On April 24th 1932, ramblers from England’s northern manufacturing towns gathered to trespass, on mass, on Kinder Scout hill. Their demand for access to the the moorlands, to walk in the hills on their weekends and days off was a working class action that echoes down ninety years. It took time, but the creation of national parks, the protection of public footpaths and open access land is tribute to not just the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, but years of dogged campaigning.
On that April day, one of the leaders and organisers was Benny Rothman, a young trade unionist from Manchester. His arrival at the Trespass is a tale that will be familiar to many activists of today – laying a false trail for the police he knew would try to block them, dodging officers by bicycle and carrying on despite the presence of men from the landowning estates who tried to stop the march with violence. For his efforts, Benny was sentenced to a short spell in prison. For the rest of his life, Benny remained active in politics – opposing fascism, working as a trade unionist and supporting both nature conservation and access to the countryside.
In 1994, Benny joined a mass trespass at Twyford Down, speaking about the need to defend wild places and about the new laws curtailing protests and trespass being proposed under the then Criminal Justice Bill. Afterwards, he wrote to those of us who had organised the day, describing how the Twyford Cutting ‘stood out glaringly white, in the surrounding sea of green vegetation’, noting the security guards ‘like an army of occupation in hostile territory’. He relished the hillside ‘rich in flowers of the chalk downs, which had grown there undisturbed for many hundreds of years. And he wondered ‘if this rich harvest of flowers could survive the pollution which would come with the opening of the motorway.
He recognised too how the handful of us who had organised the demonstration had operated on a shoe-string budget . Even now I feel deeply moved at how he paid tribute to our efforts and wrote that we ‘were young in years, but already old in experience’.
There is a saying that you should never meet your heroes, but I am honoured to have met one of mine and to have seen, in a diminutive man his eighties, the spirit that spans generations. It is the one that speaks up for a better world, for the rights of working people, for the freedom of the hills and the land, for the need to protect the wild places of the world. Long may this spirit continue in us all.