Litigation not education on Dartmoor

Dartmoor is the only place in England where wild camping is allowed without seeking permission from the landowner.

Unfortunately, reactionary forces are trying to ban camping in many of the most popular places on Dartmoor, including around the quarries of Foggintor, where I spent my first night’s wild camping on the moor in 2020.

It’s a beautiful spot and, crucially, it’s easily accessible from the road on foot or bike.

It’s an area where many people like myself will have had their first wild camps before building the confidence and the skills needed to safely camp in the more extreme environments of the open moor.

I understand the reasons why the Dartmoor National Park Authority are trying to curtail our right to the land: humans inevitably damage the environment they travel through.

But the popularity of Dartmoor after the easing of lockdown restrictions in the summer of 2020 need not be the trigger for ranger patrols and keep out signs.

First time or inexperienced campers can be the most destructive because they simply don’t know how to behave in the outdoors yet.

So teach them.

(Did I mention that I’m an outdoor instructor?)

The Dartmoor National Park Authority has also identified a problem with ‘fly camping’ — disposible dump and run campers — as well as with hordes of revelling ravers.

These problems crop up where there is immediate road access. So is there reallly any need to change the byelaws when camping within 100 metres from a road is already banned? Not to mention the byelaws that prohibit noise disturbance.

Even so, similarly popular areas near to roads, towns and rivers have also been removed from the proposed camping map. It amounts to an 8 percent cut in the allowed camping area.

This doesn’t sound like much, but if those areas are where first time campers are most likely to be able to access, then it’s a huge barrier for people ‘not like us’.

The outcome of these proposed changes is that campers who are not white, wealthy and middle class enough will be discouraged from communing with one of our last expanses of wilderness.

How depressing.

Other proposed changes to the Dartmoor access byelaws include:

  • A clear ban on van or car-based camping, and even the occupation of a parked vehicle after 9pm. So I can’t prepare a bit of night nav or stargaze under some of the only dark skies in England?
  • A ban on tents of more than 3 people and groups larger than 6 people. So what — no families, no school groups, no Ten Tors expeditions?
  • A ban on hammocks suspended from trees. Fair enough. I’m not sure this needs to be in place for the biologically dead pine plantations, but byelaws aren’t built for nuance.
  • A ban on the gathering of fuel, as well as the lighting and tending of a fire. Camping stoves are still fine. I get it, but this is another byelaw that falls under the heading of ‘litigation, not education’.
  • A ban on mass participation activities involving more than 50 walkers or 30 cyclists.
  • A clarification and extension of the ban on paid guides and instructors. This inexplicable byelaw is ignored by almost every single school expedition, but hey.
  • A ban on the use of drones. At last! Now if they could only ban those blasted military helicopters who strafed my peaceful walk up Cocks Hill…

Broken in Finding suppleness of mind and body in post-lockdown Dartmoor

Here in the UK, this was the week that we unlocked a little more. As I write, a paraglider drifts past my eighth-floor window. On my run this morning, the promenade was spilling over onto the sand and the bucket and spade buccaneers were doing a fast trade.

I’m late coming to you this week because I spent the last five days getting sunburnt on Dartmoor. As some of you know, I’m slowly working my way towards my Hill and Moorland Leader Award, chipping away at the forty logged walks needed before my assessment.

But the weather was so good this week that I worried my four hikes weren’t particularly good practice for the ultimate examination that will doubtless be undertaken in the filthy conditions for which Dartmoor is famous. Nevertheless, I’ve got only sixteen more training walks to go!

All my Dartmoor hikes. Map created thanks to Jonathan O’Keefe’s amazing Strava integration. Incidentally, you can see the pros and cons of car ownership: helping me access more remote parts of the moor, but forcing circular routes.

What I really valued about this week, however, was the feeling of breaking myself in again after a winter of semi-enforced inactivity. The sun rising over the horizon every blue-sky morning took on metaphorical overtones as I stood out in the chill dawn with a mug of tea and the birdsong.

Day three was the one that really did it for me. On day one, a fifteen kilometre tramp to the rising of the Avon river, I was powered by first day enthusiasm. But my enthusiasm drained overnight and, on day two, my feet dragged. I only survived a tour of Bellever and Laughter thanks to the morning addition of a hearty walking companion.

Resting atop Bellever, we watch a young boy hopping around the enormous boulders of granite, chasing the family dog. Mother, leaning back after lunch and looking up to us for solidarity, says: ‘Be careful—remember he’s got four legs, not two.’ But boy scrambles after dog. ‘These are too easy,’ he complains. ‘Can we find harder ones?’

Out loud, I suggest Great Mis Tor and the Devil’s Frying Pan, but what I’m wondering inside is whether I’ll ever have that boy’s energy again.

I perked up later in the evening after lighting the wood burner, but I was concerned for day three: did I have the strength to hike alone for four or more hours? Especially as, for some unknown reason, I’d decided to hike up the steep face of the moor’s highest peak, Yes Tor. It was yes again to my friend’s sound advice: ‘Go slow and take plenty of breaks.’

Trundling up the slopes from Meldon Reservoir, I ran into packs of army recruits, themselves making the most of a lifting lockdown. But as I clumped down the other side of High Willhays, I had the moor to myself, with nary a sheep to be spotted.

Somewhere between the solitude and the sunshine, the air and the exercise, I noticed that I hadn’t felt better in months. The stiffness of my mind and body had given way to suppleness, broken in.

When I made it back to base, after five and a half hours, eighteen kilometres and over six hundred metres of climbing, I felt stronger than when I’d left that morning.

The next day, we stopped at Haytor Rocks and spent the heat haze of Friday afternoon clambering around a mini version of the Ten Tors. Five hours down the trail, number ten on the horizon: from my lookout post in the clear blue sky, I see myself leaping from granite to granite, forever young in springtime.

Thanks to G.C. and B.Q. for fine company and penguin packets.

The sun rising over Bellever, seen from Powdermills

This Means Moor

Dartmoor demands from its ramblers an ancient glossary: kists, reaves and leats; logan, staddle and bond stones; clitter, cleaves and clappers; growan, pluton and tors. The map could be read as a found poem; the land invites explorations historical, geological and botanical.

Here you’ll find not only the eponymous moorland, but also featherbed bog, heathland and ancient oak forests. At least 13 rivers arise on Dartmoor. Rivers arise—wonderful.

Waterfall on the East Dart River, one of the many that arise on the moor

If you live in the southeast of England, then you don’t have ready access to wilderness—and you haven’t done since the Industrial Revolution. The closest for many is Dartmoor: 368 square miles of granite, an intrusive layer of plutonic rock; crystallised magma cooling into geology a sprightly 280 million years ago.

Wilderness is a charm. I write these words sitting in a box. Natural light does shine through the transparent panes on one edge of the box, but I’m isolated from the outdoors: not even a scent of nature can penetrate my sealed box. I had to buy an atomiser to pump out the restorative smell of Scots Pine.

My senses are no use inside the box, they can only cause discomfort—like when the rubbish truck goes past or the gardeners turn on their leaf-blowers. Inside the box, textures are polished smooth and geometry is planed square: these cushions, the carpet under my feet, the wood of the desk.

Unless I’m cooking, eating or bathing, this box holds my senses in suspension so that I can tether myself to the abstractions of the knowledge economy. The painted box makes me feel pinned, as in T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock:

When I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin?

Well, I say that Prufrock should begin by leaving Middle England. Dartmoor, ho!

Wild camping among the ruins of Foggintor quarry, granite from which helped build Nelson’s Column

Wilderness is where we go to unbox ourselves. It’s where our senses can hardly believe their luck: gorging on stiff smells and stubborn ground. It’s where we revel in the full breadth of our human faculties: endurance, strength, ingenuity, forbearance, comradeship, imagination and foresight.

We seek the wilderness for respite from the human mania for order and abstraction. The welcoming wilderness of Dartmoor, all jagged sights and weathered touch, feels orders of entropy more chaotic than my little box—but even this alien wasteland isn’t there in spite of us humans; it’s there because of us humans.

A distinctive Dartmoor contradiction of ancient stone circle surrounded by modern pine plantation, Fernworthy Forest

Ten thousand years ago, I wouldn’t have found the barren land I trudge through today. Instead I would have been thrashing through the darkness of vast oak, hazel and elm forests, thorns clutching at my sides. It’s hard to believe, but this blasted heath once wore a technicolour dreamcoat of trees, covering all but the highest tors over 460m.

Indeed, the richness of the land and its warmer-than-now climate drew Mesolithic, Neolithic and then Bronze Age farmers and Dartmoor was once busily populated with industrious agriculturalists.

It was these happy-go-lucky folk who did the hard work of forest clearance, setting fires to burn clearings in the canopy for crop fields, which they parcelled off with stone wall reaves. On the high moor, where agriculturists fear to tread, cattle and sheep were grazed, happily gobbling up any green shoots of recovery in the forest.

These civilisations were a triumph, each successive generation a right winner. Writing of the landscape transformation in England more broadly, Oliver Rackham in The History of the Countryside goes so far as to claim:

to convert millions of acres of wildwood into farmland was unquestionably the greatest achievement of any of our ancestors

But with every tree cut down, landscape erosion tilted the ecology toward invisible processes that couldn’t be handled with the woodcutter’s axe. Over thousands of years of human occupation, the soil gradually acidified and the decaying vegetation of the dying trees became the peat bogs for which Dartmoor is now famous.

The climate changed, becoming wetter and colder, and gradually the people abandoned their huts and longhouses. And what they left for their ancestors was a wasteland: bare scraps of ancient oak woodland in an exposed landscape that is playground to the west wind.

The classic view of Dartmoor: pony, clitter (rubble), Bronze Age menhir (standing stone) and an awful lot of exposed moor and heathland. And the television tower

But our forebears left something else behind as well. Something special. Today we recognise how special this special land is with a scattering of special titles: we call them Special Areas of Conservation.

There are 256 Special Areas of Conservation in England and Dartmoor boasts no fewer than four of them: Northern Atlantic wet heaths; European dry heaths; blanket bogs and old sessile oak woods—the latter includes the stunted oaks and layered lichen of venerable Wistman’s Wood.

English oak growing among the moss-coated clitter of venerable Wistman’s Wood. Moss grew so thickly on the trunks that we found filmy ferns thriving at head height

If our forebears hadn’t stripped Dartmoor, would any of this wilderness be here? Would we find rare stag’s-horn clubmoss on the heath or Sphagnum imbricatum growing on the bogs? Would we have this sanctuary for the otters, the cuckoos and the horseshoe bats? And would I be here, unboxing myself?

On average, there’s two and a half times more rainfall on the moor than on the nearby Exe Estuary; I had four days of solid sunshine, only one where the weather got ‘a bit thick’.

I told you I was lucky.

Above: Maidenhair spleenwort, a wee fern, growing between the cracks in an old stone bridge across the Cholake River

Happy Global Day of Climate Action!

This is a takeover! Legendary school strike movement Fridays For Future have declared today a global day of climate action. As Eric Damien from Fridays For Future Kenya says:

The pandemic has shown us that politicians have the power to act quickly and consistent with the best available science. But not even amid a pandemic is the climate crisis on hold. No measures have been taken to lower worldwide greenhouse gas emissions in a sustainable and just manner. The billion-dollar-investments that are now made to tackle the pandemic and its aftermath must be in line with the Paris Agreement.

My action—aside from sending this email, which unhappily costs the planet approximately 1kg in carbon dioxide equivalent emissions—is to spend the week in Dartmoor. I’m training for my Hill and Moorland Leader qualification and need to get some quality walking days done before the winter lockdown sets in.

Watchful in Wistman’s Wood, Dartmoor. Photo by legendary photographer and all round nice guy, Ben Queenborough (his words, not mine)

It might not sound like much of an ACTION, but spending more time in nature and helping others do the same is a significant element of the change we need to make.

Out on Dartmoor, the ‘environment’ isn’t a hypothetical entity beyond your screen. It’s coming at you from all angles, undeniable and awe-inspiring. We protect what we value, but we can only value what we know ourselves, first hand.

Wistful near Devil’s Tor, Dartmoor

Helping teenagers spend a couple of days immersed in nature—especially those who’ve never hauled a backpack into the woods or held a map the right way up before—makes it a little more likely that they’ll be sympathetic to radical economic and ecological change, not only when they grow up, but now.

A 2009 study from the University of Rochester found that exposure to mere photographs of natural landscapes nudged people to value their community and human relationships. On the contrary, exposure to images of man-built cityscapes made people more focussed on wealth and fame.

Focussed on wealth and fame, but also focussed on not falling arse over tit on a massive trip ladder

In an attempt to explain why this should be, study co-author Andrew Przybylski suggested that nature helps us connect to our authentic selves.

Nature in a way strips away the artifices of society that alienate us from one another.

This is worth pondering. What kind of environments, in this fragile moment, should we choose for ourselves and our children? It doesn’t have to be Dartmoor: as the Rochester study showed: images work a little; plants work a little more.

What does your immediate environment look like today? What can you do now to turn your environment into action for the climate?

Plant wisdom in the ancient forest

Learning to Walk On Dartmoor

I’ve been spending the last three days learning how to walk properly.

For those of you who have always known there was something excessively aquatic about my gait, I’m afraid that I have merely been training to become a Hill and Moorland Walk Leader.

What that means for me is lots of tramping, stomping and yomping across terrain ill-suited to my boots, which are, in turn, ill-fitted to my feet.

But what that means for this blog post is that it’s already 9pm and I’m squeezing in what writing I can with my laptop on my knees, my knees on a chair and that chair on a train clattering its way to a south coast resort best known for its twin Harvester restaurants.

Now, I suppose I could have written this post a few days ago, knowing that I would be spending the rest of the week on Dartmoor.

But then all I could have written about is the minor incident in which the car hire company (yes, I can drive!) upgraded me at no extra cost to what was effectively a Tiger Moth tank.

When it comes to cars these days, I feel like a great-uncle seeing a distant removable cousin for the first time in six months: My haven’t you grown!

My rented vehicle was exactly the sort of behemoth that, as an ardent cyclist, I usually bemoan. The SUV, a Renault, towered over the road, with the driver (me) a helpless mosquito in the cockpit.

Whatever happened to Nicole and Papa?

Despite the looming irony, I am grateful that I didn’t (to my knowledge) murder any cyclists, although I did very nearly have an altercation with a grazing of ponies.

But, you know, my graded-up monster truck did have in-built SatNav. Ooh, plus plus plus! … When you walked away from the so-called car with the key in your pocket it automatically locked the doors.

So probably worth the manslaughter charge anyway.


The only other incident of note before I stepped onto the moor was my arrival at the bunkhouse in Princetown.

When I sauntered into the attached pub to announce myself (having killed a family of four in the car park without really noticing), the barman smiled warmly and said, There are 11 of you, right?

Er, no. Not really. I mean, I can see why you’d think that thing outside is a minibus, but no.

Yeah, yeah, I’m sure there was 11 of you in the book. Let’s have a look.

(Cue much shuffling of leaves in the bookings ledger.)

See, look!

(We peruse the booking there indicated.)

It’s a half-sloshed local who has the tact to point out: You lummock – you’re looking at October.

We scrabble forward another couple of months and, in triumph, the barman jabs a finger down on today’s date: 11-13 David Charles.

See!

Erm. Right. I think what’s happened there is that you’ve confused the dates I am lodging – the 11th to the 13th – with the number of people that make up my party.

You lummock!

Anyway, the upshot of that little incident was that I had the entire bunkhouse to myself. Probably a good thing as I spent most of my resting hours completely naked thanks to the over-enthusiastic central heating.

So, yeah. Not much to write about this week. Sorry.