Earlier this year, in Issue 8, I wrote about my ongoing adventures in Trigging Land: how a young lad, whose idea of exercise was lying comatose in a dark room with the Velvet Underground turned up to 11, had grown, first, into an old git mooching around the South Downs and then, more improbably, into an obsessive searcher-out of all the trig points in East and West Sussex.
It turns out this a bigger project than I’d at first realised, certainly once I had got some proper maps (plus a bit of digital technology) and totted up the 130-plus little concrete pillars that are dotted fairly evenly across both counties. I and my friend, Ringo, are now up to 80 trigs safely “bagged”, each new one bringing its own revelations and delights.
Visiting the trig pillars is not always easy. Locating them on the map is only the first step. You then have to find the little blighters, hidden as they often are deep in the forest, covered in bracken or nettles or, even worse, brutal blackthorn spikes.
And then there is the question of access. Some of the pillars are on land that’s been privatised since their construction. Sometimes you can hop over a fence or two to get to them, but other times, as around Arundel, where one family has held not just the famous castle, but 6,000+ acres of land, for nearly a thousand years. There, the high fences and the numerous No Right of Way signs at every turn are forbidding and intimidating. Sometimes there is livestock or crop cultivation; I come from the land too and know to be respectful about that. At other times though, it’s blokes watching you with binoculars from massive 4WDs and quad bikes.
These walks involve a lot of wandering, and that allows a body also to get to wondering about the nature of land, who owns it and why. This is of course one of the oldest and most contested subjects in the whole history of the world. It is essentially the basis of power in any society. Surprise surprise, in our country, as Guy Shrubsole, in his terrific book ‘Who owns England?’ explains, less than 1% of the population owns half the total land, while 92% of all land is “out of bounds”.
Incredibly, the pattern of land ownership in England is still strongly determined by who got what in the divvying up that followed the Conquest all those years ago and, to this day, a systematic survey and registry of ownership has never been completed. However, after excellent detective work over the years, by Shrubsole and predecessors, we do have an idea of who owns maybe 80% of the land (mostly the old rich families, the military, the church, and the crown). However, there remains 20% – a sizeable chunk – whose ownership is a mystery; some of it no doubt vested in large anonymous corporations, some of which no doubt registered in the usual suspect places like the Cayman Islands.
Right to roam
This is partly why I found myself joining in on a ‘mass trespass’, 300 people walking over some familiar Brighton Downs footpaths and into a valley that I hadn’t known was there, at Pangdean Bottom. But this land does not belong to a caricature evil landlord – it is council-owned, rented out to tenant farmers. The trespassers were making the point that all of this council-owned land was currently completely unavailable for use by Brighton city residents and taxpayers, even though the footprints of walkers along a suitable route would surely do no more harm than the hooves of cattle. Certainly, the organisers instructed us all to collect litter, even toilet paper, along the way, and leave nothing behind.
The participants see themselves as the latest in a long line of resistance going back through the famous Kinder Scout trespass of 1932 and the various struggles against Enclosure. However, this was not the Peasant Soviets of 1917, nor the land invasions of Zimbabwe, driven essentially by poverty and desperation. This trespass was all very polite. The encounters with farmers were civil and the Brighton police were appropriately touchy-feely. People ate their sandwiches and probably went home to watch the Olympics on the telly, or maybe to join the after-party on the beach.
Access No Areas
We set off from the playing fields at Waterhall, passing (and ticking a small box for me) the trig point at Sweet Hill, although I wouldn’t mind betting I was the only one of the 300 who saw it, totally hidden as it was in hedge and hawthorn. I would also like to take a bet that I was not the only one mulling whether the unexpectedly large crowd might not be an early sign of some little rupture in the current political stalemate, a new front perhaps in the resistance against what sometimes now seems an immovable monolithic deadweight: the dispiriting mood, the cravenness of the Tory press, the giant clown boots of Johnson and his gang of spivs and cronies.
Once in the lovely natural amphitheatre at Pangdean, we sat around and were regaled with a variety of live entertainment: poems, great songs from one-man band Beans on Toast, and rousing speeches from members of the organising group Landscapes of Freedom including the likes of Guy Shrubsole, Nick Hayes (author of the brilliant The Book of Trespass), and Kelly Smith of Black Girls Hike.
We were asked to think about how the land should be managed. This is, of course, where the arguments always start because there are many reasonable options. Dave Bangs, the redoubtable campaigner and author of the fantastic A Freedom to Roam Guide to the Brighton Downs, explained to the crowd how the South Downs in southern England are a vital habitat, a site of important biodiversity of multiple rare chalk grassland species. In his book, Bangs writes that his ‘mother could walk for miles on the soft turf with only the smell of the thyme and the skylarks singing overhead’.
Out of bounds
But now, although the South Downs has been a National Park since 2010, the downland is mainly out of bounds, without any statutory right of public access. The famous South Downs Way barely touches the areas of scented flowery turf and gorse which gave the Downs such a strong place identity. In many places, walkers have to tramp along barbed wire corridors only to find fields of cereals and ugly pheasant pens, the latter a major reason for keeping the public off the land.
Bangs was very confident there would be no damage to the natural habitat from people walking (let alone sitting on their bums for two hours and listening to speeches and music and poetry), although there might be if there were uncontrolled dogs or fires or trail bikes in a different kind of crowd.
Other voices are less interested in the aesthetics of landscape and, mostly for climate resilience reasons, call for the land to revert to the wild. The golf course at Waterhall, near where we were, has been abandoned partly for this purpose, although how exactly this is going to proceed seems still to be under consideration.
A report to Brighton and Hove City Council last year said: “In its most ambitious form, true rewilding would see the return of all the species that are missing due to human influence…In South East England this would include species from pine martens and wild cats to straight-tusked elephants, hippopotamuses and wolves.” Don’t hold your breath on that one, but it’s also important to be aware that poorly managed ‘rewilding’ could mean the loss of many of the rare species that are there now – the delicate and valuable grasses, flowers, mosses, liverworts, lichen and fungi – all vulnerable to the explosion of impenetrable hawthorn and bramble that would follow if sheep were withdrawn (as has already happened in Moulsecoomb Wild Park). Some campaigners will say ‘so be it’ but others are not so sanguine.
Looking after the land
In fact, a major review of the council’s Downland Estate is underway, with active submissions from many interest groups. It’s a thorny conversation and the community will need to come to a consensus as to the optimum land use strategy. What kind of downland habitat is appropriate and what is the role of grazing in achieving this? What other sort of farming could there be? Can tenancies have specific guidelines to enable better and more inclusive access, and maybe to improve local food supplies for the city?
Can a wider right to roam be established in open grazing areas (and the more relaxed position in Scotland could perhaps be a guide here)? The pandemic seems to have intensified the urgency of this dialogue, but the time has surely come to engage with land rights and how they might improve benefits in terms of recreation, health, species protection and of course climate impact.
So, come on, get your boots on, get out on the hill (but don’t chase the livestock), sniff the air, and have a good look around. Watch out for me and Ringo, and others, on our daft trig point trail. In Brighton, we are more fortunate than many to have as much visible landscape as we do. But it seems perfectly reasonable to expect better access and sympathetic management. That requires dialogue, participation, input and (as always) campaigning. And, oh yeah, don’t worry about the hippos – if there are any, you’ll probably spot them in good time to avoid a close encounter, but do keep an eye out for the wolves. They come up fast.