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Blindfold lifted on man's contribution to national parks

Friday 09 July 2004

Our countryside commentator, who has been writing about national parks for more than 40 years, reflects on a Yorkshire Dales meeting this week which at last gives official recognition to the fact that ordinary working men and women played a part in creating the landscapes of our national parks.

AS I have written before, I covered my first national park meeting in the Derbyshire Peak District in the late 1950s. It was one of the first two parks that started the movement – the Lake District being the other – and in both areas there was a similar complaint.

Man-made – recognition at last

The great and the good who then dominated park committees, the locals claimed, were more interested in the landscape than the people who lived and worked there. Many had the unpleasant feeling that, as far as the authorities were concerned, they were a downright nuisance.

That was because they didn't just stand still and look pretty. They drove tractors or quarry wagons, they wanted new homes for their growing families – there was a huge population boom after World War 11 – they wanted shops and pubs and (horror or horrors) they did such unsavoury things as hang out their washing for walkers and visiting tourists to see!

All these activities made the preservation of the landscape in aspic a pretty difficult job: you can't have planning laws for things like tractors. They move, you see, unlike pretty pictures on chocolate boxes which – many locals thought – was how the planners wanted the parks to be.

Well, as I have also written before, things have changed a great deal in the last decade. It was John Major's Government which finally corrected an oversight in the original national park legislation and told the planners that they had another important duty: too look after the social and economic well-being of the local residents.

This week, however, brought forth another event which – although not couched in these terms – was a final confession that, in the early days, they had got it wrong.

Representatives from all of England's 11 national parks – soon to be 12 with the addition of the New Forest – met in Wensleydale to sign a pledge that, in future, they would conserve the "historic environment" of the countryside they are pledged to protect (see News).

And what they meant by "historic environment" was not the fells, nor the dales, but the man-made bits which, for the best part of fifty years, had been looked upon as warts on the wondrous beauty of the earth.

They include not just drystone walls and barns – which, to be fair, the Yorkshire Dales park has been trying to protect for years – but also relics in their industrial history: what's left of tin mines or lime-burning kilns, as well as the paths across moors which were made, not for leisure ramblers, but by men and women on their way to a hard day's graft.

No-one put it in quite these words but this was long-overdue recognition that working local people made hugely important contributions to the actual shape of the landscape.

The villages they built, the pubs they used, the churches they attended, the quarries they dug, are all part of a whole. They may not appear on the chocolate box but they are a monument to a hundred generations who made the national parks what they are.

In other words, people are no longer a nuisance and – as the Dales park celebrates its 50th birthday – this is a major step forward. If more attention is paid to the people's future, as well as their past, we might yet save our precious countryside from becoming a living museum for wealthy retirees and second home-owners.

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