Jonny Gordon Farleigh: In The Old Ways you look enviously at Scandinavia’s allemansrätten as historically distinct from our feudal-inflected experience of access in Britain. How powerful is this particular experience of enclosure on our sense of what’s possible in terms of opening up our countryside?
Robert Macfarlane: There is a paradox at the heart of the footpath system of England and Wales, which is that this ‘labyrinth of liberty’ is largely a function of the privatisation of land. So even as we correctly celebrate the freedom we have to walk more than 130,000 miles of legally protected footpath in the two countries, we should also be conscious of the places we can’t go, because the footpath-network doesn’t penetrate them. If we look westwards to America (or, indeed, Ireland), we see how lucky we are in England and Wales: there, land is largely either block-private or block-public, in vast swathes, and woe betide you if you decide to wander as a pedestrian onto private land. But if we look northwards to Scotland, we see how unlucky we are in England and Wales: there, thanks to brilliantly enlightened recent access-law revisions, they operate something close to allemansrätten, founded on the principle of trust towards both landowner and walker.
The Countryside and Rights of Way act of 2000 took us some way towards the Scottish/Scandinavian model, but we’re still far short of it. I’d like to see, as a first revision, access granted to all broadleaf woodlands above a certain acreage, for instance, and to all riverbank (as it was granted to certain types of ‘open country’ in the CrOW act). But I suspect I’ll die hoping (and trying). Marion Shoard’s This Land Is Our Land is the go-to book here, as many of your readers will already know.
JG: The history of access battles in Britain are closely associated with the working class rambling associations, such as Sheffield’s Clarion Ramblers and their mass trespasses. Is walking, as it was then, still a political statement?
RM: There are a thousand ways of walking, and a thousand reasons to walk. Walking remains a political statement in the protest-sense: I’m thinking now of the Slut Walk movement on the feminist left, or — very differently, very conservatively — the Orange Order marches that still cause such problems in Northern Ireland. But recreational walking is, I would say, also subtly political — in its (temporary) repudiation of the combustion engine as a means of transport, in its slowing-down of experience, in its attempt to clear space for decapitalised time, in the openness to encounter that walking — especially on footpaths — can bring. It is a ‘convivial’ activity, in the sense that Ivan Illich intended that word, meaning something like enriching relations between people and people, people and places, and people and nature.