“What else can we do?” Access to green space


It’s hard to know what access to nature Minister Richard Benyon normally finds at his massive Berkshire estate when he takes a walk on a Sunday afternoon. It is unlikely, however, that it is a group of loudly singing activist intruders dressed as psychedelic animals and accompanied by an all-female morris dance troupe.

But that’s what walked down his driveway on Sunday, when protesters toured the Englefield estate, calling on Benyon to open it up to the public and expand access to green space for everyone across England .

The Guardian saw around 150 people walking around the estate, including the Morris dancers (who came in peace, leaving their traditional sticks at home) and Nadia Shaikh, a conservationist and one of the organizers of the ‘event.

Members of the morris dance troupe Photography: Peter Flude/The Guardian

“This, what we are doing now, is a freedom that we should have,” she told the Guardian. “So we act like we already have that freedom. We want the joy of being in the commons with the music and the richness of all these conversations and these different people. So yeah, I mean, what else can we do when you ask repeatedly, politely, and it’s always a no? »

When asked why she chose this area, she replied: “Well, it’s the minister of access to nature! So it seems only fitting to come and experience the freedom and land he has.

As nature access minister, Benyon was involved in the Agnew review, which aimed to widen access to the countryside but was shelved with little explanation. Only 8% of English land has free access, including coastal paths and moorland, and campaigners want that to change.

The 12,000-acre Englefield estate, which has been owned by the Benyon family for hundreds of years and is the largest in West Berkshire, contains land that was once a common, before the Fences Act meant that they could be absorbed into the private domain. It also contains, according to the Ramblers, lost trails. This is where the dancers and the musicians headed. Although those gathered are breaking civil law by trespassing, the game wardens did not intervene and watched the strange mystical spectacle from atop a hill from their SUV.

Nadia Shaikh (center), who helped organize the Right to Roam mass intrusion pass.
Nadia Shaikh (center), who helped organize the Right to Roam mass intrusion pass. Photography: Peter Flude/The Guardian

Nick Hayes, the author of The Book of Trespass who helped organize the event, gave a history of the land: “Looking at 18th century tithe cards, we can still read the names of the commoners who held the right to cultivate the land; and looking at the archaeological LIDAR data, we can still see the commoners’ plow lines buried under the deer park. The ancestor of our current Minister for Access to Nature, also called Richard Benyon, began the process of closing his estate in 1802.

“Over the next 20 years he moved an entire village out of sight of Englefield House to make way for his deer park. Then in 1854 a halt order was granted by his friends in parliament to close the public road that ran past his house.Today, the Ramblers’ Don’t Lose Your Way website reveals an old footpath through the estate, identifiable on old Ordnance Survey maps, but which has since been extinguished.

The Right to Roam campaign has sent the Tory peer an open letter, asking him to open up his estate to the public and, as Minister for Nature Access, to open up England further so people can walking and picnicking – and maybe even a little ceilidh.

Campaigners had previously met with the minister to discuss their ideas for at least opening up state-funded forests and the green belt to walkers. They claim he said their proposals made him feel “warm and fuzzy inside”.

Protesters playing instruments.
Protesters playing instruments. Photography: Peter Flude/The Guardian

In their letter, they tell him they now think “it was a warm, fuzzy way of telling us we were being ignored.”

They added: “Access to nature is something that you, as a large landowner, have taken for granted all your life. For the majority of England, however, it is not a luxury but an existential necessity which is denied them every day by a system of exclusion; a system you can change.

They said they didn’t want to have to encroach on her land, but felt ‘we have to’, adding: ‘The urgent need for a greater public relationship with nature has been suppressed and ignored on many occasions. taken over by the government.

“It seems absurd to use the word ‘intrusion’,” said Sam Lee, a musician and storyteller who held a ceremony under the oak tree. “What we do is our birthright.”

He told the Guardian: “We are here to playfully explore the wisdom, the words, the melodies of this land and experience a sense of connection. We want to feel free from the weight of shame and unworthiness of what it is to be on someone else’s land.

The singer said Lord Benyon would be welcome to attend his ceremony, where he told stories about the land and engaged the band in song.

“Like everyone here, he is welcome. It’s not for him. And it’s not in spite of himself. But he is a welcome participant, like anyone else.

Protesters point out that, like many decision-makers in parliament, Benyon owns land – so he is unlikely to act against the interests of large private landowners.

Protesters march through the Englefield estate.
Protesters march through the Englefield estate. Photography: Peter Flude/The Guardian

Jon Moses, another Right to Roam campaigner, said: ‘We are here today to reconnect with a culture that we have lost, a popular culture of the land that was swept away when the aristocracy shut down much from England. More than a third of the land in England remains in the hands of the aristocracy, mostly in private estates like this. And we are currently on the land of the minister for access to nature, who of course does not have public access to a large part of his land.

“To us, this indicates a system that is rigged. We have tried to push bills through Parliament, we were promised in the Agnew review, a “quantum shift in the public’s relationship with nature”. This review has essentially been shelved. He was thrown out the window, and we suspect the reason is that landowners like this are the people who hold all the cards.

Richard Benyon argued passionately in the past for the importance of green spaces and connections, emphasizing that green infrastructure creates “stronger ecological networks, provides people with better places to live, better health and a better quality of life”.

He also advocated for improved access to green spaces, pointing out that “research shows that people from the most disadvantaged groups in society are the least likely to travel to access the natural environment – it is therefore even more necessary to ensure that we improve the quality of the environment where they are.

He has been contacted for comment.


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