Skip to main content
CampaignsEqualityHousingEnvironmentGeneral ElectionSupport Our WorkFixing BritainMigrationEducationRaceCultureWorkGlobal

We've retaken Dartmoor. We now need a national right to roam.

The victory of common sense and communal rights over Alexander Darwall deserves to be celebrated - but it needs to become a turning point, not just an exception. 

August 03 2023, 13.19pm

Anyone who knows Dartmoor knows it’s a complicated place for hasty moves. Its moorland has one of the most intricate sets of interweaving land rights in Britain, tangling together  major landowners, commoners with historic grazing rights, Royal landholdings, ‘newtake’ enclosures, military training zones and, through it all, a right of ‘open-air recreation’ that gives the public free access to much of the moor. This right came with  its very own Dartmoor idiosyncrasy: it included the right to wild camp, the only place left in England where that still held true. 

Or so we thought.

In January, Alexander Darwall, a multi-millionaire investment manager and one of Dartmoor’s major landowners, blundered through this complex patchwork by taking the Dartmoor National Park Authority to court, contesting whether the 1985 Dartmoor Commons Act truly contained a right to wild camp. Sir Julian Flaux, the Chancellor of the High Court, found that it did not. In a surreal judgement that hinged on the notion that wild camping was not recreation but merely ‘a facility for its enjoyment’, the presumed right was struck down. 

Darwall won the case, but the resulting backlash made it a pyrrhic victory. As part of the Right to Roam campaign team, in tandem with an organisation called The Stars Are For Everyone (established specifically to oppose the case) we quickly mobilised thousands of people to take part in a historic protest on Stall Moor, which Darwall owned. The Labour Party declared their commitment to a wider Right to Roam Act, to ensure such access rights would be enhanced and protected in the future. And, after pressure from ourselves and others, as well as the clear force of the public mood, the National Park Authority agreed to appeal the decision.

With wild camping outlawed in most places, there is no mechanism by which civil society, whether through outward bound initiatives or school expeditions, can lawfully teach people how to do it right.

This week that appeal was decided: wild camping rights were to be restored. In a rather simpler and more logical verdict, Justices Vos and Underhill ruled that open-air recreation “plainly does” include the right to wild camp. As Vos argued, whether a walker “rests or sleeps on a plastic sheet to prevent the damp, or in a sleeping bag to protect from the cold, or under a tarpaulin or in an open tent or in a closed tent to protect from the rain” is immaterial. “Resting by sleeping [is]... an essential part of the recreation.”

The Dartmoor case indicates two things. First, we cannot rely on flimsy by-laws to protect long-held rights and freedoms. Camping was restored on Dartmoor only because it caught the public mood and had campaign groups ready to actually channel that mood into an organised fightback. Without that, January’s verdict would have stood. We now need a Right to Roam Act which enshrines these loose liberties into firm statutory protection and expands what is possible on the land, in line with the default right of responsible access created by the Scottish Land Reform Act in 2003.

Second, why should Dartmoor remain the only place in England where wild camping is (lawfully) possible? If we accept that being able to rest in modest comfort is an essential feature of open-air recreation, then that implies that this right should apply to all our national parks (whose statutory purpose is partly to provide exactly that) – at bare minimum. At present, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (2000), which gave us a right to roam over a measly 8% of England (and a slightly better 22% of Wales) forbids wild camping, just as it prohibits many other activities aside from walking (and, thanks to the efforts of the British Mountaineering Council, rock climbing) as well as running roughshod over other long-standing freedoms, such as foraging. Dartmoor wasn’t affected because its 1985 Act was not superseded by CRoW. Other National Parks were not so lucky.

The habitual excuse is that the British public cannot be trusted with such rights unless, apparently they’re in Dartmoor, or live in Scotland). We have a strange idea that British people are pathologically incapable of behaving in ways which are the norm in Scandinavia and many other parts of Europe;. that our culture is fundamentally one of disregard.

It would be naive to say all camping is currently conducted responsibly (though bad practice, in Dartmoor, Scotland and elsewhere is already prohibited) but responsibility derives from response: you have to have the right to be able to learn its value and practise it. With wild camping outlawed in most places, there is no mechanism by which civil society, whether through outward bound initiatives or school expeditions, can lawfully teach people how to do it right. Access laws are followed by people who know what the access laws are: prohibitive ones simply penalise those who already care. 

There is no one who cannot be taught those values. But you cannot change a culture in a vacuum. The Dartmoor victory and the mobilisation of the Labour party to the cause are but a start. What we need is laws that  take trust as their foundation, societies that  believe in their own capacity for transformation, and the resources to see it through. A society which thinks it’s right to make someone feel wrong for sleeping under the stars should search the night sky for its soul.

You might also like...