The Peasants Are Seizing the Commons (Again)

Protesters stormed a U.K. national park, demanding the freedom to camp anywhere on public land.

Charlotte Elton

"Right to Roam" protesters gather on the edge of Dartmoor National Park in Cornwood, England on Jan. 21, 2023, to demonstrate against a recent court decision banning wild camping in Dartmoor. Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP

DEVON, ENGLAND —A ghostly rider on a skeletal horse is said to roam the windswept moors of southwestern England. According to legend, Old Crockern” guards the sprawling expanse of Dartmoor from those who would try to close it off from commoners.

In January, more than 3,000 locals invoked Old Crockern’s spirit in one of the United Kingdom’s largest-ever countryside access protests. To beating drums and cheers, they hoisted a massive puppet of the ghostly rider as they marched across the estate of a wealthy landowner, protesting a court decision that would further shrink access to England’s already endangered commons. 

In medieval England, landless peasants shared usage rights over millions of acres of land. But in the 16th and 17th centuries, landowners fenced off these areas to create vast farm estates. Subsequent rebellions were brutally crushed, and millions of impoverished peasants poured into Britain’s pre-industrial cities — creating a vast workforce with no choice but to work for meager wages. Marx described this mass dispossession as the basis of the capitalist mode of production.”

Today around 1% of people own roughly half the country’s land. Even in the 10% of England and Wales that are national parks, access is limited. Most British park land belongs to farmers, estate owners and conservation organizations, not the government. Activities like camping and canoeing are often heavily restricted.

Dartmoor was exceptional among English national parks in permitting the practice of wild camping — the ability to pitch a tent anywhere in the park. But things changed in December, when Alexander Darwall — a hedge fund manager and the park’s sixthlargest property owner—filed a lawsuit over Dartmoor campers’ alleged littering and antisocial behavior.” In January, the English High Court decided in Darwall’s favor, ruling that Dartmoor campers can now only pitch tents in a limited number of designated areas.

The ruling prompted an outpouring of public grief. Nature lovers on social media variously described the news as devastating,” insulting” and gutting.” Sarah Fan, a 32-year-old local who regularly walks the moors, says she used to camp at Dartmoor with her late father and still goes every year to remember him. I guess I won’t be able to do that anymore,” she says. Chris Parker, dad of two, mourns for the next generation. Planned to go camping with my kids at Easter — not sure what to tell them,” he says. We have lost something truly special.”

But campers are putting up a good fight. The Dartmoor National Park Authority — the local government body in charge of managing the park — is appealing the decision, with crowdsourced funding from local environmental organization Dartmoor Preservation Association (DPA). Public access to the natural world should not be granted at the whims of landowners,” a DPA spokesperson tells In These Times.

Members of the Dartmoor Wild Camping Action Group at Bowerman's Nose, a stack of weathered granite on Dartmoor, Devon, England. The group is calling for a right to wild camp across the moors. Dan Davy

The Dartmoor case has ignited a wider debate about unequal land access in England. Lewis Winks, a campaigner with land access group The Stars Are for Everyone, sees the court decision as the latest act in a long history of land enclosures and the slow erosion of the commons.”

Old Crockern symbolizes … our history of connection to place, [which] runs far deeper than the modern legal frameworks that govern access,” Winks says.

Even the limited access rights enjoyed by people in England and Wales were hard-fought. In 1932, hundreds of working-class walkers hiked up Kinder Scout, a plateau on the Duke of Devonshire’s land. Several spent months in prison for the act. The act of mass trespass helped pave the way for a 1949 law that created national parks and enshrined a modicum of public access to nature.

The ongoing Dartmoor campaign builds on this legacy. January’s action attracted thousands of campaigners, students and retired birdwatchers, all of whom hiked side by side and spent several hours on Darwall’s land. The action inspired others across the country to wild camp at their local parks, sharing posts captioned #SaveDartmoor.

While Dartmoor landowners have offered minor concessions, campaigners are thinking big — they want to overhaul English land access law completely. Current law guarantees access by foot to about 8% of the countryside that’s mountain, moor, heath or down.” Just north of the border in Scotland, however, the right to roam, boat and wild camp across all open land has been protected since 2003. In Scandinavia, such privileges are protected by the allemansrätten (the everyman’s right”), which enshrines public access to nature.

Campaigners want a similar model in England, and their demands are gaining traction. The Labour Party has promised to pass a Scottish-style right to roam act if it wins the next election. The court decision has been a catalyzing moment,” says Daniel Davy, founder of the campers’ collective Dartmoor Wild Camping Action Group. Winks agrees: It’s added fuel to a fire that’s already lit.”

As Dartmoor protestors showed in January, Old Crockern is rising.

Charlotte Elton is a journalist based in London.

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