Skip to content

What was the open space movement?

Written by
Elizabeth BaigentResearcher, University of Oxford
Castlerigg Stone Circle in winter, Borrowdale, Cumbria. Surrounded by the fells of Skiddaw and Blencathra to its north and Castlerigg Fell, High Rigg and Clough Head to its south, this ring of 38 stones, set within a ring of mountains, has stood at Castlerigg for about 4,500 years since it was created by Neolithic farming communities.
Castlerigg Stone Circle in winter, Borrowdale, Cumbria | © National Trust Images/John Malley

From the later 19th century, open space campaigners in England and Wales sought to preserve open space for recreation. Find out how the history of the open space movement saved the countryside for recreation and inspired the National Trust.

Threat to the countryside

Before the industrial revolution most English and Welsh people lived in the country surrounded by green space. By 1851, most of them lived in towns and had little access to open space. Industrial growth and urban sprawl threatened the countryside.

Preservation and accessibility

Open space campaigners focused on preserving open land and making it accessible – unlike in some other countries where preserving inaccessible wilderness was the priority.

Early campaigns focused on common land near London. Later the focus shifted to remoter places such as the Lake District.

Motivations of the campaigners

Some campaigners were inspired by the beauty of nature, while others hoped that recreation in nature would improve people’s health or even morals. Radical campaigners wanted to stop the rich stealing open land from the poor, and conservative campaigners wanted to preserve traditional ways of life.

View from the top of Kinder Downfall in the Peak District, Derbyshire
View from the top of Kinder Downfall in the Peak District, Derbyshire | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Supporting the cause

Campaigners fought in the courts and parliament. They raised money to buy land and persuaded landowners to allow the public onto land such as urban churchyards or royal parks. They removed illegal fences round commons and organised mass trespasses.

Finally, parliament passed laws protecting common land from the late 19th century onwards. Green belts around cities and National Parks were established from the 1940s, and rights of access to private open space in the year 2000.

Legacy of the open space movement

The National Trust’s distinct contribution to the open space movement is to manage its land in the public interest. It also opposes damaging developments and even ran a mass campaign in 2011 to oppose the weakening of the planning controls which protect open spaces.

A continuing battle

Many open spaces in town and countryside now enjoy protection, but controversy continues. Should open spaces be used for vitally needed housing or transport links? Do visitors threaten the peace and beauty of open spaces? Do the animals and plants which live in open spaces have rights which deserve protection? Campaigning on these and other open space questions looks set to continue for many years to come.

Trusted source

This article contains contributions from Elizabeth Baigent from the University of Oxford who researches and writes on the history of conservation and co-edited the book ‘Nobler imaginings and mightier struggles’: Octavia Hill, Social Activism and the Remaking of British Society (2016). Elizabeth is part of the trusted source project.

Our partners

The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities

A hub for multi-disciplinary research projects and research engagement at the University of Oxford

Visit website 

You might also be interested in

The dovecote in the walled garden at Felbrigg, shown with the lily pond in the foreground.

What are Trusted Source articles? 

Find out more about our Trusted Source articles, which were created in partnership with the University of Oxford, and explore topics related to the special places in our care.

The Palladian Bridge at Stowe, Buckinghamshire, spanning the Octagon Lake which is created to look like a river. The arches of the bridge are reflected in the water with a backdrop of green trees. It is one of only four Palladian Bridges in the world and the only one which allowed a carriage to be driven over.

How has the English landscape garden developed? 

The history of the English landscape garden is infused with political meaning. Learn the history and political stories behind this garden style characterised by structured informality.

The Water Garden at Lyveden New Bield, Peterborough, Northamptonshire.

What is the picturesque? 

Find out more about the picturesque aesthetic style and how it became a fashionable choice for wealthy estates in the 18th century. Discover more about the people who influenced the movement.

A charcoal drawing of a lady in her mid-30s, with curled hair and a benevolent look on her face

Great women gardeners 

Learn about pioneering women gardeners from Edith, Lady Londonderry’s rare plants and symbolism, to Kitty Lloyd Jones, one of the first women to train as a professional horticulturalist.

The visitor staircase at Wightwick Manor, West Midlands, featuring Indian rush-work below the dado rail and William Morris' Willow Bough pattern wallpaper above

Exploring LGBTQ+ history at National Trust places 

Learn more about the LGBTQ+ people with connections to the places we care for and why highlighting these stories is so important.

A herd of New Forest ponies grazing peacefully with a small pond and trees in the background at New Forest Northern Commons, Hampshire

What are commons? 

Discover the fascinating and contentious history of commons, natural green spaces that were once used by the community before many were enclosed by private landowners.

A wide shot of a few cedar of Lebanon trees bordering the lawn at Upton House, Warwickshire

Ancient and notable trees 

Ancient trees are links to our past, they're species-rich habitats that support countless other organisms. Discover what makes a tree ancient and how to recognise them.

The south front and formal garden at Mount Stewart, County Down in Northern Ireland.

Plant collectors and historic gardens 

Discover some of the finest historic gardens in our care and how they were shaped by Victorian plant collectors, as they gathered plant species from across the globe.