This post is by Maxwell A Ayamba, an environmental journalist and PhD student in Black Studies at the University of Nottingham.
As one of those who attended the Kinder In Colour Mass Trespass on 24 April remarked, “Black and People of Colour have this day made history in this country re-enacting the 1932 Mass Trespass at Kinder Scout”. And this is because, although the storming of Kinder Scout is often celebrated as one of the most important milestones in the history of land access, it has never, in its 90-year history, been celebrated by black and people of colour.
A diverse rural presence has been denied
The Kinder In Colour event, attended by over 400 hundred people from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds across the country, was therefore unique and historic. And it is. Because the notion of there being black and people of colour in the English countryside has been denied for centuries, even though black presence was part of ancient Britain.
Kinder In Colour was also a landmark because it shone the spotlight on another injustice issue: the history of the countryside’s rootedness in colonialism and exclusion. With just under one per cent of minorities accessing the countryside, issues of inequality and accessibility remain ever present. And these problems have to do with the erasure of the historiography of the black presence in Britain. This continues to be fed into prevailing narratives of English rural culture, with failure to acknowledge legacies of the British Empire and how that is evidenced from wealth generated through slavery.
Second, there’s lack of recognition about the presence of black people from the Roman times: to the Tudor reign, Blackamoors, enslaved people and in both the two world wars. It is the lack of acknowledgement of these histories that led to the hit play ‘Black men walking’, a co-production by the Eclipse Theatre and the Royal Exchange Theatre, in 2018-19: “We walk. Though we are written into the landscape you don’t see us. We walked England before the English”.
The play was a political statement and a subtle reminder that black people may appear invisible in rural Britain but have always been part of the landscape. For example, if you read Miranda Kaufman’s book on the black presence in Tudor England you will find the story of Cattlelena of Almondsbury, a woman of African origin who lived near a village in Bristol.
Other literature, such as Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireland, Eric Williams’ Capitalism and slavery and Thomas Harding’s White debt: the demerara uprising and Britain’s legacy of slavery, have all portrayed the English countryside as masking the history of colonialism and enslavement. Corinne Fowler’s 2019 book, Green unpleasant land – creative responses to rural England’s connections, talks about National Trust properties linked to slavery, and yet this history is not told or taught in schools.
The identity of the countryside is built around ‘Englishness’
The Kinder In Colour mass trespass was, therefore, not only a reminder of this unwritten history but a signifier, highlighting lack of diversity in the countryside. And, though no one stops black and people of colour from visiting these places, it is about how, for instance, National Parks construct a ruralised place-based identity around the ideology of Englishness. This results in attitudes, values and practices that exclude specific groups, which can be interpreted as racist, in terms of making people feel whether they can or cannot engage with such spaces; for example, the Muslim Hikers who went up Mam Tor in the Peak District National Park, on Christmas Day in 2021, were described as a migration of the Serengeti wildebeest.
These acts of racism, arising from conscious actions of some white people, are not always overt as they are embedded structurally. And that is because of the ways in which the English landscape has historically been constructed as ‘white space’ which results in some form of internal control by some rural folk and other walkers.
It isn’t only black and people of colour who are excluded
The Kinder In Colour trespass should be a reminder that, despite 90 years since the first mass trespass, it is not only black and people of colour who haven’t had the freedom to roam, but also the majority of the population. This is because, according to Nick Hayes in Book of trespass – crossing the line that divides us, we only have freedom to roam on eight per cent of the countryside, the rest is still inaccessible. And perhaps he is right, as Roly Smith contends in a recent book commemorating the Kinder mass trespass, before implementation of the Countryside Rights of Way Act in 1949 many landowners expressed fears about a rise in rural crime, disturbance of wildlife and moorland fires, all of which are groundless. David Blunkett wrote in the same book, “As former Home Secretary, you would not expect me to be in favour of trespassing. After all, trespassing is breaking the law! But I have to be clear. If I’d been alive 90 years ago, I would have been with the walkers on Kinder Scout, taking part in the Kinder Trespass peacefully, and I emphasise peacefully protesting”.
The Kinder In Colour event is even more poignant today, considering the Police and Crime Bill will make trespassing a criminal, not civil, offence. This will discourage black and people of colour from accessing the countryside, for fear of being criminalised if they inadvertently or unknowingly trespass. It is all the more reason why Right to Roam has appealed to the government not to criminalise trespassing.
Maxwell co-founded the 100 Black Men Walk for Health Group in 2004 which inspired the national play ‘Black men walking’. He set up the Sheffield Environmental Movement in 2016 to promote access and participation in the natural environment for people from Black, Asian, Ethnic Minority and Refugee communities. He was the first black board member of the Ramblers Association.