Under a Thousand Stars: Wild Camping and the Battle Against Hedge Fund Feudalism
The great Dartmoor storyteller Martin Shaw delights in the mythic depths of the rebellion this weekend in Devon
“To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.”
Jack Gilbert, ‘A Brief for the Defense’
It’s easy to start huffing and puffing when we hear about London hedge fund managers changing laws for wild camping on Dartmoor. A loathsome archetype springs up, the kind of Machiavellian figure that might gleefully be cremated in effigy on Lewes Bonfire night. The issue becomes a hissy tale about politics and privilege, the left versus the right. While there’s more than a little historical reasoning for that, we’re going to miss a trick if that’s our entire response.
Yesterday, thousands of people from all walks of life gathered to protest the ban on wild camping on Dartmoor. They were prepared to venture out, get properly cold, bump along in a vast cheery conga line up onto a mid-winter Dartmoor. In the days leading up to the protest, a kind of faux solution was offered but the supposed deal creates far too much leverage to the landowners, and the camping itself isn’t ‘free’ anymore. It’s paid for by the park. All sorts of cracks will swiftly start to show themselves. It needs to be enshrined in law that we can wild camp there, and it needs to be free. In all of England, there’s almost nowhere left where that’s possible.
This is an issue that is going to affect everyone, whether you’re named Atticus or Gary, Lavinia or Sue. It’s not a marginal concern, it’s not a hippy polemic, this concerns all of us. In the little Dartmoor town where I live, it’s the conversation on everyone’s lips: from the farmers to the butchers to the greengrocers to the parents at the school gates to the canoeists and hedge layers. Whether a local or blow-in, broke or loaded, the response is the same. Dismay, anger, a need to push back. The ban has mobilised the intentions of thousands of thoughtful, intelligent people.
‘Wild camping’ as a phrase can diminish what’s going on. It’s accurate but not quite vast enough. What’s really happening is yet another door closing between us as modern humans and what the philosopher John Moriarty used to call our ‘bush souls’. Something undomestic, usefully eccentric and with a fierce eye for wonder.
For my whole life, and my father’s, and his mother before him, as Devon people we’ve felt the benefit of camping as a route, both imaginative and practical, into a deeper sense of who we are. Whether we were bivouacked under Hound Tor in the rain or not, the fact that we could did something to our sense of ourselves. Devonians were still a little wild, a little uncorralled, the people of the far west. That freedom affected the books we wrote, the music we made, the way we chewed a problem over. We had an access not just to wild camping but a kind of wild dreaming. Might sound corny, but it’s a fact. We would come down from the moor a little different. Reverie leads to participation. You make better decisions, with more heart and more care.
I’m not suggesting this is forefront in the mind of every school camping trip and every family hunkered down with cheese sandwiches watching the sunset, but it’s in the mix. It may not be so florally described, but it’s definitely in the mix.
It does us profound good to sleep under the stars. We start telling stories and mercifully it can be hard to get a phone signal on Dartmoor. That alone should be enough reason to keep it legal. Whist wild camping is good for our mental health, it’s also good for our soul health. We are in touch with more than wires and lights, but something blinking back at us in the dusk light. What folk singer Sam Lee calls Old Wow.
Don’t believe the propaganda that Dartmoor is strewn with rubbish from untidy campers, it’s not. That’s a rare exception to the rule. The majority are diligent in their footfall and grateful for the privilege. Ironically, any kind of ban risks causing more damage and litter I predict, and all the nightmares that roll in when something has become taboo.
When in a fairy tale someone is told, “whatever you do, don’t do that”, we all know what happens next. A ban may bring in a kind of darkness, a kind of un-care, that no true lover of Dartmoor would ever wish for. Trashing the moor becoming a kind of up-yours to the landed gentry.
Protests against the ban are not going to go away. It’s too deep an issue, too essential, too raw, going back to the Commons, to the poets John Claire, William Blake, Alice Oswald, all sorts of things precious to the temperament of Britain, even if they are only half-remembered to some of us. Ted Hughes described Devon as his “land of totems”. Thousands of us feel that way.
A bell should be swinging in every Under-Milk-Wood-ian enclave of this county. Salvation Army drums should be thumping their way through every Plymouth housing estate. Wake up! Wake up! Francis Drake will be launching ships of fire to float down the river Dart in protest I’m sure of it. To be a Devonian (or an honorary Devonian) means to be a person of ‘the deep valley’. And our response needs to be suitably deep, agile, imaginative.
The peoples of Britain are not so domestic, so neutered, so tranquilised, so bleary, so compliant and remorselessly dead-eyed as you may expect when it comes to protest. Dartmoor is our very last pocket of the wild for camping and we can’t lose it. It’s emblematic of so much more that is happening in our culture, our lives, our imagination. We owe this resistance both to our kids and the ones that stand behind us. As the historian Christopher Hill reminds us: “Popular revolt was for many years an essential feature of the English tradition.”
The protestors are gathering mythological characters with them. There is a Dartmoor totem that is being evoked by the protest. Old Crockern. Crockern comes from Crockern Tor, a place where disputes have been historically settled on the moor.
In my new book Bardskull – an account situated on Dartmoor – the story culminates there as a sign of wise counsel. But Old Crockern has two faces, both old and young. The older is the sage, the Tor itself, but it has a younger, more chaotic aspect. This being rides a horse entirely of bones and is connected to the phenomenon of the Wild Hunt, and you don’t want to get in their way I can assure you.
This younger aspect has inexhaustible energy and absolutely no mercy. He is a symbol of profound, vegetative life. He is down in the deep animal core of Dartmoor and according to legend, if you try and comb his back for profit, he tends to swipe you off. I don’t wish that encounter on anyone, not even hedge fund managers.
I would counsel that we cleave to the wisdom of Crockern the Older in the issue of the ban. Something wiser, more ancient. Let’s make this a conversation not a war. But if this ban persists, and spreads to other parts of the moor, it may be too late for that. The younger’s energy will bring the pushback.
This is an issue of our compromised relationship to wild nature, an issue symbolic of a wider crisis. Our love affair with the spontaneous, the unscripted, the un-trackable; an imagination that communicates between species and reminds us of an old love affair with the earth that we’ve grievously neglected. Wild camping also brings families closer together, teaches practical values, deposits strange ideas in our head, refreshes us, gets us telling stories not from a screen but by memory and under a hundred thousand stars.
This is sacred, what’s being taken away.
This is who we are.
Any ‘new’ story culture seeks needs to come from this wider, ecstatic entanglement we have with the earth. Any other narrative just hastens us to a very dark place. I counsel resistance but also delight, prayers not spells, and the good of all, not just human, as the result.
I defy the travesty of this attempted ban.
Dr Martin Shaw is a writer, mythologist, and oral storyteller. He runs the Westcountry School of Myth on Dartmoor, just entering its twentieth year.
Read him at House of Beast & Vines on Substack
Find Bardskull at Unbound
I agree this is a travesty, but then England is locked into an essentially feudal politics of land ownership (as well as a feudal political system). But don’t confuse England with Britain. In Scotland we have some of the most enlightened access legislation in Europe, including the right to “wild camping”.
Wild habitats are being degraded, there's a 70% decline in native species, some are endangered. Moorlands need less pressure, not random camping, they are a fragile habitat, moorland bird and animal species are shy and subject to disturbance, nutrient enrichment from human waste degrades the moors further, non moorland plant seeds are introduced from peoples clothing, dogs fur, boot and tyre treads. Some of the degradation can be prevented if people keep to recognised paths and there are restrictions as to where they can camp.