The Supreme Court Has No Clue If You Have The Right To Build Sandcastles Or Not Egregious power imbalances, wherever they show up, can be challenged, but only through the strength and support of community. And a bit of fun doesn’t hurt either.

Last night, I went to an event put on by the universities of Bournemouth and Southampton called Sharing The Coast: Should We Extend The Right To Roam?

The format was simple: three fifteen minute stories from a legal historian, a community organiser and a marine biologist. They were all provocative tales, but, as the title of this little story might suggest, it was Andrea Jarman, the charismatic legal historian, who blew my mind with the following revelation:

Not even the judges of the supreme court know on what legal basis any of us have any right to go to the beach — any beach.

The confusion began in 2008 when the French owners of Newhaven Port decided to fence off the adjoining beach for that ominous spectre: ‘future development’.

In response, the council and townsfolk of Newhaven tried to get their beach legally recognised as a ‘village green’, which would force the bucket-and-spade hating owners to restore public access.

Despite being very obviously not a village, not green and, in fact, completely underwater half the time, the Court of Appeal averred: West Beach was indeed, in legal terms, a ‘village’ ‘green’.

West Beach Village Green

Unfortunately, the Rouen-based owners of West Beach went one better and appealed to the Supreme Court, who upheld the challenge in 2015.

West Beach remained — and remains — closed.

While deliberating on this case, one of the questions that the judges of the Supreme Court tackled was whether or not cap-doffing members of the public had any right at all to feel the sand between our toes.

As it happens, the wig-wearing hotshots felt that they didn’t actually need come to a final decision on this fundamental question of our access rights to all beaches in order to make a final decision in the particular case of West Beach.

Nevertheless, they did make sure to write down their thinking-in-progress on the topic in a kind of non-binding legal document called an obiter dictum. So that’s nice of them.

According to the finest legal minds in the country, there are three possible answers to the question of whether the riff-raff have a right to build sandcastles. Here they are:

  1. We all have a freestanding right to seashells on the seashore. Yay!
  2. We can all presume that we have permission to get sand in our sandwiches — unless the landowner says NO by means of a sign, fence or mutant sharks. Meh.
  3. We have no right to be there at all. Bathers = trespassers. Yikes.

(If you’re interested in all the gory details, I can heartily recommend this rip-snorting commentary by David Hart KC.)

In a way, I’m mightily glad that the judges didn’t make a firm decision on this. As the Newhaven case shows, the will of the people rarely overcomes the will of the landowner — at least in England Wales.

In Scotland, of course, the right to the beach is enshrined in law:

Access rights extend to beaches and the foreshore. Follow any local guidance aimed at reducing dune or machair erosion or avoiding disturbance of nesting birds. Public rights on the foreshore will continue to exist, including shooting wildfowl, fishing for sea fish, lighting fires, beachcombing, swimming, playing and picnicking.

(Very cute that they specifically include ‘playing’ in that little list.)

We could have that kind of deal in the rest of the UK —

18 May: Wahoo!

But, I say again, it is HARD to crack through the concrete ceiling of the landowning classes —

25 October: Oh.

But back to the talk last night — and, as a legal historian, Angela Jarman is an optimist. She’s seen progress unfolding over the centuries and it’s always uneven, a serrated graph of triumph and setback.

It does, however, take a lot of graft to fight power. When there is such an imbalance in financial and property resources as there is in the UK, the people have to use the only thing they have: people.

And that’s the story of the night’s second speaker, Steve Elsworth.

Steve was one of the movers behind a community campaign to restore public access to Castle Cove beach in Weymouth.

A postcard of Castle Cove beach

Castle Cove beach had, since at least 1899, been accessed from the town cliffs via a set of steps. In February 2013, the steps were removed, supposedly due to health and safety concerns, but (in my eyes) suspiciously soon after the beach had been bought at auction.

Imagine the horror of the townsfolk — no, even better, imagine your local beach, park, forest, river, lake suddenly enclosed. Steps are removed, signs go up, a fence is hammered down.

After a period of typical English catatonia — shrug shoulders, shake head, maybe some tutting — a meeting was convened by the local Green Party, where the community was urged into action. No one else will stand up for this. No one else cares.

So they organised.

They started with simple proof: an Ordnance Survey map from 1899 proving the existence of the coastal footpath, including the steps down to the beach. They backed this evidence up with a wonderful collective memory box: a hundred years’ worth of postcards and holiday snaps, showing how the community had enjoyed the beach ‘as of right’.

Holiday snaps like this one, taken of local lad Brian Wilkins in 1938:

Brian Wilkins exercising his rights at Castle Cove in 1938

When documented proof didn’t result in the immediate restitution of the beach steps, the community group started pulling every other lever they could.

Petitions, pamphlets, socials, fundraisers, freedom of information requests, publicity stunts. All of a sudden, The Steps of Castle Cove became a national problem.

Steve’s big tip for building a campaign is simple: communities have families and families have children and children need to be entertained. So make sure your community events are actually FUN and people will show up and get involved.

With this approach, the campaign snowballed (beachballed?) and, three years in, the community group became a charity, The Friends of Castle Cove Beach, so that they could take donations to fund their increasingly determined struggle for access.

Steve originally thought that the campaign would take six months; it took six years.

Eventually the council caved in. The Friends could have their bloody steps back. But they’d have to design them, get planning permission, pay for the builders and then manage the beach.

So that’s what they did.

Finally, on Easter Saturday 2019, the stairs were opened in a grand fancy dress ceremony. Local politicians, now tripping over themselves to bask in the reflected glory, were turned away.

Instead the red ribbon was cut by that very same Brian Wilkins, back on the beach he’d been enjoying since 1938.

Having done his ceremonial duty, Brian went for a swim, which his wife thought a bit silly at his age.


If you’re vaguely local to Dorset or Hampshire and have even a passing interest in spending time in nature, then I implore you to go to the second access rights event that Bournemouth and Southampton are putting on: Sharing The Forest: Should We Extend The Right To Roam, next Wednesday 15 November in Lyndhurst, New Forest.

On this remembrance weekend, what I personally wish to remember is that now is not the time for shrugging, shaking and tutting in the face of oppression. Egregious power imbalances, wherever they show up, can be challenged, but only through the strength and support of community. And, as per Steve, a bit of fun doesn’t hurt either.

Lest we forget that, people, lest we forget that.

Indebted to D.G. 'The book, published in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, provided a new vocabulary needed to explain a changed world'

A while ago, I was invited to contribute to a Red Pepper magazine retrospective on what a bunch of academics and activists learned from Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by anthropologist all-star thinker and doer David Graeber (RIP).

Well, the article has just been published: Learning from David Graeber.

I’m thrilled that Red Pepper gave my bit the headline ‘Debt is bollocks’ and honoured they decided it was good enough to open up the article — but there are many more worthy contributions from folks who knew DG far better than I ever did.

Not least Nika Dubrovsky, David Graeber’s partner and collaborator, who gives us an insight into the process of writing and publishing Debt:

As we waited for publication, David was increasingly nervous; he complained to me he needed to publish the book to change public discourse and the time was right now. He was right: the book, published in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, provided a new vocabulary needed to explain a changed world.

Today this new language—on how we understand debt—is used by everyone, including by power itself. This is what David called a revolution. He said revolution is not when palaces are seized or governments are overthrown, but when we change the ideas of what is common sense.

First, go and read our Red Pepper retrospective — I love Christopher J Lee’s bit about practising competitive generosity over competitive accumulation — and then go and read the book itself.

The full text of Debt: The First 5000 Years is available free online at the Anarchist Library.

10 Years Of No Borders I’ve been writing about the crisis of borders for ten years. My first story on the topic, written after staying in an abandoned chemical factory in Calais, rings as true today as it did then: Do We Need Borders?

Here’s a thing: I’ve been writing about the crisis of borders for ten years.

What’s mad is that my first story on the topic, written after staying in an abandoned chemical factory in Calais, rings as true today as it did then: Do We Need Borders?

The question is, of course, rhetorical.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a nation state is: ‘An independent political state formed from a people who share a common national identity (historically, culturally, or ethnically).’

I’m sure you can already see the problems we might run into if, by any chance, those unlucky administrators happened to draw borders in inauspicious places (i.e. almost anywhere).

That 2014 story was written for an audience of your common-or-garden sceptics: the bulk of citizenry who, until now, have never questioned the very fact of our borders and who naturally assume, for amorphous reasons that they’ve never quite pinned down, that controls are necessary.

People like me, in other words.

It’s what I learned in Calais — talking to everyone, teaching some English, skipping fresh food out of supermarket bins, staying up all night on the rooftop watching for police raids — that shoved me into a new belief system, one that has no room for borders of any kind.

In all those ten years of listening, watching and writing, I’ve not come across a better argument to change people’s minds than the simple fact of being there.

William James, the founder of modern psychology, said that we become what we do. […] One trip to Calais, one cup of hot sugary tea with a Sudanese or Eritrean, is worth a full year of media stories, with their distortions, omissions, angles, exaggerations and outright lies.

If I can’t convince you to engage kinaesthetically, then the most disarming argument I’ve found, especially for all those sensible right-thinking folk, is the economic argument: free movement and open borders is ‘the efficient, egalitarian, libertarian, utilitarian way to double world GDP’.

These are not my words, but the general consensus of multiple economic studies conducted over the course of decades.

‘Impossible,’ all those sensible right-thinking folk say.

Not impossible, I say, only improbable. And everything, in this unlikely universe, is improbable so that’s not saying much.

‘Everything is improbable. Nothing is impossible.’ Graffiti on the walls of the abandoned chemical factory where I stayed in Calais, 2014

Well, come on then, Mr 10 Years — what’s changed?

I was thinking about my long involvement with the free movement, er, movement because I’m currently reading Daniel Trilling’s excellent book Lights In The Distance: Exile And Refuge At The Borders Of Europe.

I met Daniel on my first 2014 trip to Calais, while he was researching this very book.

He wanted to visit the abandoned tioxide chemical factory where I was staying with half a dozen No Borders activists and several hundred other people, many from Sudan, but with representatives from all over — Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Albania, Vietnam.

We had a strict no journalists policy, but, for some reason, Daniel was allowed in — if only briefly. I dunno. Maybe because he seemed sound.

I still think he seems sound — and I agree with what he has to say about ‘change’:

Often, journalists like to think that what they’re doing is going to provoke a change. […] The myth we believe is that exposing something we consider unjust is enough to fix it. But it’s usually not. […]

Instead, if there’s anything useful in our work, it’s more like fitting the pieces of a shattered mirror back together […] As writers, we have the luxury of distance. We can step back from a situation, try to untangle the web of cause and effect that surrounds it, and retell it in a way that makes sense.

Not only that: I would add that we also introduce people to new ideas, voices and perspectives. It’s nowhere near as good as being there, but stories are a small beginning and that counts for something.

Oh, and plenty has changed in the past ten years.

Me, for starters.

Bikes x Borders

Since 2018, I’ve been part of Thighs of Steel, a community of cyclists who gather together every summer to ride an incredibly long way and raise funds for grassroots activist and migrant-led projects that either advocate for change or offer dignified ways for people on the move to elevate themselves.

As much as possible, these are sustainable projects that return a little power, independence and autonomy to people who have often been stripped of all three.

These are projects like Khora, a community kitchen and legal advice centre in Athens, Hakoura, a refugee-run eco-farm in Greece, the Bikes For Refugees cycle space in Scotland, and Calais Migrant Solidarity, the No Borders activist centre I first made contact with way back in 2014.

Images courtesy our charity partner @massactionuk on Instagram

Since 2016, Thighs of Steel have cycled from the UK to Athens five times and raised over £650,000 in cash to help keep community spaces like these open to all.

This year, we’re riding again. Another 5,400km from Glasgow to Athens.

449 donors have aready helped our cyclists raise over £13,000 via our partner charity Mass Action.

⚠️ YES! You too can donate by going along here.

Cycling my share of the 5,400km and raising the £500 I’ve committed as part of our £80,000 target — both strike me as totally impossible improbable from where I am now.

But if there’s one thing that being a part of Thighs of Steel has shown me over the years it’s that all this is possible — when we act together.

In fact, with our collective momentum, it’s not only possible, it’s highly likely.

And what’s true of cycling from Glasgow to Athens, what’s true of raising £500 or even £80,000 for solidarity projects, is also true of our ultimate goal: free movement and no borders for all, not only for the privileged few.

As I wrote back in 2017:

If the last thousand years are any guide, slow but dramatic change is not only possible but highly likely.