Thousands march across Dartmoor to demand right to wild camp
The Dartmoor march was one of the largest countryside access protests the UK has ever seen.
More than 3,000 people joined one of the UK’s largest ever countryside access protests on Saturday on the Dartmoor estate of a wealthy landowner who won a case ending the right to wild camp in England.
Groups of walkers, families, students and local people arrived by foot, shuttle bus and bike to the small Dartmoor village of Cornwood throughout the morning and then thronged for hours along moss- and ivy-draped lanes up on to the rugged, boulder-strewn moorland owned by the Conservative party donor and hedge fund manager Alexander Darwall.
Darwall, Dartmoor’s sixth-largest landowner, sparked outrage earlier this month when he won a case in the high court overturning the right to freely camp on large parts of Dartmoor, arguing that the right had never existed. The area had been the only place in England where there was a right to wild camp without seeking permission.
“There has never been a time when it has been more essential for humans to be connected to nature – but we’re having our right of access removed,” said Laurie Huggett, 38, who travelled with her family to the protest from Cornwall. “We felt shock and horror when we heard about the ruling. We had to come today.”
Many were riled up rather than appeased by the announcement last week of a hastily negotiated permissive access deal between the moor’s leading landowners and Dartmoor National Park Authority, which allows people to camp in a smaller area of the park in exchange for a yet-to-be-decided management fee paid out of public funds. A representative for Darwall confirmed some of his land had been entered into the wild camping scheme.
“It sticks in my craw,” says Duncan Hutchinson, 71, who lives nearby with his wife. “We are not accepting favours from our masters. We are not their serfs. It isn’t the 19th century. Dartmoor is not a private gentlemen’s shooting estate.”
The prospect of the park authority having to pay landowners for access angered others. “Taxpayers are now having to pay for something that was free for all of us a week ago. That’s wrong. And these areas can be easily withdrawn,” said Steve Ward-Booth, 48, a local GP, who wild camps with his children. “It’s a short step to fencing off the land for pheasant shoots for the privileged minority and stopping walkers. Where does it end?”
The agreement has been denounced as a “stitch-up” by campaigners, with a diverse range of outdoor organisations from the Ramblers, British Mountaineering Council and British Canoeing opposing any deal that replaces public rights with permissive arrangements, which can be withdrawn by landowners at any time. Analysis by the Right to Roam Campaign, which organised the protest, shows more than 50,000 hectares (123,500 acres) have been lost to wild campers under the deal, amounting to an 18% reduction in the land available for walkers to pitch tents carried in backpacks.
One outdoor volunteer said she was taking a group of children training for the Ten Tors challenge to camp in a pub garden this weekend. “We don’t have permission [to camp] in January,” said Rebecca Trebilcock. “We are camping in a beer garden tonight. We’ve lost two weekends when we could have been wild camping as a result of the ruling. It is heartbreaking.”
The walk culminated in a theatrical ceremony to summon an ancient Dartmoor spirit called Old Crockern on the bleak expanse of Stall Moor, which forms part of the Darwalls’ estate. Hundreds of protesters cheered in the bright winter sunshine as the moor’s ghostly guardian, who, according to folklore, rode a skeleton horse and punished the avarice of a rich Dartmoor merchant, appeared on the brow of the hill.
Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, said it was one of the largest countryside access protests the UK had ever seen. “This is by far the biggest right-to-roam mobilisation since the campaign to open up the countryside more than two decades ago – and one of the largest since the protests and trespasses of the 1930s that led to the formation of national parks. It shows how deeply people care about access to this country’s most beautiful landscapes.”
About 400 working-class ramblers battled Duke of Devonshire gamekeepers to reach the Kinder Scout plateau in the Peak District in 1932. The prosecution and jailing of five of the trespassers led to a rally of close to 10,000 in nearby Winnats Pass calling for free access to the mountains. In 1999 the Ramblers association brought 2,500 people on to Chiltern hills in Oxfordshire to demand a right to roam.
Ashbrook, who is a vice-president of the Ramblers, said the court case may prove to be the catalyst for a new movement. “The strength of feeling on display is about far more than the right to wild camping on Dartmoor’s commons. The ruling has lit a fire in the public’s imagination, and people see this as a threat to their rights and freedoms, and realise the injustice of having access rights to only 8% of England,” she said.
Alexander Darwall has been contacted for comment on Saturday’s protests. Responding to the high court judgment earlier this month, Darwall and his wife, Diana, said: “We are grateful to the high court for its thoroughness in clarifying the matter. We now hope to engage with the Dartmoor National Park Authority, so that we can improve outcomes on the ground. Working together, we can improve conservation of the Dartmoor commons and improve the experience for those enjoying the commons legitimately.”