Right to backpack camp on Dartmoor’s commons confirmed by appeal court

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We are delighted that three judges in the court of appeal have unanimously overturned the high court ruling and resolved that there is a right to backpack (wild) camp on Dartmoor’s common land. The full judgment can be read here.

We’re delighted that backpack (wild) camping is protected on Dartmoor’s common land. Photo: Andrew Bowden, Creative Commons

The society intervened in the court of appeal to support the Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA) in its case against Alexander and Diana Darwall, the owners of Stall Moor common on south-west Dartmoor.

The Darwalls challenged the DNPA’s contention that there was a right to backpack camping under the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 (the 1985 act), and they won in the high court in January.  The DNPA appealed, the society was granted leave to intervene, and the case was heard in the appeal court on 18 July, before three judges: Sir Geoffrey Vos (Master of the Rolls), Lord Justice Underhill, and Lord Justice Newey.

The Darwalls’ counsel, Timothy Morshead KC, argued that the words of section 10 of the 1985 act, ‘the public shall have a right of access to the commons on foot and on horseback for the purpose of open-air recreation’, did not include a right to camp.

However, after hearing the arguments, including those from Tim Straker KC for the DNPA, and Richard Honey KC and Ned Westaway for the Open Spaces Society, the judges decided in favour of the DNPA and OSS.

Sir Geoffrey Vos concluded: ‘In my judgment, on its true construction, section 10(1) of the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 confers on members of the public the right to rest or sleep on the Dartmoor commons, whether by day or night and whether in a tent or otherwise …’.

Said Kate Ashbrook, our general secretary: ‘This is an excellent outcome, we are relieved that the judges ruled unanimously and conclusively that open-air recreation includes backpack camping on the commons.  We were delighted to be invited to intervene in support of the DNPA, and we are deeply grateful to our counsel from FTB Chambers who acted pro bono, and to our solicitors Richard Buxton.

‘We presented a comprehensive witness-statement from our case officer Hugh Craddock, which showed that much previous and subsequent legislation relating to access to commons and other open country, expressly excluded camping from the right of access [1]. It followed that camping must fall within the broad definition of open-air recreation; there would otherwise have been no reason expressly to exclude it.’

Kate continued: ‘Following this judgment Dartmoor remains one of only a handful of places in England where there is a right to backpack camping without the landowner’s permission [2]. We should like to see that right extended, and we shall campaign with other organisations to achieve this.’


[1] The witness statement, and the skeleton argument of counsel on behalf of the society, is available here.

[2] It is suggested that the right to camp also subsists on a small number of commons and other open spaces which are subject to local Acts conferring a right of access, or an access agreement order made under Part V of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, where camping is not expressly excluded under the terms of the Act, agreement or order, and is not prohibited under byelaws.

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