Dartmoor protests: inside the battle over the right to roam

Dartmoor protests: inside the battle over the right to roam
Reclaim the land — A recent High Court ruling against the right to wild camp in Dartmoor National Park sparked the largest countryside access protest in history. While landowners have since announced camping will be free and unrestricted, campaigners say their fight is not over yet.

The crowd cheered as the creature came over the hill. It was the Old Crockern, a mythical monster of folklore. The story goes that once, a rich man came down from the city to fence off farmland on the Moors. The locals were furious. It’s said that the ancient Pagan god appeared with a threat: “If he scratches my back, I’ll tear out his pocket.” The landowner didn’t listen, and the curse came to fruition. He spent all his money failing to farm the land, later retreating home completely bankrupt. 

It made sense, then, that in 2023, people would call on Old Crockern to rise again as a symbolic defender against another wealthy landowner. Followed by the sound of flutes, the Old Crockern – a person dressed in a green cape feathered with fabric tassels, and a head of grey to resemble the granite rock of the moors – wormed its way down to the waiting mass of protestors,  fanned out across the bleak, desolate landscape. They were here to oppose the removal of their right to wild camp on Dartmoor, the last place it was allowed in the UK. 

The sleepy streets of Cornwood, Devon, were not built for thousands of people to march down them at once. At a glance, there’s little that sets it apart from other English villages: narrow, winding country lanes, an old church and a charming pub. But on 21 January 2023, it became the starting point of UK’s biggest countryside access protest in living memory, with around 3,000 in attendance. 

With a population of 998, Cornwood is a speck on the southern fringes of Dartmoor National Park. It is bordered by the Blachford Estate, a 4,050-acre plot of land owned by husband and wife Diana and Alexander Darwall, a hedge-fund manager and Dartmoor’s sixth-largest landowner. He and his wife Diana also own the almost 16,000-acre Sutherland estate in Scotland, which had been on the market for £5 million. 

On 22 December, 2022, Darwall took Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA) to court to overturn the public’s right to wild camp on privately owned sections of the moor. On 13 January, he won. The right to wild camp without permission was lost. 

The reaction was instant and fierce. Campaign group Right to Roam didn’t mince their words: they were going to war. Their name originates from common law surrounding the right to roam, which allows anyone to wander in open countryside, whether the land is privately or publicly owned. In 1932, 500 members of the Young Communist League trespassed on Kinder Scout. It was a landmark win for civil disobedience and paved the way for rambling rights – but they didn’t win the open access they wanted. Today just 92 per cent of the English countryside is out of bounds. And so, this latest loss of open access – to a multimillionaire who offers pheasant shoots, deerstalking and holiday rentals on his estate – felt heavy. 

Right to Roam’s metaphorical call to arms was answered, loudly. An estimated three to four thousand people descended on Cornwood to protest the ruling. The walk started with speeches from Cornwood War Memorial, but the crowd was so vast, only a fraction could hear. The procession of families, people young and old, those seasoned ramblers and tentative walkers snaked their way along usually crumbling, deserted roads. It was a perfect day for a protest: clear blue skies and the glare of winter sun.

A crowds gather outside Cornwoods War Memorial.

It was the first time that 55-year-old Jon Middleton had been to a protest. He would have been to more, but he lives in Chagford, a Conservative village in Dartmoor where “not much happens”, he says. This protest, though, was personally moving for Jon. His daughter has done the Ten Tors walk and the families love to take walks and camp together.

Gemma and Charlie Taylor also felt moved to travel down from nearby Plimpton for their 7-year-old daughter, Adelaide. “Charlie said, we have to come down, for her, and her future,” says Gemma. “It’s just an abhorrent recoiling of our rights.” 

For Jon, it also feels like the start of something big: “As tragic as [the High Court decision] is, it might be a bit of a lightning rod for more protests. We need camping trespasses.”

The Dartmoor decision was based on a “forensic unpicking” of by-laws, says Lewis Winks, an environmental educator and campaigner with fellow organising group The Stars are for Everyone. The 1985 Dartmoor Commons Act established a legal right of access to walk the commons for the “purpose of open-air recreation”. The court ruled that this doesn’t include camping. Protestors maintain there was a historical custom of wild camping on Dartmoor, including organised camps such as Duke of Edinburgh and 10 Tours – a staple for local children like Jon’s daughter – which began in the 1950s. Others recall nights spent sleeping in the Moors. 

“We would get up on the moor and stay the night and nobody thought anything of it,” says 52-year-old Rachel Baker, who was born in northeast Dartmoor. Sometimes, she’d go up with her friends, and they’d lay out under the stars with nothing but a sleeping bag. As someone who has felt the joy of the wilderness, Baker is grateful that land politics has shifted into mainstream consciousness. “You can’t just roll over and passively accept this arrogance that if you have a lot of money; you can just take things away from people,” she adds. 

People who grew up with the wilderness on their doorstep, or in families where camping and hikes were the norm, are not reflective of the UK population. Britain has the lowest level of nature connectedness in Europe, a concept which measures the closeness of one’s relationship with other species and the wild world. A lack of it should worry us. Nature connectedness is good for our mental health, and means we are moved to act in more environmentally friendly ways.  

This is certainly true of Winks, who spent his childhood wild camping on the moors. Now 37, he cites these early experiences as the reason he campaigns for the environment. “Being out into the stars, waking up to the mist rising over Tor specked valleys and just getting that time to connect with the world around me is a big part of why my life unfolded the way it did,” he says.

Since the High Court ruling, landowners have agreed to allow wild camping on most of Dartmoor, after the park allegedly paid them an undisclosed amount. However, Right to Roam campaigners have called it a “stitched up deal”. “Permissive access can be taken away at any point by landowners,” says Maria Fernandez Garcia, a local organiser with Right to Roam who co-organised the Botany Unbound mass trespass at Badminton Estate in July 2022. “Following the protest, Darwall has also announced he will be ‘permitting wild back pack camping on parts of his moorland’. Again, this access is permissive, which Winks describes as “having the goose stolen and being sold back the eggs”.

In a statement, Darwall said: “Blachford Estate believes the permissive agreement preserves and facilitates the spirit and ethos of genuine ‘back pack’ camping. Access is legally enshrined; Blachford Estate hope and expect that wild camping will always be available to all.” Winks is calling for Dartmoor National Park Authority to appeal the decision. “They should be fighting vigorously for our access rights to be returned to Dartmoor and not cooking up a backroom deal with landowners,” he adds. 

Campers are messy, they ruin the land they pitch on and so they should have access restricted – or so the argument always goes. “Litter is something people hold onto to refute demands for more public access,” says Garcia. The minority who do litter, Garcia says, do so because of alienation from the land; this sense that we don’t really belong to it, and so don’t feel responsible for it. She also argues that focusing on the actions of a few individuals distracts from the real threats to English countryside: the powerful and wealthy who pillage it for profit, and the ecological damage that comes with agricultural farming and pheasants running rampant. 

“Big landowners receive loads of public money for the upkeep of their land, which is fair enough – if that land is taken care of,” Garcia says, noting that the Dartmoor landowners have received around £32 million from the government in the last 10 years.  “However, often we find in these bigger estates that the money isn’t actually going towards adequate restoration of the land. Besides, if our public money is going to these places, then surely we should have access to them.”

While government money is funeled to landowners, the DNPA is in a funding crisis. Their main funder is the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). DNPA say, due to inflation, they are receiving a real-terms cut in funding. If this period of austerity continues, they say, their ability to “deliver National Park purposes” is under threat. Huck contacted DNPA for comment but did not receive a response at the time of publication. 

The crowd after reaching the summit.

Right to Roam and The Stars are For Everyone’s call to action extended beyond the day: push DNPA to appeal the decision in the courts and write to their local MPs to call for a new Right to Roam Act, similar to that in Scotland. Right to Roam will be organising more mass trespasses, a movement which Garcia urges everyone to get involved with. “The reason that we want to access this land is to love and care for it. That’s it. We want to have a picnic and swim in the rivers. So by trespassing, we are walking as if we are already free,” she says. 

Access to nature is a simple yet crucial right that has been eroded to dust. Connection to and a commitment to care for the natural world matters now more than ever, as spending time outdoors can galvanise a new generation of people to fight for it. Baker’s friend Claire summed up her love for wild camping in one word: freedom. And that’s the crux of it. This is a fight for land, and for everyone to be free to enjoy the expansive beauty of our natural world.

The band lead the procession back down to Cornwood.

Follow Siân Bradley on Twitter.

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