2009 marked the Diamond Anniversary of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act that was introduced by a radical post-war Labour Government. This groundbreaking piece of legislation, aimed at giving every person the right to enjoy the countryside, was the result of vigorous rambler campaigns in which trade unionists such as Bernard [Benny] Rothman were highly prominent.
Born on June 1st 1911 it wasn’t until Benny acquired a bike in his teens that he discovered life outside the crowded, squalid environment of working class Cheetham in north Manchester. He soon became a keen rambler and spent his 16th birthday climbing to the summit of Snowdon.
At the end of World War I in 1918 returning British soldiers had been promised by Lloyd George the Prime Minster a “Land Fit for Heroes.” Landowners, represented in Parliament and the House of Lords by the Tories, were intent on ensuring that didn’t include the right for those soldiers and others to roam Britain’s mountains and moorlands.
So it was that on a sunny Sunday April 24th 1932 Benny Rothman, a lifelong activist within the Amalgamated Engineering Union found himself as the leader of more than 400 Kinder Scout Mass Trespassers.
Together in opposition to a line of gamekeepers, they successfully crossed the Derbyshire Peak District’s ‘forbidden mountain.’ Stung by this deliberate defiance of the law the police arrested five of the trespassers. If however the authorities felt this would be the end of the matter they miscalculated by sending four to prison for up to six months, and the public outrage that followed helped bring the issue of countryside access to the fore.
Benny Rothman, who in 1990 he was given the AEU’s highest award, the Special Award of Merit, died aged 90 in 2002. This was fifty one years after appropriately enough the Peak District became the first designated National Park under an Act that Lewis Silkin, the Labour Party Minister of Town and Country Planning said was “a people’s charter for the open air, for the hikers and the ramblers, for everyone who loves to get out into the open air and enjoy the countryside. Without it they are fettered, deprived of their powers of access and facilities needed to make holidays enjoyable. With it the countryside is theirs to preserve, to cherish, to enjoy and to make their own.”
Today there are fifteen National Parks, with South Downs National Park the latest to be established in 2011. These protected beauties are the jewels in the crown of the countryside
According to Roly Smith, author and President of the Outdoor Writers’ and Photographers’ Guild; “you can see and do so many wonderful things in our National Parks. You can take a gentle stroll away from other people and crowds, climb a mountain, enjoy the scenery, have a pint and a bite to eat, meet local people, camp in the great outdoors, go bird watching, look out for animals or simply relax and do very little at all in pleasant surroundings.
Even if you can’t get to the Peak District or the North York Moors it’s important to know they are there and are being looked after. They are very special places. Without the original legislation the pressures for industrial and residential development with its ever-expanding road and motorway network would have been too great. There would also have been greater demands by quarrying companies as where you find National Parks you find rocks. Many areas especially in the Yorkshire Dales would have become giant quarries.”