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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Helena Horton Environment reporter

‘Captured the public zeitgeist’: Court to hear appeal against England wild camping ban

Wild camping protesters held placards and flags as they gathered in the village of Cornwood on the edge of Dartmoor, in south-west England, in January 2023.
Wild camping protesters held placards and flags as they gathered in the village of Cornwood on the edge of Dartmoor, in south-west England, in January 2023. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

When wealthy hedge fund manager Alexander Darwall won a court case to stop people wild camping on his land in Dartmoor national park in January, he could not have imagined that it would spark a mass uprising and what may turn out to be the biggest shake-up of land rights in a generation.

This week, the owner of the 1,619-hectare (4,000-acre) Blachford estate on southern Dartmoor, which offers pheasant shoots, deerstalking and holiday rentals, will be back in the headlines after the national park won the right to appeal against the high court ruling.

The landowner launched his legal action at a time when access to the countryside in England was already a highly contentious issue.

Campaigner Nick Hayes recalls a moment in 2019, at writer Guy Shrubsole’s kitchen table, where they sat discussing how to get the issue of access to green space on to the public agenda. Despite only 8% of the country being available for picnicking and walking without permission from the landowner, it was not really a big public issue at that time. The right to roam in England had been lost over generations, with signs saying “no trespassers” becoming part of the fabric of the countryside for most people.

Hayes told the Guardian: “We’ve been raised into a country where the status quo is to not be allowed to swim in our rivers, or not be allowed to wander in our woods unless we’re wealthy enough to pay for access. That’s normal for us now.”

The pair released two critically acclaimed books on the issue. Shrubsole mapped the ownership status of land in England in Who Owns England, while Hayes wrote about the history of land rights and trespass in the country in The Book of Trespass. They also decided to start up a campaign of planned trespasses, to highlight how much of the country is off-limits.

Inspired by the Kinder trespass in 1932, where people walked up the highest point in the Peak District to protest against a lack of access to nature, they started up their own series of trespasses.

“We started going on trespasses in the summer of 2021,” Shrubsole said. “Our first was on council-owned land on the South Downs, we got 300 or 400 to people to come. Then our group kept organising them, each trespass highlighting a different issue of access.”

The first trespass was in Caroline Lucas’s constituency and the Green MP then became involved in the campaign. In October last year, she tabled a bill on the right to roam, to allow the public to access woodlands and the green belt in the same way they can currently walk the coastal paths.

The Kinder mass trespass of 1932 was a catalyst towards the creation of the first national park in 1951 – Shrubsole hopes today’s access campaign will have a similar impact.

The Guardian has accompanied Shrubsole, Hayes and other protesters on a few of their mass trespasses. Last summer, they danced, sang, walked, picnicked and played music in green fields and under ancient oak trees. Many who took part remarked that it was odd that these idyllic scenes in the English countryside were in fact unlawful. In neighbouring Scotland, there is a right to roam through the countryside, as long as people abide by a code with regards to littering, keeping dogs on leads around livestock, and other matters of safety and politeness.

The protests have slowly grown in number, with a feeling of momentum building, but a lot of the same faces were cropping up at each one. The campaign was reaching a group of committed nature lovers and leftwingers, when really this was a fight for everyone’s rights, no matter their political party.

A few months later, in the icy depths of winter, the Dartmoor case was heard in a stuffy little room in the high court. In the presence of less than a dozen people, the argument centred on the phrase “outdoor recreation” in the Dartmoor Commons Act. The landowner argued that it had a very narrow definition, encompassing activities such as horseback riding and picnics, and not backpack camping. The national park strongly disagrees and says this decision will mean long hikes across the park, which can take days, will be curtailed.

People walk from Edale to Kinder Scout in 2022 to mark the 90th anniversary of a mass trespass at Kinder Scout.
People walk from Edale to Kinder Scout in 2022 to mark the 90th anniversary of a mass trespass at Kinder Scout. Photograph: Joel Goodman/The Guardian

When the ruling was handed down a few weeks later, with the judge siding with the landowner, the response was dramatic. From military veterans, to keen hikers and families who love camping under the stars, people were outraged that this ancient tradition on Dartmoor could be overturned because of the desires of one wealthy man. Right to roam campaigners organised a protest on Darwall’s land and were stunned when 3,500 people showed up. It was by far the biggest protest yet.

“It was kind of a magic that captured the public zeitgeist; it’s been a long-running campaign, but like with the Kinder trespass this has kind of galvanised people and with this energy we might be able to progress our rights,” Hayes said.

Shrubsole added: “It’s taken the actions of the Darwalls to attempt to rescind people’s rights, to make people aware of what we still have and what we stand to lose and what we could gain as well. Darwall’s victory is a phyrric one.”

More political parties then got involved. The shadow environment secretary, Jim McMahon, met campaigners at the national park and declared a Labour government would pass a right to roam law, allowing more access to the countryside. The Liberal Democrats are also trying to bring legislation to parliament to allow more wild camping. “It’s been brilliant to see all the opposition parties having a race to the top in terms of promises of policies ahead of the next election and I hope it keeps going,” Shrubsole added.

Hikers resting on Kinder Scout hills in Derbyshire in 1932.
Hikers resting on Kinder Scout hills in Derbyshire in 1932. Photograph: Dave Bagnall Collection/Alamy

Kevin Bishop, the mild-mannered chief executive of the park, has found himself at the eye of a media storm. Land rights campaigns weren’t really in his job description, but he has risen to the challenge and he and the team have been working to build their case for appeal. Though the ruling knocked their confidence, Bishop said he thought it was important to do the right thing, even if they lose.

McMahon agrees. He said: “This is so much more of an issue than Dartmoor … It threatens everything we’ve taken for granted, really, which is the access rights that we all enjoy, which are under a fundamental threat if this is allowed to go unchecked.”

Dartmoor national park will on Tuesday appeal against the judgment, and now the national conversation has started, it is unlikely to stop. If Labour win the next election, they have committed to a wider right to roam. Darwall refuses to speak to the media, bar the occasional statement through his lawyer, but it would be interesting to know what he thinks about being the catalyst for such a moment of significance.

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