High on this government’s list of bad habits is its apparent compulsion to suppress its own reports. The latest was Lord Agnew’s review into the right to roam in England’s countryside. Currently, only 8% of English land and 3% of inland water is accessible to the public; in contrast, Scots are permitted to walk, camp, cycle, swim and kayak on most of their nation’s open spaces.
Agnew’s report was planned to create “a quantum shift in how our society supports people to access and engage with the outdoors”. The Treasury, however, in winding up the project, effectively re-emphasised its minister’s stated belief that “the English countryside is a place of business”.
Over the coming month, beginning today at Totnes in Devon, the Right to Roam group will be protesting against England’s fiercely protective land laws in a series of creative trespass events that argue for the extension of public access to forestry, downland and green belt. The protests take aim at the most visible of the host of statutes that continue to preserve the ancient, high-walled ownership model that still governs the majority of England’s green and pleasant acres.
A useful primer in those urgent issues of land reform might also be found in the polarities of two of last week’s dramatic revivals: on the one hand, Downton Abbey: A New Era, the latest instalment of Julian Fellowes’s rich-man-in-his-castle nostalgia franchise; on the other, Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, the most raucous of investigations into the ancient argument of who owns Britain. Mark Rylance’s question, in the voice of Jerusalem’s untameable Johnny “Rooster” Byron, facing eviction from his patch of Wiltshire land, and declaring a day of freedom to all-comers, might have made a good starting point for Lord Agnew: “What the fuck do you think an English forest is for?”
I once spent a very long 45 minutes interviewing the then England manager Fabio Capello in a hotel room in Lesotho, through the medium of a pony-tailed translator and two public relations officers. Every question I asked was filtered three ways to find the blandest possible form of words from the taciturn England supremo. In the longueurs when those translations were being perfected, I had an idea for a reality show involving football managers shipwrecked together on a desert island: who, I wondered, would prevail?
In the years since, it would have been hard to bet against Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola – with his unassailable mix of strategic purity and charismatic rigour – to emerge victorious from that particular jungle. The latest surreal last-gasp defeat of his team by Real Madrid in Wednesday’s Champions’ League semi-final suggested a different outcome, however. Having effortlessly mastered every Lord of the Flies survival strategy, a falling coconut would no doubt brain the Spaniard in the final act.
As we all collectively chip in to the monster profits of Shell and BP, and living rooms across the country get a little colder and darker, it seems no coincidence that the philosophy of Wim Hof is near the top of the bestseller lists. Hof peddles the idea that the secret to health and happiness lies in cold showers and frigid baths. Last week, I was flicking through Hof’s book with one eye on the ever-alarming smart meter, while weighing up the cost (and vascular) benefits of a 28-day cold shower regime. How long will it be before some minister steps forward to recommend “snowga” as an antidote to the cost-of-living crisis?