Fell Runners and Access to the Peak District Moors

A summary by longstanding member Bob Berzins

I joined Dark Peak in September 1984. The club seemed well established with a mix of very fit athletes, orienteers, some real all-rounders who thrived on cross country, track and road and plenty of more normal, slower and older runners.

Every Wednesday night run was from the Sportsman and I soon learnt that the last couple of miles was an all out sprint for the club hut, so finding my way back on my own was essential.

Then, as now, it seemed that Wednesday nights were a chance to forget about conforming to the restrictions of work, home life and family and were a chance to enjoy the freedom of a wide open, natural environment  with a bunch of like minded people.

Having seen the term “access land” on some of the OS maps of the time, I naively thought that this applied to all moorland, but I soon discovered that we found regular access points to the moors which all seemed to involve a bit of fence that had the barbed wire missing or a gate that was easy to jump over. All the moorland near the club hut was privately owned, but there was really no evidence on the ground to show this, no “private” signs and no confrontations with gamekeepers. The only incidents I can remember from that time involved fenced in farmland and livestock (nothing much has changed then). The only moorland where we were actually welcome was the National Trust owned Kinder and Bleaklow, along with Burbage and a small part of Stanage. Big Moor was private as was the peak park owned Carr Head Rocks. 

After a couple of years, there were two incidents which really made people think about what we were doing. First of all the tenant farmer who lived at the edge of one of the regular moorland routes took out his shotgun and blasted the trees above a bunch of runners. The way the club reacted was very much to stick up for what we saw as our moral right to access this land. The Club Secretary met the landowner and it was agreed that shooting runners was really not on. We continued our running, a little more discretely, further up the hill out of sight of the farm. The second incident involved land owned by the recently privatised water companies on a route affectionately known to us as the trespass. This time we received a letter. I don’t think any meetings took place, but after a pause, we continued our running as before.

These incidents led us to change our calendar and adopt regular away runs, with Cutthroat Bridge and Longshaw carpark becoming Sportsman substitutes. A series of summer evening races also started with Crookstone, Cakes of Bread and Four Springs being some of the first. At this time there were only a handful of FRA evening races such as Hope, Bamford, Bradwell and Hathersage in the course of a season.        

For some club members an appreciation of the natural environment added to the experience. In the ten year magazine (1986) Andy Harmer wrote of skylark, plover and hare. “The sandy area between West End bridge and Grinah stones is a great place for the only green butterfly, the green hairstreak, to see them dancing in the May sunlight is worth a sojourn that way”. Are they still found here?

In the late nineties, with a Labour government in power the debate on the Right to Roam resurfaced, pushed by the Ramblers association. You might think our club was completely in favour of the proposed legislation, but you couldn’t be further from the truth. Pretty much the club was split 50/50 on this. An AGM brought out many of the arguments, but as far as I could see, many people thought we had been trespassing for so long on these moors, that it was as if we had a private agreement with the landowner. Dave Chellone of SCAM (Sheffield campaign for access to moorland) describes publicising a trespass and meeting the landowner at a shooting cabin. “As usual the conversation that ensued was civil and ended with the landowner sending us on our way and wishing us well”. The Clarion Rambler of 1915 quotes Halliwell Sutcliffe’s, “The Gentle art of Trespassing – Like all games it has strict rules and also it’s more delicately shaded laws of etiquette”. This for me sums up the rationale of many club members at the time.   

That said, I did go to the Houses of Parliament along with the Ramblers and other interested parties to meet with some of the more radical Labour MPs who were pushing this Bill.

The CROW Act came onto statute in 2000, but there followed a period of mapping access land so it wasn’t until September 19th 2004 that it officially came into force. From that time, all mapped access land is open to the public, which really means all mountain and moorland.

The most significant thing that changed for us over this period was the attitudes of Grouse moor landowners. I don’t know if it was a combination of backs against the wall during 13 years of labour government along with a worldwide property fuelled, booming economy, but landowners certainly seemed to grasp that they could charge clients thousands of pounds for a day’s shooting. Of course this means that there has to be the grouse to shoot and this filters down into a much more pressurised environment. Gamekeepers control  predators by shooting or trapping, for example crows and foxes, but this has also spilled over into the controversy around persecution of raptors.

A couple years after the CROW Act came into force, local landowners asked to meet to discuss running over their land during the nesting season. This was something of a watershed for the club, with landowners coming to us, rather than us being summoned and it was up to us to volunteer a restriction or not. Also this brought home to many that we were no longer ”below the radar”, but recognised and known. The situation with local landowners is still not fully resolved.

The legislation is clear on the rights of an individual to access land, but more vague when it comes to groups. Certainly for any official organised event (eg FRA race) permission must be sought.  We have argued that our club runs and races are not organised events and it has been generally accepted that this is the case. However landowners and conservationists are very suspicious of groups such as ours, so I and other club members have spent a great deal of time trying to show that we are responsible recreational users, who consider all aspects of the environment.

We might have thought we were anonymous back in 1976 or 1986, but this is no longer the case. Today if we upset a farmer during a race, our Chairman gets an email before the race has even finished. (A note from 2023, this is still true and happens!)    

These are some of my recollections and views and I hope they are helpful to club members. I look forward to hearing what you think.