The Book of Trespass by Nick Hayes review – a trespasser's radical manifesto

The land belongs to us all! A skilful writer and illustrator explores out-of-bounds country estates and identifies his enemies

Readers acquainted with modern British nature writing will know their way around The Book of Trespass, an episodic travelogue that weaves history into close observation of the material world. Less familiar is the radicalism that enlivens Nick Hayes’s dispatches.

Chapter by chapter, we follow him over walls and through hedges into the private landholdings of England, including Arundel Castle (among the Duke of Norfolk’s residences), Boughton House (the Dukes of Buccleuch), Highclere Castle (the “real” Downton Abbey, owned by the Earl of Carnarvon) – and the Sussex estate of Paul Dacre, former editor of the Daily Mail. Hayes counterpoints these recces into establishment territory with visits to the “Jungle” migrant camp in Calais – a kind of forward operating base of UK border control – and the Wilderness music and cultural festival, favourite of David and Samantha Cameron, where in the absence of actual wilderness he embarks on another act of boundary crossing, with a leg-up from MDMA.

The Book of Trespass by Nick Hayes

Several scenes are related from the ambit of a campsite bonfire, as the author revisits that day’s excursion, and the flicker of firelight (the storyteller’s light) seems to illuminate the whole book. Hayes is an illustrator as well as a writer and his attentiveness to chiaroscuro extends to the accompanying black-and-white relief prints. Each chapter carries an animal’s name, and the illustrations that adorn the headings have a scythe-like dynamism that befits a book more blood-stained than rose-tinted. Most telling is the animal subjects’ refusal, in these thumbnail portraits, to be confined: badger’s snout, fox’s tail, stag’s horn – each breaches the wall of its heavy black frame. It’s a deft detail in a book dedicated to demolishing boundaries of all kinds.

Summarising English property law, from the first Act of Enclosure in 1235 to the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act of 2005, Hayes persuasively implicates the country’s large private estates – and the very notion of such large-scale exclusive land ownership – in the nation’s foundational evils. “Race, class, gender, health, income are all divisions imposed upon society by the power that operates on it,” he writes. “If this power is sourced in property, then the fences that divide England are not just symbols of the partition of people, but the very cause of it.” To peer through these palings is to gaze into the country’s dark heart: on the other side, ordinarily hidden from public view, is a scene of vampiric exploitation sustained by a quasi-religious belief in the sanctity of private space.

The book doesn’t sit on the fence. Alongside its heroes – Roger Deakin, National Trust founder Octavia Hill, the Greenham Common women and the Sheffield Tree protestors – is a cast of millionaire villains. As well as Dacre, there is the heinous barricader of public footpaths Nicholas van Hoogstraten, various Tory duckhouse-builders, and the “current MP for South Dorset and serial hoarder of syllables, Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax”, whose vast Charborough estate was founded on his ancestors’ slave wealth.

The Book of Trespass by Nick Hayes

It hardly feels provocative to suggest that slavery and the excesses of colonialism are embedded in the matter of houses such as Charborough. “These gleaming, cream-stoned treasure chests, stuffed to the eaves with violent plunder, are in fact radiant monoliths to the myth of white supremacy.” For his part, Drax has reasoned that he “can’t be held responsible for something that happened three hundred or four hundred years ago” – fair enough, of course, though Hayes notes that “he still owns the original sugar plantation in Barbados, and visits his Jacobean manor house there every year”.

Hayes’s relief prints in The Book of Trespass are more than adjuncts to the text. As he notes, the very act of sketching “legitimises loitering”. Each chapter includes a double-page black-and-white landscape, rendered with a thrilling air of motion and immediacy. Often depicting a country house or folly in its landscaped grounds, each is framed and screened by swags of vegetation, creating an atmosphere of furtiveness. The viewpoint is that of burglars biding their time, of the criminal. But what, Hayes asks, is the nature of the crime?

As well as a gazetteer to out-of-bounds England, the book is a kind of trespassers’ manual, which opens with an account of the celebrated mass trespass of Kinder Scout in the Peak District in 1932. Know your rights. The French word trespasser, “to cross over”, derives from the Latin transgredior, from which, tellingly, comes the English transgression. But a sign that reads “Trespassers will be prosecuted” is either mistaken or mendacious – you will not be prosecuted for your transgression alone. In 1994, however, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act introduced the crime of “aggravated trespass”, under the terms of which any “additional conduct” while trespassing constitutes a crime. As the Crown Prosecution Service website states: “There is no requirement that the additional conduct should itself be a crime.” It may include “playing a musical instrument or taking a photograph” – or drawing in a sketchbook.

The Book of Trespass by Nick Hayes

The risk of encountering the huffing gamekeeper or whip-wielding overlord animates Hayes’s trespasses. But when moments of contact do occur, there is seldom much fuss: the keeper is drily unfriendly – “Are you lost?” – and Hayes apologises and turns on his heel. Only as the book moves towards its conclusion does it become clear that the real value of all these trespasses lies not so much in the thrill of “transgression” or their insights into a sequestered geography, but the effect they have cumulatively of lifting the spell of private ownership from land that is, rightfully, our common inheritance, and whose seizure continues to impoverish us all. “The land is awakening,” Hayes writes at the end. He has picked apart the meaning of “trespass” and brilliantly redefined it as an act of solidarity.

William Atkins is the author of The Immeasurable World: A Desert Journey (Faber). The Book of Trespass: Crossing the Lines That Divide Us by Nick Hayes is published by Bloomsbury (£20). To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply.


William Atkins

The GuardianTramp

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