“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 violence associated with the original seizure of the land stretches further into the annals of history. According to the Englefield Estate website: “The story of Englefield goes back to 871AD when a battle was fought on the hill above the village, marking an important victory by King Alfred over the Danes. The battlefield was named by the Saxons as ‘Anglefield’ or ‘Field of Angles’ which became Englefield over time.
“The Englefield family were sheriffs and knights of the shire throughout the Middle Ages and became prominent figures in the royal court in the 16th century. Their connection with the house continued until Sir Francis Englefield was implicated in the Throckmorton Plot of 1583 which aimed to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I and install the Catholic Queen Mary to the throne. The house and lands were seized under an Act of Parliament and gifted to Sir Francis Walsingham (one of the Queen’s principal advisors) from whom the current family are directly descended.”
Jon Moses, a Right to Roam campaigner, was quoted by The Guardian. “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,” he said. “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.”
We don’t have rotten boroughs in Britain any more. We are a democracy and corruption is kept in check. This is something we need to tell ourselves. But it is nonetheless worthy of note that Benyon was rejected by the local electorate when he first stood as an MP in 1997, and was routed again in 2001. It was only on a third attempt, at the 2005 election, that he finally followed in his father’s footsteps and was elected to Parliament.
Benyon was appointed as a government minister in 2010 and was given responsibility for wildlife, and for maintaining ecosystems and land management. At around the same time his family trust allowed the destruction of 218 acres of forest in the mining of gravel. “The conifer forest was quite spectacular with the river running down the back – aesthetically I haven’t seen anything like it,” a Hampshire resident told The Sunday Times at the time. “It was magnificent but they have deforested half of a three-mile radius. You’ve lost the trees, walkways and routes through the forests and you’ve gained a quagmire. It looks like a bomb site.”
The aristocrat was further criticised for failing to criminalise the possession of carbofuran, a gas used to kill raptors, which was banned by the European Union. Caroline Lucas, the Green party MP, told The Independent back then: “The minister’s shocking refusal to outlaw the possession of a poison used only by rogue gamekeepers to illegally kill birds of prey would be inexplicable were it not for his own cosy links to the shooting lobby”. He also failed to cut fishing quotas.
Benyon had the Conservative whip removed years later, and effectively sacked from government, by prime minister Boris Johnson in 2019 as the split over Brexit threatened to tear the Tory party apart. He did not stand as an MP again at that years’ election despite having had the whip restored. But you cannot keep a good aristocrat down. Johnson elevated his recent adversary to the House of Lords in 2021, and within months he returned to government unelected – taking up his current role as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Rural Affairs and Biosecurity.
The protesters on the estate on Sunday were asking the lord and minister, a member of the privy council, for relatively little. They were calling for a restoration of the public rights of way that they believe had once existed, and for the government minister to be proactive in improving the access that people across the country have to the countryside. An open letter to the Baron they stated: “The urgent need for a greater public relationship with nature has been repeatedly stifled and ignored [by those] in government.”
But these modest demands would involve something of a change of worldview, one conservationist suggested during the procession. The public would have to be seen as fellow guardians of the land, with an innate understanding of how to take care of the flora and fauna – and not a fire setting, littering rabble.
Sam Lee, a storyteller and musician, led a ceremony under the great oak that included pouring Mead into the soil, folk singing and short speeches. The aim was to evoke an Englishness that was about common land, community and eccentric creativity. “What we are doing is our birthright,” he told The Guardian. “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 question should be – who knows best? Baron Benyon and his family have presided over the estate for generations. Benyon himself was educated at the local public school, perhaps taking part in Ancient Greek plays performed in its amphitheatre, and then studied at the Royal Agricultural College and Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. He served overseas with the army and has been involved in politics locally and nationally for decades.
The protesters, on the other hand, can be dismissed as romantics, artists, self-identifying witches. But the truth here is self-evident: this land is, even to an untrained observer, clearly devoid of rich biodiversity, and stressed and exhausted by climate breakdown and extractive farming.
The question will be answered as it always has in England – by brute power. Baron Benyon is the personification of the mutual interest and interdependence of inherited wealth, our undemocratic hybrid of monarchy and parliament, and the taxpayer funded might of the British army.
He may choose to ignore the musical whimsical protesters asking to walk through his estate, and the scientists who claim a fundamental change of our current unequal power structures is required to address the compound cruises of climate and biodiversity breakdown. He may choose to act. That is, afterall, his birthright.
Brendan Montague is the editor of The Ecologist.