‘Nothing can take its place’: dismayed Dartmoor wild campers share memories

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Visitors to Dartmoor and local people have reacted with dismay to the loss of the right to wild camp in England and Wales after a high court ruling against the pitching of tents in the national park without the landowner’s permission. Campaigners have vowed to fight the ban. Here, readers share their memories of camping on Dartmoor and what the national park means to them.

‘We had a space where we could enjoy the simplest pleasures’

Sarah Mitchell camping in Dartmoor.
Sarah Mitchell and a friend camping on Dartmoor. Photograph: Picasa/Guardian Community

Growing up in Devon, camping on Dartmoor was a rite of passage, accessible to all. We spent every Boxing Day eating turkey sandwiches huddled out of the rain. We spent countless weekends as grumpy teenagers being dragged around letterboxing, and then, at secondary school, joining Dartmoor society for lengthy ambles across the moor on weekends. On one trip, a group of us decided to camp near Okehampton for a couple of nights. It rained constantly, and we spent the entire time playing Bop It.

In a complicated and overwhelming world, we had a space where we could enjoy the very simplest pleasures. As an adult, I have often come back to wild camp on Dartmoor. Bring the right kit and the right attitude, and this wild and rugged place was yours for the taking. I refuse to believe that the isolationist attitudes of individuals should change this great communal offering for us all.
Sarah Mitchell, 38, Guildford

‘We cooked Christmas dinner on stoves’

Kate Maddison and her mother on Dartmoor in 2004.
Kate Maddison and her mother on Dartmoor in 2004. Photograph: Josephine Collingwood/Guardian Community

The experiences I had on Dartmoor wild camping with friends are integral to my love of nature and adventure today. I have great memories of my late mum telling me about her walks across Dartmoor with my dad when they first met. I recently found my Duke of Edinburgh logbook from 1992 and had a good laugh at the photos of bedraggled teenagers. I also remember building bivouacs one night before Christmas with a group of friends from Venture Scouts in the woods near Sheepstor and having Christmas dinner cooked on stoves.

I no longer live there, but feel sad that this link to nature could be lost to future young people. If they have less access to nature, how can they learn to love and respect it? I hope people talking about it will lead to a successful appeal that permits something like the model here in the Écrins that allows wild camping from between 7pm and 9am (and at least one hour’s walk from the park limits or nearest roads).
Kate Maddison, 47, now living in France

‘I’ll miss having the law on my side while doing things that feel so human’

The view from Patrick’s tent in Dartmoor.
A curious pony inspects Patrick’s tent in Dartmoor. Photograph: Lizzie Wheeler

I’ve been wild camping on Dartmoor regularly since I was a teenager, watching the sun set over the moor, swimming in fresh streams, gazing at the unspoilt night sky, and trying to keep myself and my things dry in the sideways rain, all the while building connections with people and the land. One night I was woken up by wild ponies. They took a particular interest in our tent, which I hope won’t be a rare sight in the future.

I’ll miss having the law on my side while doing the things that feel so human. But it’s the people who haven’t yet been able to benefit from the experience of wild camping on Dartmoor who will lose out the most. Every barrier put between people and access to nature erodes our wellbeing.
Patrick, 26, Oxfordshire

‘Hampstead Heath was as wild as it got for me’

Chloe’s partner Jon in Dartmoor.
Chloe’s partner, Jon, prepares for a walk on Dartmoor

My boyfriend Jon and I spent three days hiking and wild camping across Dartmoor in the summer of 2020. As a city girl, Hampstead Heath was as wild as it got for me, whereas Jon was born wearing a pair of walking boots. But I was desperate for an adventure. Dartmoor is where we fell in love and where I learned to love the outdoors. Blessed with sunshine – and the occasional downpour – we scrambled up tors, clambered down valleys, jumped over streams and waded through ferns.

Fellow hikers and wild campers were in the minority in a land dominated by wild ponies. There is responsibility in wild camping, and it’s right to have rules and guidelines in place to protect the environment. But we’re concerned that this case will set a precedent for further restrictions in an already restricted country. I feel we should protest and appeal the decision.
Chloe Hellier, 27, London

‘Adventuring solo, particularly as a woman, can feel like an act of rebellion’

Freyja Hedinsson in Dartmoor in 2011.
Freyja Hedinsson on Dartmoor in 2011

The first time I went solo wild camping was my 18th birthday and I was right in the heart of Dartmoor on the summit of Great Mis Tor. I woke at 2am to the sound of footsteps, like a cheap horror movie. I flicked on my head torch and slowly unzipped the tent. Suddenly, 100 eyes darted up at me. Just below my rocky perch was a herd of Dartmoor ponies. I marvelled at these beautiful creatures, before I returned to my tent for a life-affirming night under the stars.

Adventuring solo, particularly as a woman, can feel like an act of rebellion. We are told that taking these kinds of risks is dangerous and irresponsible. Wild camping on Dartmoor shaped my sense of self by learning how to be wild on my own terms. The court decision against Dartmoor national park shows that the outdoors are still being protected as a playground for the rich. It serves as a poignant reminder for those of us living in Scotland not to take our precious access rights for granted.
Freyja Hedinsson, 27, Glasgow

‘It was our opportunity to connect with the natural world in a deeper way’

Liz Bailey’s tent.
Liz Bailey’s tent in December

My son and I wild camped on Dartmoor in December, fearing that this long-held right was under threat. Our packs were enormous with all the extra blankets, sleeping mats and soup flasks, but we didn’t care. We were thrilled to be out in this wide open space, a world away from the slog of work and school and screens. We found a beautiful, sheltered spot; snow started falling, settling on the canvas as we set up camp.

Eventually the sky cleared, revealing a stunning array of stars never seen in the city, and an emerging bright moon, making the white ground glow in the darkness. After a wonderful night’s sleep we were treated to views across the moor and out to sea. We scrambled over rocky outcrops, made a snowman and admired the frozen quarry lake. This was our opportunity to connect with the natural world in a deeper way. It means so much to me that I want to fight tooth and nail to get this decision overturned.
Liz Bailey, 50, Plymouth

‘Having that escape has helped me as I struggle with my mental health’

Jog
Jog and a friend enjoying the outdoors

My friend and I started wild camping a couple of years ago to escape from the stresses of minimum wage, minimum-contact modern life. The two of us camp regularly on the South Moor and we have a tradition of cooking spicy noodle cups at a certain set of rocks. We’ve all become so accustomed to living in our bubbles that it’s just so freeing to escape to a wild land where there’s probably nobody within 2km of you.

As I struggle with my mental health, having that escape has helped me a lot in recent years and there’s nothing that can take its place: watching the sky at night so far from civilisation, the sound of wildlife and the wind, and that feeling of freedom when you open your tent in the morning and see the whole world around you. I know that for people like me, losing access to that ability to camp on the moor will make it drastically harder to cope.
Jog, 33, Plymouth