It’s hard to know what access to nature minister Richard Benyon normally finds in his gigantic Berkshire estate when he strolls out on a Sunday afternoon. It is unlikely, however, to be a loudly singing group of activist trespassers, dressed up as psychedelic animals and accompanied by an all-female morris-dancing troupe.
But that’s what wandered up his drive on Sunday, when protesters visited the Englefield estate, calling on Benyon to open it up to the public and extend access for everyone to green space across England.
The Guardian witnessed about 150 people strolling into the estate, including the morris dancers (who came in peace, leaving their traditional sticks at home), and Nadia Shaikh, a nature conservationist and one of the organisers of the event.
“This, what we are doing now, is a freedom we should have,” she said. “So we are acting as if we already have that freedom. We want the joy of meeting in the commons with music and the richness of all these conversations and different people. So yeah, I mean, what else can we do when you ask repeatedly, politely, and it’s still a no?”
When asked why she chose this particular estate, she said: “Well, he’s the access to nature minister! So it seems totally appropriate to come and experience the freedom and the land that he has.”
As minister in charge of access to nature, Benyon was involved in the Agnew review, which looked at broadening access to the countryside, but which was shelved with little explanation. Just 8% of England’s land has free access, including coastal paths and moorlands, and campaigners want this to change.
The 12,000-acre Englefield estate, which has been in the Benyon family for hundreds of years and is the largest in West Berkshire, contains land that was once a common, before the Enclosures Act meant it could be absorbed into the private estate. It also, according to the Ramblers, contains lost footpaths. This is where the dancers and musicians were heading. Although those assembled were breaking civil law by trespassing, the gamekeepers did not intervene and watched the strange, mystical spectacle from atop a hill from their SUV.
Nick Hayes, the author of The Book of Trespass who helped organise the event, gave a history of the land: “Looking at 18th-century tithe maps, we can still read the names of the commoners who held rights to farm the land; and looking at archaeological LIDAR data we can still see the commoners’ plough lines buried beneath the deer park. The ancestor of our current minister for access to nature, also called Richard Benyon, began the process of enclosing his estate in 1802.
“Over the next 20 years he moved an entire village out of sight of Englefield house to make way for his deer park. Then, in 1854, a stopping order was granted by his friends in parliament to close the public road that ran in front of his house. Today the Ramblers’ ‘Don’t Lose Your Way’ website reveals a former footpath running through the estate, identifiable on old Ordnance Survey maps, but which has since been extinguished.”
The Right to Roam campaign sent the Conservative peer an open letter, asking him to open up his estate to the public and, in his capacity as access to nature minister, to open up more of England for people to walk on and have picnics – and perhaps even a little ceilidh.
The campaigners had previously met the minister to discuss their ideas to open up at least publicly funded woodlands and the green belt to walkers. They claim he said their proposals made him feel “warm and fuzzy inside”.
In their letter, they tell him they now believe “this was a warm and fuzzy way to tell us we were being ignored”.
They added: “Access to nature is something you, as a major landowner, have taken for granted all your life. For the majority of England, however, it is not a luxury but an existential necessity they are denied every day by a system of exclusion; a system that you can change.”
They claimed they did not want to have to trespass on his land but felt “we have to,” adding: “The urgent need for a greater public relationship with nature has been repeatedly stifled and ignored in government.”
“It feels absurd to use the word ‘trespass’,” said Sam Lee, a musician and storyteller who held a ceremony under the oak tree. “What we are doing is our birthright.
“We are here to playfully go deep into the wisdom, the words, the melodies of this land and experience a sense of connection. We want to feel free of the weight of shame and of indignity of what it is to be on somebody else’s land.”
The singer said Lord Benyon would be welcome to attend his ceremony, during which he told stories of the land and engaged the group in song.
“Like everyone here he is welcome. This is not for him. And it’s not in spite of him. But he is a welcome participant, as is anybody else.”
The protesters point out that, like many of the decision-makers in parliament, Benyon owns land – so he is perhaps unlikely to act against the interests of large private landowners.
Jon Moses, another Right to Roam campaigner, said: “We’re here today to reconnect with a culture that we lost, a popular culture of the land that was taken away when the aristocracy closed much of England. Over a third of the land in England remains in the hands of the aristocracy, mostly in private estates like this one. And we’re on the land currently of the minister for access for nature, who of course has no public access on much of his land.
“That to us indicates a system that is rigged. We’ve been trying to get … bills through parliament, we were promised in the Agnew review, a ‘quantum shift in the public’s relationship with nature’. That review has basically been shelved. It’s been thrown out the window, and we suspect the reason why is because landowners like this are the people who hold all the cards.”
Richard Benyon has argued passionately in the past for the importance of green spaces and links, pointing out that green infrastructure creates “stronger ecological networks, gives people better places to live, better health and better quality of life”.
He has also argued for improving access to green space, pointing out that “research shows that people in the most disadvantaged groups in society are the least likely to travel to access the natural environment – so there is even more need to make sure we improve the quality of the environment where they are.”
He has been contacted for comment.