On December 11, 2022, with only a handful of days’ notice and on one of the coldest days of the oncoming winter, 400 people gathered for a rally to save access to Dartmoor for wild campers.
They were the young and the old, locals and those who’d travelled considerable distances, wild campers and non-wild campers alike, all there because they recognised the grave threat to a priceless resource and wanted to make a stand. Had it been summer, had it been possible to arrange the rally with more notice, how many more would have come to show their support?
The 400 gathered at the Princetown Visitor Centre, which is threatened with imminent closure due to the funding shortfall facing the National Parks – Dartmoor and Exmoor between them will have to find £1.3m in savings over the next three years.
The court case brought by one Dartmoor landowner (fund manager Alexander Darwall and his wife, Diana) is attracting increasing attention, and amongst those listening to speakers from the Duke of Edinburgh’s Ten Tors event, regular wild campers and oral storyteller Sam Crosby, were reporters for the Guardian and BBC Spotlight, as well as other media.
The issue is a much bigger one than just the right to wild-camp, and one woman, who confessed to not being an outdoors person herself, said she had brought her children along so that “they could be there on the day that we saved the outdoors”.
Almost everyone stayed for a 5.5-mile hike after the rally, with a line of good-humoured walkers stretching back over half a mile, and spontaneous songs were sung atop King’s Tor. “It’s the most peaceful rally I’ve ever been to” said Beca, one of the three friends who organised the day.
The hope is that the rally has raised awareness of this case – which has been going almost unnoticed – and that it will have impressed upon those making the judgements the depth of feeling and widespread support for maintaining these hard-won rights.
As the event came to a close and everyone dispersed, no litter and no trace was left behind.
Death by a thousand cuts
Access to the countryside is vital for mental and physical health, and cutting back funding for these resources will only close off the natural environment to more and more people. In the great scheme of things, the sums involved are trivial. Cuts to staff will mean there are insufficient resources to maintain the park, leading to ever more areas being closed off and, no doubt, increased pressure from the private landowners to restrict access.
The legal challenge – what is ‘recreation’?
Dartmoor’s byelaws allow the public to use the land for ‘open air recreation’. They don’t precisely define what is meant by ‘recreation’, nor list permitted activities, though there is a list of proscribed activities, and wild camping does not feature.
Wild camping has been permitted on the land for over 100 years, but the Darwalls, owners of the Blachford Estate, want that set aside, claiming wild camping is not permitted under the byelaw and that everyone intending to camp should have to gain their prior consent.
Wild camping means on-foot travel to a remote part of the moor to spend a night under canvas and under the stars, doing no damage and leaving no trace. It is hard to argue that is anything but recreation, but it will be down to the judge – Sir Julian Flaux – to make that judgement, and he has deferred his decision until early in 2023.
For anyone inclined not to take this situation seriously because they have no interest in wild camping themselves, there are fears that any restrictions could also apply to other leisure pursuits – for example, rock climbing and even bird watching. If Mr Darwall wins his case, it could also set a precedent for limiting access to more areas of the countryside in other parts of England.
Find out more and get involved
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