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Fifty years of squabble: quarries – v - national parks

Friday 20 June 2008

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who covered his first row between quarrymen and national park residents half a century ago, praises the quarry industry for bringing its ancient industry into the 21st Century – and asks incomers to accept its right to exist

THE FIRST national parks set up in England back in the 1950s were the Lake District and the Peak District. The creations of post-war Labour governments, the Lakes were chosen because of their scenic grandeur and the Derbyshire-centred Peak because it represented, to Labour MPs at least, a great victory in the class war.

In the years before World War11, Derbyshire had become a battle ground between working class activists from South Yorkshire and the Midland industrial towns and grouse-shooting-rights holder, some of them wealthy landowners, others – ironically - municipally- owned water companies which controlled the upland reservoirs and tens of thousands of acres which surrounded them.

Fifty years of squabble: quarries – v - national parks
Fifty years of squabble: quarries – v - national parks

The issue was access to these vast areas of land for walkers and climbers and, after a few highly publicised but relatively minor clashes with police, the Peak District became a symbol of land-owning toffs trying to keep the urban peasantry down.

Post-war Labour put that to rights and I was a very young junior reporter when I was sent to cover some of the parks’ first meetings. And on the agenda then was yet another chapter in the textbook of class warfare, quarrymen versus rich businessmen and their families from Manchester, Sheffield, Derby and Nottingham.

They had bought country cottages in the park – then going for a song – and didn’t want quarry wagons rushing past their garden gates. They were particularly incensed that these truckers – many of them ex-Army drivers home from the war – were paid by the trip, rather than a fixed wage, and this they claimed made them drive faster and harder.

Fast forward half a century to another national park, the Yorkshire Dales, and guess what? The war is still going on between the quarry owners and incomers who, in this day and age, have paid a fortune for their cottages and don’t want quarry wagons etc etc This is rather like the woman given a sympathetic hearing on the BBC Radio Today programme this week that had moved into a small village and was trying to have the local bell ringers banned from practising their peals. As the Vicar asked mildly, “I can’t help but wonder why she bought a place near the church if she didn’t like the sound of bells. We have rung peals here for 600 years.”

It so happens that one of my friends, a skilled and courageous rugby wing forward, was once the shot firer at a Dales quarry which was the constant target of sniping from new residents. The quarry eventually closed and although my friend had a highly skilled job which had taken years of training with high explosives, the only work he could get was as a bin man.

these constant complainers represent all that is worst about a certain type of person who moves into the countryside

To me these constant complainers represent all that is worst about a certain type of person who moves into the countryside: not all of them, by any means, because most settle in and take an active and important role in local affairs. But there is this highly vocal, often wealthy, minority who seem to be completely oblivious to the fact that there are ordinary working people in the Dales who need to have a job to go to.

I am by no means absolving the quarry owners of all blame. Twenty years ago, my wife could have been be-headed on the Grassington Road outside Swinden Quarry when a football sized rock from the back of an uncovered quarry wagon bounced off her car bonnet and flew over the roof of her small car. A foot lower and it would have gone through the windscreen.

Soon after that, laws were passed that all such wagons had to be sheeted before they left the quarry and I have never witnessed a similar incident. There have also been immense improvements in the amount of stone now moved by train – at night – and Hanson quarries at Horton-in-Ribblesdale and Ripon are at present on the short-list as prime wildlife sites in a competition run by the highly regarded British Trust for Ornithology.

Man has been quarrying stone in the Yorkshire Dales since pre-Roman times. As farming declines as a large scale employer, quarries are often the main source of employment for miles around. These hard-working, down-to-earth locals have rights, too, and if wealthy incomers don’t like it, I suggest they move back to the suburbs.

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