A review of ‘The Book of Trespass’

By Isobel Elliott, The Perse School

The Book of Trespass: crossing the lines that divide us. Author: Nick Hayes, Publisher: Bloomsbury Circus. ISBN: 978-1-5266-0469-9, Pages: 443 pages, GBP20.00 


Elliott, I. (2022) A review of ‘The Book of Trespass’ Routes 2(3): 203-217


This review examines Nick Hayes’ 2020 book The Book of Trespass: Crossing the lines that divide us and its attempts to investigate and scrutinise how land ownership is the root of social inequality. This commentary aims to explore the links between land ownership and the treatment and exclusion of marginalised groups through history, whilst also investigating the limitations of the author’s argument.

1. Introduction

By law of trespass, we are excluded from 92% of the land and 97% of the waterways in England. That alone in itself was enough to pick up this book- what was once a common right is now a commodity that can be sold to the highest bidder. Hayes is rightly concerned with how land distribution has created uneven power dynamics and much of the social inequality can be attributed to the lack of geographical mobility. It is an interesting concept for geographers interested in place perception, of whether land we cannot access can ever be more than just a space. This book is clearly aimed at those seeking to understand reasons for injustices and inequalities in society over history.

We follow Nick Hayes’ journey as a self- titled serial trespasser, who is an artist/explorer, along on several illicit expeditions into private property. Within each section, he documents his rebellion against the establishment and tells of a specific event in the history of land ownership from the infamous Kinder Trespass in 1932 (Hayes, 2020, p. 21) right up to the Sheffield Tree Action Groups (STAG) in 2014 (Hayes, 2020, pp. 359-361) and explores its historical significance in the fight for equal access and equal distribution of space. 

Hayes explores both the historical aspect but also the legalities of these issues, for example, in the opening chapter ‘Badger’, he examines the significance along with the success of the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act which arguably was instrumental to constitutional change (Hayes, 2020, p. 21). The aim was to create public green spaces for everyone to use and have access to but today less than 15% of land in England is in a national park which suggests that further steps need to be taken. Although, Hayes undoubtedly picks up on the long-standing importance of this Act, it is somewhat outdated and not reflective of the politics of the present and he fails to address that, in an otherwise modern perspective.

2. Community owned land or private ownership?

Hayes establishes a perspective that exclusion and land ownership go hand in hand and that all land should be community-owned and shared, his main argument follows that the: ‘root of social inequality is the uneven distribution of land’ (Hayes, 2020). Additionally, in the last chapter, Hayes refers to a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (Hayes, 2020, p. 374) about how if people’s rights to lands were improved then global issues such as poverty reduction, disaster prevention, food security and the fulfilment of women’s rights would be aided. Arguably, there is limited evidence of a correlation between community owned land and the improvement of global issues, but this is perhaps where the idea of a community- private landowner partnership fits best. For example, the Crown estates (as Hayes mentions) split their profits- with 25% going to the monarch and 75% to the treasury who are private landowners that successfully work with local communities, establishing a balance and responsibility of care. 

Whilst walls and fences can often be a symbol of: ‘a technology of division’ (Hayes, 2020, p. 95), private landowners do not necessarily equal the detriment of a local community. The Tragedy of the Commons by Garrett Hardin (Hardin, 1968) offers a counterargument to Nick Hayes. Hardin indicates that even if all land is shared land, the population will reach a point of stability where people and their use of the common land will exceed the carrying capacity. Furthermore, that a fundamental part of humanity is wanting to maximise one’s gain, even to the cost of others. So, although Hayes argues that community land is the way forward, Hardin argues that the inherent greed of humanity would inevitably lead to a detrimental impact on everyone. 

3. Contemporary relevance

The book’s release and my reading of it coincided with issues of race and gender at the forefront of discussions in society. With the Black Lives Matter movement came widespread acknowledgement that colonial history was not necessarily how it had been portrayed and that many opinions and stories had been overlooked to give us a ‘white-washed’ history. I found it particularly interesting how Hayes’ delves into the relationship of land ownership and power and how that creates social inequality in a way that is still noticeable today. 

Hayes focuses on slavery in the West and East Indies and references Eric Williams’ (Hayes, 2020, p. 127) ideas surrounding slavery and how what began as an economic choice resulted in racism as a consequence. Arguing that to the slave-owners, the slaves that were exploited were property and they justified this by the property principle jus abutendi: essentially the right to consume, transform and abuse. He explains how slavery moved from an economic position of exploiting labour to an era of hierarchical racial discrimination. Slavery lined the pockets of many significant MPs and landowners at the time and the profits were a way of financing the walls that shut the commons of England to public rights. He captures it in a thought-provoking line that: ‘slavery’s impetus was profit; its disguise was race but its mechanism was class’ (Hayes, 2020, p. 149). Thus, encapsulating Hayes wider argument that those who were of higher classes, had property and therefore had power, which facilitated social inequality whether by choice or not. 

Although not mentioned by Hayes, another example of how land ownership can result in the marginalisation of people, can be seen in the ‘Scramble for Africa’ in the early 1900s. This rendered people across Africa helpless to the white Europeans who divided the land based on personal interests rather than the ethnic, religious, and cultural boundaries that had shaped the continent as it was.

Hayes view of the dispossession of local communities and marginalisation of people can be situated in the context of wider literature. For example, James Boyce discusses the ecological devastation and dispossession of the society of the Fens, which stretched across the East of England, in his book Imperial Mud (Boyce, 2020). Boyce suggests that the draining of the marshes was not a triumph of engineering and progress but rather the dispossession of an ‘indigenous people’ and their community shared and owned land. This is a fascinating parallel as the battle to tame the fens stretched for over 200 years and the colonisation of this area is rarely spoken about, yet it is perhaps one of the best examples of the right to ownership of land being stripped in a way that is indefensible. 

Hayes also goes on to scrutinise the links between gender-based discrimination and land ownership and argues that women were central to the battle against property ownership as the arguments against the enclosure of land were the same for women’s freedom of will. As expected, this was perhaps most clearly prevalent in the intense period of the witch craze in the mid – 17th century where those examined: ‘faced the essence of the patriarchy’ (Hayes, 2020, p. 172) through the most powerful men in the country who sat on an all-male jury because only property-owning men aged between twenty-one and seventy were deemed capable. 

Hayes’ continues to explore it in a modern context- referencing the Greenham Common protest from 1981 to 2000 (Hayes, 2020, pp. 176-194) which was dubbed a ‘feminist protest’ by the media to make it ‘more interesting’. The women of Greenham were resented for resisting and going against the spatial politics which would have women confined to a household. This exemplified that what was true in the 17th century, of women being confined by society’s perception surrounding their freedom and their choices, had transcended into the modern day. 

From a more stylistic point of view, it is interesting how Hayes captures not only the personal experience of trespassing but also the intellectual debate surrounding issues of land ownership which makes for an engaging argument. Interweaving these two halves in each section and centralising them on a specific location was a bold choice that demonstrates his value for the simplicity of essentially a travel log but also the local and then wider impacts of an area’s history. However, at times it can feel static and one’s preference often lies with the history and geographical relevance rather than detailed accounts of his trespassing, which do not always quite capture the audience’s interest, in the same way more of his illustrations might. Additionally, Hayes’ factual and informative tone helps readers explore the foundations of societal beliefs in a wider context, but I would argue that he lacks the emotive quality in his writing to take the book from a radical manifesto to a call for action.

4. Conclusion

Overall, I thought this book was a fascinating and important read as it addressed a largely undiscussed issue and related it to a modern-day context. It is thorough and detailed in the way it explores questions surrounding land ownership, property, and power and how those affect various communities in different ways. Anyone who is interested in social inequality, its history in a localised context as well as the relationship between geographical mobility and social mobility will find this book a stimulating read. The desire to change these laws that confine us are cultivated by this book and after reading this, the injustices that shape our society are hard to ignore, I just wished Hayes explained how.

5. References

Boyce, J., 2020. Imperial Mud, the fight for the Fens. London: Icon Books Ltd.

Hardin, G., 1968. The Tragedy of the Commons. 

Hayes, N., 2020. The Book of Trespass. London: Bloomsbury Circus.

Loudermelk, S., 2019. Married Women’s Property Act, 1870 and 1882. [Online]
Available at: https://hist259.web.unc.edu/marriedwomenspropertyact/
[Accessed 10 April 2021].


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