National Park has a lot to celebrate
ITS sparkling night skies have been declared among the best in the world and the stunning landscapes the best in the country – Northumberland National Park has a lot to celebrate as it turns 60.
Just last week, it added the title of National Park of the Year, voted for in the BBC Countryfile Magazine Awards, to a haul of accolades that already included Gold Tier International Dark Sky Park status and anointment as the ‘world’s best national park’ by the influential Condé Nast Traveller business.
And the secret of its success isn’t a secret at all. As Northumberland National Park Authority’s chief executive Tony Gate is quick to point out, it is the sheer diversity on offer in the park’s 400-plus square miles that keeps people coming back for more.
“Visitors can follow in the footsteps of Romans, step back in time to the Iron Age at the myriad of hill forts, look down over Scotland from the Border Ridge and sample the produce of the park’s own skilled artisans,” he said.
“Whatever you’re looking for – whether flora, fauna, countryside activities, history, culture or simply just somewhere to escape from it all – we have it in abundance.”
Formally instituted on April 6, 1956, today the national park is one of the 15 that together embody the very rights Wordsworth laid claim to when he described the Lake District as ‘a sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy’.
The foundations of the national parks were laid in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, as the nation’s heroes began returning home.
“Journalist Andrew Marr commented during a television programme he made that the national parks legislation was an example of where politics had worked,” said Tony.
“It was part of that drive towards reconstruction and looking at how people could really enjoy the country they had fought for.”
However, the seeds of the movement had been planted long before – in 1884, to be precise. That was the year MP James Bryce, railing against the ever-shrinking access people had to their own natural heritage, tried to push the first Right to Roam bill through Parliament.
He failed in his bid and it was to be another century before his successors succeeded, but the fuse had been lit.
The rapid expansion of towns and cities during the golden years of industrialisation was matched by the determined enclosure of land for farming and sporting pursuits. That put landowners and public interest groups on the path to conflict.
But it was 1932 before the matter finally came to a head and turned the events of Sunday, April 24, that year into the stuff of legend.
Frustrated by the lack of progress towards right to roam legislation, a cohort of rebellious ramblers decided to take action themselves.
Having been turned off Bleaklow hill in the Peak District by gamekeepers a few weeks earlier, members of the Lancashire branch of the Communist-inspired British Workers’ Sport Federation organised a mass public trespass on nearby Kinder Scout.
Around 400 Mancunians, led by communist political activist Benny Rothman, set off from Bowden Bridge that morning, while a Sheffield group set off from Edale on the other side of the hill.
Halfway up, the Mancunians were intercepted by a contingent of gamekeepers working for the Duke of Devonshire and a scuffle ensued in which one of the keepers was slightly hurt.
The walkers pressed on and rendezvoused with the Sheffield group on Kinder Scout plateau. After much shaking of hands and congratulating each other, the two groups retraced their steps, the Manchester contingent to Hayfield.
There, five ramblers were arrested by police accompanied by gamekeepers and taken to the Hayfield lock-up. The day after the trespass, Rothman and five others were charged with unlawful assembly and breach of the peace.
All six pleaded not guilty and were remanded to be tried at Derby Assizes, where five of the six were subsequently found guilty. They were jailed for between two and six months.
The Right to Roam campaign now had its martyrs and a huge wave of public sympathy rolled across Britain.
A few weeks later, the campaigners’ ranks were swelled by 10,000 ramblers, who gathered for a rally in Winnats Pass, near Castleton.
The wagon that was rolling had become unstoppable, although it moved at a snail’s pace.
Four years later, big hitters such as the Ramblers’ Association, the Youth Hostels Association and the Council for the Preservation of Rural England formed a lobby group to take the case one step further.
National parks were needed that both enshrined the right of access and offered a layer of protection to precious landscapes, they argued
The act of parliament that would act as midwife to the national parks was finally passed in 1949 and the first of the siblings, the Peak District, was delivered two years later.
By the end of the decade, it had been joined by the Lake District, Snowdonia, Dartmoor, Pembrokeshire Coast, North York Moors, Yorkshire Dales, Exmoor, Northumberland and the Brecon Beacons.
Introduced during an era in which soldiers were still recuperating and workers needed to escape industrial smogs, the parks were designed to be the lungs of the nation.
As far as Tony Gates is concerned, that hasn’t changed. “Many of the parks are on the borders of big industrial areas and here in Northumberland, historically the industry was coal mining,” he said.
“The opportunity to come out and spend time above ground, in the big open spaces and clean air, was invaluable.”
Families from the mining communities of south-east Northumberland have long visited the Breamish Valley, for example, and second and third generations are still coming now.
“The reasons for having national parks are every bit as relevant today,” he said.
“People’s lives, if anything, have got busier, so having open places for recreation, to exercise in and somewhere you feel you can leave everything else behind is crucial.
“That sense of space is as important to your mental health as your physical health.”
There have been two big changes during the life of the national parks.
One is the broadening of the focus to include the socio-economic health of the communities on and within their boundaries.
The strategic support on offer helps individual businesses and whole villages breathe.
The other is the institution of the national parks as local authorities in their own right.
The decision was taken, in 1995, to pull them from under the umbrella of county councils to give them the clout to better pursue their primary objectives.
And they are there to conserve and enhance all that is special about their extensive, beautiful landscapes – and to provide as many opportunities as possible for Joe Public to enjoy them.