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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK

The Guardian view on wild camping at Dartmoor: immersion in beauty is legal after all

Two tents by a stream on Dartmoor
‘Dartmoor remains the only national park where wild camping is permitted.’ Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian

It rained again. Across Britain, skies were mostly variations of grey, as they have been for weeks. But notwithstanding the weather, the last day of July deserves to be remembered as a vintage one for lovers of life lived outdoors.

In evening sunshine at the Oval, an outstanding Ashes series produced an improbably poetic climax, as Stuart Broad won the fifth Test for England with the last ball of a stellar career. Over 200 miles away in Devon, celebrations were also taking place at Dartmoor’s famous Haytor Rocks after a legal victory that opens up new vistas on how we might enjoy and cherish our national parks.

Right-to-roam campaigners might eventually want to offer a vote of thanks to Alexander Darwall, the hedge fund manager and landowner who lost his battle to outlaw backpack campers from Dartmoor’s beautiful, bleak expanses. By going to court in search of a ban, Mr Darwall has single-handedly drawn attention to wider issues concerning our right to access nature and the privatisation of public land. The initial verdict in his favour, ruling against a right to wild camp on Dartmoor, was heard in January before barely a dozen people. In the lead-up to Monday’s overturning of that decision on appeal, 3,500 people made their way to Dartmoor to attend a right to roam demonstration.

Specifically, the court of appeal’s verdict held that a right to “open-air recreation” on Dartmoor – as defined in the 1985 Dartmoor Commons Act – included the right to camp overnight. Somewhat risible legal arguments that camping was not a recreational activity, because a tent was used only to sleep in, were dismissed. Mr Darwell has sought to monetise Dartmoor, offering pheasant shoots, deerstalking and holiday rentals on the 4,000 acres he owns. This decision safeguards the rights of backpackers who wish to use its beauty merely as a salve for the soul, waking up to its sunrises before moving on without leaving a trace.

In a country in which only 8% of land is available for picnicking and walking without permission from the owners, the judges’ ruling should catalyse a wider debate about access to England’s green spaces, woodlands, cliffs and rivers. Dartmoor remains the only national park where wild camping is permitted. There is no good reason why it should not be trialled at others, as the British Mountaineering Council and other bodies have proposed.

The Labour party has meanwhile pledged to introduce a more expansive right-to-roam law similar to that in Scotland, where the countryside is open access and an etiquette code has successfully regulated behaviour. According to recent data, in England there is no right to roam in 92 constituencies across the country. The assumptions that have made “No trespassers” signs such a feature of the English landscape need to be challenged.

In 1947, a parliamentary report advocated a public right to “discover the wild and lonely places, and the solace and inspiration they can give to men who have been ‘long in the city pent’”. This week’s legal judgment on Dartmoor was couched in rather more technical language, but informed by a similar spirit. For the Dartmoor National Park Authority, which brought the appeal against the initial verdict, it was a vindication. The same generous principles now need to be applied more broadly.

• This article was amended on 2 August 2023 to replace an earlier picture of Bellever forest, where camping and overnight sleeping are not allowed.

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