When I did the Ten Tors challenge at school in 2013, I would fight back tears with my teammates, anticipating the relief and joy we would feel at crossing the finish line after 45 miles of backpacking on Dartmoor. On Friday, different tears fell. Messages flooded my phone announcing that the right to wild camp on Dartmoor had been overturned in an astonishing defeat.
The now infamous high court case in London, instigated by the hedge fund manager Alexander Darwall, saw victory for landowners, who can now choose to grant (or not to grant) campers a quiet night under the stars. Now, there is nowhere to legally wild camp in England or Wales. The windswept fury of Dartmoor was the stage of its extinction.
Until Friday, an assumed right to wild camp under a bylaw in the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 saw thousands of people enjoying this most basic, fundamental form of human recreation – without having to seek landowners’ permission. The rules of the countryside code were simple: pitch your tent away from the road as the light fades, no open flames, and leave in the morning without a trace.
For Darwall, Dartmoor’s sixth-largest landowner, the right to wild camp in England’s largest national park never existed. For someone like me, who has spent a young lifetime walking Dartmoor’s landscape, what does that mean? The friendships formed in howling winds and under red skies, the boy I met and will marry, the questions I’ve yelled, the answers I’ve found, the shelters from the storm – were they all in my head?
This loss leaves the kind of grief that only nature can muster – and sustain. This grief is fuelling a wildfire of outrage in all who have been touched by the moors. A crowdfund to assist Dartmoor National Park Authority in appealing against the verdict has been shared by millions online since Friday and is gaining impressive momentum.
People are right to be angry. Britain’s wildlife, and the right to enjoy it, are under attack. Britain has lost more biodiversity than any other G7 nation, and ranks bottom in Europe for nature connectedness. The Right To Roam campaign, which advocates for better access to nature in England, reminds us that we are banned from 92% of English land.
Meanwhile, Scotland shows us a successful alternative to restrictive English laws, with a national “right to roam” – despite nearly 60% of its land being privately owned. Just 9% of England is built upon, leaving ample space for wiser, smarter, more mutually beneficial choices. The pressure is on to protect the natural world and improve its resilience, but how can we advocate for a natural world we are forbidden from knowing?
Darwall cited concern over littering and pollution on his estate, framed by a vague desire to restore nature. And yet banning innocent recreation such as wild camping isn’t just banning the act of pitching a tent; it’s removing the chance for public environmental guardianship. I wonder, if I wanted to stalk deer, or blast a few pheasants on his 1,400-hectare (3,450 acres) Blachford estate, would I be welcomed with open arms?
A recent statement from the Darwalls claimed that they never intended to ban camping on Dartmoor, but rather hope to work together on a “mutually satisfactory arrangement”. Well, consider this a new beginning, where a campaign for national right to roam legislation and a new countryside code improves sustainable, responsible access to nature for the entire population across England and Wales. We shall not be subjected to curfews. Instead, see this as an invitation to walk with us, and restore our severed line to nature with the lightest of touches.
As the writer and activist Amy-Jane Beer recently advised, in some sense we should be thanking Alexander and Diana Darwall for making us confront the staggering lack of access to nature in England. Writers, celebrities, activists, hikers, climbers, ramblers and cyclists have rallied to support the right to roam movement with remarkable force, inspired by a fierce love for the landscape.
Little did we realise that Dartmoor has been preparing us for this moment for decades: granite steeling our resolve. We rise from defeat with a rooted desire for us and future generations to be trusted by landowners such as Darwall, and look forward to the day when we have the right to freely return to our seat under its ebony skies.
Sophie Pavelle is a writer and science communicator