Lifestyle

‘Doctors should prescribe it!’: the joys of wild camping – and why it is under threat in England

What was that?! I was asleep, now I’m suddenly wide awake. It’s the middle of the night, I’m alone in the middle of Dartmoor, and there’s someone or something moving around outside my tent. Over the whistling of the wind, I’m sure I heard footsteps, and a sinister grinding noise. A murderer maybe? An escaped convict, filing through his leg irons, before coming to do me in. Dartmoor prison is just beyond that hill, after all. (OK, so it’s mainly for non-violent criminals these days, but you try telling yourself that in the dark, on the moor. Fear does funny things to the imagination.) Or is it a beast, perhaps – the actual Hound of the Baskervilles?

Then I remember the pot-bellied horses I saw walking up here yesterday, and summon up the courage to unzip the door for a peek. Ha, not a Dartmoor pony, but a sheep. The grinding was the sound of mastication. Baaaa, now bugger off. It’s still not very inviting out there, driving drizzle, there’ll be no star-gazing tonight, so I zip back up and huddle down.

Why am I camping on Dartmoor, like some kind of tragic middle-aged gatecrasher to the Duke of Edinburgh’s award? Short answer: because I can. Unlike Scotland, which has a much more permissive attitude to it, designated areas of Dartmoor are the only places in England where wild camping is allowed (Wales, also, does not allow wild camping). Now, this too is being threatened. Alexander Darwall, a City fund manager, and his wife, Diana, who own 1,127 hectares (2,784 acres) of south Dartmoor, have filed a case questioning the legal basis of the Dartmoor National Park Authority’s (DNPA) bylaws, which allow for responsible wild camping.

It comes down to interpretation of a section of the Dartmoor Commons Act, which gives the public the right to access the moor for the purpose of outdoor recreation. The Darwalls are questioning whether that should include wild camping, which they claim is a threat to the environment and adds to the risk of wildfires. The park’s chief executive, Kevin Bishop, told the Guardian last month that it does include wild camping, provided it’s done properly. “This means you carry all you need in a rucksack, stay no more than one or two nights, and leave no trace.”

But don’t confuse wild camping with “fly camping” – pitching your tent a few metres from your car, making a fire, a mess, and probably a lot of noise – which is a threat to the environment, a fire risk and became a problem during the pandemic.

So, I’m wild camping. I had to walk along a path that led from the road up into a cloud. Destination: Great Mis Tor, a hill with a rocky outcrop that looks like it was built by Makka Pakka from In the Night Garden. There, I found an area of flat, if a little soggy, ground on which to pitch my tent.

I have done a bit of wild camping in my time. Or camping, as it used to be called. (See also wild swimming – how long before we’re calling a picnic “wild eating”?) My dad – not a fan of campsites, or paying, or hordes, or rules – used to lead us into the hills in the Lake District to camp by windswept tarns. We played rummy in a rain-lashed tent, made porridge with powdered milk and dug holes to poo into, while my school friends jetted to sunny Spanish Costas.

I have subjected my own children to camping holidays, though of a softer variety – in campsites, with facilities, accessible by car. We don’t have all the ridiculous stuff people bring with them – tables and chairs, a portable pizza oven – but, still, it feels a bit fraudulent. Setting up here, in a cloud on Great Mis Tor, listening to rain driving horizontally into nylon, is like a direct line to childhood holidays. I’m hoping not to have to dig any holes.

I was also hoping to perhaps bump into other people up here, not because I’m desperate for company, but to ask them about camping on Dartmoor: why they do it and how they feel about it being under threat. But other people, it seems, have more sense than me about being out today.

The morning after … Sam Wollaston enjoys a brew.
The morning after … Sam Wollaston enjoys a cup of tea. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian

No matter – there are other ways to talk to people these days. I’ve got a signal, and I’ve joined a Facebook group called Dartmoor Wild Camping; perhaps some of its 3,800 members would like to tell me what camping on Dartmoor means to them? Of the dozens of responses, several mention mental health.

They include this one, from Graeme Field, who says: “Having suffered from depression on and off for years, having the ability to get out on the moors on my own and pop my tent up within the permitted areas is a massive step towards improving my state of mind. If this was taken away, I’m not sure how I’d cope at times. Wild camping on Dartmoor is simply the best self-help one could pursue – doctors should prescribe it.”

Becky Harrison posts to say: “Dartmoor has its own wilderness, a place no one can control, regardless of who owns land there. Breathe and smell the moorland air, its distinctive aroma, take it wherever you go, in the car, to the office, at home, and when there are hard times there are good memories. Spending a week alone camping on Dartmoor will teach you more about yourself than today’s society will; it will change your life.”

Ian Ripper’s family has been “camping and enjoying Dartmoor since our boys were babies, sleeping under the stars. Both lads are now veterans of Ten Tors, all thanks to accessible wild Dartmoor. It’s so wrong that anyone can try to close it off.”

For Emily Marbaix, a wild camp is about “getting away from the noise of other people and having a chance to support my mental and physical health and remind myself of all the things I have to be grateful for”. And so on; dozens of excellent reasons to want access to the moor.

Shamus McCaffery, founder of the Dartmoor Access Group, has been tramping about and camping on Dartmoor for about 40 years, but that is nothing in the history of tramping and camping on Dartmoor. “People have been traversing this landscape since neolithic times,” he tells me, pointing out that one Dartmoor stone row predates Stonehenge by up to 1,000 years.

“Bring that forward to a few hundred years ago, and people have worked the landscape, moorsmen have extracted tin and peat, the whole of Dartmoor is scarred with industrial actions of mankind, which has now blended itself back in and nature has taken back over. People today, the wild campers, the recreational users, mountain bikers and walkers, they’re a continuation of that, they are the moorsmen and women of today.” And, he says, they should have the same rights to be there.

McCaffery doesn’t think that the DNPA is necessarily on the side of these people, pointing out that they have tried to limit access to the park for recreational use. He is constantly on their case, firing off letters and freedom of information requests to them, and he founded the Group Dartmoor Access Group to defend the rights of people like him to be – and camp – on the moor.

He points out all the other people who use the moor, such as the Ministry of Defence. “Military training areas on Dartmoor occupy 1,3000 hectares (321 acres). You’ve got troops and helicopters taking off and landing all over the place.” Then there’s hunting. “People careering across the countryside on horseback in pursuit of 30 or 40 hounds, which may or may not be chasing down wildlife.” And “swaling”, the burning of vegetation, by “commoners” (farmers who have rights to use the common for their livestock), a practice defended by the Dartmoor authority, but condemned by others, including George Monbiot.

McCaffery thinks that, when you’ve got troops and helicopters storming and swarming all over it, horses and dogs, and farmers torching it, a few people enjoying the peace in their little tents in the middle of nowhere might not be the biggest threat to the moor.

I’ve already found out about the military operations. There was a red flag flying from the top of Great Mis Tor when I got here. And a sign: “You are approaching a military firing range for which there are bylaws restricting your right of access. When a red flag or light is displayed on the pole, do not cross the line of red and white poles. Do not touch any military debris, it may explode and kill you.” Later I heard the rumble of artillery fire.

After the curious incident of the sheep in the night-time, I sleep fitfully and I am, literally, up with the larks – woken early by my own personal skylark alarm clock, hovering overhead. But it’s hard to get cross about that – it’s certainly an improvement on the first bus of the day hitting the speed bump directly outside my house, which is how my days usually begin. The wind has calmed down, and it’s no longer raining, so I’m unzipping again and … oh gosh, Dartmoor looks stunning in the morning.

It also looks like it should be for everyone. Wisps of mist linger in the valley, and there’s the line of red of white poles – I won’t be heading in that direction today, into the line of fire. There are some cows there; I hope they don’t get hit. A herd of black cows, moving over the plain, or could they be buffalo? There is something of the wild west about the scene. It’s a pretty special place to be waking up in the morning. I’m beginning to understand what people from the group were on about: it feels good to be here, free and timeless.

I’ve got a little stove and there’s a perfect flat rock to put it on, a ready-made breakfast table. I’ve got teabags and cereal, even fresh milk (powdered was too painful a memory). A wheatear joins me for breakfast, flitting around between the rocks. It’s a privilege to be here, and not one I would want to lose. Soon, I’ll pack up and be on my way. Apart from a slightly flattened area of grass, no one would know I’d ever been here at all.

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