“My dear Holmes, avoid the Grimpen Mire, for t’is the domain of a hedge fund manager…“
Alexander Darwall, a hedge fund manager of Devon Equity Management, purchased the Blatchford Estate on Dartmoor in 2001. In a recent court case he challenged the Dartmoor National Park Authority in the Royal Court of Justice with respect to their ‘wild camping’ policy. This has meant that anyone had the right to camp on parts of Dartmoor without the owner’s permission. A right since 1985, it makes Dartmoor the only National Park in Great Britain where this is possible. Darwall had exercised his presumed right by locking a gate at New Waste, thereby restricting access to walkers to Stall Moor and southern Dartmoor. His aim apparently is to restrict access in order to host shooting parties that could be unsafe for visitors… to Dartmoor National Park!
Ewan MacColl’s classic from the British Folk Song revival during the middle of the last century will be known to many. And it was inspired by a protest:
I’m a rambler, I’m a rambler from Manchester way,
I get all me pleasure the hard moorland way,
I may be a wageslave on Monday,
But I am a free man on Sunday
Sung in protest, for fun, in pubs, out of doors, and in parody, it recalls a protest that changed the politics around countryside access. The mass trespass on Kinder Scout, a mountain in Derbyshire, occurred in 1932. It involved working people from Manchester and Sheffield who rendez-vous’d on the Duke of Devonshire’s grouse shooting land. Sadly, like many things where the English are concerned, this proved less of a revolution and more of a half-turn. Yet it was progress, because after the Second World War, the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 passed into legislation.
Set in motion was the establishment of National Parks in England and Wales. Symbolically, in 1951, the first area thus designated was the Peak District and, in the same year, Dartmoor became a National Park.
The Kinder Trespass was led by a young working-class firebrand from Manchester by the name of Rothman. He used to enjoy the countryside during his weekends. The target for the protest was the Duke of Devonshire’s estate from which the public were excluded.
Brief scrutiny of Rothman’s biography tells us that he was poor, a Communist and of Jewish extraction and active in the trade union movement. Such attributes were commented upon by his detractors in the 1930s. He organised trespass on the Duke’s shooting estate, during which, according to his obituary, “a drunken keeper sprained an ankle while assaulting a rambler, the event became one of riotous assembly”. Charges followed. To be English about it, it is probable that his two ‘worst’ attributes were linked, namely being working class and not respecting the property rights of one of the richest landowners in England. Against a background of public opprobrium Rothman and his co-conspirators received custodial sentences, and he lost his job as an errand boy. He never gave up though. He died aged 90 in 2002, having gained huge respect for his campaigning in countryside access.
End of history lesson?
No! We fast-forward to an excellent book, published in 2022, and written by Matthew Kelly called The Women who saved the English Countryside. This tome eloquently describes the lives of four women whose campaigns variously protected open spaces, limited urban and industrial development, and assisted public access. Of particular note is Sylvia Sayer, who was active in land use conflicts relating to reservoirs, as well as agricultural development, afforestation and military training which restricted amenity, ecology, and access to Dartmoor.
Many are appalled by the recent successful High Court action aimed at restricting ‘wild camping’ on Dartmoor. The case was brought by Darwall, a hedge fund manager, and his wife Diana, who own 16 sq km (4,000 acres) on southern Dartmoor. They argued that the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985, which enshrined a historic custom of open access “to all the commons on foot and on horseback for the purposes of open-air recreation”, excluded wild camping, meaning camping required the consent of the landowner. The Court found in favour of the Darwalls on 13 January 2023.
Needless to say appeals will ensue and Dartmoor National Park Authority, while in many ways caught in the middle, has some sympathy with the right to camp. Indeed the National Park Authority could pay landowners to give permission for wild camping. But this would be an appropriation of public money.
Rothman’s career as a professional ‘naughty boy’ is a matter of history, but the battle he fought is still a live issue. What can we learn from this latest episode? For one thing, the present UK government is launching concerted attacks on the independent civil service, the BBC the judiciary, and the rights to strike and to protest peacefully. Now apparently we can add to the list individual freedom to enjoy the great outdoors.
A worrying development has been the proposal to set a ‘cut-off date’ to be “specified as either 1 January 2026 (or a date up to five years later), when all rights of way over footpaths and bridleways outside Inner London which existed before 1949 and which have not been recorded on definitive maps will be extinguished”. By implication, concerned individuals would walk these public rights of way and make it a matter of record. This places the burden of proof on walkers and ramblers who fear losing their rights. Actually, public pressure caused the deadline to be scrapped last year. However other problems remain.
Surely, we need another ‘naughty boy’?
Enter Nick Hayes. In his Book of Trespass (2020) he argues it is wrong that the public are excluded from 92% of the land (of England) and 97% of waterways, and radical action is needed. Au fait with the present situation of trespass law, and feigning innocence, Hayes wanders off-piste into the estates of the rich and powerful, plying his trade as an artist. His approach is non-confrontational, in contrast with other, more vociferous protests. The book is a brilliant mix of near farce, as he meets landowners and their employees, highlighting examples of pure injustice in regard to countryside access. He recently appeared on TV with Sir Grayson Perry, and up to now, as far as we know, he has not yet been arrested.
So where are we with the right to roam? The National Parks are well established but there is still so much to fight for in terms of countryside access. In 2000, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act gave us a partial right to roam, that is to access about 8% of England. If we are to become some blend of the 51st state of America and Singapore-on-Thames, things are looking bad. The present Zeitgeist is in keeping with a reassertion of absolute ‘Lockean property rights’?
Might we pause for a moment?
For the ordinary person with a house and garden, there is nothing to fear from liberalisation of land access. We may hear enraged members of the English bourgeoisie fearing wild campers in their rose gardens and New Age travellers parking in the drive outside their garages. The landowning aristocracy have the option of expensive lawyers, as do hedge fund managers. Suburban dwellers do not have this and they need not worry. As in Scotland, a right to roam applies to open countryside only. From the farmer’s point of view, access is for purposes of recreation only, typically walking.
Publication of the Book of Trespass, the Dartmoor wild camping debacle and re-registration of rights of way have the potential to ignite something big in England. Scotland manages with a de-facto wide access to land, and now enjoys its own National Parks, like England and Wales, associated with environmental and planning controls alongside wider countryside access. In response to the ‘wild camping’ case, a future Labour government may well pass new ‘right to roam’ legislation. Culturally, Grayson and Hayes may be pioneering a new kind of Englishness, whereby the countryside is not only a full part of national identity, but free access is restored.
Evolving plans for the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) are focused on delivering environmental goods, and so far there is little to say about improving access to the countryside alongside vague plans for rewilding. Such plans are emerging, but there is little enthusiasm for them to succeed in the present format and from the present Westminster government. However, because public money paid to private interests is concerned, this could change with the political climate.
Conclusion: there is some hope!
In Conan Doyle’s story, the ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’ turned out to be a fraud and was easily subdued. So, take your tent and your map, put on your boots, and zip up your waterproof. We can win this battle through persistence. If you see a chap drawing the landscape somewhere maybe he shouldn’t be, it is probably Hayes. Oh, and give Rothman a thought as he stomps through the Elysian fields organising the angels into a trade union….