I’m writing from my fireside on the edge of Dartmoor where just a few days ago a judgement in the High Court proclaimed it illegal to camp anywhere in England and Wales without the express permission of the landowner. The case was brought about by a wealthy newcomer to Dartmoor who found a loophole in Dartmoor’s bylaws and used it to restrict the public from camping on his 4000 acre estate. In doing so the rest of Dartmoor, the last remaining place we could legally wild camp, a place where countless generations have enjoyed nights under the stars, also became temporarily out of bounds by default.
The ruling sparked a furore of protest with thousands of people gathering in the largest land rights demonstration since Kinder Scout in 1932 which prompted the initiation in 1949 of National Parks in England and Wales and the subsequent Countryside Rights of Way Act to allow better public access to nature.
Yet today English people have access to only 8% of the land and, thanks to our friendly hedge fund manager, this point has now reached the public’s ear with a jolt and has been met with dismay and the resolve to change things. “Nature is for everyone, not just the few” said the banners, and if ever there was a time when nature needs us to fall in love with her, it is now.
There is a growing movement in England that is demanding a new Right to Roam Act, similar to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 which gives people the right to be on most land and inland water as long as they act responsibly and follow the Outdoor Access Code. Landowners and managers have a reciprocal responsibility to respect the interests of people visiting the land they manage.
As an English person I’ve become accustomed to the feeling that I’m doing something wrong when I’m camping out, cooking over a tiny twig-burning stove or even foraging, even though I know in my bones that these things are more right than any draconian law can dictate. They are the ancient laws of being human, acts that our indigenous ancestors practiced daily. They did so with such a deep respect and gratitude for the land that held them that they, as other animals and indeed wild campers today, would naturally do their best to leave no trace. Because they cared.
It is disconnection that breeds discontent and results in the consequent damage sometimes done to wild spaces, wilfully or simply in ignorance. Access, freedom and the right to roam, coupled with education, leads to connection and fosters real stewardship.
We saw this over and over again in Scotland on a trip last September. Subtle signs in earthy colours laying out the principles of the Outdoor Access Code, gentle reminders about how to be a good custodian, welcoming us to roam, camp and experience the beauty and solace of the place.
We spent an idyllic week wild canoe camping on a Scottish Loch. It felt as if a dark cloud had been lifted, the weight of English law was gone. People we met approached us with broad smiles, welcoming us, curious as to what we were up to, impressed that we were intrepid enough to find places to camp between bogs, perched on the ragged loch edges.
One morning we had our canoe packed by sunrise. We wanted to make it through a narrow cleft in the loch while the tide was high with enough water to paddle over the shallow sand. If we could make it through, the channel would take us out to the sea where it looked, on the map, like there was a sandy beach to camp the next night.
Paddling in the early morning light on a glassy loch, not a cloud in the sky, the soft sound of polished wood slicing easily through the water, mountains and trees all around: there is nothing better. Especially when you know there’s a night under the stars ahead of you, and then another and then another.
We were blessed by the weather that day. We came through the narrows and after an hour or so we rounded a headland and saw an unspoilt stretch of paradise ahead: white sand and short green turf, a perfectly flat anomaly in the inhospitable mountain terrain. We were speechless with awe as we drifted into the bay. It was still early in the morning and the place was ours. We pitched our tent on the wide grass sward, there was no sign that any human had ever been here, our own desert island. In Britain. Really? We dozed on the beach, cooked up some lunch with a few heather twigs, tending the fire out carefully and leaving no trace in the sand.
Then the first wave of kayakers arrived, perhaps six of them. It was Saturday and the best weather the west coast had had all year. They pulled up, grinning. We grinned back and watched them set up their tents on the grass near ours. An hour or so later another group came in, about ten this time. It started to dawn on us that this was, in fact, quite a well used camping spot. They pitched up too, but there was still space for more. The atmosphere was convivial, the sun was going down and someone had brought some logs and was lighting a fire below the high tide line. Everyone was welcome to share the fire’s warmth. We went for a sunset paddle, fished a bit and watched another flotilla come in.
The stars came out and people spoke in hushed tones, respectful of the beauty of the place and each other’s reverie. Stars, moon, firelight, lapping waves, a warm bed on the ground. Sleeping out is a fast track to deep connection.
The next morning the wind had got up, everyone knew the unpredictability of the Atlantic, no one was going to hang around. By nine o’clock the place was deserted again and not a shred of evidence was left to suggest that a whole tribe of humans had been there only hours before.
This is how it can be when we’re trusted. Stewardship, not ownership. We don’t need to own land to care for it, but we do need landowners to acknowledge and respect the good folk who love the land, to loosen their grip on what they call their own, for the benefit of the land itself which calls us to participate, to engage deeply with it again as a keystone species, as stewards.
Let’s take our lead from Scottish law, bring in a new Right to Roam Act for England and Wales, invest in education and let nature and human wellbeing reap the rewards.
Pic 1, a generous anonymous photographer
Pics 2 to 6, Emily Fawcett and Charlie Loram