Landowners, walkers face off in tragicomic struggle, British style

An Englishman's home is his castle. So it has been said for 400 years, leaving few doubts that when it comes to domestic life in Britain, privacy and property are paramount.

But not any more, it would seem. For in recent years, another equally ancient right has been championed by those countryside enthusiasts who see one man's property as another man's dispossession: the right to roam.

The indisputably widespread predilection for countryside walking, or rambling as it is known here, is stirring passions in England's normally tranquil rural hinterland, particularly as the government wades in with new laws calling for every last square inch of countryside to be mapped so that everyone knows who may roam where.

The issue has become a vexed one. Ramblers in their tens of thousands insist on their right of access to open land once considered "common." Landowners frequently object, sometimes robustly. The result has been a tragicomic struggle steeped in 19th-century notions of class, land, and freedom. It sounds like a footnote to Marx, only this time it's Walkers of the World Unite.

But if history is repeating itself, then this time it is as farce. One incensed farmer attacked walkers with a motorized hedge-cutter, showering trimmings on the startled group as they crossed his plot. Another property tycoon denounced ramblers as the "great unwashed." He then blocked his estate with padlocked gates, barbed wire, and refrigerators, and threatened to shoot any "riffraff" who strayed within range.

A country of walkers

But now the people have struck back. Walking is an overwhelmingly popular pastime here, with more than three quarters of the population estimated to take a recreational walk at least once a month. Mindful of the $10 billion that walkers bring to the rural economy each year in standard tourist fare, the government has intervened, passing "right to roam" legislation that calls for clear delineation of who can walk where.

And as the "mapping" process reaches its final stages this year and next, it appears that walkers are getting the upper hand. "For the first time we'll have the right to walk on common ground, mountain, moor, heath, and down," says Kate Ashbrook, a keen rambler and general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, a conservation group that has championed the protection of common land and public rights of way for 140 years. "There will be some landowners who object, but why should they? We have a right to walk responsibly on their land, though of course we are not allowed to interfere with their property in any way."

Landowners are, of course, no longer necessarily people with unpronounceable double-barreled surnames and ancestry dating back to 1066. Nowadays they have names like Madonna and Keith Richards, both of whom have had their own run-ins with the "great unwashed."

Madonna's "Not in My Back Yard" case is becoming something of a cause célèbre. Mapping has identified 100 acres of her $16 million Ashcome House estate in southern England as common land to be open to the public. The star is appealing, arguing that her right to privacy would be violated by hordes of daytrippers in red raincoats picnicking just a few hundred meters from her front door.

Upstanding citizens

The Ramblers' Association, a charity representing some 140,000 members and 450 walking groups across Britain, says that the land in question is at least 200 meters away from the house and that a glimpse of the star would be improbable. It notes moreover that ramblers are upstanding people whose presence might keep real villains and ne'er-do-wells at bay - a kind of private watchdog.

"The Madonna estate is very close to Wessex Ridgeway, which is a footpath that has been there for centuries," says Sharon Woods of the Ramblers' Association. "All walkers are looking for is access to uncultivated land. It's not about privacy."

The Countryside Agency, a government body drawing up the new map of land, says that exceptions for the famous would set a bad precedent. There are no shortages of celebrity landowners, from soccer stars to actors to any number of aging rock legends.

Mel Dapper of the Countrywide Agency says there will be certain restrictions on how close people can roam to dwellings. And landowners will be able to hang up "closed" signs on certain days. "If there's a [pheasant] shoot for example, they can close their land," she says.

And if there's a photo shoot? The agency says it is taking both the interests of ramblers and landowners into account as it remaps England. But sometimes it can get technical, turning on expert assessments of the type of grassland involved, for example.

Freedom of movement

Botanists have been drawn into the Madonna row to give verdicts on the disputed land, prompting inevitable "Keep off the grass" headlines.

But the bigger picture is not about grass types or pop divas, but an age-old English requirement to uphold the right of freedom of movement to enable people to get from A to B (or in the case of ramblers, from A back to A again).

Lincoln Allison, an expert in environmental planning and politics at Warwick University, says the issue goes back to the fact that land in Britain and indeed in Europe is treated differently from land in America. He notes that laws on trespassing are loaded heavily against property owners and in favor of the supposed perpetrator, and that notions of right of way have long been enshrined in English law.

"We don't look on land as a privately owned commodity," Mr. Allison says. "You have no development right - that belongs to the state. And in 82 percent of farms, you have no right to exclude people.

"In Europe, even quite conservative elements have no interest in a situation where you parcel off land into private property and say nobody is allowed to go here."

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