Last Sunday on a family outing, we ventured from sleepy Saltash to the highest peaks of Dartmoor, in search of the snow, clearly visible from our kitchen window. On driving through the small village of Princetown, we were surprised to pass a mass of people gathered outside the centre’s local town hall. Many were displaying banners we couldn’t quite see, so at this point we were unsure what was the cause of the protest.
We continued our drive out towards the remote area of the Two Bridges hotel, an ancient coaching house built as the Saracen’s Head in 1794 and now very much a jewel of a destination. The hotel hidden in Dartmoor’s depths, is widely known by word of mouth and has a reputation as a breathtaking tourist spot for walkers and nature lovers. The pictures clearly show what a jaw-droppingly beautiful part of Dartmoor this is, with the West Dart River running alongside the hotel.
Will sleeping under the stars now become a thing of the past for Britain’s wild campers?
The next morning, I discovered the reason for the Princetown protest. Local landowner and hedge fund manager Alexander Darwall (6th largest landowner of the UK, with 4000 acres of Dartmoor in his pocket) is attempting to prevent people from wild camping on his land. Darwall is seeking to remove the right of the public to responsibly wild camp on sections of the moor, previously permitted since 1985.
The Blatchford estate owned by Darwall, is home to several holiday rental properties, and offers deerstalking and pheasant shoots. These pastimes would be severely interrupted by the presence of wild campers – behaving responsibly or otherwise. Darwall is siting that the irresponsible behaviour of the campers – leaving unnecessary litter, fire remains, camping equipment and human waste, is the reason he wants the public right to be revoked.
The following day, hundreds of Devon residents made the trip to London, despite the icy weather conditions, to attend a hearing at the High Court. These included Dan Pritchard and Rebecca Shaw who have lived on Dartmoor for the last 15 years, close to the Blatchford Estate. Shaw said:
“We wild camp, and all our children have too. They’ve camped on the moor as teenagers, we moved there for the wilderness, I wanted to bring up my children in the little piece of wilderness left in southern England. Adventure and freedom is hard to find in England now, so it’s difficult to think that a part of it could be taken away.”
Due to the number of National Parks and farm landowners across the country, Dartmoor is the only place left in England and Wales, where the public still has the right to wild camp, in designated areas, without the permission of landowners. There has been at least 100 years of camping in this wild and extreme location and bylaws in place under the Dartmoor Commons Act since 1985, have allowed this.
Huge turnout on this freezing day for a protest outside court. Including lots of locals who’ve made it all the way from Dartmoor pic.twitter.com/18RId8bpmE
— Helena Horton (@horton_official) December 12, 2022
The wild campers insist they aren’t behaving in a disrespectful manner, and that sleeping under the stars is a precious right which needs to be fought to retain. The campaign group The Stars Are For Everyone, helped to organise this protest and are backed by https://www.righttoroam.org.uk/ You can show your support by joining them. The hearing continues.