Dartmoor is the only place in England where wild camping is legal
Wild camping laws vary considerably in the UK. In Scotland, subject to restrictions and limitations, wild camping is legal is most places, but in Wales and England it is different. In all of Wales and England, the only place where wild camping, without explicit consent, is legal is on about half of Dartmoor. Now, even that is under threat, by a rich landowner.
Banning Dartmoor wild camping by the back door
Alexander and Diana Darwall purchased a huge segment of Dartmoor in 2011. All of Dartmoor is privately-owned, but remains subject to the National Park’s specific by-laws, and those by-laws have since the mid-80s explicitly permitted wild camping on about half of Dartmoor. The Darwalls lodged papers with the high court wants to stop that. Oh, the Darwalls claim they’re not trying to stop wild camping, and that instead they only want it changed so wild camping without explicit permission of the land-owner is illegal.
Effectively, that is a ban on wild camping, as there’s realistically no way the hedge fund manager will give permission to you or me to wild camp on Stall Moor (the part of Dartmoor he owns). The court papers lodged by their lawyer states outright that the Dartmoor Commons Act doesn’t include a right to wild camping. It goes on to state that the Darwall’s “cannot effectively enforce their rights against members of the public“. Charming people, aren’t they? Oh, and you will not be surprised that they offer pheasant shoots and deer stalking excursions on their land. As if killing for fun is good thing.
The Darwalls have previous form: in 2016, they bought a 16 000 acre estate in Scotland, where previously locals have always been permitted to pan for gold. After buying the estate, they started charging recreational panners extortionate amounts. They also closed a permissive car park, claiming it was because of protecting important biodiversity.
Privatisation of open access
Dartmoor’s history is fascinating. In Medieval times, when most people would have been serfs – essentially half a step away from full slavery – almost anyone could step outside that repressive system, by becoming a tin miner on Dartmoor. The tin miners operated under different laws, called the Stannary system, and even had a Stannary Parliament. Yes – a democratic system of government existed on Dartmoor in medieval times. The Stannary laws remain statutes in the UK to this day, and are considered to be the oldest laws in the UK.
For centuries, people were free to access most of Dartmoor, and that included camping overnight. The by-laws limits that to some extent, stating you’re only allowed to camp in a tent (bivvies are accepted, too) and that you’re not permitted to camp closer than 100 metres of any road. You’re also not permitted to camp in any enclosure. Finally, you may only camp in the same spot for two consecutive nights. It also states that you’re not permitted to light a fire, but explicitly permits camping stoves.
This legal challenge by the Darwalls is a serious threat to the access the public enjoyed for centuries. It is nothing but a thinly-veiled attempt at banning wild camping and the privatisation of open access to the land.
Why does this matter?
If you spend any time on this site, you will see I’m a huge fan of wild camping. The repressive laws of Wales and England stand in stark contrast to the far more reasonable laws of Scotland, and these laws have real implications for people who do cycle touring and cycle camping. My Guided Wild Camping excursions take place on Dartmoor, precisely because it is the only place in England and Wales where it’s legal to do so. These are our rights that are under threat.
The Darwalls make spurious claims of wild campers lighting fires. People like me follow the most important principle of wild camping: Leave No Trace. While undoubtedly there will be a tiny minority of anti-social idiots who left a mess in their wake, those tend to be the people who drive up, camp within metres of their car, and have zero regard for any of the by-laws. Adding yet another restriction to people like that will make no difference to them, as they simply don’t care.
Dartmoor is a special place. It’s a place where it’s easy to believe the numerous ghost stories. It’s the last wilderness in England, and it’s hugely important – for many 1000s of people – that our right to roam remains protected.
Dartmoor National Park’s view
The Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA) is opposing the Darwall’s claim in the high court. The DNPA says that the Darwall’s claim is contrary to centuries of tradition, and refers to published guides of a century ago that references camping overnight on the moor. Also, the DNPA rightly points out that, if successful in court, the Darwalls are unlikely to grant permission for members of the public to wild camp, and that other land owners will follow suit.
Importantly, the DNPA says it has no evidence that responsible wild camping has any lasting impact on the environment. It goes on to say that making of fires is more likely to be done by day trippers than people who wild camp. The park authority also says that no wildfires on Stall Moor (owned by the Darwalls) are linked to anyone wild camping.
What can YOU do to help protect wild camping on Dartmoor?
On Monday, 12th of December, Right To Roam are holding a demonstration outside the Royal Courts Of Justice, in London. If you can, please attend that. There is a second demonstration being held a day earlier, in Princetown, Dartmoor. Full details of both events are here. I’ll be attending the demonstration in Princetown.
On social media, please use the hashtag #TheStarsAreForEveryone when referring to any opposition to the Darwall’s actions?