Dartmoor: yes to wild camping, still no to cycling

An autumnal moorland scene of a bracken-covered hill on Dartmoor
Image by Richard Munckton (CC BY-NC 2.0)
The Court of Appeal has ruled that there is, in fact, a right to wild camp on Dartmoor – welcome news for lovers of the outdoors. But why is camping encouraged as healthy ‘open air recreation’, and cycling penalised? Cycling UK’s off-road adviser Kieran Foster digs into the legislation to find out

Many of you will have seen earlier this week that the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA), reversing an earlier High Court judgement, and ruling that the right of access “on foot and on horseback, for the means of recreation” extended to wild camping.

Sir Geoffrey Vos, Master of the Rolls and most senior civil-law judge in the country, commented that: “I have concluded with some reluctance, bearing in mind the clear and opposite view reached by the Chancellor, that the words of section 10(1) are indeed clear and unambiguous. They allow the public to engage in open-air recreation on the Dartmoor Commons provided they proceed on foot or on horseback.

“Open-air recreation includes wild camping, although such an activity must be conducted in strict accordance with the applicable by-laws, which were made by the Authority and confirmed by the Home Secretary in October 1989.”

The obvious question now remains: what about cycling?

Can anyone seriously claim that mountain biking isn’t a form of open-air recreation as well? Why the double standard?

Criminalising cycling

A little bit of history here. It seems that when the 1985 Dartmoor Commons Act introduced a statutory right of access for walking and horse riding, there were calls for cycling to be included, but they just weren’t loud enough and were traded away in the bargaining process.

This was compounded in 1998, when mountain biking was becoming more popular. Reacting to vociferous outrage from a small number of people, the National Park introduced a by-law criminalising cycling anywhere off the small number of bridleways on Dartmoor – including on surfaced tracks used by rangers in Land Rovers. That’s not just ‘not allowing cycling’, but making it a criminal offence, punishable through the courts.

We’re not saying that’s the same as taking away a legal right to ride, but escalating a civil trespass (the likes of which the Ramblers built their entire movement around) into a criminal offence is not only authoritarian, but entirely opposed to the spirit of what National Parks were created for in the first place.

As the 1947 Report of the National Parks Committee (Hobhouse report) described it: “There is perhaps a tendency to regard rambling as the only important recreation in National Parks.

“Yet there must be many who most enjoy wild country when its beauty forms the setting for other forms of sport and recreation – many whose cherished memories of Exmoor, the Lake District or the Broads are associated with the feel of a keen horse or a well-balanced trout-rod or the kick of a racing tiller; and there must be a still larger number in whom a fuller appreciation of the country would be awakened by the opportunity to enjoy these pursuits.”

In the coming months, we expect DNPA to put forward its updated by-laws to the secretary of state for approval, retaining a clause which criminalises cycling.

Having put tens of thousands of pounds of public money into fighting a legal action to secure wild camping as a ‘right’ on Dartmoor, this goes against everything the authority has just said in court about the importance of open-air recreation for accessing and enjoying the countryside. It’s nonsensical.

In 1925 a clause included in the Law of Property Act, giving access to many commons, included a discreet comment that “such rights of access shall not include any right to draw or drive upon the land a carriage, cart, caravan, truck or other vehicle, or to camp or light any fire thereon”.

It seems remarkable that a hundred years later, this clause – inserted to prevent Gypsy encampments on commons – continues to have such an effect on our modern interpretation of what constitutes open-air recreation and what is allowed on commons.

And here’s where the bigger picture comes in. The Glover review, almost five years ago, commented that: “Though it is not a core part of our review, and any look at open access needs a much more in-depth investigation, we think there is a case for looking at whether further access rights should be established, or at the very least considered or trialled in our national landscapes.

“The existing law and its application excludes many different user groups entirely, or favours walking on foot. We do not seek to undermine those rights; indeed we want to see walking further supported by national landscapes taking on rights of way management and the National Landscapes Service supporting National Trails.

“But it feels wrong that many parts of our most beautiful places are off limits to horse riders, water users, cavers, wild campers and so on. We hope that as part of the government’s commitment to connect more people with nature, it will look seriously at whether the levels of open access we have in our most special places are adequate.”

The government has done its usual trick of kicking the can down the road, now saying that it won’t begin to even consider this issue until at least 2031.

Labour, meanwhile, has openly committed to expanding the ‘right to roam’, but when it comes to the detail, is being somewhat more woolly. Labour’s environment secretary, Alex Sobel, commented recently on Twitter that the new legislation would “ensure people will be allowed to fully enjoy an area, including taking part in activities such as swimming, camping, climbing and birdwatching rather than simply walking”.

When challenged whether this meant that mountain biking and equestrian access were not included in their vision, he went quiet. So far, no answer has been given. Read into that what you will.

So, where are we? Are cyclists going to be ignored yet again? It looks increasingly likely.

Rekindling the vision

Heading into the 75th anniversary of the National Parks Act and an election year, we think that all parties should commit to genuinely embracing that original vision forNational Parks and AONBs.

An integral part of that vision was that they should be genuine places of resort for all segments of society, that access should befor everyone rather than just for walkers, and that facilities should be provided to enable people to enjoy these spaces, including affordable accommodation.

In the words of the 1947 Hobhouse report): “National Parks should be in a true and full sense national, if they are to be worthy of their name and purpose. This does not mean that local interests are to be disregarded. On the contrary, the wellbeing of those who live and work within them must always be a first consideration.

“But it does mean that their holiday and recreational use should be for people – and especially young people – of every class and kind and from every part of the country, and indeed the world. National Parks are not for any privileged or otherwise restricted section of the population, but for all who care to refresh their minds and spirits and to exercise their bodies in a peaceful setting of natural beauty.

“Few national purposes are more vital or more rich in promise of health and happiness than the provision, first, of general and generous opportunity for holidays (by the holidays with pay system and otherwise) and, second, of large, open and beautiful tracts of country in which holidays can be freely and inexpensively enjoyed.

National Parks are not for any privileged or otherwise restricted section of the population, but for all who care to refresh their minds and spirits and to exercise their bodies in a peaceful setting of natural beauty

Report of the National Parks Committee (Hobhouse report), 1947

“To quote from an address by Dr GM Trevelyan to the Annual Conference of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England in 1937: ‘It is not a question of physical exercise only; it is also a question of spiritual exercise and enjoyment. It is a question of spiritual values. Without vision the people perish, and without sight of the beauty of nature the spiritual power of the British people will be atrophied.

“The longing, too often a thwarted longing, for natural beauty and the great unspoilt spaces, is a most touching and a most hopeful thing in the modern city population. The condition of any real value in modern city life is holidays spent in the country…

“With shorter hours of work, holidays with pay, and increasing leisure for millions, the question of the proper use of leisure has become a national problem second to none in importance. And it makes the provision of National Parks increasingly and urgently necessary…’”