Freedom to Roam
(or: are we allowed to?)
The right to roam on common land is an ancient tradition in countries like Scotland, Sweden and Norway. It’s considered so important for health and well-being that everyone has free access to the vast expanses of uplands for activities like hiking, swimming, kayaking, climbing, cycling, horseback riding and wild camping. From an early age, children are taught how to connect with nature. Sadly, this right to roam isn’t universal. In 1932 ramblers from the northern English cities of Manchester and Sheffield organised a mass trespass of Kinder Scout – an expansive moorland plateau in the English Peak District – to protest against walkers being denied access to areas of open country. The events inspired folk singer Ewan MacColl to compose The Manchester Rambler, the opening song of the Dutch Mountain Film Festival in 2019. It was only in 2000 that the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CRoW) was enacted that gave statutory right of access to uncultivated and common land.
In the Netherlands however, ramblers have few rights. The Dutch Roads Act does not function to protect or maintain unpaved paths, most footpaths are simply disappearing or are being (wrongly) closed or tarmacked over. Dutch laws favour landowners and construction companies to the extent that ramblers are forced – between the hours of sunrise and sunset – into using waymarked trails in the countryside and recreational parks. In the main, such restrictions are uncalled for. Nevertheless, there are ancient, unwritten laws that cover ramblers. The countryside likewise needs the rambler: the only way to save ancient, threatened and even forbidden footpaths is to walk them. Without ramblers, the country would become a free-for-all for developers. Our right to roam must be claimed so that we can rediscover the landscape and the stories it has to tell, in the footsteps of our ancestors. Everyone should have unhindered access to the countryside. The more we can experience it for ourselves, the bettter we will understand, value and protect our nature.
The right to roam
With the freedom to roam we aim to stand up for these rights, but we should also recognise that this freedom can also clash with other interests. If nothing, the COVID pandemic has cultivated in us a need to get outdoors, but at the same time areas of natural beauty are now being inundated with day-trippers who leave their litter behind. Mountain-bikers and ramblers are claiming sole rights to use paths and the pressures of traffic in the countryside are reaching breaking point.
Rights for everyone and in perpetuity?
We should therefore look at this freedom to roam with a critical eye. Should we have the freedom to roam to the very corners of the globe, those vulnerable, pristine places like Greenland, the Antarctic and sacred peaks? And who hasn’t taken a short-cut off the beaten track? We should also realise that the freedom to roam is being claimed primarily by white, educated outdoor enthusiasts? Does everyone have the same rights?
And then of course, there is the spiritual freedom to roam. We should be bold enough to ask ourselves what is acceptable, to be critical and to use our imaginations. New ideas only come about when we let go of dogmas. Creativity benefits from a free spirit. After all, it was in this way that world was discovered and its mountains conquered. These are the stories the Dutch Mountain Film Festival aims to tell.