BY BEN EAGLE
I was due to be walking the Coleridge Way in a few weeks’ time. For those of you who don’t know it, the Coleridge Way is a 51 mile long distance walking route in Somerset and north Devon, starting (or ending depending on whether you walk east to west or west to east) in Nether Stowey and finishing in Lynmouth. It crosses through some spectacular environments, from the Quantocks to Exmoor, and is a fitting tribute to Samuel Taylor Coleridge who spent several years in the area, wandering the hills with Dorothy and William Wordsworth. His years in Somerset were arguably his most productive and resulted in a fruitful repertoire of poems, including the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Frost at Midnight. I have walked stretches of the route before, and have a particular fondness for the area in and around the Porlock Vale, but I was relishing the challenge of completing the walk in its entirety.
The problem I have encountered is where to stay on the route. I should have been more organised and booked places well in advance, as the few b&bs that are available seem to have been booked up for weeks beforehand. Further, campsites at suitable stopping places on the way are difficult to come by. There is one option still available to me, and that is wild camping. However, it’s not legal, nor the norm, in England. There are certain places where it is allowed by the landowner or relevant authority, but it certainly isn’t encouraged across the board. I could stop by at a farm and ask the farmer if I could pitch my tent in a corner of a field for the night. However, this could achieve mixed results and certainly can’t be relied on.
In Scotland, I wouldn’t be having this issue. In 2003 the Scottish Parliament passed the Land Reform (Scotland) Act which transformed public access to the outdoors and gave ‘responsible access rights’ to everyone for most places. Access is based on the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and encourages walkers and land managers to exercise rights and responsibilities in a suitable way that works for everyone. There are always exceptions, but largely people accept that countryside management is about compromise, and a certain degree of access is essential. One of the great things, from my perspective, is that wild camping is allowed north of the border, based on an informal agreement that the camper will ‘leave no trace’ after their visit. It is a privilege to be able to enjoy such places and hardly much to expect to clean up after yourself. If only such an attitude could be taken in other parts of the country. I’m not arguing for a situation whereby anybody can camp anywhere or walk anywhere, but that we should be more open to encouraging greater countryside access in an informal way. Walkers will spend money sooner or later and so it’s in the interests of the rural economy to encourage greater responsible access. I wrote about this issue a few months ago, in response to George Monbiot’s tweet about trespassing. However, this is subtly different. I am not advocating access to every single piece of land everywhere, but access that can be exercised in a responsible way. There are certain places that would be unsuitable for access or wild camping. It’s about being sensible and leaving no trace.
Sadly there is no prospect that England will catch up with Scotland at the moment with regards to wild camping but in Wales things might be about to change. The Welsh government have recently outlined proposals to permit a wide range of activities, including wild camping on land designated under Countryside Rights of Way (CRoW). The proposals would affect around 460,000 hectares of land across Wales and the plan is currently in the consultation phase, which is due to be completed at the end of September.
Whilst I personally welcome greater freedoms, many in the farming community are understandably concerned about the potential implications of further legal access. In particular the concerns are for the safety of livestock, the impact on farmers’ incomes in terms of loss of diversified income and disruption of wildlife. NFU Cymru are urging farmers to take part in the consultation, raising their perceived concerns. I agree that this is important, and it is vital that access mustn’t adversely impact on farming incomes or on the state of the farmed environment, but I strongly believe, as in Scotland, that a greater degree of responsible access with regards to wild camping (with the emphasis on the word responsible) would, on balance, be a good thing.
In recent years many farms have diversified their incomes so that on-farm tourism often plays just as important a role in sustaining farm businesses as livestock or crop production. I understand the concerns that farmers who run campsites must have. However, anyone who camps will know that a campsite experience is very different to a wild camping experience, and staying in a b&b is another experience still. They attract different kinds of people who are looking for different experiences. I myself have done all three at different times, depending on my circumstances at the time. Campsites can provide facilities that you simply don’t have when you are wild camping. Rather than focusing on the perceived threats of greater access, businesses should look to the opportunities that encouraging more people into the countryside could bring. Are there products or services that the farm or business could provide these people with to boost overall income? How could these people be attracted to your business to spend their money? Perceived threats can also be opportunities to be engaged with.
In conclusion, ‘responsibility’ is the buzz word here. It is vital that if the Welsh government’s plans for greater access are to go ahead that they are coupled with a message of responsible access. Without such a message the plans will not foster the support of the wider rural community and will attract anger against access in general, which shouldn’t be feared for its own sake. I hope that in time a similar debate will be had in England about responsible access and that wild camping will be legitimately allowable across a larger area, encouraging people to experience the countryside differently. We need to focus on the potential benefits, not fixate on fears and negativity.