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England has long been starved of access to nature. It’s time to reclaim it

OPINION: Little wonder that a judge wrongly ruled wild camping was ‘not recreational’. We must take back our commons

Zion Lights
26 January 2023, 4.16pm

The author, Zion Lights, at Venford Falls in Ashburton, Dartmoor


Zion Lights

Rights of way. Freedom to roam. Right to roam. In Sweden they call it allemansrätten, everyman’s right, where it is legal to walk across property, forage and set up a tent there for one night. In Finland they have a similar concept: jokamiehenoikeus. In Norway, allemannsretten. In Bavaria in Germany, schwammerlparagraph, the mushroom clause.

In Scotland, the Land Reform Act gives everyone right of access over land, which is known as dúthchas and dualchas in Scottish Gaelic, to signify connection to the home territory.

Although the specifics vary by country, wild camping – pitching a tent virtually anywhere for one or two nights – is enshrined.

Access to land in England is more limited than in most of northern Europe. Dartmoor National Park in the south-west was the last place in England where it was possible to camp without seeking permission. But now a wealthy landowner has won his legal bid to restrict the right to wild camp on his land in Dartmoor.

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Hedge fund manager Alexander Darwall argued that the right to wild camp on the moors had never existed. Although there had been an assumed right under the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985, the judge agreed with Darwell, also adding that wild camping is not a form of “recreation”.

Now, through negotiations with the Dartmoor National Park Authority, an agreement has been reached where camping is permitted in some areas and for a fee. Although the details are still being negotiated, and there will be an appeal, at present the map that has been published to show where camping is allowed outlines space around one-fifth smaller than before.

This is not the same as wild camping.

Health benefits

How many of us have been able to camp with only a tent to shield us from the elements? When I moved from inner-city Birmingham where I grew up, a daughter of immigrant factory workers, to Devon 18 years ago, it was like moving from Mordor to the Shire. (Fellow Brummies, please don’t be offended. Tolkien really did base Mordor on Birmingham.)

Nature-deprived neighbourhoods affect the health of people of colour. It was because of Dartmoor that I stayed in Devon. For a nature-deprived young woman who had experienced more than her fair share of life’s traumas, Dartmoor was nothing short of therapeutic.

Research supports this. Spending time in nature has been linked to good health and wellbeing, improved mental health, and may even make us nicer as well as happier. A recent study that surveyed nearly 11,000 campers and non-campers found that camping makes people happy.

In England, one in four people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year. Nature is not the whole cure, but a key part of it.

I had, of course, visited parks before, but I wasn’t connected to nature. Wild camping jolted me into reality. Being rudely woken by a bull, stepping into a freezing river, watching the stars emerge at night… these were experiences that took me from having mere contact with nature, to being deeply connected with it. I have a theory that it is impossible to stay disconnected from nature when you’re wild camping, because the pure immersion of it is inescapable.

We English are accustomed to nature being well managed (think National Trust sites), tidy and orderly. But wild camping offers us time in nature in its truest sense: to feel the rawness of the wild, including bug bites, the elements and the quiet peace of a dark night sky.

With wild camping you are totally vulnerable to your surroundings. I call this nature immersion

Miles Richardson, a professor who researches nature connection, writes: “Often this nature connection is seen as ‘fluffy’, hugging trees, being mindful or conflated with time outdoors, be it whittling sticks or walking the dog. Such activities… won’t flip a deeply ingrained and disconnected worldview that has done such damage to the natural world.”

The experience of wild camping is not the same as on a campsite or at a festival. I have camped there too – and there are too many people, too many bright lights, too many phone charging points. With wild camping, you are totally vulnerable to your surroundings. I call this nature immersion. Naturimmersion.

When I lived in the Midlands, I could not have understood the value of wild camping because I had not experienced it myself. I can understand, then, the judge’s assessment that wild camping is not a “recreational” activity. If you haven’t done it, and don’t know anyone who does it (since it’s illegal everywhere in England), how can you understand its benefits? How can we value something that we are prevented from legally experiencing across the country?

We need our own mushroom clause. We need to reclaim the rights of commons.

The English poet William Blake once wrote: “Great things are done when men and mountains meet.” Now people are gathering on the hills to protest against wild camping restrictions. With the campaign group The Stars are for Everyone, I am helping to take the fight forward.

Overturning the legal ruling will not just benefit wild campers like myself. I hope we can begin a conversation about England’s need for naturimmersion and how we will get that back.

Humankind needs more than scraps of access to nature. We need a feast.

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