On a five day traverse through Dartmoor National Park, Philip poignantly contemplates the right to wild camp in Dartmoor and the wider implications of such simple joys, amid the legal battles to ban free camping in England’s only designated area.

Wistman’s Wood in a World of Cloud

The moor is a haze of wind and rain. As I make my way along the stone path, I get the strange sensation I’m walking into another world, a world where everything solid and dry is slowly melting into cloud. 

My supposedly waterproof boots have long ago metamorphosed into two muddy puddles at the ends of my feet. My toes are numb and I’m beginning to think they may have dissolved. I’m soaked in parts of my body which I didn’t even know existed. I feel like I’m gradually turning into a pillar of fog myself. Oh well, nothing to do but embrace it. 

Secretly, I’m loving every second. 

I’m four days into a five-day adventure across the soggy, breezy, occasionally sensational landscape of Dartmoor – a vast wilderness in the county of Devon, southwest England. My destination for today is just over the next rise: Wistman’s Wood, in the heart of the moor. This is to be my final night, and the climax of my visit.

Why have I saved this particular spot until last? Because Wistman’s Wood is no ordinary place. 

As I enter the tiny, but extraordinary patch of oak woodland, the clouds seem to crowd in even closer, to the point where I can imagine the gnarled branches sprouting directly out of the mist. Awe-stuck, I stumble over the maze of mossy boulders. It’s like walking into a fairy-tale.

mossy covered boulders in ancient Wistman's Wood
Boulder of Wistman’s Wood. Image by Lāsma Artmane via Unsplash.

My imagination gleefully conjures eyes on the tree trunks and fingers at the tips of the branches, while the howl of the wind becomes their eerie whisper.

These trees, some of which are around 500 years old, are said to be the last remnant of an ancient forest that once covered the landscape. According to legend, the name ‘Wistman’ comes from wiseman, an old name for the druids of Europe. So, Druid’s Wood. I can see why people would associate this place with ceremonies and mystic knowledge. Every root and branch practically hums with pagan potential. 

As the rain – at last – begins to ease off, I settle myself on a semi-dry boulder and open my pack, seeking my ‘ultra-dry’ sock bag and leather-bound notebook. It’s high time for some fresh footwear and a bit of creative contemplation. 

Dartmoor’s Delights

two white ponies on Dartmoor's Moorland by a stream
Image by Delpixart via Getty Images

Roughly the size of London, home to several rivers as well as a healthy population of otters and wild ponies roaming free and unfenced (though technically the ponies are owned), Dartmoor is a little-known secret when it comes to outdoor adventures in the UK.

Among the many unique aspects of the landscape, the ‘Tors’ are a particular source of inspiration.

‘Tor’ is a Celtic word, simply meaning ‘tower’. And there are over 160 of these in the whole of the National Park. While they may look like mysterious fairy fortresses, they are in fact natural protrusions where the granite rock of Dartmoor breaks the surface. 

Some of the most beautiful Tors – and the ones that I visited – include Haytor, which is handily close to one of the three visitor centres in the park; Great Staple Tor, which offers dramatic scenery at its finest; and Bowerman’s Nose, rich with legends of witchcraft and sorcery.

A stack of rocks in Dartmoor that looks like a person's head with a protruding nose
Bowerman’s Nose: a stack of rocks resembling a human head with a protruding nose. Image by Terry Montague via Unsplash

I camped, sketched and scribbled in my notebook while visiting these sites and sheltering from the rain. Each time I visited a new location I was awe-struck all over again. But nothing had prepared me for the ethereal joy of Wistman’s Wood. 

After a half hour, I decide to move on. There’s only so much etherealness a person can take before they need to find a hot meal and a place to sleep for the night, and these woods were out of bounds. 

I pack up my notebook and, armed with fresh socks (or should that be ‘footed’?), I follow the bubbling West Dart river along the moor. Eventually I find what every wild camper dreams of: a nicely flat bit of grass under an overhang. Meaning that it’s marginally dryer than the grass on the rest of the moor, which isn’t saying much. But still.

As I bustle around making camp, setting up the tent, boiling water and unrolling my sleeping bag, I say a silent thank-you to those who have just recently marched to protect my – and everybody else’s – right to do this.

Over my delicious boil-in-the-bag camping meal my mind wanders to the recent protests. The landmark court case and the arguments currently raging, both online and in pubs all over the country, about land. 

Wild Britannia & the Right to Roam

a stone bridge across moorland in Dartmoor national park
Image by Lockie Currie via Getty Images

The thing is, there’s a bit of a revolution happening in the UK at the moment. A slow, pondering revolution that moves no quicker than walking speed. It’s a roaming revolution.

Many people may not know this (especially non-UK readers) but the majority of the English countryside is out of bounds to the everyday citizen or overseas visitor. In fact,

less than 9% of British land is currently open to the public, and much of that is highly controlled, and a long way from being ‘wild’. 

This 9% is covered under the ‘Right to Roam’ or ‘everyman’s right’ which gives public access to natural spaces for the purpose of exercise and recreation.

Even rarer is the ‘right to wild camp’, which exists in only two places in the UK. The first is in Scotland, where the wide expanse of the Highlands is open to all. The second is Dartmoor in Devon. Both of these locations have been treasured by generations of hikers, adventurers, artists and thinkers.

And yet, these human rights are under threat. 

In January 2023, a wealthy Devon landowner called for a ban on wild camping on Dartmoor. Initially the courts ruled in his favour. For a few bleak months, it looked as if the British people were set to lose access to one of their two great wild places forever.

Thankfully, local protesters came to the rescue – with thousands marching across the moor wielding catchy signs such as ‘please sir, I want some moor’ and ‘the stars are for everyone’.

In late July 2023, the courts miraculously decided to reverse their decision. Wild camping was once again legal on Dartmoor. Hurrah!

But that’s not the end of the story. The landowner has since appealed the ruling, opening up the whole case again, after a tantalising and cruel taste of victory.

Positive Trespass

Image by Jim Wileman for The Guardian

Until recently, wild camping has always been somewhat of a fringe activity. It takes quite a lot of gumption to trek across a blasted heath and battle the mosquitos without at least having the luxury of a shower at the other end. But lately, with the stark ping-ponging ‘battle of the ban’, people have been showing a lot more interest. 

The case seems to have sparked a whole new conversation around the subject of wild land, and who’s allowed to enjoy it.

People in the UK are referring to Dartmoor not as a last stand, but as a new beginning. 

The desire – or perhaps I should say, the demand – of groups like Right to Roam is to reclaim ownership of some of the other 92% of countryside and rivers of the UK for the common people. Their reasoning? Access to wilderness has proven to be of vital importance to our mental, physical, and even spiritual health.

They are calling not just for a ‘right to roam’, but a ‘right to reconnect’ with the wild and precious world. 

Personally, I think the demand speaks to what it is to be human. I believe places like Dartmoor are not just useful to keep us fit and active, they also keep us interested and excited by the world. They provide us with the essential raw ingredients of imagination and creativity.

Without access to places like this, without wilderness, there would be no wild stories. Nothing that pushes our understanding of nature, and our place in it. 

My five days of hiking across hills and sleeping under the stars were not only scenically beautiful, it was also deeply inspiring. Every time I stopped, I made a habit of pulling out my notepad and writing about the day. It didn’t matter what it was, thoughts, sensations, how much I hated wet socks. The point was, the right to walk is also the right to think. To be creative. To be inspired and to exist in a state of wonder. 

Philip Webb Gregg Travel Writer

Author: Philip Webb Gregg

Philip is a writer and wanderer who lives on the road in Europe.

He’s forever in awe of a world that gets both bigger and smaller the more he explores it. View archives.

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