Forty years ago today, 6 June 1980, Vole magazine published my open letter to Prince Charles. I wrote to him, in his capacity as Duke of Cornwall, to urge him to offer his land on northern Dartmoor to the National Trust. This was to end its use for military live-firing which was, and still is, contrary to the purposes of a national park.
This was after the public inquiry, chaired by Dame Evelyn Sharp, in 1975, concluded that the military should continue to batter the Dartmoor National Park. However, in her report, Lady Sharp, said: ‘I accept that military training and a national park are discordant, incongruous and inconsistent … there can be no doubt that on Dartmoor military training is exceedingly damaging to the national park’ (paragraphs 262 and 263). There was also an astonishing (though blindingly obvious) admission by the military itself: ‘other things being equal, military training is best carried on outside national parks’ (paragraph 145).
I quoted both these extracts in my letter to Prince Charles, referring to his well-known appreciation of the importance of preserving wild country and the value of Dartmoor’s wilderness as Duke of Edinburgh gold award country, and expressing my surprise that he should sanction the military bombardment of wild landscape on Dartmoor, of which he was the landlord.
Dartmoor was being punctured with shellfire, causing damage to ancient monuments and denying public access for many days of the year. Flagpoles and look-out huts marred the once unblemished skyline. Intact missiles were left on the moor, one was even carried home in a schoolboy’s dufflebag. The network of tarmac military roads extended far into the wilderness so that the challenge of reaching Cranmere Pool, once an arduous and exhilarating day’s walk, was lost. And the Ministry of Defence never obtained the Duchy’s permission before constructing these roads (now, mercifully, largely closed).
I pointed out that the military had contravened clauses of the licences: for example it must not damage or destroy ‘any antiquarian remains or natural tors’, but it had done so. And it had also breached the requirement to make good all damage caused by projectiles to the land.
There had never been an independent examination of alternative sites for military training in Britain and overseas, because the Sharp inquiry was limited to considering alternative training sites in south-west England—a charade.
In 1978 the Duchy renewed the licences to the military until 1984 (they were due for renewal in 1977 and in fact were not signed until 1981).
However, in 1975 the National Trust gave notice to the military that it would not renew the licence for dry training (ie no live ammunition) on its land at Ringmoor Down on south-west Dartmoor. The military ignored this, assuming the trust would cave in, but it did not and it terminated the licence in 1977. This courageous stance made it a suitable owner for the land on northern Dartmoor which is why I suggested this to Prince Charles.
The letter came about because of a chance encounter. On 19 February 1980 I went to a meeting of the London committee of the Devon International Festival, in my role as director of the festival, the brainchild of my employer Charles Owen. One of the members of that committee was Alastair Gordon (the sixth Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair, whose obituary in the Guardian bears the subtext ‘Mischievous peer who liked to shock with tales of his times in the world’s better brothels’).
I travelled partway back to Devon with Alastair and on the train we met his friend Richard Boston, editor of Vole. First published in 1977, it was a perceptive and outspoken magazine (sadly, short lived) about environmental and conservation issues. Richard and I got talking and by the time Richard left the train at Reading we had agreed that I would write an open letter to Prince Charles, to be published in Vole.
When the letter appeared, on the cover and first two pages, I was thrilled and sent photocopies to the local press.
My friend James Mildren, the excellent environment correspondent of the Western Morning News, published a sympathetic story; he asked the National Trust for a view but it said it could not seriously consider an offer until it had been made. The press responded well, with stories in the Exeter Express and Echo and Plymouth Sunday Independent. I had to jump out of the bath to do an interview with the late Steve Annett on Radio Devon’s Morning South West at very short notice.
Slightly tongue in cheek I sent a copy of Vole to Vice-Admiral Sir Ronald Brockman, chairman of the Dartmoor National Park Committee and usher to the royal household (which he was prone to mention): ‘As you often have occasion to talk to the heir to the throne, you may like to have this conversation piece.’
Ronnie was not amused. After explaining that his delay in replying was due to being in London ‘in connection with the celebrations for the 80th birthday of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother’, he said: ‘I must confess I do not think I have ever read a more impudent letter than yours to His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales. It also appears to me that you have had it published in something called Vole which is unknown to me. Not only is your letter discourteous, but it is full of untruths, half truths and evasions …’ No help there then, despite the fact that the national park committee was opposed to military live-firing on Dartmoor and put up excellent opposition at the Sharp inquiry.
Predictably, the letter and subsequent publicity and correspondence made no difference. The Duke of Cornwall did not even reply to my letter. The Duchy has continued to renew the licence for military for training. The latest one, agreed in 2012, runs for 21 years until 2033. That’s a long time to wait, but perhaps the Duke of Cornwall would like to celebrate his 85th birthday by informing the military that it is time to go.