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Dartmoor: Military Occupation

November 18, 2010

Military training is one of the most contentious uses of the Dartmoor National Park. There has never been a fair and full public examination of the military’s case for the use of Dartmoor. Economically, the closure of the highest ground in southern England hurts hard pressed local economies. It seems to me that if the Ministry of Defence really needs to use Dartmoor, they should be prepared to prove it at a public inquiry. To question the use of Dartmoor by the army is not to be anti-military. The most vehement opponents have had military backgrounds. Lady Sayer, who would take direct action to interfere with live firing, was, after all, married to an Admiral. The last two generations of my family served in the army in wartime.

This walk described below took place four years ago. Since then there has been an attempt to restrict motor traffic on the ring road. But Prince Charles, who wads his wallet with a large sum from the defence budget in land rental for this Dartmoor land, has just renewed the military licences for another 21 years. Would any other developer using 40,000 acres of the Dartmoor National Park get away with that without a public inquiry?

It took me a couple of attempts to walk the highest summits in southern England. Despite being beautiful May weather with holidaymakers thronging the narrow lanes of Devon, the wildest, northern half of the Dartmoor National Park was closed to visitors – the army was in training across southern England’s last great wilderness.  My initially postponed walk was rescheduled for a Saturday. I was not the only frustrated hillwalker out that day. A couple of dozen others, denied access to these high hills during the week, were thronging Okehampton’s moor gate. Those great hills, Rowtor, West Mill Tor, High Willhays and Yes Tor guard this north frontier of Dartmoor in a sensational way, a rare touch of the mountains in England’s over-developed south. But just beyond the moor gate a sign warns you that this is a firing range and if you touch anything you might be killed – a fine welcome in a National Park!

Welcome to the Dartmoor National Park

It is a hard ascent over one summit to another; Row Tor, West Mill Tor, the final goal being the high massif of Yes Tor and High Willhays, over two thousand feet of rocky moorland, with wondrous views across Devon to the distant Atlantic. High wild countryside is a rare commodity in these parts and the chance to go out into the wilderness is a treat for everyone who loves such wild places. But as you climb the hills of northern Dartmoor, the experience of wilderness is diminished. The military has constructed a tarmac loop road into this great open space. Miles of ancillary tracks cobweb across the neighbouring heights. As I sat on the summit of West Mill Tor, a steady procession of civilian traffic began to make their way out along the military roads and into the wilds, the noise of engines and the glint of sun on windscreens bringing urban England into what should be the quiet heart of the National Park.

Looking across to the slopes of Row Tor, I could see the artificial banks of turf and metal that makes up firing targets, a weird intrusion on that rising stretch of moorland.  Even on a non-firing day, the military helicopters buzzed through the sky, often lower than me, adding to the noise and visual intrusion of the motor traffic. Sometimes my walk felt more like a military exercise, with occasional discarded flare cases, ration packs, sandbags and spent bullet cases clustered around the granite rocks. Here and there are hollows, where mortar shells have thudded into the surface of Dartmoor. Hilltops are disfigured with ugly military structures, occasionally old where some attempt has been made at concealment, but more often stark tin huts on open stretches of moorland.

Now, of course the army has to train, but I find it difficult to understand why national parks have to suffer in this way? Despite the fact that the army has shrunk in size to fewer than 100,000 troops they are hanging on to almost as much land as they had at the time of National Service, making the Ministry of Defence the fourth largest landholder in Britain. There is little logic in Dartmoor training, where training with supportive artillery is now banned, where training with supportive armour is not allowed, and where training with air support is limited, all requirements of modern warfare.

I asked an acquaintance of mine, a long-serving infantry veteran, to comment. He said “the problem is that elements of the army hierarchy are desperate for something or somewhere to command, hence all this land-grabbing. It really is absurd that millions of pounds are paid out for land at a time when front line troops are denied basic equipment and even proper food!” He agreed with me that there should be a land audit of MoD holdings and that excess land – particularly in National Parks – should be released.

Military Huts on Forsland Ledge

I thought of the words of that highly decorated veteran as I made the last long haul on to the great ridge of High Willhays, with its subsidiary summit of Yes Tor overlooking the patchwork fields of North Devon. It is a magnificent top, but again spoiled by a hideous army flagpole and military lookouts around the rocky tor. As I walked along the ridge to Dartmoor’s highest hill, High Willhays, it became clear that the loftiest ground in England south of the Peak District, has been assaulted with a wide army track, both to the summit and along the great ridge itself, a stone-filled rocky road cut deep into the heart of the peat. This particular scar, marches beside the low rocks that make up the summit of Willhays.

I walked over the shoulder of Willhays, to the rocky spur of Forsland Ledge, where a massive tin hut overwhelms what should be an iconic Dartmoor view over the deep cleft of the West Okement river valley.  Writing a century ago Dartmoor’s greatest guidebook author, William Crossing, remarked that this “is a picture that has not many equals on the Moor”. It is still a magnificent view, but marred by the military hut and stable on the Ledge, and the neighbouring huts on the opposite summit of Kitty Tor. Summing up the experience of a walk on Dartmoor’s greatest hill, William Crossing says that you will look upon a picture “instinct with the spirit of Dartmoor”. Sadly, it is not that today, for what should be an unbroken view of wilderness is marred by man-made intrusion.

One of the wildest areas of Dartmoor is the great area of boggy moorland in the vicinity of Cranmere Pool; a hollow in the peat that is the destination of all hardened Dartmoor walkers. I made my way there from High Willhays, via Dinger Tor. Here again civilian four wheeled drive vehicles had accessed the high ground using a military track running out from Okehampton. The journey across heather and mire was naturally hard going a century ago, when William Crossing was walking the moor.  It is harder now. A century of artillery firing has peppered the surface of the heath like lace, the shell holes giving the landscape the look of the Great War’s Western Front. Fortunately, the use of artillery ended nearly a decade ago but, as I leapt from the edge of one water-filled hole to the next, more recent hollows, created by mortar fire, became apparent in what is supposed to be the North Dartmoor Site of Special Scientific Interest. Cranmere Pool is really just a hollow in the great northern peat bog of Dartmoor, boasting little water, yet its remoteness from civilisation is its attraction to the moorland walker.

Mortar shell hole in the Northern Dartmoor Site of Special Scientific Interest

The journey to Cranmere Pool is supposed to be one of Dartmoor’s iconic expeditions. In 1854, the Chagford guide James Perrott placed a pickle jar there so that “gentlemen” might leave their visiting cards to prove that they had made the trip. In the latter years of that century this was replaced by a visitors book and the tradition began of leaving a postcard for the next walker to collect and post. I have made the journey to Cranmere hundreds of times, from all directions. But even that expedition is open to the cheats who can use the military roads to drive within a mile of the pool.

Journeying north, I reached Okement Hill. This is the southernmost point of the surfaced sections of the military loop road. In William Crossing’s time it must have been one of the loneliest places in the country.  On this warm May afternoon what should have been just a staging summit in the wilderness resembled a village car park, with civilian vehicles sprawled beside the military observation posts. I hurried away towards the conical hilltop of Steeperton Tor. This beautiful and dramatic summit has been disfigured by a military hut, clearly visible from the broad plain of Taw Marsh to its north.

As I walked back to Okehampton, via the Belstone Tors and Cullever Steps, past more huts, warning signs and range posts, I reflected on the surrounding stark and dramatic landscape. Just the kind of place that all hillwalkers might relish. But there is no sense of getting away from it all, as there are even on some other parts of Dartmoor. The military intrusions and the civilian traffic on the loop road diminish what should be spectacular and unspoiled. At Okehampton moor gate I read the military firing notice for the following week. For four days out of seven, this part of the Dartmoor National Park – the highest summits in southern England – would be closed to visitors.

Does it matter that the wild country of our National Parks is diminished in this way? I think it does and for the following reasons. We need wild country.  It is at a premium in these over-crowded islands, and it should not be sacrificed for perceived short-term gain.

Lady Sayer, for many years chairman of the Dartmoor Preservation Association (DPA), was a true visionary. I had the privilege of knowing her well and she was my inspiration when I took over as chief executive of the DPA. Fighting for Dartmoor was the most exhausting nine years of my life, not helped by having a National Park Authority committed to compromise and sell-out, and even a DPA committee that mostly did not believe in what I came to call the “Sayer Values”. Dartmoor, of all our National Parks, has faced the greatest threats; not only from the abuse of military training, but from reservoir-building and quarrying, conifer planting and challenges to public access. Only by rolling back such intrusions will Dartmoor deserve the name of National Park, only then will the whole of the Moor be available for quiet recreation, and Sylvia Sayer’s dream of wild country be fulfilled.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. John Edwards permalink
    November 18, 2010 1:27 pm

    To the credit of the Army, it lets people in when live firing is not taking place, and promulgates its firing programme in advance. Far worse would be to let foreign owned golf courses take the land over (see Filipino Golf Wars).

  2. November 19, 2010 9:08 am

    One problem over recent years is that the MoD has advertised lots of firing days, advertised these, and then not actually fired, causing the moor to be closed for nothing. One one occasion when I took some journalists to see the ranges all three ranges were closed, despite the fact that six soldiers were practising with small arms deep in a valley near Tavy Cleave.

    Talking to some army officers not long ago, they said they would not bring troops to train on Dartmoor, because it was not relevant to their needs.

    I think that is why we need an audit of all military held land, to make sure that the land is needed and not just in the hands of the MoD because it always has been.

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