On 30 July, Right to Roam Norwich (RRN), a local branch of the national Right to Roam campaign, organised an ‘open day’ at Sennowe Park near Guist. The group of 15, including children, who are advocating for increased public access to England’s land, decided to explore the grounds of the private estate. Under English (and Welsh) law, without the owner’s permission, they were trespassing.
Something about the estate
Sennowe Park, owned by Charlie Temple-Richards, the great-grandson of airline magnate Thomas Cook, spans an impressive 8,300 acres of land in north Norfolk. He is the eighth largest private landowner in Norfolk. However, the vast majority of this land is usually off-limits to the general public due to the absence of public rights of way.
Trespassing but with absolute respect
Undeterred by the limited access, the RRN group ventured onto the estate via a footpath and made their way to the large lake situated south of Sennowe Hall. During their six-hour journey, the group walked around both sides of the lake, with participants using the opportunity to take a swim.
One of the organisers emphasised the community-oriented nature of the day. “People of all ages and walks of life appreciated and respected the history and rare biodiversity of Sennowe Park, including an ancient tree. While we were there, we had several non-confrontational encounters with passing vehicles – allowing them to pass.” RRN also pointed out that they had shown respect for the estate by actively engaging in cleaning up litter, leaving the area cleaner than they found it.
The campaign’s aim
The main focus of RRN’s efforts, in tandem with the national campaign, is to push for a revision of current laws regarding public access to England’s land. They view accessing nature as a ‘common good’ that was seized from the people when lands first began to be enclosed under William the Conqueror’s reign. In fact, nearly a thousand years later, there are a number of Norfolk families who still own the land gifted by him to their ancestors.
Currently, only about 8% of the landscape around us is accessible to the general public, with significant portions of this limited access concentrated around national parks such as the Lake District and Dartmoor.
Too much of Britain’s countryside has restricted access – but there are positives
Norfolk, despite being among the top five largest English counties by area, remains access-poor, with an unclear assessment of how much land is publicly accessible. Norfolk County Council estimates that they manage approximately 2,400 miles of footpaths, while England and Wales together boast an impressive 140,000 miles of footpaths. Given those figures, it is approximately half of what it should be for the size of the county. This discrepancy, says RRN, highlights the urgent need for increased access to the countryside for residents and visitors alike.
Campaigners are concerned that landowners are increasingly making it harder to roam with some willing to go to court over it. One high-profile case was in the news last week when the Court of Appeal overturned an earlier ruling in a wealthy landowner’s case. The original judgement had ended the right to wild-camp on Dartmoor – the only national park in the country where it was legal. Following an appeal brought by Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA) and Open Spaces Society, the panel of judges unanimously overturned the earlier High Court ruling.
DNPA’s Chief Executive, Kevin Bishop, told The Guardian: “Our sincere hope is that this judgment means we can now move forward, in partnership, with a focus on making sure Dartmoor remains a special place for all to enjoy.”
In 2003, Scotland passed a land-reform bill granting the “right to roam” for nonmotorised exploration (walking, swimming, camping, etc.), which comes with responsibilities such as cleaning up litter and respecting private gardens. Similar systems exist in many other European countries. In some countries, these rights were ancient and considered so self-evident, it was only recently they were codified into law.
Drawing inspiration from Scotland’s open access rights, Right to Roam Norwich envisions a future where public accessibility is combined with personal responsibility. They advocate for equal access regardless of class, race, or gender, believing that better access for anyone will ultimately benefit everyone. Their walk around Sennowe Park, RRN says, demonstrated the possibility of such inclusive access for the people of Norfolk.
Wider access to our countryside will be good for everyone
Right to Roam Norwich is just one among many local groups across England passionately campaigning for widened access to privately-owned lands. Their sometimes controversial efforts are part of a broader national movement pushing to make the beauty and serenity of the countryside open and accessible to all. As the campaign gains momentum, advocates hope that policymakers will take note and work towards a more equitable distribution of public access rights across England’s countryside.
By East Anglia Bylines from a press release by Right to Roam Norwich