The Fight for the Right to Trespass

The signs on the gateat the entrance to the path and along the edge of the reservoir were clear. “No swimming,” they warned, white letters on a red background.

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On a chill mid-April day in northwest England, with low, gray clouds and rain in the forecast, the signs hardly seemed necessary. But then people began arriving, by the dozens and then the hundreds. Some walked only from nearby Hayfield, while others came by train or bus or foot from many hours away. In a long, trailing line, they tramped up the hill beside the dam and around the shore of the reservoir, slipping in mud and jumping over puddles. Above them rose a long, curving hill of open moorland, its heather still winter brown. When they came to a gap between a stone wall and a metal fence, they squeezed through it, one by one, slipping under strings of barbed wire toward the water below.

On the steep grassy bank above the reservoir, coats and sweaters came off, revealing wet suits and swimsuits. Thermoses of tea and hot chocolate were readied for quick access; someone had brought along a banged-up trumpet with which to provide the appropriate fanfare. There were seasoned winter swimmers, people who had stories of breaking through ice for a dip, and complete newbies, deciding as they shivered whether this particular symbolic act was really for them. There was a 7-year-old who swam in a knit beanie with a purple pom-pom and a man with a Yorkshire accent who told his wife, in mock horror, “I had to ask a strange woman to zip me up, Mary!”

A protester at Kinder Reservoir.Credit…Muir Vidler for The New York Times

Down on the shore, giggling and shrieking people picked their way across slippery rocks. Then, with a great deal of cheering and splashing, they took to the water en masse, fanning out in all directions. Some carried a large banner that read, “The Right to Swim.”

The water was somewhere around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, but it felt, a 61-year-old swimmer announced after climbing out and wrapping up again, “bloody wonderful.” She handed her sister a Cheddar-and-Branston-Pickle sandwich and told me she usually hates encountering crowds when they go swimming but that this one was delightful.

More rounds of cheers went up as new waves of swimmers splashed into the water. An older woman wearing a pink floral swimsuit paused on the shore to turn to the crowd still on land. “Don’t be beaten down!” she shouted, raising a fist above her flower-bedecked bathing cap. “Rebel!” Then she, too, flopped into the lake.

On the bank above the reservoir, a choir serenaded the swimmers:

The song, by the folk singer Ewan McColl, was about another mass trespass, one that took place 91 years earlier above this very reservoir, during which protesters were arrested for daring to walk on hills they were told to keep off. Over the decades that followed, the protesters’ contention that people had some inherent rights of access even to lands they did not own — which in England is most land, because the vast majority of the country is in private hands — was enshrined in law, guaranteeing public access to this and many other parts of the countryside.

Lately, though, the swimmers told me, those hard-won gains had begun to seem both less expansive and less secure than they once imagined. During the pandemic, many took up open-water swimming or paddling or walking, only to be surprised at the number of places they weren’t allowed to go. (The reservoir, owned by a private utility company even though it is inside the Peak District National Park, was one such place: England’s national parks are full of land that is privately owned — and inhabited, farmed, mined and hunted.) The government began to push to criminalize forms of trespass never before considered to be crimes. Then, in January, the High Court sided with a wealthy couple who wanted to keep the public from camping on an estate they bought inside Dartmoor National Park, in an area called the Commons, the only place in England where wild camping, what we would call backpacking, was still considered a right. Robert Macfarlane, the English nature writer, called the ruling a nationwide wake-up call: Only when “the last relic of a long-lost openness” was threatened did it become clear just how much was at stake.

Like the trespassers whose anniversary they were commemorating, the swimmers believed they were fighting for something bigger than the chance to walk up a hill or swim in a river — something fundamental about their relationship to the land where they lived.

“It’s not so much that we need to be granted permission,” explained a woman with long gray hair and a sweatshirt that read, “Kayaking Is Not a Crime.” “It’s that we need it to be recognized that we don’t need permission.”

Protesters at Kinder Reservoir in April. Only a small percentage of land in England is accessible to the public, but to the north, Scotland passed a land-reform bill in 2003 that recognized the right to walk, camp, cycle and swim throughout the country.Credit…Muir Vidler for The New York Times

Centuries ago, high moors like those of Kinder Scout, the plateau that stretched above the reservoir, were considered King’s Land, uncultivated areas to which access was free. In the villages below, land was often claimed by the aristocracy and gentry, who collected taxes from the peasants who worked it, but many villagers, called commoners, held shared rights to “common” land, where they could graze their animals or plant crops or gather firewood.

This type of land disappeared rapidly during the enclosure movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, when the wealthy claimed wild and common lands — lands that, as the jurist William Blackstone put it, previously belonged “generally to everybody, but particularly to nobody” — as their own. The movement leaned on the work of philosophers such as John Locke, who argued that people could gain ownership of “waste” lands by working and improving them. But there were others who believed that separating people from the land was a gross injustice. “What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors, would the human race have been spared,” wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “by someone who, pulling up the stakes or filling in the ditch, had cried out to his fellow humans: ‘Beware of listening to this impostor. You are lost if you forget that the fruits are everyone’s and the earth’s is no one’s!’”

As enclosure spread, many former users of the land were pushed out. With no way to make a living, they drifted to cities. Kinder is not far from Manchester and Sheffield, two early centers of the Industrial Revolution, whose residents liked to escape the choking air by going on long walks in the countryside. But many of the landowners who controlled the hills weren’t fond of having walkers, known as ramblers, exploring properties they used for raising sheep and hunting grouse. They hired armies of gamekeepers, who sometimes used attack dogs, to kick the ramblers out.

Some ramblers, in their city lives, were involved in trade unions and other labor movements, and they began to bring the same spirit of organization and protest to their weekend walks. (As the most shoutable line of the McColl song has it, “I may be a wage slave on Monday/But I am a free man on Sunday!”) The land they were walking might be private property, they argued, but its owners weren’t the only ones with the right to use it: English law acknowledges that a right can be established through long custom, and the walkers were following ancient paths and bridle ways onto upland that had only recently been privatized.

Some walkers began holding rallies and undertaking purposeful trespasses in places where they knew they would be ejected. This had been going on for decades when, in April 1932, a rambler named Benny Rothman alerted the press that he and others would be heading up past the reservoir to the plateau above it, an area owned by the Duke of Devonshire. Hundreds of ramblers tussled with keepers, making national headlines. Six were arrested and five sentenced to as much as six months in jail.

At the time, England was home to a number of groups working to protect commons, parks and walking trails as part of what the campaigner Octavia Hill, at an 1888 meeting of what eventually became the Open Spaces Society (O.S.S.), called “a common possession we ought to try to hand down undiminished in number and in beauty.” Most saw the trespassers’ actions as counterproductive. Eventually, however, the Kinder Trespass became what the O.S.S. now calls “a sacred event in rambling circles,” and its leaders’ beliefs were more widely embraced. Beginning in the 1940s, Parliament began to codify the idea that people had an inherent right to move across the landscape, culminating in the Countryside Rights of Way (CROW) Act, in 2000. The act recognized the right not only to use designated paths but also to roam freely on certain mountains, moors, heaths and downs mapped as “open country” or on land registered as common. In 2009, the Marine and Coastal Access Act designated the shore as access land as well and promised an additional 2,700 miles of coastal footpaths.

Today there are about 140,000 miles of legally protected paths in England, and the countryside is full of signs marking public footpaths or rights of way. I found them leading past fields of rapeseed or sheep, along a creek that flowed behind the walls of private gardens, through woods to a country pub. The first time I encountered such a sign, it marked a charming little trail leading over a brook at the end of the lane where I was staying in Little Hayfield. I had other plans for the morning and only meant to take a tiny walk, but suddenly I couldn’t help myself: Having grown up in rural Tennessee, where the “No Trespassing” signs were so ubiquitous as to hardly be necessary, I was overcome by the mere fact of permission. Here was a path, to who knew where, on which I was decidedly welcome — not just welcome, in fact, but entitled. It would have felt almost disrespectful to ignore it.

To an American, traversing the land in rural England can feel a bit like looking in a fun-house mirror — a system just different enough that it forces you to see your own expectations in a new way. Some of the people I met in England had heard that the United States has a lot of public land, which is true. But access to it depends a lot on where you live; nearly all federal land is in just 11 Western states and Alaska. (And even there, the courts are still working out what “public” really means, mulling, for example, when anglers are allowed to walk on public streambeds that run through private property or whether hunters can cross “private airspace” by using a ladder to get from one checkerboard square of public land to another.) Others had heard that the United States is a warren of private lands, governed by threatening signs and stand-your-ground laws: The week of the swim trespass, the news back home was full of stories of people being shot after accidentally driving up the wrong driveway or knocking on the wrong door. Kate Rew, the founder of England’s Outdoor Swimming Society, remembered with shock when she arrived at the Pacific, eager to swim, but couldn’t find a beach that wasn’t private property. Another activist, Owen Hayman, told some friends he was visiting in Montana that he was headed out for a walk and was surprised when they replied that they would first need to drive him somewhere. A farmer I met in Gloucestershire, who thought the English already had plenty of access to his land, nonetheless seemed to sympathize with my plight as an American: “You can’t go anywhere, can you?”

After following that first right-of-way sign, I stumbled on a spring full of plump tadpoles and followed a red-striped bumblebee from flower to flower. I thought about how nice the word “ramble” was, how it evoked wandering and whimsy and openness instead of the determined, point-to-point rush of the American “hike.” I navigated a brief standoff with a pair of rams, soaked my feet in a boggy cow pasture and skirted private houses. One resident nodded politely from behind a sign, “Please respect our privacy,” that I liked rather better than the sign one of my mother’s neighbors in the United States displays on her mailbox: “If you can read this, you’re in range.”

I emerged at the top of a hill called Lantern Pike, said to have gotten its name because it once served as a place to light beacon fires. In one direction, I could see the buildings of Manchester, and in the other, the long brown line of Kinder Scout, notched in the middle where a waterfall tumbles down. Below it were fields of bright green pasture squared in by dark stone walls.

Dartmoor National Park in Britain, which is at the center of the fight over wild camping, or what Americans would call backpacking, amid a larger battle over the “right to roam” on public lands.Credit…Muir Vidler for The New York Times

A little over a decade ago, a young illustrator named Nick Hayes was staying with his parents in West Berkshire, not far from London, while he worked on a graphic novel. One day, walking near a lightning-struck willow, he spotted a kingfisher, the first he ever saw. He hoped to show it to his mother, but as they approached the tree, a man on a four-wheeler raced over, announcing: “You’ve no right to be here. You’re trespassing.”

The pair immediately turned around. Hayes walked home, struck by the power of that single word. He typed “trespass” into a search engine, surprised to learn that his actions were merely a civil offense, typically punishable only in the case of property damage, and that trespass hadn’t always been considered an offense at all. The more he read, the more Hayes began to believe that the building of a wall, not the climbing of it, was the bigger crime. He began working on a book about what he was learning, taking himself on small trespasses around the country, climbing over the walls of large estates or slipping past them by kayak. Sometimes there was shouting, sometimes threats. Everywhere he found reminders of a long, ever-evolving relationship with the land. It was in the land use (the fox hunts and deer parks of the wealthy) and in the literature (all that wide-open walking in Tolkien and Wordsworth) and in the language: “Beyond the pale” originates from the Middle English word for fence, and acre comes from the Old English for “open field,” though the word eventually stopped meaning unoccupied land and came to define standardized measures by which land could be bought and sold.

“You can chuck a stone in England, and there’s a story of land dispossession wherever it lands,” Hayes told me when I first spoke to him last year. Fencing people off from nature, he believed, caused each to suffer: People felt bereft and disconnected, and problems like pollution or biodiversity loss became less visible, harder to care about. Hayes became convinced that society put too much emphasis on the sacredness of private property and the accompanying threat of trespass. Kinder Trespass was evidence of that: “To cheer a man for walking through heather and likewise to beat him up for it are both absurdly disproportionate to the act itself,” he wrote. “But inside the logic of the bubble, such an act is tantamount to anarchy, because it threatens the spell.”

In this context, even the CROW Act began to look less like a victory for the public and more like a consolation prize that disguised how much had already been lost.

The right of way officially applies only to movement; paths are for walking (and bridle ways for riding), not for camping or picnicking or drawing or hula-hooping. Paths and access land are concentrated in the least populated rural regions and are scarce where most people live. Many protected areas are difficult to navigate. (People who spend time in the countryside rely on detailed maps from the government to figure out where they are or aren’t allowed to walk. Echoing their military heritage, they’re called O.S., or Ordnance Survey, maps.) Some places offer no real access, because they are islands floating in a sea of private property — you would need a helicopter or a parachute to get to them — while others require constant vigilance to keep open. In one famous case, a company associated with the tycoon Nicholas van Hoogstraten, who was known for his involvement in the killing of a business rival and once referred to ramblers as “scum of the Earth,” erected buildings and fences that blocked a protected right of way in East Sussex. The path was closed for 13 years before Hoogstraten lost in court and Kate Ashbrook, a former chairwoman of the Ramblers and now general secretary of the O.S.S., reopened the path by taking a pair of bolt cutters to a padlocked gate.

The CROW Act was also time-limited; there is likely less than a decade left during which new access paths can be certified. But the process for adding them is byzantine. To certify a right of way, you have to prove that you’ve never asked a landowner for permission to walk there (which turns a right into a retractable handout); that you have used it for at least 20 years (an accepted stand-in for proof that a right has been earned by virtue of being exercised since “time immemorial,” a period which, because of quirks of English law, officially ended with the death of Henry II in 1189); and that you and others have used the path openly without your right to do so being challenged. Open-access land cannot have been “improved” by agriculture, proof of which often requires expensive certifications by botanists. This can lead to absurdity, says Ashbrook, who likes to walk up a hill near her house in the Chilterns. It looks the same all over, but because of what Ashbrook described as “botanical issues of great detail,” only one side qualified as access land, open for rambling. The other is closed.

To Hayes, it seemed as if all these technicalities undercut the rights that the CROW Act was supposed to enshrine. They made clear that the rules about who owned what and who could go where were cultural and historical artifacts, not laws of nature. They were just choices.

Another approach was visible just across the border. In 2003, the Scottish Parliament passed a land-reform bill that recognized the uncontested right to walk, camp, cycle, swim, canoe and perform any other form of nonmotorized exploration throughout the country. Known as the “right to roam,” it came with a code of responsibilities: Access didn’t apply to private gardens immediately around houses or to fields in active cultivation, and people were expected to clean up their litter and dog poop, to cook on stoves instead of open fires, to avoid rock climbing near nesting birds, to close gates behind them and so on. But it was clear and direct and not even unique to Scotland. Similar systems had long been in place in other European countries, including Finland, Norway, Iceland, Austria, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Switzerland. In some cases, the right was considered so old and so fundamental, so obvious, that for a long time no one bothered to codify it. In Sweden, the tourism board developed an ad campaign around the allure of what the country calls allemansrätten, or everyman’s right. “It’s a right protected by the law that allows me to sleep and eat and walk pretty much wherever I want,” the voice-over explains. “Now you can, too.”

As Hayes began researching land ownership, he came across the work of Guy Shrubsole, an environmental campaigner who, in an effort to find out who owned the land whose management practices he was worried about, had spent years filing records requests and poring over maps, writing a blog and later a book called “Who Owns England?” In answering the question, Shrubsole painted a stark picture of inequality and secrecy: Only 5 percent of the country was owned by ordinary householders. Large chunks were held by corporations and by the aristocracy and gentry, often following boundaries that were relics of the land divisions and gifts made after the Norman Conquest in 1066. (The Land Registry does not track land using these categories.) “A few thousand dukes, baronets and country squires own far more land than all of middle England put together,” Shrubsole wrote. He cited a remark by the late Duke of Westminster, who advised aspiring entrepreneurs in Britain to “make sure they have an ancestor who was a very close friend of William the Conqueror.” If you wanted to know how much of England’s land offered no right of access, even to ramblers, even after the CROW Act, the answer was 92 percent.

“Property,” Shrubsole told me, “isn’t really a thing. It’s a bundle of rights,” a series of possible actions that are associated with tracts of land but that can be severed, bought, sold and expanded or curtailed by the specific legal codes that govern that land. This was why you hear people speak of mineral rights or surface rights or water rights or commoners’ rights or treaty rights, which in the United States often include ongoing rights to fish, hunt and gather on land that tribes no longer control. “Part of that bundle of rights in England for the last several hundred years has been the right to exclude other people from your land,” Shrubsole says. “The thing is, that’s not always the case in every country, and even in other liberal, capitalist democracies.”

England had exported its view of private property to much of the world, but it also had its own long history of resistance to privatization. (Notable examples include the Diggers, who seized a hill in Surrey in 1649, planting crops and declaring to the gentry, “The earth was not made purposely for you, to be Lords of it, and we to be your Slaves, Servants and Beggers, but it was made to be a common Livelihood of all.”) “Sure, you can have private property,” Shrubsole says. “But does it always have to be on such extreme terms that you can’t share it with anyone else?”

In late 2019, the Conservative Party was elected in a landslide and proposed charging unpermitted campers with criminal trespass. Hayes and Shrubsole started a petition opposing the idea. It received enough signatures to trigger a debate in Parliament, but the bill continued to move forward. Shrubsole remembers sitting with Hayes around a kitchen table in London, wondering what to do next — how to convince their country that access to the land was a right worth fighting for.

Shortly afterward, Covid hit. Lockdowns were strict in England, where illicit parties were enough to eventually bring down a once-popular prime minister. Indoor gathering places shut down, and outdoor exercise, which was allowed only once a day and only in the area where a person lived, became precious. Catherine Flitcroft, of the British Mountaineering Council, told me that across the country, “the outdoors became the new pub and the new playground,” a lifeline for people who felt trapped and alone.

But many soon found that a frustrating amount of the countryside was closed off to them. Paths that people had assumed to be legal rights of way turned out to be only permissive paths; landowners, overwhelmed by the surge of eager walkers, some of whom left large messes behind, could and did revoke access. Swimmers, canoers, climbers and kayakers struggled to understand where they were allowed to go, because many landowners maintained that ownership of a lakefront or riverbed included a right to exclude people from “their” section of water. Though it was illegal to block public paths with gates or fences, or to hide signs designating them as such, or put up new ones threatening dangerous dogs or bulls, would-be walkers told me that they encountered all of this. And community leaders from marginalized groups pointed out that many barriers to access were invisible: People were often dissuaded from rambling at all because they had good reason to fear the outcome if they ended up somewhere they weren’t allowed to be.

During that first Covid summer, Hayes’s account of his explorations, “The Book of Trespass,” was released. The book argued that the hard-won public paths, in enshrining some rights, forestalled others: “They simultaneously legitimize the space that is off limits.” It soon became a best seller. Hayes and Shrubsole set up a campaign website, encouraging people to make their own respectful trespasses into areas that were closed off to them. They also started to work with other organizers to call for a full, Scottish-style “right to roam” in England.

“Our desire to access nature,” they wrote, “should not be a crime.”

Swimmers at the chilly Kinder Reservoir near Hayfield in April advocating for public access to open spaces.Credit…Muir Vidler for The New York Times

The first trespasses were small: groups of friends poring over local maps, considering the land around them in new ways. In Totnes, the town in Devon where Shrubsole lives, he and a few others explored Berry Pomeroy, a nearby estate owned by the Duke of Somerset. There was a permissive footpath through one section, but though the estate dominates the landscape and though it receives taxpayer subsidies, they had never seen the rest. The woods turned out to be full of pheasants — nonnative game birds imported to Britain each year by the tens of millions for shooting.

In Devon, local people began holding trespasses every month. As Hayes did while writing his book, they stayed well away from houses and stuck to actions that would be considered trespasses in England but legal in Scotland. Lewis Winks, a researcher and environmental campaigner who helped organize the gatherings, told me that it felt like being a detective in your own backyard: You were figuring out who owned what and why and suddenly realizing that there was a great deal more land around than you ever visited or even really noticed. Moving in a group, you felt empowered, almost immune to signs telling you that you didn’t belong. You also noticed, he added, that a country that some politicians liked to describe as full or overcrowded, and therefore in need of tighter borders, was full of open space.

“You realize,” Winks said, “that we basically exist in the corridors between these big estates.”

In 2022, Parliament passed the promised anti-trespassing bill. The core group of Right to Roam organizers continued to grow, while encouraging people to form their own local chapters. In Northumberland, organizers arranged buses to take children who live in light-polluted cities into the countryside at night, because so many English people now grow up without being able to see the Milky Way. In Gloucestershire, trespassers climbed a stone wall into an estate owned by the Duke of Beaufort, where botanists taught attendees about the native plants they found there — the idea being that people who feel attached to a landscape will be inspired to protect it. The campaigners organized another trespass at Berry Pomeroy, this time with hundreds of people, who carried a banner that read “Right to Roam” and picked up litter as they went. They walked together to a sunny hillside, where they picnicked.

The wholesomeness was purposeful: an attempt to show that people could use land not just responsibly but also in a nourishing way. Though the campaigns received a fair amount of positive coverage — even the right-leaning Daily Mail offered a friendly account of the Berry Pomeroy trespass, quoting Shrubsole’s “Less room for pheasants, more room for peasants!” quip in their headline — there were plenty of doubters. Some seasoned organizers worried that a call for a right to roam might jeopardize the right-of-way system they have worked so hard to create or that embracing trespass could give all ramblers a bad name. Landowners’ associations argued that the current system was adequate and that expanding it would risk public safety: “How many more wildfires will there be? How many more sheep will be attacked by dogs? What damage will be done to crops?”

In his book, Hayes argued that what he called “the cult of exclusion” was possible because it was undergirded by a powerful story of inevitability, including the belief that open access would mean disrespectful or ignorant people mistreating the land. (In the United States, this idea was most vociferously articulated in an essay called “The Tragedy of the Commons,” written in 1968 by the ecologist and eugenicist Garrett Hardin, who argued that it was the fate of any communally managed property to be mismanaged and destroyed. Hardin’s work has since been widely debunked, including by the Nobel Prize-winning political scientist Elinor Ostrom, who showed that communities around the world are capable of managing shared resources sustainably.) Right to Roam organizers countered that another story was possible, one in which people were educated to appreciate and protect places they saw as partially their own.

Amy-Jane Beer, one of the core organizers, likes to point to a study by researchers at the University of Derby, which compared 14 European Union countries according to their biodiversity and their residents’ felt connection to nature. In each case, Britain ranked lowest. “Those things are not disconnected,” Beer says. “People are losing without being aware of what they’re losing.”

And then came Dartmoor.

In England — unlike in the United States or in parks in Africa and elsewhere that are sometimes accused of practicing “fortress conservation,” cordoning off nature at the expense of local people — there’s little illusion that a national park is, should or even could be a wild place untouched by human history. Dartmoor is full of ancient archaeological sites as well as mining scars, good-size towns, uncountable sheep and ponies, military practice ranges and even a large prison. You can’t visit without understanding the land as a balance of uses.

One of those uses, today, is camping. For decades, Dartmoor was the only park in England that recognized camping among the forms of recreation to which users are entitled. Elsewhere, some people still camp, but they do so somewhat stealthily — “you just set up late and pack up early,” as Winks told me — or with the understanding that they may be moved along. To quote the leader of a group of backpackers I met: “We just kind of walk until we hit somewhere we can’t, and then we go somewhere else.” Many youth groups, and those who aren’t comfortable camping where it isn’t allowed, stick to Dartmoor.

In 2022, the hedge-fund manager Alexander Darwall and his wife, Diana, who had purchased a 4,000-acre estate inside Dartmoor, announced that they would be suing the park to keep people from camping on what was now their land. At first, the big access organizations didn’t believe that wild camping could really be under threat and paid little attention. A small group of local residents, including Winks, a walking guide named Gillian Healey and others who were organizing trespasses nearby, decided, over pints at a pub, to plan a rally on one of Darwall’s moors, to be held shortly after the court was scheduled to rule on the suit. “We thought there’d probably be about 15 of us,” Winks says, but no matter which way the decision went, they figured they would either want to celebrate or protest. They came up with a name for their group: the Stars Are for Everyone.

A week before the planned gathering, in January 2023, the Chancellor of the High Court ruled that the long-assumed right to camp in Dartmoor didn’t actually exist. Darwall, and any other landowner who wanted to, could kick campers out right away. Suddenly, thousands of people wanted to join the protest, which was set to depart from Cornwood, a tiny village clustered around narrow lanes on the edge of the park. Organizers rented 10 buses to shuttle the protesters in. To help feed everyone, residents of the village baked pasties and delivered them to the local pub.

A parade of people set off on a two-mile walk to Darwall’s land, using a right of way flanked on either side by private security guards holding dogs. It was, said one participant, “a conga line of humanity.” Many people told Healey that they weren’t campers themselves but that they saw the decision as part of a much bigger story about their country and where they fit inside it. Healey agreed: To her, the loss was like a new form of enclosure. That, too, had been a gradual but devastating winnowing of rights.

When the crowd arrived at the top of a hill, organizers were waiting with a surprise. Hiding just behind the crest were a group of musicians and a giant puppet they called Old Crockern, after a mythic figure from Dartmoor’s past who is said to be the spirit of the moor; in one story, he warns a rich man who has come to plow the land with a steam engine, “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch out your pockets!” When the puppet crested the hill into the slanting winter sunshine, crowds of children ran toward it, dancing.

The Dartmoor National Park Authority appealed the ruling. In the meantime, it came to an agreement with some of the other landowners, paying them to continue to allow camping. What had been a right became a mere permission. Winks found himself camping less because he was no longer sure where it was actually allowed. “They’ve stolen the goose and are selling us back the eggs,” he said, “and we’re told to be grateful.”

The Labour Party, for its part, reacted to the news by promising to introduce a Scottish-style Right to Roam bill the next time it came to power.

One spring morning about a week after the swim at Kinder Reservoir, and five months after the Dartmoor ruling, I met another group of trespassers. This time they gathered on the village green of a tiny place called Ham, under the branches of a blooming horse-chestnut tree.

Most of the 70 or so people who arrived for the walk came from Bristol, 20 miles away, home to a particularly active group of right-to-roam advocates who meet twice a month and go on outings that members take turns designing.

On this day, the walk leader was Jim Rosseinsky, a member of a local choir, who brought along some of his choir mates. Rosseinsky said that “The Book of Trespass” moved him to act because “it was just so reasonable.” Before setting out, he warned the group to watch out for “sharp-branch-related jeopardy” and to take care with where they placed their feet: “We want to show that we can care for the land that we’re walking on.”

The group set off down a narrow lane, crossed a bridge and passed a field where horses grazed. A large stone castle appeared in the distance. A woman named Mary Stevens, who had read “Who Owns England?” told those gathered that it was still owned by the same family to whom the land was granted in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest. They were also given considerable land in Bristol — where, many of the walkers told me, they could not afford to buy houses — including in the neighborhood where the choir practices.

A Dartmoor pony at Haytor Rocks in the eastern edge of Dartmoor.Credit…Muir Vidler for The New York Times

The long trail of people wound through fields and into a tiny scrap of woodland, where the choir leader, Sorrel Wilde, led the group in an old chant: “Put your roots down/put your feet on the ground/you can hear the earth sing/if you listen,” we sang, until the words lost their cheesiness and began to feel profound and peaceful. It took ages to enter another glen, because there were so many people stepping so cautiously over the bluebells.

As they walked, people told me what had brought them to spend their bank holiday Monday trespassing around a castle with strangers. Many spoke about wanting more access to nature, but they also framed the walk in grander terms. Maria Fernandez Garcia, a botanist who had become a leader of the group, said it was a balm “to hear other people’s deep and similar feelings” about the ways the country wasn’t working for ordinary people and how it could do better. Danny Balla listed a series of things that he wished were seen as commons, to be shared and stewarded, but which were instead enclosed, privatized and exploited: gathering places in cities, the air, the water, the climate. A mother of two young children told me that as a renter, struggling amid Britain’s cost-of-living crisis, “it would be very easy to feel that I had very little power,” but trespasses like this helped. The more of them she went on, the more illusory the borders that constrained her life felt. “It’s an antidote to everything feeling divided and enclosed,” she said.

A woman named Holly Marjoram told me that while walking is often a solitary activity, this version made it feel like part of something large and powerful, connected to a whole world of people who would fight for the land. She had also been to the big trespass at Berry Pomeroy and the protest on Dartmoor.

A few months later, in mid-July, the Royal Courts of Justice would hear the park’s challenge to the ruling that favored the Darwalls. Inside the court, the two sides debated what the park’s bylaws meant by allowing “open-air recreation” — Was a tent open-air? Are you recreating when you’re asleep? — while protesters filled the sidewalk outside. A ruling is still pending.

In Ham, after the trespass, the group stopped in a churchyard for lunch, where more thermoses of tea emerged from backpacks. “It’s nice to imagine a world where we can walk farther and feel freer,” said a woman in tall rubber boots. And then it was back to the village green, where some people taught a folk dance, some drifted off to the pub next door and some sang along to a final song:

Another group arrived late and dripping, having been lured into the cool river by the first hot day of spring. People kept asking Rosseinsky which parts of the walk were trespasses and which parts were within their rights. It had been hard for them to tell.

Brooke Jarvis is a contributing writer for the magazine. She last wrote a feature about droughts and floods in California. Muir Vidler is a photographer based in London and Edinburgh. His portraits include images of Ai Weiwei, Molly Goddard and Stephen Hawking.

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