Walking and Protesting on Dartmoor
Updated: Jan 26
With some questions about belonging to the land, and whether we should name the bastards
‘It’s been like this all afternoon, to be honest!’ remarked an earnest and fresh-faced copper to his two slightly less fresh-faced colleagues, in a tone of pleasant surprise. They were observing thousands of hillwalkers queuing mildly for buses after the mass protest on Dartmoor this weekend, following the High Court’s ending of the right to wild camp at a landowner’s behest.
The policeman was right: it had been exactly like that all afternoon. The atmosphere of good-natured calm was perhaps in contrast to his expectation of the aggro that sometimes occurs at protests (which, police rarely acknowledge, tends to begin once they arrive and initiate it, either directly or just by their presence). This gathering was certainly peaceful. It was also festive, hearty and deeply felt.
Three thousand of us turned up on foot and in organised buses in the tiny hamlet of Cornwood, one of the ring of villages around the edge of Dartmoor, tucked in to the fold where the rising granite meets the end of the cultivated farmland. The narrow Devon lanes reach a mile or two beyond each of these villages until they peter out or, in a few cases, climb up and onto the moor, the oaks and beeches that flank them giving way to gorse and open sky. It was up one of these lanes that we would walk towards the land legally owned by Alexander Darwall, a hedge fund manager who in 2011 spent some of his City profits on the 4,000 acre Blachford Estate, before taking the Dartmoor National Park Authority to court to argue that the right to wild camp on the moor had never legally existed.
Throughout the day I encountered friends and acquaintances from all over south Devon, and a colleague who’d travelled from Bristol. Chatting as we walked, moving slowly alongside parents pushing buggies and older folk with sticks, several people reported a sense that two of their worlds had collided. One world was of protest marches, which more often happen in cities. People stare at you. The police might line the route, use the surrounding urban road layout to block off access routes, kettle you into a tight spot where tensions will rise, or – increasingly so, now, armed with the authoritarian charter of the new Public Order Act – where they can launch arrest bids. That protest world was colliding here with the world of hillwalking and lovers of the wild. Here were the usual drums, whistles and witty signs of protest crowds, and here too were the standard accoutrements of the outdoors enthusiast: boots and walking poles, fleeces and waterproofs. (Sandwiches and flasks of tea are standard issue for both.)
Walkers gathering in anticipation is a happy and literally familiar scene to me. In the fifties my maternal grandparents took my mum and her brother on Holiday Fellowship walking holidays, originally founded in the 1890s to ‘improve the lives of the working classes by offering an alternative to a week at the seaside’. Walking all day in groups and refuelling with crumble and custard at long convivial tables in the evening, the four of them learnt their hillcraft and their love of the hills. Mum met my dad in 1968 at a mutual friend’s slide show of mountaineering photographs. He was a 23 year old South African climber still fresh off the boat at Southampton and complaining that there weren’t any ‘proper mountains’ in this country. Mum introduced him to her mountaineering club friends who took him to Glencoe for a winter traverse of the Aonach Eagach ridge, just to teach him some respect.
I'm not sure if Dad ever fully got the British hills. He came to know their ways and their routes and appreciated their beauty, but they didn’t claim a place in his soul like they had in mum’s and subsequently did in mine and my siblings'. Having grown up climbing on the dry sunny rock of the Western Cape, he couldn’t really be bothered to spend endless foggy days wading through bogs, or to tackle the short damp gnarly routes on Peak District gritstone where British rock climbers cut their teeth. I’m grateful, then, that he was willing to spend so much time in the hills that mum already loved, because that’s what allowed those hills to claim me.
Family holidays in my teenage years in the late eighties and early nineties were spent in a borrowed leaky cottage in the northern Lakes, or a draughty mountaineering club hut in North Wales. The hut was equipped with bunk beds, a boot room that smelled of socks, dubbin and wet cagoules, a living room lined with sofas whose springs were shot, and a big kitchen equipped with gas rings, three fridges and catering sized teapots. We issued forth every morning to walk in the mountains until dark, each carrying a backpack containing waterproofs, hats and gloves, spare clothes, ham sandwiches, hard boiled eggs, apples and slabs of cheese. Dad would carry additional supplies: a huge bag of peanut and raisin mix, chocolate to bribe the youngest child onwards, a rope (rarely used) to get us out of pickles and a torch (more frequently used) in case we didn’t get down to the road before nightfall. We learned to read the hill and the weather as well as the map, to route-find through fog, and when to turn back.
I’ve learned since then that the bleak, barely vegetated uplands in these islands are a creation of enclosure and sheep farming, and that left alone without ovine depredation, the hills would revert to richly diverse temperate rainforest of which only fragments remain in the west. But this information does not stop me loving them. I still feel, when walking with anticipation over grassy tussocks and heather onto a high moor or mountain shoulder, the respite from suburbia that I first felt when I was 13, the deep sense of timeless peace that I learned early to associate with that great emptiness. I can be aware that those sweeping unbroken horizons are the production of modernity’s war on nature, and also still find in them the closest echo that we children of modernity can experience of the primal scene: a view without any of our own kind.
I first encountered Dartmoor – as did some others on the protest – through Ten Tors, an endurance hike for teenagers who must complete 35, 45 or 55 mile routes over a weekend. The event itself was not my finest moment: we were trained and ready to leapfrog carefully along a compass bearing in thick fog, but not to cope with a heatwave. Half of my team crashed out with heat exhaustion, the remnants were appended to a similarly depleted group of army trainees. Done in, I trusted the lads’ navigation. But it turns out that there are two Black Tors, and we crashed out in despair once we realised how many leagues we had walked in the wrong direction. (Always check other people’s navigation. No exceptions.) But no matter, because Dartmoor had claimed me anyway. Twenty years later I got married in a field on the edge of the moor, and now I live within sight of its edge.
But I’m not from here. I’m a blow-in, grew up in London suburbs. Mum’s family were from Nottingham, Dad’s were Russian and Polish Jews and several generations of British colonials in India. Plenty of my ancestors were pushed off their land by enclosure or pogrom. And some of them pushed others off their land. Martin Shaw, a local mythteller and author, wrote a book called Scatterlings, a feral record of his tramping and re-tramping of south Dartmoor’s storylines and songlines. He reminds us that while in atomised and deracinated times many of us may not have a claim on being ‘from’ a place, we can aspire to be ‘of’ it, by reversing the ownership habit and allowing the land to claim us. That’s why I’ve been using this language of being claimed, here. The land is not ours, not only in the obvious legal sense that we are not rich hedge-fund landowners who have bought it, but in the broader sense of how we relate to it. We are the land, as Shaw asked the crowd to repeat after him up on the moor. It’s the reverse of the colonial move that is in the lineage of some of us: to put ourselves in submission to the land, ‘to have traded endless possibility for something specific… To be of means to listen. To commit to being around.’
I take the kids up on the moor to sleep under the sky when they’re getting antsy. Actually, I take myself up there to sleep under the sky when I’m getting antsy. The sleep and its dreams are of a different quality to those down in the lowlands, but it’s the thinness of the veil at dusk and the dawn that you’re really there for: a reminder in the stillness – or the gale – of the old core of our humanity as part of the earth. Asking ‘permission’ from a landowner, as Darwall wanted, is not only not part of this picture, it’s just the whole wrong frame. It’s completely missing the point of why we’re doing it.
We crossed a stream and fanned out onto the cold open moor, casting long shadows in the golden light. Crowds of that size up there are so unusual that for just a moment I was back on the atmospheric dawn start line of Ten Tors. Then Martin Shaw banged his staff on the earth, exactly as one might imagine a chthonic moss-covered storyteller should do, and reminded us that we were standing on the ground-down stumps of ancient mountains, on the site of former deserts, seas, and hippo-filled swamps. He begged hush from the crowd for the arrival of Old Crockern, a Dartmoor story-beast who arises in times of landlords’ greed. The ten foot high Crockern crested the slope behind us with a troupe of dancing pipers, fiddlers and drummers, and everyone got a little crazy in the music for a while. I walked down off the moor in the quickly fading light with a woman I’d just met whose mother’s old curtains had furnished the Crockern, and I still have the tune of ‘Old Adam the Poacher’ stomping round my head as I write this three days later.
The highs (altitude as well as emotions) of such a heart-warming protest are inevitably followed by the dip of remembering that we haven’t won yet. It’s part of the ‘emotacycle’ of activism named by Marc Hudson, a social movement studies scholar. Dartmoor was already an outlier in having any wild camping rights before a High Court judge decided that they had never in fact officially existed, and there is now long work to be done to secure ‘right to roam’ access rights for the whole of England and Wales that match those in place in Scotland. We’ll have to repeatedly make the case for the right to roam and wild camp, in multiple registers. It’s an inalienable right, as I’ve been describing. More instrumentally, it’s a boon to reduce the burden of mental healthcare, and compost for growing resilient young people. In times of ecological breakdown, it’s also a thread to follow out of the hall of mirrors we find ourselves in (with thanks to Iain McGilchrist for the metaphor), one where people who haven’t experienced their connection to the earth are unable to feel or see the necessity of making the good decisions that are required to protect it.
So of course, there’ll be strategic discussions about which arguments to wield and with whom. We are also faced with more reflexive questions about how we understand ourselves in relation to what we’re trying to do. I raised some of these on Twitter, after receiving a loud response to a previous thread in which I named Darwall the landowner and saw many responses that included the word ‘bastard,’ or other choice insults. I’d be lying if said I didn’t see that coming. It was implicit in the furious tone of my original tweets. Isn’t an access-denying landowner – like Roald Dahl’s Victor Hazel, in Danny the Champion of the World – just the perfect example of that genre: the total bastard who’s done something emblematically awful? There were plenty of signs at the protest suggesting so.
And yet those signs, and the replies on Twitter, were also a timely reminder of how ingrained that ‘othering’ response is. I wrote about ‘getting the bastards’ campaigning in The Entangled Activist, and I’m still thinking about it. If the problem is always too easily ‘over there’ in some other bastard, there’s a risk our gaze is diverted from systemic causes, from our own complicity in some problems, and from our own unhelpful behaviour when we’re being activists: the purity politics, authoritarian demands, saviour complexes and heroics. The people we like to call bastards are actually the product of bad systems. They’re enabled by and emboldened by those systems, and it’s the systems that we need to change. So in this case, Darwall is the symptom of a system that rewards wealth over the common good, and that is only prepared to count certain forms of ‘ownership’.
What do we do, then? Do we not name the bastards at all? Just focus on the system, so that we are (a) strategic and (b) not falling into the divisions and ‘othering’ that we wish to counter? We can try. I think there are two risks, though. One – and I say this having spent many years investigating and uncovering the networks of influence and money that lace Britain’s post-imperial polity into a constriction of power – is that our political analysis may then be insufficient. When we are up against power, it is sometimes necessary to see exactly what is going on. Name who is funding whom. Who is enabling whom. We need to see how the system works in order to raise the support to change it. Campaigners might be drawn to the necessary abstractions of thinking in systems, and goodness knows we need to do this to reach root causes, so that we’re not constantly just whacking symptoms. But the reality – and as an enthusiast for abstraction I’ve learned this the hard way – is that many people do not see systems in the abstract. They see, and hear, stories. And stories, as any screenwriter will tell you, have protagonists and antagonists.
So let’s critique corporate profit-driven media, both social and legacy, and notice how they drive our own primitive urge towards blame, projection and division. Let’s notice, too, how the stories run deep in us, how the baddies in the tales reflect the darker aspects of our own inner worlds, and our ongoing potential for domination as well as connection. Let’s remember the old truth that focusing only on the bastard who’s stolen our rights can assist in our avoidance of the bastard in ourselves. My suspicion, however, and this is the second risk, is that we could also continue to avoid the bastard in ourselves by virtuously shying away from naming the ones ‘out there’. The progressive-activist desire to be ‘good’ is endlessly adaptable and willing to assume new forms. Our fervent desire for one-ness can bring delusions about what it takes to truly create it. In short, we could refrain from naming, and still show up with the same energy.
In this light, the question is not so much about whether or not to name the bastards. Sometimes it’s strategic to do so and sometimes it isn’t. But it’s what we do with that naming that matters. How do we name them, and how do we approach them to communicate? Can we do so with compassion? Can we be-with and then transform the urge to destroy that comes from within us, instead of sending it out into the world? That’s the move we need to practice, and it's possible that time spent up on the moor will help. If we can feel, as Martin Shaw urges, that ‘we are the land’, we may be more likely to be able to feel that we are also, ultimately, each other, which is the root of compassion.