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The History of Hiking and Rambling In England

Much of the UK’s countryside nowadays is well catered for: public footpaths, official hiking trails with pubs and villages located around them, and much of the UK’s publicly-owned land is easily accessible. However, the phenomenon of walking and hiking around the countryside has only been around for a couple hundred years, as Romantic poets of the 1700s and 1800s saw the natural beauty of areas such as the Lake District, Snowdonia and the Scottish Highlands as the perfect inspiration for their flowery poetry.

While the Romantic poets were derided in their day, the mass movement from rural areas into cities, and the poor quality of life in Victorian cities at the time (London lacked a proper sewage system until the late 1800s, and cholera outbreaks were common) gave their passionate exhortation of the country life appeal to many, particularly the city elite and growing middle class who resented the urban squalor that was developing in their cities.

However, much of the countryside in the UK was private property. While trespassing on the land was illegal, many rambling clubs emerged in the North of England, protesting for their ‘right to roam’ in the British countryside. While bills supporting these rights were continually presented to Parliament between 1884 to 1932, they were repeatedly shot down by MPs who themselves owned large sections of the UK’s land.

However, in 1932, the Rambler’s Rights Movement organised a mass trespass on Kinder Scout in Derbyshire. While the event was certainly a publicity boost for these rambling groups, and now commemorated with a plaque at the site, the legislation that followed (Mountain Access Bill) was seen as restrictive and an attempt to meet landowners and ramblers halfway, with neither liking the end result.

The Mountain Access bill was repealed not long after World War 2, and replaced with the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. With this legislation, undeveloped private land was converted into National Parks, with the first being the Lake District National Park in 1951. The establishment of the National Park system changed rambling from a potentially illegal and dangerous activity to a recreational one, much like what William Wordsworth, Thomas West, John Keats and Robert Louis Stevenson enjoyed over two centuries ago.

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