Cycling around Britain: Leave no trace4 minute read

Once I’ve recovered a faculty or two, I be cycling across Dartmoor to a wild camp spot at Foggintor Quarries, following the trail of two awesome tourers I met/accosted in Exeter.

Will and Daryl have cycled the opposite way to me, down from Liverpool, around Wales and through Devon and Cornwall. It was a real joy to share stories and compare insect bites while they drank coffee and I ate a spectacular kimchi and tofu sandwich from The Exploding Bakery Cafe.

The past three days of riding have exhausted not only my sweat glands, but also my supply of adjectives. East Devon is not a designated Area of Outstanding Beauty for the purposes of a practical joke.

The Jurassic Coast at Sidmouth

In this case, both words and photography are inadequate to the task of inserting you into the scene, but hopefully they might cement you in your budding opinion that, yes, you will leave your house and step outside to feel the rivers, glades, and pastures that quietly surround you.

Doreen’s Garden, Branscombe

In the absurdly pictogenic village of Branscombe, a strip of thatched cottages and rose petals that conspire before a cobblestone church, sits a garden that unrolls into the valley. From the top, you can see carefully tended beds and meditative benches and a sign that says: ‘Doreen’s Garden, open to visitors all year round’.

I didn’t meet Doreen, but I put a pound into the collection bucket for the Devon Air mbulance with a prayer that Doreen is merely the spade-head of a new movement to open up ‘private’ space to public enjoyment.

As someone ‘wild’ camping around England, a place where such guerilla accommodation is technically illegal without the permission of the landowner, the concept of public and private space is very important to me.

I’m reassured by the old folks I meet on the road, the salt-of-the-earth types who have lived round these parts for years. They say things like, ‘Don’t worry about the No Camping signs – they’re only there in case a whole hoard of people move in and won’t shift.’

Despite this reassurance, wouldn’t it be nice if the default legal position was that leave-no-trace, short term camping is permitted so long as it doesn’t disturb livestock, wildlife or agriculture. Why not?

And you don’t have to look far for that legal structure. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code protects the right to camp responsibly: in small numbers, for two or three nights in one place, avoiding enclosed fields of crops or farm animals as well as buildings, roads and historic monuments.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the law and the perceived attitude to wild camping are very different. But I’ve been open about my accommodation choices and have met no one who has opposed them or even expressed disapproval.

So perhaps the public perception of wild camping is ahead of the law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Perhaps that means we can change it. Perhaps it is already changing.

Maybe because of its long association with the military, the right to wild camp is protected on Dartmoor (very convenient because that’s the direction I’m heading).

In the Lake District National Park, the National Trust now ask that people avoid lowland areas and head to the higher fells – and of course to leave no trace.

The spirit of leave no trace is absolutely non-negotiable.

Leaving anything but an impression in the grass will have an adverse effect on the wildlife – and reduce the chances that wild camping, legal or illegal, will be tolerated in the future.

Leaving no trace in an empty field in Dorset.

The pandemic has brought millions of people out into the countryside – a glorious rediscovery of the natural beauty and medicine of this island – but an unfortunate minority have conservation-shaped holes in their outdoors education.

Recently, the Guardian reported that a throwaway ‘festival’ culture has been brought into certain popular wild camping spots and the damage caused means that local rangers are having to clamp down on all overnighters.

Of course, clamping down is not the solution: the problem doesn’t seem to exist in Scotland, with its long history of outdoor access. Because it’s part of their birthright, Scottish campers also inherit an inkling of how to camp responsibly.

In England, it’s as if we’ve only just discovered an enormous lake of ice cream and we’ve jumped straight in, boots and all, without regard for spoiling the dessert that we share. Education, beginning with leave no trace, is the spoon that everyone should be given, long before their stomachs start rumbling.

We need a change in the law. And we need more spoons.

I told you I’d lost a faculty or two.

One more thing…

If you liked this post, then you’ll almost certainly enjoy my newsletter. You can check out the most recent issue on Substack. See ya there - dc:

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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