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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jane Dunford

A wilder kind of campervanning: park and hike on Dartmoor

Jane Dunford in the Quirky Campers campervan she hired with a friend.
Jane Dunford in the Quirky Campers campervan she hired with a friend. Photograph: Jane Dunford

Early morning on Dartmoor, and as I lie in bed all I can hear is the trill of birdsong, punctuated by a distant cuckoo’s call. I open the campervan door to take in the scene. There’s no one around, no buildings in sight, just fields glittering with dew in the sunlight and sheep grazing nonchalantly on the hillside.

While coffee is brewing I study the map and plan the day’s walk up on to the moors. The last time I came to Dartmoor was for a three-day wild camping adventure, hiking and carrying all our kit and food on our backs. This time, I’m enjoying the comforts of a campervan for a few days with my friend Isabel, but, thanks to Wild With Consent, a new company that connects campervanners looking for off-grid seclusion with landowners (mostly farmers) who give permission to “wild camp”, we’re still hoping to tap into a sense of full nature immersion.

Hookney Tor, Dartmoor
Sunset at Hookney Tor. Photograph: ASC Photography/Alamy

Launched in Northumberland, Wild With Consent now offers options around the country, including several recently added in Dartmoor, Exmoor and the Atlantic coast in the south-west. It’s simple to book camping spots through the website and hire vehicles with partners such as Quirky Campers (which offers handcrafted campervan rentals across the UK) or Defender Campers (for 4x4 Land Rover adventures with roof tents) – and they can package multiday itineraries too. Onsite facilities are basic (though some sites have access to toilets and vans come with a portable potty loo), but with all locations only accepting one booking at a time for up to three vehicles (whether campervans, motorhomes or caravans), you’re guaranteed space to yourself, with no noisy neighbours.

Hampi the campervan enjoying Dartmoor.
Hampi the campervan enjoying Dartmoor. Photograph: Jane Dunford

Dartmoor was long known as the only place in England and Wales to allow wild camping, until a wealthy landowner won a court case seeking to ban it earlier this year (though a widely supported high court appeal by the national park authority is under way). While I wholeheartedly support the right of backpackers to responsibly wild camp, the choice for those with vehicles is generally a campsite or risking a layby or car park. For anyone wanting something wilder, without the chance of being moved on, Wild With Consent perhaps offers a solution.

We pick up the van near Honiton. Quirky Campers has several cool options in the area on their books – ours is from Jack at Twin Coast Campers who designs campervan conversions and rents some out too. He introduces us to Hampi; she’s perfect with a wood-clad interior, bright yellow-and-pink colour scheme, well-equipped kitchen and huge bed. There’s even a mini-wood burner for cosy evenings.

Negotiating the lanes is less difficult than I’d predicted and easy-to-follow directions take us to our own wildflower-filled field on organic Challacombe Farm, near Widecombe in the Moor. The sites are all carefully chosen for their “wild” locations and eco-credentials. Challacombe is farmed for conservation, with some land left to rewild, ponds added, trees planted and wetlands expanded. It’s a birding and butterfly hotspot, farmer Mark Owen tells us, as he points out features such as medieval ridges in the landscape. Visitors can buy organic beef or lamb here, as well as natural sheepskin rugs. Most of the land is “open access” so visitors don’t need to stick to public rights of way. “We want people to have the right to roam – hopefully it’s getting higher up the agenda,” says Owen.

The farm is beautiful; a stream leads past a knot of moss-covered trees and a pond (and an outdoor toilet that guests can use). We hike up to Hookney Tor with great views over Grimspound, a bronze age settlement, until mist rolls in blurring the edges.

View of Grimspound settlement from Hookney Tor, Dartmoor.
View of Grimspound settlement from Hookney Tor, Dartmoor. Photograph: ASC Photography/Alamy

The sun comes out as we walk west across the moors, cutting down into a valley and climbing past the remains of tin mines and up to Warren House Inn, the highest pub in southern England at 434m (1,425ft). Once popular with local miners, the fire in the hearth is said to have burned continuously since 1845. We eat lunch enjoying the expansive views and follow a path home through Soussons forest. Back on the farm, we cool our feet in what feels like our own private stream. As evening falls, we stroll up the hill behind the van to catch the sunset and watch the full moon rise on the horizon. It’s utterly peaceful – and we have it all to ourselves.

The next day, our route takes us further south to the 140-hectare (350 acres) Skerraton Farm, not far from Buckfastleigh. It’s a bit of a climb in the van to our camping spot, a vast field with views all the way to the coast (Bantham, good for surfing, is half an hour away). The landscape feels different here, even more wild and desolate. We grab the notes and maps left for us by farmers Deborah and Mark Treneer and head out to explore.

Hampi’s cosy interior.
Hampi’s cosy interior. Photograph: Twin Coast Campers

Within minutes, we’re on the open moor and pass a standing stone before making our way to the reservoir. There are great walks along the river, too, but for now we wander back to our base, trying to avoid cows as skylarks sing high above.

On a sunny evening, this would be an ideal place to sit round a firepit and cook outdoors. But rain puts paid to ideas of lazing in the sunshine in “our” field, so we drive to one of the recommended pubs instead. The Church House Inn in Rattery is delightful, with great food (and spotless toilets!). Later, we’re lulled to sleep by the sound of a storm, cocooned in our van in our own little pocket of countryside.

It’s a bit of a wrench taking Hampi back the next day – my vanlife dreams have been restoked. But an off-grid break in nature, even for a few days, is always restorative. Was it really wild? It’s not the same as heading out on foot with just a backpack, of course (and we did retreat to the odd pub), but compared with staying on a busy campsite it’s been a proper escape. Privacy, peace and wild surrounds, with all the comforts of a cosy van. A winning combination.

The trip was provided by Wild With Consent and Quirky Campers. Overnight farm prices start at £25 (staying at Challacombe and Skerraton farms costs £45 a night). Hiring Hampi costs £95 a night. Quirky Campers acts as an agent for campervan owners offering unique, handcrafted vans across the UK with prices from £85.

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