A people’s charter for the outdoors

This month marks the 60th anniversary of the legislation that gave Britain its national parks. Roly Smith charts the story of the protection of our wild and natural places

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National parks have been described, with some justification, as the best idea that America ever had’’. But actually, the person who first came up with that far-sighted and world-shaping idea was an Englishman.

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It was the celebrated Lake District Romantic poet William Wordsworth who was the first to put the national park idea into words. In the concluding paragraphs of his Guide Through the District of the Lakes in the North of England, first published in 1810, he expressed the hope that landowners would join him in his wish “to preserve the native beauty of this delightful district”.
 
And then he came up with the suggestion that his beloved Lake District might one day be: “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’’. With the imminent arrival of the railway, he was later to qualify that far-sighted and all-inclusive vision with the fear that the landscape would be destroyed if “artisans, labourers and the humbler class of shopkeepers” were allowed to invade his precious fells.
 
It would be another 140 years before the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act gave us our first national park in the Peak District. Although they had been talked about for a century, the idea of setting aside national parks like the American model, pioneered in 1872 at Yellowstone, in such a small, overcrowded island hardly seemed a possibility.
 
Forgive us our trespassers
 
But when the promised ”land fit for heroes’’ failed to materialise after the First World War, agitation began again in the 1930s to protect the finest areas of our countryside. One of the key events which put the campaign for the parks onto the front pages was the 1932 Mass Trespass on Kinder Scout, the bleak moorland plateau which is the highest point of the Peak District.
 
On the sunny Sunday morning of 24 April 1932, about 400 mainly politically motivated ramblers set off from Hayfield on the western side of Kinder to deliberately trespass on the Peak’s ‘forbidden mountain’. When they stepped off the path in William Clough, they were met by a line of gamekeepers and a few scuffles took place.
 
A victory meeting was held near Ashop Head as the Hayfield ramblers were joined by others who had hiked over from Sheffield. Then the trespassers marched back to Hayfield where police arrested five of them, who were charged with public order offences such as riotous assembly.
 
At their trial at Derby Assizes a few months later, four of the five young defendants received prison sentences of between two and six months. Ironically, it was the severity of those sentences which was to unite the ramblers’ cause. The Kinder mass trespass undoubtedly brought the access issue to a head, and acted as an important catalyst to the whole national parks and access to the countryside campaign, which eventually led to the 1949 legislation.
 
The Dower blueprint
 
The genesis of the British national parks can be traced to the final days of the Second World War, when the sickly architect, town planner and rambler John Dower was charged with writing his famous White Paper on National Parks in England and Wales. It was Dower, in his report published on 12 April 1945, who came up with the classic definition of a British national park:
 
A National Park may be defined, in application to Great Britain, as an extensive area of beautiful and relatively wild country in which, for the nation’s benefit and by appropriate national decision and action:
a) the characteristic landscape beauty is strictly preserved
b) access and facilities for public open-air enjoyment are amply provided
c) wildlife and buildings and places of architectural and historic interest are suitably protected, while
d) established farming use is effectively maintained.
 
Dower proposed the creation of ten national parks in England and Wales. His remit did not extend to Scotland, where Sir Douglas Ramsay and mountaineer Bill Murray were preparing a parallel report, selecting five areas as potential national parks from the wealth of wild and beautiful scenery north of the border. Of these, the popular honeypots of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, and the semi-Arctic Cairngorms eventually became Scotland’s first National Parks after the creation of the devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999.
 
Dower died of tuberculosis in 1947. Nevertheless, following his report and the recommendations of a committee chaired by Sir Arthur Hobhouse that 12 national parks be established, the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was passed on 16 December 1949. Introducing the Second Reading of the Bill in Parliament on 31 March 1949, minister of town and country planning Lewis Silkin described it as: “a people’s charter for the open air’’.
 
It was, he said: “…for the hikers and the ramblers, for everyone who loves to get out into the open air and enjoy the countryside. Without it they are fettered, deprived of their powers of access and facilities needed to make holidays enjoyable. With it the countryside is theirs to preserve, to cherish, to enjoy and to make their own’’.
 
There was little or no opposition to the bill, and among those who spoke for it were Barbara Castle, later a fiery Cabinet Minister, and Hugh Dalton, later chancellor of the exchequer. Reflecting their open-air interests, many of these ministers later took part in Bank Holiday rambles along the proposed Pennine Way – an unlikely scenario these days.
 
Beautiful and relatively wild
 
It was perhaps significant that the Peak District, scene of the access battlegrounds of the 1930s, became the first British national park on 17 April 1951, followed shortly afterwards by Wordsworth’s “national property” of the Lake District. Eight others – Snowdonia, Dartmoor, the Pembrokeshire coast, North York Moors, Yorkshire Dales, Exmoor, Northumberland and the Brecon Beacons – followed in the 1950s.
 
All the first national parks were in Dower’s “beautiful and relatively wild country”. There were no national parks in the lowlands of England and Wales until the Broads were designated in 1989. The New Forest followed in 2005, and finally, the South Downs, first proposed by Hobhouse in 1947, became the latest national park this year (2009).
 
Opposition to the designation of parks has always been strongest among local residents, who become shackled by much more restrictive planning regulations. However, a recent referendum on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides produced a 70 per cent vote in favour of its designation as a national park.
 
Perhaps the British are at last taking the parks to their hearts. But we still have a long way to go before they enter the nation’s consciousness in the way that the American public proudly regard theirs. In the USA, where it all began, they are an essential part of the national culture in much the same way as we regard our built heritage of medieval castles and cathedrals.