[This article originally appeared in Volume 256. Subscibe to Wavelength now to never miss an issue.]
On a gloomy day in 1932 a defiant group of young factory workers, dressed in old army shorts and worn work boots, marched up a steep moorland ridge just outside of Manchester. Behind them, a breathless huddle of policemen struggled to keep pace, while narrow-eyed gamekeepers observed from the hedgerows.
The men were fighting for the right to roam and while they hoped the effects of their protest would be far-reaching, they almost certainly didn’t foresee the profound impact they would have on the future identity of British surfing.
In the medieval age, rural Britain was largely composed of common land; owned by lords and knights, but free for peasants to use for agriculture and leisure. Then, in the 15th Century, as the price of wool soared across Europe, sheep farming was transformed into a highly profitable endeavour. The landed gentry insisted their fields be enclosed and the peasants who lived and worked on them were sent packing. As the government capitulated, common land across Britain became private property. In turn, trespass laws were passed and even walking across this land became an offence punishable by death.
By the time the industrial revolution rolled around in the early 19th Century, there were very few paths and trails open to the hoi polloi and although trespassing would no longer see you hung, officious gamekeepers kept the riff-raff off the vast majority of Britain’s green and pleasant land.
After a gruelling working week holed up in smoke-belching factories, workers longed for the great outdoors and soon a series of ramblers associations sprung up. While most of these groups were content with trespassing under the radar, one group in Manchester called the British Worker’s Sports Federation began hatching a plan to reclaim their right to access the countryside.
In 1932, after numerous clashes with gamekeepers and police, they organised a mass trespass intended to draw national attention to the rights that had been stripped from them by 150 years of enclosure acts. When some members of the group were arrested and given prison sentences for their illegal jaunt, the story made national news and the ramblers gained huge public support, setting the wheels of change in motion. More high profile trespasses followed and by the 1950s legislation to establish a series of national trails and parks had been enacted.
In Cornwall, ramblers leapt to take advantage of the new act and began clearing the overgrown network of paths that clung to the cliff’s edge. These routes had originally been forged over a hundred years earlier by an army of customs officers who used them to patrol the coast for smugglers.
By the 1970s their trails had been transformed into the South West Coast Path, offering ramblers the chance to explore 630 miles of Atlantic coastline, completely unimpeded. Surfers quickly followed behind them, drawn to the same geographical features that made the area perfect for smuggling. Miles of twisting coastline, punctuated by headlands offering protection from unruly Atlantic swells, howling winds and prying eyes.
For surfers, the region’s countless beaches, inlets and estuaries provided lineups facing every point on the compass. This distinctive geography, coupled with the access guaranteed by the coast path, created the possibility of surfing on almost every day of the year, provided you were willing to search. And so began the never-ending goose chase that has come to define the south west surfing experience. Nowadays, the coast path has a profound impact on the experience of the south-west surfer, shaping the way we visualise, photograph, study and talk about our waves.
While elsewhere in British some unfortunate surfers are prevented from getting to their favourite waves by the Ministry of Defence, the vast majority enjoy unfettered coastal access, a privilege we undoubtedly take for granted. However, a quick look at other surfers’ experiences around the world is enough to give pause.
In New Zealand for example, huge swathes of the coastline (and hundreds of quality setups) lie on inaccessible private land. Rumour tells of one world-class wave in particular, which breaks just off the coast of a huge private estate. The owner sells a hundred keys to the gate at the start of each year and only the holders and their guests can surf there. Then there’s the famous story of a young boy and his dad who flouted the rules around an ‘invitation only’ private surf spot, only to be shot at by gun-wielding locals.
While New Zealand’s history of imperial land theft serves as a good justification for stringent private property laws, in places like California, coastal access is limited purely due to the desire of the super-rich to keep the riff-raff from their beaches.
Throughout the Golden State, locked gates, private security guards, and violent intimidation tactics are all used to keep surf spots clear of anyone who isn’t wealthy enough to own a property overlooking them. In Lunada Bay, for example, gangs of old rich white men hurl stones and smash up the cars of outsiders. Further north, a private estate known as Hollister Ranch boasts 8 miles of glistening pointbreaks which are completely off limits to the average joe, who is instead forced to fight for scraps at the wildly overcrowded breaks just down the coast.
These examples and the many more like them inspire a rare moment of appreciation for the Great British surfer. And while we’ve got it good in England, laws in Scotland are even more generous to the common man; allowing him complete freedom to traipse almost anywhere he chooses. More than just shaping the Scottish surfer’s experience, this rite has been critical in putting the nation on the surfing map. The world-renowned reef breaks of Thurso, The Dump, Bagpipes and No 10s are all accessed via private farmland that would be impassable in many places around the world.
So next time you park at that old church and set off across the farmer’s fields, give a little nod to the factory workers, the smugglers, and the ramblers who fought for your right to make that beautiful and convenient bee-line.
And if you are one of the unlucky British surfers whose cherished waves sit behind barbed wire fences or firing range flags, consider if, like the Worker’s Sports Federation on that blustery Mancunian moore, it might be time to do something drastic to regain your right to roam.
For more information on the right to roam, and how it could be under threat from new legislation, listen to our podcast with Guy Shrubshole & Nick Hayes: