“I don’t like it when they come back clean,” Dan Clark, the founder of Defender Campers, said as he gave me a crash course in driving an expedition-worthy Land Rover Defender. “We just had a Belgian couple drive Cherry Belle up to North Devon. They brought her back plastered in mud. That’s what I love, that’s what they’re made for!”
Dan had laid down a muddy gauntlet, but as I set off along the M5 South towards Dartmoor in a top-heavy Defender originally designed for overlanding in the Arctic Circle (there were even heated seats, which were disappointingly welcome during my visit last month), I was more concerned about not toppling over on the corners, than I was about taking Cherry Belle off-roading.
Dan rents out a small fleet of three vehicles from his base in Somerset, all kitted out with everything you need – including rooftop tents, gas cookers, fridges and awnings – to get you off-grid for days or weeks at a time. Even with an expedition-ready vehicle though, strict access laws mean there are very few places in England where you can legally escape the rest of the world, which is why Dan teamed up with Wild With Consent, a company connecting campers with secluded pitches on farms and private land.
After a nerve-wracking drive down the motorway, the next challenge was Devon’s narrow country lanes, where high hedgerows obscured oncoming cars. I had two nights booked with Cherry Belle in two different Wild With Consent campsites, and the first was in a field by Old Brook Farm on the southern edge of Dartmoor, where landowners Tom and Victoria recommended an ice-cold river plunge in the morning. The beauty of Wild With Consent’s sites is that they’re only ever rented out to one vehicle, or one group of campers, at a time, so it hardly mattered that I hadn’t brought my trunks.
Victoria explained how the field that was to be my home for the night was once owned by monks from Buckfast Abbey (who are infamous for brewing Buckfast, a wine tonic laced with caffeine), just a 10-minute drive away. The monks kept bees and grew apples for brewing cider, and Victoria and Tom’s grand plan is to revive the orchard, bring back the bees and host more campers.
“We think it’s really important to give people a space like this because you can’t just go off into Dartmoor, park up and wild camp,” said Tom, as he left me with a fire pit and a pile of logs. “Dartmoor is such a special place, it’s why we moved here, but we do believe it should be shared.”
Within seconds, the Defender’s rooftop tent popped into place. Having hiked large parts of the South West coast over the last few summers, carrying my kit and staying in traditional campsites along the way, the Defender provided a level of comfort I just wasn’t used to.
This was a far cry from backpack camping, but the ease and isolation were welcome, especially given how busy regular campsites in the South West get in the summer months.
The next day, after an ice-cold swim and a tin of sausages and beans, I decamped and took Cherry Belle higher into the moors. Soon, the claustrophobic hedgerows were replaced by open moorland. I avoided wandering sheep as the rain tumbled down, content to know that Cherry Belle was finally being splattered with the mud she deserved.
I met Mark Owen at Challacombe Farm, where his farmhouse sits next to the ruins of a medieval village. He showed me through a rewilded strip of land to the camping spot, hidden away at the bottom of a steep hay meadow awash with wildflowers. Mark pulled out a map and highlighted the large areas of Challacombe Farm that are open-access land, where you can roam freely.
Traditionally, much of Dartmoor’s open access land has also been the only place in England where it was legal to “wild camp” (it is permitted in Scotland), but this right was banned in January when Dartmoor landowner Alexander Darwall took things to court. After protests by wild campers and land access campaign groups including Right to Roam, the ban was lifted at the end of July after it was decided that the same ruling could have technically banned activities such as birdwatching and stargazing.
Mark, who didn’t agree with the wild camping ban for backpackers – who by law must carry their own kit and camp discreetly and respectfully in small tents, leaving no trace – explained that it’s still illegal to stay overnight on the moors in a vehicle, campervan or motorhome. This would put Cherry Belle off-limits, which is where sites like Challacombe Meadows come into their own. “People don’t have to worry about being moved on here, as they would if they park in the laybys on the moors,” said Mark. “They can leave their stuff here, it’s safe, it’s out of the way, and it’s cheaper and quieter than normal campsites.”
The next morning, I do just that, leaving Cherry Belle tucked away behind the hedgerow as I hike from Challacombe Farm to Grimspound, where wild horses and highland cattle roam through the remnants of an Iron Age village that’s surrounded by rocky tors. After the hike, I could even use the toilet at Mark’s farm before I set off to deliver Cherry Belle back to her home in Somerset. It’s the simple joys that you really begin to appreciate when you’re camping on Dartmoor.
How to camp there
Wild With Consent offers a two-night self-drive experience in Dartmoor, staying at Challacombe Meadows and Old Brook Farm, including 4X4 hire with Defender Campers from £330.
For wild camping guidelines in the park, see: dartmoor.gov.uk/enjoy-dartmoor/outdoor-activities/camping