Supporters call it “wild camping”; opponents call it “fly-camping“. What both sides accept is that there has been an upsurge in the past few months, with increasing numbers of visitors pitching their tents on any bit of land they fancy. In part, this reflects the fact that official campsites have been wholly or partially closed, or are hugely oversubscribed in a summer when fewer people are going abroad. It is also cheap, at a time when many are worried about what the economic future holds. But it may also be an expression of a desire for freedom – a response to the months of lockdown that is also mirrored in the increased interest in wild swimming in lakes and rivers.
Most of the coverage of the boom in wild camping has been negative. What might be deemed amusing at the Glastonbury festival has not gone down well on Dartmoor, one of the few places in England where wild camping had previously been explicitly permitted. It has now been banned there for August and the early part of September because of a rise in antisocial behaviour, with campers dumping litter, human waste and even their tents on the moorland. Similar action has been taken in Northumberland, the Lake District and the New Forest. Even in Scotland, where camping is permitted on most unenclosed land, tensions are rising.
Clearly there have to be rules. Would-be wild campers will often need to ask for permission to camp from landowners (especially outside Scotland where the law is far more restrictive). It would be common sense for people to use small tents, not light fires, not outstay their welcome and leave no trace of their visit. They have presumably been attracted by a patch of land that is as close to wilderness as the UK can manage, and it is their responsibility to keep it that way. But it would be a shame if this strange summer were to make it even harder to experience the freedom that comes from immersion in the natural world.
Nick Hayes’ The Book of Trespass, which is published this week, makes a provocative plea for the public to be allowed to experience far more of the countryside, so much of which has been parcelled up into large private estates. Creating a nation of trespassers is probably not the answer, but a country better disposed to considerate wild camping might be.
There is plenty of evidence that exposure to nature improves our mental health, and the Japanese extol the virtues of “forest bathing“. Actual bathing is popular but the government appears loath to facilitate it. No UK river has been given bathing water status, which would stop water companies using waterways as open sewers. Luxuriating in a liquid wildness should be revitalising, not poisonous. Business rather than people is the dreadful message.
Our response to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic has been double-edged: we have been watching more television but we have also been spending more time in the park and on local walks.
It is going to take years to unpick the way Covid-19 has changed the national psyche, but it does not seem too grandiose to suggest that it may have affected our view of time, space and nature. For those of us able to relax, there’s a joy in not rushing for a train, doing the regulation eight hours in an office, eating overpriced lunches and dividing up our days in socially expected ways. City-dwellers’ new taste for wild camping and swimming hints at some far bigger change in the way we will henceforth wish to lead our lives.