Like many who grew up in Devon or took part in the annual Ten Tors expedition, I walked into Dartmoor and wild-camped many times with schoolfriends, and later with my children. Deep in the moors, away from traffic noise and light pollution, we entered a priceless shared realm, free of money and property rights, where all were equal. In 50 years, I have never found so much as a crisp packet left behind; without overt rules, the huge majority respected the sanctity of the shared wilderness.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of Alexander Darwall, a hedge fund manager who already owned a 16,000-acre estate in Scotland, and bought a 4000-acre estate on Dartmoor in 2011 – to run pheasant shoots and holiday lets, and make even more money. Evidently not a man to share willingly, Darwall initiated and funded a legal challenge to the right to wild camp, and won, surely becoming the most loathed man in the county.
Even our local Conservative MP (having previously registered a £5000 donation to his campaign office from Darwall) is trying to distance himself from the stench of abused privilege.
For centuries, while mainland Europe was in revolutionary turmoil, Britain’s rich and powerful avoided the guillotine by granting just enough, just in time. We remained governable through the observance of a loose but implicit and evolving social contract. Historically, the rich, and particularly landowners, have accepted (to varying degrees) that with their privilege came responsibilities: to maintain byways, grant reasonable access, be charitable, and yes, occasionally, to pick up other people’s litter. Now it seems that some feel responsibility only to themselves.
Darwall’s arrogance, ignorance and selfishness represent the most blatant and extreme trashing of our social contract by the rich and powerful. The privatisation of shared public spaces, be they school playing fields, oceans, or national parks, tragically undermines the fabric of our society and takes us one step closer to breakdown.
If a winter of discontent evolves into revolution, don’t blame Mick Lynch and the trade unions; the cause will be the abuses of the Darwalls, Baroness Mone, and parties at Number Ten. I hope I don’t lose my head along with them.
If you’d like to support the campaign for free and fair public access to the English countryside, find out more and get involved at righttoroam.org.uk.