On belonging: why we need Dartmoor National Park to fight the commodification of the commons

Photo by Anthea Simmons

Submission to the Emergency Meeting of the Dartmoor National Park Authority, Friday 20 January 2023, Annie Dare. We felt as many people as possible should have the chance to read her words and reproduce them here with our thanks to Annie and all those campaigning for the protection of access to nature.

Let’s go back to Dartmoor’s origins as a national park. Because this rugged expanse of uplands that is southern England’s last true wilderness—in common with all of our national parks—owes its foundation to the actions of ordinary members of the public who a century ago set out to protect and establish access to areas of natural beauty. Our national parks were created both for nature and for nature connection.

Over the years use of our parks has risen. Expenditure on conservation and education on how to use these spaces well has not kept pace. We all know more must be done to increase knowledge of the countryside code and to protect Dartmoor’s ecology. But, rescinding our rights to wildcamp is not the answer to instances of littering, or flycamping, or raves.

I first got involved in this campaign to defend wildcamping here because I live on Dartmoor and because I have a seven-year-old son whose most fervent wish this Christmas was a new tent so that we could sleep under the stars in this majestic backyard of ours, as generations of young people have done before him.

So when I learned about this case it felt acutely personal—that a freedom and a right was being snatched away from my son, my daughter, from my family.

As time’s gone on, I’ve realised it’s about something much bigger. Bigger than wild-camping. Bigger than this place. Which is why it has touched and mobilised so many people: people who’ve never camped here. People who’ve never even been to Dartmoor.

It has reawoken a sense of being severed from the land. It’s rekindled the same feelings of injustice that mobilised those first land activists who fought to establish our parks all those years ago.

It was really only when this court case broke that the penny dropped for thousands of people up and down the country that those 70,000 acres of Dartmoor were literally the only fragment of land left in the whole of England and Wales where we could go to experience such a fundamental freedom as to sleep out, watch the sun set, and rise again, on common land.

With this court case, people woke up to that fact in their multitudes. These people want you, sitting here today at Parke, to act.

We saw over 3,000 people turn out last Saturday on this issue. Everyone from babies to the really very elderly. Commoners, Landowners. Doctors. Conservationists. Staff of the national park, even. Not all wildcampers, but all utterly committed to the right to do so being upheld.

Martin Shaw, a local writer who spoke that day told me that he’d grown up on an estate in Torquay. He explained how crucial it was to him and everyone who grew up there to have Dartmoor, just a few miles away, to escape into, with its possibility of sleeping out for a night for free. ‘This affects all of us,’ he told me.

And the nub of it is, not that under the new deal we might have lost a thousand acres or more to camping. The nub of it is that two weeks ago we go there without anyone’s permission, without anybody’s say-so. Because a right is SO different from a paid permissive deal. They are as chalk to cheese.

In my twenties, I spent every summer volunteering with Toynbee Hall, a social organisation that for two months a year took deeply socially excluded boys from Tower Hamlets on weeklong scouting camps to the Kent countryside.

The groups I went with were, in the acronym of the day NEET, not in education, employment or training. These young men were pretty troubled – they were in pupil referral units. Awaiting sentences. On Ritalin. Many had had to cope with incredibly challenging circumstances, from poor housing and physical or mental health to growing up in care.

For most of them, money was so tight that it was the first time they’d ever been on holiday, left London even.

And guess what? As we hiked and slept under the stars, we saw these young men come alive. Drop their guard. Laugh. Open up. Saw them start to trust: us, each other and most of all, themselves. And we saw them build a new sense of belonging in an environment they’d never experienced before: the countryside! And we saw the embers of hope and curiosity and wholeness glow.

And when I think about the deal that is being presented here—touted as a ‘welcome clarification’ even—I’m reminded that we were only able to offer those young men that transformational lifeline, at Toynbee Hall, because the head of children’s services had wangled a deal with a friend in the marines who had some land he’d loan us.

Great for as long as it lasted. But when that amazing chap died, about a decade ago, the land changed hands. And at that moment, the extraordinary gift that he’d given those young men slipped away, slipped into memory and history.

This Dartmoor deal, which we’re told may last just three years, is even more fragile than that gentleman’s handshake between friends, and affects so many more of us.

And are there other problems with it being a permission, rather than a right? From what hundreds of people have told me in the past few weeks the answer is a resounding YES.

The truth is that so many of us in this country already feel so severed from the land. On Dartmoor, even those who feel least entitled in this society, the most disenfranchised, the smallest sense of belonging, could come and enjoy this freedom, this great leveller—and feel that in this one last fragment, the land belonged equally to them, and they to it.

And it is this sense of belonging that creates a sense of care, of stewardship. And for us to have any sort of hope of holding onto a stable climate, we need people up and down this land to cultivate exactly this sort of care.

This last place where we had that chance to feel such deep belonging, this connection to the commons is, under this deal, being turned into a commodity. No wonder people feel bereft.

Our right, to deeply immerse ourselves in nature, to see the sun set, and rise again, to learn how to tread lightly, and fall in love with Dartmoor’s wild expanses, to have adventures, should not be up for negotiation or have a price. 

Those thousands who came out in person last weekend to protest at the inadequacy of this deal are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the numbers this moment has galvanised, who have sent us messages, or requests for interviews, from up and down this country and beyond. This issue runs deep.

All of these people are looking to you sitting here: asking you, what next? What side of history do you choose to stand on? We urge you to be courageous, to trust that the people will swing behind you. We urge you to vote to appeal. 

And they did. Editor