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A Free Man on Sunday

On Sunday, April 24, 1932, a group of mainly young people from the Manchester and Sheffield areas set out to climb to the top of Kinder Scout, in the Derbyshire Peak District. In those days, walkers had to keep to the footpaths, which usually didn't go to the tops of hills. When news of the planned trespass got out, gamekeepers and police were out in force to stop them. The ramblers changed the site of their starting point to a disused quarry. They then set out along the footpath at the foot of the hill. At a signal from a whistle, they broke from the path and rushed for the top. Six of them were arrested, tried and put in prison. One of them, Benny Rothman, got 6 months.

Walking is one of my favourite recreations. It's hard to imagine seeing the top of a moorland mountain and not being allowed to climb up it. I decided to write a children's book about the Mass Trespass. By great good luck, it was close to the time of the 50th anniversary. I was able to go to Derbyshire and join in. We met in the same quarry, and followed the same route. This time, there were no gamekeepers out to stop us.

Among the original trespassers there was Benny Rothman, who had been one of the leaders and went to prison because of it. It was wonderful to meet and talk to him. He was such a gentle, unassuming man. He spent the rest of his life campaigning for access to the countryside.

I'd put him into my story, both in his historical role, and in invented scenes with the children in my book. I sent him the text and offered to change anything he didn't like. I was delighted when he passed the novel just as it was. There was even one thing which delighted him. Besides my children, I had included a group of bolshie teenagers. I named one of their leaders Lil, and had her wearing red socks. That was unusual for those times. Walkers usually went for brown or green, to blend in with the countryside. They didn't go for the modern high-visibility clothing. It turned out that, unknown to me, Benny's wife was called Lilian, and as a young woman, she had worn red socks.

There were more of the original trespassers there, 50 years on. I had the chance to talk to them and ask them all the questions you won't find answers to in books or newspaper reports. "What did you put in your sandwiches?" "What songs did you sing on the bus?" In return, they told me anecdotes I couldn't have invented. When the ramblers broke from the footpath and rushed up the hill, some of them came across a grouse nest. In spite of the danger of being arrested, they posted a guard over the net so that the eggs wouldn't get trampled underfoot. It all went into the book. I met some of them them again at the 60th anniversary, after A Free Man on Sunday had been published in hardback by Gollancz and in paperback by Lions. They were kind enough to say that I had caught the spirit of the Trespass just right.

In time, the movement for access to the hills, which started then, led to the formation of National Parks. The Peak District was the first and largest of these.

The title of the book comes from Ewan MacColl's wonderful song:

I'm a rambler, I'm a rambler

From Manchester way.

I get all my pleasure

The hard moorland way.

I may be a wage-slave on Monday,

But I am a free man on Sunday.

Ewan MacColl was there on the Kinder Scout Trespass as a teenager.

I was delighted when the book made the shortlist of the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize.