Thank you, Alexander Darwall – you have mobilised a movement!

Photo Anthea Simmons

We are currently living under a regime which is happily removing rights willy-nilly and, in most cases, appearing to get away with it. It seems that most people are quite relaxed about the fact that a child born in England (specifically) today has fewer rights than one born 13 years ago. That should bother all of us, but, sadly, the saying ‘You don’t know what you’ve lost ‘til it’s gone’ is rapidly becoming the mantra for our times.

Lewis Winks, The Stars are for Everyone

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. In a classic example of the law of unintended consequences, the threatened removal of a right to wild-camp on Dartmoor has galvanised and energised a large cohort of people who are willing to fight to retain that right through peaceful means. The consequence might be a seismic shift in the rights to access the land in England so that we end up enjoying the same benefits of access to nature as do the Scots. The Labour party have committed to passing a right to roam act if it comes to power, following on from Caroline Lucas’s proposed amendment to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and the Lib Dems’ bill which would protect public access to national parks.

Caroline Lucas MP

The news that Alexander and Diana Darwall, millionaire owners of the four-thousand- acre Blachford Estate on the southern edge of Dartmoor, had successfully brought a case to end the right to wild camp without first seeking permission, prompted a primal scream of fury and despair from the thousands who feel a deep connection to the land, the natural world, and gain solace and physical and spiritual enrichment from the freedom to lie back with turf and granite beneath them and the wide and wonderful starlit skies above.

These are not your ‘leave a load of rubbish and scorch the earth with a disposable barbecue’ campers. These are people with infinite respect for the land. They walk, they ride, they climb to reach the moor’s remotest regions, its wildest reaches and ancient tors. For many, the experience is completed by a night in the darkness and silence, sleeping under the stars. They take away with them a unique and joyful memory. They leave no trace.

Dartmoor was the last place in England that could afford you this experience. It is a rare experience that will cost you very little beyond the expense of getting there. If you have the money, of course, you can enjoy pheasant shooting, deerstalking and one of the Darwalls’ holiday lets.

But this is not about the politics of envy. This is about fairness. It’s about rights, not permissions. It’s about not having to go cap-in-hand to the wealthy and powerful. It’s about not being subject to their whims. It’s about freedom and a sense of responsibility for, and love of, nature and the natural environment.

Celebrated author, Robert Macfarlane

The barristers in the appeal have found themselves in an at-times ludicrous semantic battle as to the meaning of open-air recreation – the term deemed to encompass by law the right to wild-camp, enshrined in the Dartmoor Commons Act of 1985. Is wild-camping an enjoyable open-air recreation?

Darwall’s KC, Timothy Morshead, argues that it is not:

“sleeping overnight on the commons is not recreation, open-air or otherwise, because you are just asleep”.

OK, so camping is not the KC’s or the Darwalls’ bag. Fine. I don’t much like sky-diving or potholing, but I can still grasp that both are recreational activities for some.

And what a very sad life is lived where sleep is not, at least occasionally, a source of pleasure. Morshead also failed to consider the possibility that the process of falling asleep and waking up in a magical environment might also be blissfully recreational, but impossible without the actual sleep part!

In the meantime, it appears that whatever you might legitimately do on Dartmoor – walk, ride, cycle, climb – woe betide you if you happen to take a restorative snooze at any point, as you instantly nullify the recreational legitimacy of your visit!

Dartmoor National Park’s counsel, Timothy Straker KC, countered the definition of what constituted ‘recreation’ and what did not:

“Some may view the walk as a necessary chore to enable one to enjoy the recreational activity of camping”, adding, “There are public health advantages given by open-air recreation, which stands to be encouraged not discouraged.”

Morshead was also very exercised by the term ‘open-air’. A tent is, surely, an enclosure, he ‘reasoned’, so not ‘open-air’ at all! This inability to grasp the concept of outdoors/open-air is baffling in one so evidently possessed of more than a modicum of intelligence.

He and his clients were also very much perturbed that this camping malarkey might be the thin end of the wedge:

“And if a tent is acceptable, then why not a wooden hut? Or one made of sticks and rags [think he means a yurt…]? And what about one of those – or even a proper tent – left standing after a camper has gone, for use by others?”

Well, indeed, Sir! And what about a palace or a gilded pagoda or a wendy house? Oh my! What a lot of whataboutery!

Even this brief glimpse of the proceedings will probably lead you to share the very quiet and low-key optimism that this “tricky and important case” as the Master of the Rolls, Sir Geoffrey Vos, described it, will go the way of the campers. We won’t know until October.

Mayday Morris group

In the meantime, the campaign will continue to go from strength to strength, as these clips from the protest and speeches outside the courts on July 18 show. These are people determined not to regret rights forfeited through apathy or timidity!

Tom Usher, Dartmoor Preservation Association

Whose land? Our land! Whose rights? Our rights!

Worth fighting for. We DO know what we’ll have lost when they’re gone…