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‘No one goes there, not even dog walkers’

Dave Bangs speaks to a crowd of  mass trespassers. 
Credit: Amy Hall

‘We can not fight for nature if we do not know it,’ David Bangs tells the gathered crowd. The conservationist, author and activist is about to lead around 300 of us on a ‘mass trespass’ into an ancient woodland in West Sussex, south England.

The event took place on Saturday 24 September under the banner ‘Worth Forest is worth saving’ – a stand against plans for a £400million Center Parcs holiday resort at the ancient woodland of Oldhouse Warren, within the forest. In July 2021 the company, which runs six other resorts across the UK and Ireland, announced its plans for 224 hectares near the village of Balcombe, chosen because of its close proximity to London which is less than an hour’s train ride away.

Landscapes of Freedom, a collective dedicated to ensuring public access to the South Downs, the Sussex Weald and beyond organized the trespass, alongside national group Right to Roam which campaigns to extend the Countryside & Rights of Way (CRoW) Act in England. Currently access is not permitted on 92 per cent of England’s land.

The trespass is a celebratory affair and the sun shining after a threat of torrential rain. Around 300 people have joined the fun. It’s the first day of autumn – the Equinox when day and night are the same length – and several people have dressed for the occasion, donning their ‘forest finery’ and garlands of foliage as invited to by the event publicity.

A people’s forest

Instead of a Center Parcs, campaigners want to see a publicly accessible ‘people’s forest’ at Oldhouse Warren, similar to Epping Forest in London or the New Forest in south England. They believe that increasing awareness about, and responsible access to, these woodlands as key to protecting the ancient trees and wildlife. Oldhouse Warren is home to a long list of rarer birds and others, including Goshawk, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Woodcock.

There are concerns that building here would damage a landscape designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), defined as ‘fine landscape(s)…whose distinctive character and natural beauty are so outstanding that it is in the nation’s interest to safeguard them.’

Dave Bangs, who I meet at his home in Brighton a few weeks earlier believes strongly that making the forest accessible is key to motivating people to protect it. ‘This separation between people and nature is a huge problem for nature,’ he explains. ‘How can you preserve something that you don’t know?

‘We should have access to nature as much as we should have the National Health Service, free education and a right to a home. We should have nature around us.’

There is so much evidence about the positive effects that being in green spaces, and nature, can have on humans. It can make a positive impact on conditions such as depression and anxiety, as well as improving mood, sleep, attention spans and helping to reduce stress.

This separation between people and nature is a huge problem for nature. How can you preserve something that you don’t know?

Commodification of nature

Regular foragers Emma and Edward have joined the trespass from southeast London. Part of Emma’s motivation for joining the trespass is to be a kind of witness and to support local people who are against the plans. ’The idea of it being reservoir of incredible biodiversity that isn’t seen and known then just being vanished is disturbing.’

Local people have set up a group called Protect Oldhouse Warren and have been running drop-in sessions for people to find out more about the plans. ‘I know that these campaigns can be really tough for the local people – their voices are so small so if we can come and amplify that I think it’s really valuable,’ Emma says.

Over the course of the day, many people express their anger at the commodification of nature. Outdoor fun is, after all, a big part of the Center Parcs brand. A response to Sussex Wildlife Trust about the development said: ‘We very much build our villages to nestle into the woodland, retaining as much of that forest’s characteristics as possible.’

Helen who has joined from Reigate in the neighbouring county of Surrey today is not convinced. ‘To commodify woodland and charge people to come into a Center Parcs is just such an awful juxtaposition of the worst of what capitalism does and the best of what the countryside can do for people,’ she says. The vicar and keen walker is also a campaigner against shale oil extraction at Horse Hill, near where she lives. ‘So much has been commodified already in our world.’

Credit: Amy Hall

There are some local people who support the new Center Parcs because of the potential of new jobs, but Taliesin who lives ‘just over the railway tracks’ from where we meet for the trespass thinks if more people knew about it locally there would be an even stronger strength of opposition. He found out about today’s trespass from a local WhatsApp group. ‘I saw that this is going to be redeveloped by Center Parcs and that is a crime because this is a really beautiful area… everyone who comes to visit I take them to the forest.’

‘The big problem we’ve got at Oldhouse Warren is people’s lack of knowledge of it,’ says Dave. The vast majority of the Centre Parcs site is completely sealed off no one goes there, not even dog walkers.’

Roaming the land

It seems like momentum around the issue of the right to roam is building. Last week Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, who sent a statement to be read out in support of the trespass, introduced a right to roam bill to parliament and the Right to Roam campaign has worked with others to organize many events like this across England over the past year. Just a few days before, dozens of people took part in a ‘dark skies’ trespass in Northumberland and enjoyed the stars without urban light pollution.

Harry Jenkinson works for Right to Roam: ‘What we are trying to do is not just foster an ecological connection of people so that they care about nature but also we want to go further than that. We don’t just want access … we want fairer access.’

He talks about how working class and BPOC (Black people and people of colour) communities are less likely to have access to nature in England. A survey published by Natural England in 2017 found that, over the previous 12 months, just under 60 per cent of white people said they had visited the natural environment at least once a week, compared to about 40 per cent of people from all other ethnic groups combined. And the issue is not just about physical access or proximity – the countryside, which in England is generally much whiter than urban areas, can seem like a hostile place.

Class, health and disability are also other factors limiting access to nature in England. For example, over 20 per cent of the population cannot use public rights of way, either because they cannot climb over styles, or move through ‘kissing gates’ themselves, or because they are accompanying someone who can’t. This is why groups like Disabled Hikers, Muslim Hikers and Black Girls Hike have been set up – to build solidarity and access nature in a way that feels safe.

Back at Oldhouse Warren, as people began to make their way to the train station, or back over the fields home, it was clear that the forest had just recruited a new band of people ready to fight for its protection.

The November-December edition of New Internationalist will focus on land rights across the world. Subscribe here.


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