Can we ever really be free in England?
We’ve covered around 266 miles since we left Moss side. Since I last wrote from Birmingham we’ve been through Hagley, Redditch, Stratford-upon-Avon, Shipston-upon-Stour, Chipping Norton, Charlbury and a lot of very beautiful countryside in between.
We’ve had a mixed reception along the way. Some people have been falling over themselves to help: one family in particular just outside of Stratford produced an endless supply of chocolate biscuits and tea (never been so grateful!), fed us and let us in for showers. We weren’t invited in to the house to stay though which doesn’t surprise me as we were complete strangers. After 5 weeks of walking I’m returning my original opinion that the ’English are private’… but now there’s an addition to the statement: ’yet very generous.’ The English are private yet very generous. There’s another addition to that sentence too- ’when not afraid’- because we’ve also come along quite a few people who just seem plain terrified of this strange trio pushing a pram across England. So the English are private yet very generous when not afraid.
At the moment we’re walking through this stunning scenery. The Cotswold hill are rolling in every direction but everyday I’ve got the same worry in the back of my mind: where will we camp tonight? Where will we camp tonight? All land in England is owned. Every. Single. Piece. Camping without the land owner’s permission is illegal but it is not always possible, or practical, to get permission. Walking and camping with someone who is not English has emphasised to me how conditioned I am to get permission to access all this beautiful scenery- Mikael and Dana just feel they have a natural right to be there and if anyone has an issue with it- well God help them is all I can say.
Whilst working for London Wildlife Trust and one of the national parks which in both cases involved taking groups out into nature reserves and the countryside I was constantly asked the same question:
“Are we allowed to come here on our own?”
It seems to me that asking for permission is part of the English national psyche. There is little or no sense of having a right to be out in nature and that nature belongs to everyone. Because it doesn’t at the end of the day, it belongs to the land owner and even the national parks are made up of private land. There are a meagre 868, 000 hectares of Open Access land in England and when not on open access land we have to stick to the network of public footpaths, we are not allowed to wild camp and if you want to swim in a river it must be accessed from land where public access is permitted. (I’d like to take a minute here to praise a few enlightened organisations- Dartmoor National Park which thoroughly encourages free camping and the Outdoor Swimming Society which has got English people back swimming in rivers in their droves- more of this please!) So when it comes to the end of the day and the Expedition England team are looking to camp we are living off the afore mentioned generosity of the people we meet.
So I’ve been asking myself over the last couple of days if English people with our lack of space and lack of wilderness can we ever really feel free? I know I have moments when I glimpse freedom; when I’m stomping through the Cheviots near home in Northumberland, when I’m clinging on to the top of a mountain in the Lake District or when I’m splashing around in the River Tyne. But at the end of the day, if I follow the rules, I have to come back down from the hills and if the Environment Agency knew I was swimming in the river they’d probably have a fit. So can we ever really feel free in England? Is this the same for other nationalities? I think maybe not…
*Do follow our progress on http://punkt.luxson.com/daddyadventurer/