The Sharpitor story for the DPA began during the last war, when an RAF station with a wooden-lattice mast was erected on the adjoining Peek Hill. As it was wartime there was no public inquiry: this was apparently a national defence requirement.
In 1955 the Air Ministry sought planning approval to rebuild and enlarge the station as part of a chain of ‘Gee’ system (a radio-navigation system) stations. The Dartmoor National Park Committee and a number of amenity organisations objected to this.
Permission was granted in 1956, but as a temporary measure, for ten years. And ten years later, the Air Ministry was told that the use must cease in another three. On 14 Mar 1969, the DPA’s chairman, Sylvia Sayer, reminded the Ministry of Defence that time was up: the building should be removed and the site cleared. The reply was that there was ‘still an operational requirement for the station until March 1970’. The DPA feared that the ministry intended to hand over the land to the BBC or some local television operator, thereby evading the cost of clearing the site. There were parliamentary questions.
On 23 February 1970, the national park committee was suddenly faced with a proposal by Devon and Cornwall Police to take over the station and use the mast. This roused a storm at the meeting and fortunately the committee rejected the proposal. At last, in April 1970, the Ministry of Defence wrote to Sylvia that the station would be closed and the site cleared and restored. Yet, despite this assurance, nothing happened.
Then suddenly, on 2 November 1970, there was a press statement that Plymouth Corporation intended to use the obsolete building as a training centre for ‘potential offenders among Plymouth’s juveniles’. The corporation owned the land and had priority rights.
It seems inconceivable that anyone could contemplate housing young offenders on such a bleak site. In 1971, the national park authority urged Tavistock Rural District Council, the planning authority, to refuse permission, arguing that ‘the change of use…would perpetuate the buildings prominently sited in the national park, and constitute a further gross intrusion into the visual amenities of the area’. The council refused permission, but Plymouth appealed. Thus a public inquiry was held in June 1973 into the change of use ‘from RAF communications post to adventure centre at Sharpitor RAF post’, involving the refurbishment of four, single-storey buildings.
Sylvia Sayer represented the Council for National Parks, the Open Spaces Society and the DPA. She argued that the change of use would constitute an eyesore on such an exposed site, and that the climate was totally unsuitable for such a development.
The inspector was Major-General AHG Dobson CB OBE MC BA, who had no planning qualifications (a fact which was not unnoticed by the objectors). However, despite this, he commendably rejected the application because the site was ‘unsuitable on climatic grounds’ and the buildings were ‘a most unfortunate intrusion into the countryside of the Dartmoor National Park, to which the public has access. The sense of remoteness which is the unique quality of the high areas of the moor is effectively destroyed by the presence of the buildings and other encumbrances’.
A resounding victory for the DPA and other objectors. The buildings were removed and the land passed to South West Water.
Shortly before the inquiry, Sylvia Sayer had retired as chairman of the DPA, becoming its patron, and the association established the Sylvia Sayer Land Fund, to purchase land in celebration of her superlative work for Dartmoor. A few years later the DPA successfully fought, side by side with South West Water, against renewed calls for a reservoir at Swincombe. On the strength of this friendship, Sylvia asked SWW if we could buy the land at Sharpitor, to mark our victory.
It took much time and negotiation, not least because of uncertainties over a tenancy agreement, but finally, in February 1984, the DPA purchased 31.96 acres for £2,500 and we erected our boundary stones in a pentagon around the site. The land is not actually that on which the RAF station was sited, but it is close by and includes the magnificent rocky outcrops of Sharpitor itself.
While few who visit this exhilarating height will be aware of its chequered history, it is good to know that it is safe for ever, thanks in no small part to the DPA’s persistence.
Kate Ashbrook – July 2007