Thursday, 26 January 2023

A short Cairngorms winter walk

A walk in the Cairngorms to celebrate completing my tax return before the end of the month seemed a good idea.Today looked like it might be the best day for a while. Maybe that will be the case - storms are forecast. It wasn't a good day though, unless you were practising navigation like some of the groups I met. 

The cloud was down low. Now I don't mind this if the air is crisp and cold and the clouds shift at least a little. Then it can be mysterious and invigorating. Today wasn't like that. The clag was thick and wet. No visibility really meant no visibility. Blasts of wind brought sleet and icy rain that froze on every surface. The dampness was chilling.

I went up to the Cairngorm Plateau, at first through dark heather and grass with spatterings of old snow then onto iced rocks with a scattering of fresh snow. Higher up steeper patches of old hard snow had me stopping to don crampons and swap a trekking pole for the ice axe. A climber descending said it wasn't nice on the plateau.

He was right. I reached the big cairn at Pt 1141. There are good views of the cliffs of Stob Coire an t-Sneachda, the dome of Cairn Gorm and down Coire Raibert to Beinn Mheadhoin. Not today. Today there was nothing, just snow and rocks rapidly fading into the grey cloud. I stopped for a hot drink and some chocolate, pulling my insulated jacket over my shell jacket as I felt chilly as soon as I stopped. Dry gloves replaced sodden ones. A few parties half-plastered in wet sleet appeared and disappeared, hoods up, ice axes in hand, crampons on boots. 

Continuing didn't appeal. I turned and cramponed back down the ridge. This was enough. Still time in the hills though. I could have still been doing my accounts.

Tuesday, 24 January 2023

I love skiing from home!

Skiing from the front door is wonderful. I love it. I almost managed it during the recent heavy snowfall, now sadly all gone in a big thaw. In fact I could have skied from the front door but only a few yards before I’d have had to remove the skis to cross the fence (the garden gate being out of action due to the snow piled up against it – I could have dug it out but it’s easier just to cross the fence). Being pragmatic I carried the skis to the fence and put them on once across. It was also pragmatic to ski locally, the roads being a horrid treacherous slippery mess of snow and ice churned up by the occasional gritter. I didn’t fancy driving anywhere. And why bother when I could ski here.

The first day I had a short ski across the fields, getting used to being on skis again. The snow was soft and deep enough to make the going slow and arduous. Only when I turned and skied back along the tracks I’d made did I have that feeling of effortless movement that comes when the skis glide freely. On the edges of the snowfields the trees were plastered in heavy snow. 

In the latest issue of The Great Outdoors magazine (March 2023) I have a feature on a trip using the oldest gear I have. Although winter there wasn’t enough snow for skiing on that trip. For these local ski tours I did bring out some very old ski gear. My Asnes Nansen Mountain skis date back to 1986, my Garmont Tour leather Nordic ski boots to 1994. They both still work fine, though it’s been a few decades since I took them into the mountains. I have slightly newer (only twenty-two years old!) and more suitable gear for that. For local skiing on gentle terrain the older gear is ideal.

After that first short tour more snow fell. I decided to go further, into the woods and then out onto moorland. Under snow this managed landscape, the woods mostly decaying plantations, the moors used for sheep and grouse shooting, becomes wilder and more exciting. Suddenly there’s a feel of the arctic. Horizons expand, damaged land vanishes under the white blanket.

The snow was even deeper but also heavier and wetter, sticking to the skis and under my boots. I hadn’t brought any wax, these skis being waxless, so had nothing to rub on them to stop the snow balling up in great clumps underneath the skis. Banging them with my poles shifted some of it. More effective was skiing over the edges of fallen branches in the forest so the skis were scraped clean.

Skiing in the forest was difficult. The snow was soft and deep in places, crunchy and shallow in others. Weaving a way round fallen trees took time. An increasing wind shook snow off the branches. I was working hard and feeling quite warm but after one dollop of snow landed on my head and ran down my neck I put my hood up.

The reward for skiing through the forest was the delicate, ephemeral beauty of the snow-laced trees. There would be more snow but the woods would never look just like this again. Indeed, they would have changed when I came back this way later in the day. It was a privilege to see them like this.

Once out of the trees the wind caught me and I needed that hood for warmth. Progress was easier as the snow, whilst still quite deep, was even. The wind brought squalls of snow, short and fierce, followed by brief bursts of blue sky and sunshine. Although only a few miles from home I felt I was in remote wild country. All I could see was snow, rocks, and trees.

Before turning back I found a niche against a rock below an old juniper bush to sit out of the wind for a hot drink and a snack. With an insulated jacket on, sitting on a foam pad with my pack as a backrest, and a cup of hot ginger cordial in my hand, I felt quite cosy. I even bothered to set up the tripod and take photos of my pleasant little nook.

Beyond the camera the white world stretched out to distant cloud-shrouded hills. I gazed at the wild winter landscape for a while then reluctantly left my shelter to ski back along my tracks, much faster now with even some gentle downhills to run.

The high mountains are still snowy. That’s where I’ll go next.


Thursday, 19 January 2023

Dartmoor Wild Camping: A Concession With Worrying Implications

Dartmoor National Park has worked fast to come up with a solution of sorts to the court ruling banning wild camping without the landowners permission that I wrote about in my last post. There's now an agreement with some landowners to allow wild camping in the areas marked on this map. Progress then? Of a sort - wild camping will be allowed again on some parts of Dartmoor. However this is just a sop. What it establishes is the power of the landowners.

The new arrangement is actually quite invidious. The quotes below are from the Dartmoor National Park.

"The new agreements will involve a payment to landowners by DNPA, but the amount has not yet been discussed in detail. These costs have not been budgeted for by the Authority.  We will be writing to Defra to ask if they will provide funding to support this process."

So Darwall, the landowner who took the case to court, will now be paid for allowing campers on his land, as will other landowners. This should not happen. No national park should be paying landowners to let people camp wild. This is an outrageous use of public money.

Apart from the fact that national parks are underfunded as it is this sets a dangerous precedent too. What else will landowners decide they can charge for? And how will landowners in other national parks in England and Wales react? If on Dartmoor why not the Peak District, Snowdonia, the Lake District?  

"Permissive Backpack (wild) camping allowed" on some parts of the moor (less than under the previous position). This is a concession that can be changed or taken away as landowners choose. It's no longer a legal right as wild camping should be, as it is in Scotland. This deal reduces access and freedom. Here's where you are allowed to camp, here's where you can't. Wild camping corralled, controlled, regulated isn't wild camping at all.

Unsurprisingly this has not gone down well with access and outdoor bodies. The Ramblers say "because our access rights have been reduced to permissive rights, it allows landowners the freedom to withdraw or attach conditions to this permission in the future. The legal right to wild camp on Dartmoor should be fully re-established".  The BMC says "we believe that wild camping should encompass the freedom to choose where to camp, when to camp, without any regulations, to be self-sufficient and to do so in a discreet and responsible manner.  Referring to maps to pre-plan a camp, applying for permission, and relying on the whim of landowners doesn’t give visitors the certainty and freedom to explore Dartmoor in the way they may have wished". 

On Twitter Right to Roam says they and @EveryonesStars @Team_BMC and @RamblersGB are agreed: any deal which reduces long held rights to wafer thin 'permissive' agreements with major landowners is unacceptable. There must be a full restoration of public rights on Dartmoor.

I'll be supporting the campaigns to restore the legal position on Dartmoor and to extend access and wild camping rights in England and Wales. 

Sunday, 15 January 2023

A Look At The Dartmoor Wild Camping Affair

Picture from my long out-of-print 1996 book Classic Hill Walks

The court decision that there is no legal right to wild camp on Dartmoor without the landowners permission is, to say the least, disappointing as the Dartmoor Commons was the only area in England and Wales where this was not the case (Scotland is very different and has much more enlightened legislation). Until this judgement the Dartmoor National Park assumed that the rights to open-air recreation in the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 included wild camping. Sir Julian Flaux, the chancellor of the high court, doesn’t think that wild camping is recreation though, it’s ‘a facility for its enjoyment ……… the open-air recreation in which they are engaged is the hiking not the wild camping’.  This of course completely misunderstands the nature of backpacking, that the walking and camping are an integral part of a whole not independent activities. When I go on a long walk the camping is just as important as the hiking.

The case was brought by Alexander Darwall, a hedge fund manager who owns the small Blachford Estate on the edge of Dartmoor, which has a farm and offers pheasant shooting and deer stalking. Darwall argues that the right to wild camp never existed. The judge agreed with him. The ruling doesn’t just apply to his land though but to the whole of Dartmoor. Pannage Man, an expert on commons and rights of way who worked on preparing and implementing access legislation under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, has an excellent detailed look at the history of statutory access to open country on his blog, saying the court has missed the point in this case.

Unsurprisingly there has been a swift backlash against the ruling from many organisations and individuals including the BMC, which describes it as a huge blow for the outdoor community, and even the DofE, which says in a pinned Tweet that it’s deeply disappointed. The Great Outdoors magazine has an excellent piece on the response from various organisations and another on reactions from seven outdoor enthusiasts for whom camping on Dartmoor is important. The Observer has a good piece on the affair too. There will be protests. Dartmoor National Park is considering an appeal, which I hope goes ahead.  The Labour Party has said that when next in power it will expand the right to roam and wild camp across England. Maybe the whole affair will backfire on Darwall. I hope so.

What does the ruling mean for wild camping in general in England and Wales? In practical terms, very little. It’s the message it sends out that matters, the message that landowners can do this. What does that say to young people and anyone thinking wild camping sounds attractive? Where does this place organisations such as DofE who run wild camping expeditions? Discouraging access to nature and outdoor adventure is the last thing we should be doing.

Whilst there’s no legal right to wild camp there’s no law expressly forbidding it either. It would come under trespass legislation and isn’t a criminal offence but a civil matter. A landowner can ask you to leave and could sue you if you refuse though I can find no cases of this happening. 

Wild camp in the Lake District

Of course many people wild camp regularly without asking the landowners permission. In some areas such as the Lake District and Snowdonia this is accepted away from roads and habitations. In other places discretion is needed. I’ve never camped on Dartmoor (I’ve only been there once, back in 1994) but when I lived in England I used to wild camp regularly, including walking from Land’s End to John O'Groats and camping almost every night. I never asked permission to camp, no-one ever objected. In fact just once in hundreds and hundreds of nights wild camping did a landowner approach me and they said I could stay as long as I left the next morning, which was my intention anyway.

Campers causing damage and leaving rubbish has come up as a reason for the ruling. Whilst this is a problem in some, mostly roadside, places, it’s not a factor in this case. Dartmoor National Park defines wild camping as a ‘no impact’ camping out of sight of roads or settlements and says it does not include overnight stays in vehicles, large tents or large groups. Anyway, the real threats to nature come from industry, commercial forestry, farming, and shooting. How good is Darwall’s pheasant shoot for the environment?

Viewed from Scotland this looks an old and out of date debate. We went through this twenty years ago. It’s time England and Wales caught up.