless. Once must read both sides of a debate to obtain a balanced opinion.

    1. Who first ‘owned’ the land and how did they acquire it?

      Where did it come from in the first place?

      Who produced it?

    2. I think it’s a racing certainty that the book won’t accord with your views, but it’s really magnanimous of you to give it a whirl just to confirm. Where would we be without balance after all..

  3. Following on from this topic I often wonder if the time is right for a reprint of Marion Shoard’s books, particularly, ‘The Theft of the Countryside’ and ‘This Land is Our Land’. The issues she dealt with are very much still with us.

  4. Like the “love of money” the love of owing lots of land is the root of something rotten that grows darker in the soul the more of it they get. Anything above a few hundred acres and people start believing they are akin to God. Although not without its faults and putting blanket forestry aside, I like the modern Forestry Commission model – yet it nearly happened just a few years ago that we almost lost huge tracts of it to some very powerful private hands. Re our entitlement to our land, we are still living in near feudal times, just with tech gadgets and flash cars to take our minds of it.

  5. When I worked for RSPB in Bowland ( a long time ago) My colleague and I were accosted one day in one of the villages just as I returned to the car with some supplies. My colleague was talking to a tall tweed clad gent through the car window. Gent ” I’ve seen you chaps about, who are you? I’m the squire and I own all this village” My colleagues reply was priceless ” I’m Pete ========== and I own F**k all” at which point we drove off. Within a fortnight said gent had a major stroke, which killed him, perhaps that reply had something to do with it.
    We are not in the general population defined by how much or how little we own and for many of us it is an affront to suggest otherwise.

  6. Years ago, friends and I twitched a white stork which, in fading light, had roosted in a private park. A group of us were standing just inside the lodge gates. A local said, “Mr Green won’t like this”. Sure enough, Mr Green arrived, and he didn’t. This is like my garden, he said; how would you like it if I came and stood in your garden? My friend’s girlfriend replied: “If I had a garden as big as this you’d be welcome to come and stand in it!” In fact, Mr Green turned out to be quite reasonable and after some discussion he invited us to come back at dawn. As luck would have it the bird moved off the roost before it was light enough to see and was then happily viewed by all from the public highway. Moral of the story, perhaps: don’t tar all rich landowners with the same brush.

      1. Yes, I think that landowner sounded fairly typical – attack first, find out the ememy is actually quite articulate, then become reasonable…if he had started by asking whats the nice bird youre looking at,..then he would have been a decent bloke…

        1. With respect Dave, I think that’s rubbish. If a dozen or so strangers turned up at your property in the gathering gloom and you had no idea what they were doing when you arrived, you might be a bit concerned too. Once we had explained the situation to him he was very reasonable. The fact that you use the word “enemy” says quite a lot about the way the debate about sporting estates is often carried on here.

      2. Thanks Mark. I was prompted to add that bit by some of the more extreme views that appear in comments here – off with their heads etc. I did realise it would attract a few dislikes. And I did say perhaps…

        1. Bob, I didn’t say off with their heads but if you read any social history of the English or indeed Irish or Scots since Charles 1 you will find information about enclosure where the common folk were denied their traditional rights when the common land was enclosed by the Rich and the have nots became really the rural poor having lost their means of making a living. This was compounded by things such as the Black Act which made almost all effective methods of resistance a capital offence or indeed poaching animals or fish it used to be your right to take. The rich got richer the ordinary folk of the countryside, which then was most of us, got very much poorer, in many cases to the point of destitution. Causing the beginning of population movement to cities and towns. Those Rich still have much of that land and the power it generated for them. As a life long socialist, perhaps on reflection off with their heads seems less extreme and perfectly reasonable.

          1. Paul, I like to think of myself as a lifelong middle of the roader but several of my friends would disagree! I do appreciate where you are coming from: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?” I just don’t think they are all bastards!

  7. A road I like travelling along nearish to me which has premier grouse moor either side always had faded weathered metal “private keep out” signs (circa 1960/70s) on metal posts about every 200m for about 2miles. I often wondered – after the CRoW Act they took them all down – but I bet they have kept them somewhere for the day they all fantasise about when they can re-settle the score and put them back up. What I am saying is this is a constant tug of war that we have to fight and keep fighting all the time…they certainly do!

  8. It’s been this way since the days of enclosures and short of a revolution to change the governance of our reputed democracy then little is likely to change.

    Many authoritative tomes have recorded the history of land acquisition and dispossession and it sounds like this is another welcome and readable offering.

    But what really irks perhaps is the expectation that the tax payer will continue to prop up their wealth and position, and be happy to continue doing so without getting anything by way of public benefit for doing so.

    Oh for a ‘fair’ solution to inequality and the wrongs of the past righted, and a system that doesn’t mean money wins hands down?

  9. Just loving The book of Trespass by Nick Hayes. It’s a pure historical education about how a few wealthy people came own most of the land in the UK. Having travelled the UK and discovered some amazing walks, I recognise many of the places he writes about. I loved Nick’s descriptions of the countryside, his exploration and trepidation at the possibility of being caught trespassing. This must be the best book I’ve ever read, as I’ve learn so much. One word to describe the book would be, it’s about human rights, but as I’m savouring my read and I am only yet half way through, I may have other adjectives to add by the time I’ve finish it. Thank you Nick for sharing your great adventure.

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