Countryfile (70 years of national parks) – BBC 1

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Four of the six people arrested during the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass of 1932 were from Cheetham Hill, and “The Manchester Rambler”, the song famously inspired by it, was written by Ewan MacColl from Lower Broughton, so I do tend to get very parochial about it 😊 … although I do acknowledge that it was a Sheffield thing as well as a Manchester thing!  Workers of the north unite!   Whilst the trespass didn’t bring immediate results, it played a crucial role in the campaign for access to the countryside to all and in the creation of national parks – and the people jailed over it were rightly hailed as heroes in this BBC programme.  2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the passing of the National Parks legislation, which led to the creation of Britain’s fifteen national parks – the first one, fittingly, being the Peak District, and the second, a few weeks later, my beloved Lake District ❤, where I’ve just spent the weekend.

Countryfile marked the anniversary by visiting seven of the parks – the Peak District, the North York Moors, the New Forest, the South Downs, the Pembrokeshire coast, the Cairngorms and Exmoor.   I was very sorry that they didn’t include the Lake District, I have to say.  I love the Peak District, but the Lake District is my favourite national park by a country mile.  Every romantic word that Wordsworth wrote about the Lake District is true!  The Yorkshire Dales is a third one that’s near enough to me for day trips.  Sadly, Northumberland National Park isn’t near enough for day trips, but it’s somewhere else I’m very fond of … partly because of the Lorna Hill books (Guy Charlton ❤!).  And neither of them got a mention either.  But, OK, they couldn’t get round all of them in an hour-long programme, and they had to give other parts of the UK a look in too!

The programme started off with a large group of people walking though the Peak District in the footsteps of the Kinder Scout Trespassers.  When I say “walk”, the group included people in specially-adapted wheelchairs: it was good to see accessibility being considered.  It also discussed the work done by Ethel Haythornthwaite, the founder of the Friends of the Peak District, and how important being able to get into the countryside was to her whilst she was suffering from severe mental health problems following her first husband’s death in the First World War.  The countryside is a great balm to troubled souls.  I know that well!   Later, it went right back to the early 1800s, to talk about agricultural pioneer John Knight, who dreamed of creating a national park of sorts – long before the term existed – in Exmoor.  And then all the way back to the 16th century, to talk about Huguenot refugees (before the Edict of Nantes was even passed, never mind before it was revoked) working as glass-blowers there, and how there are still glass-blowers working there.

There wasn’t much more history in the programme, sadly, but it did make some extremely important points about the issues faced by national parks – partly due to the inevitable issues of funding, partly due to climate change and the damage caused by severe weather, and, unfortunately, mostly the problems caused by inappropriate behaviour by a minority of visitors.  There’ve been arguments ever since Victorian times, when the railways made the countryside and the seaside accessible to people who’d never have been able to get there otherwise, about overcrowding in places like the Lake District; and it seems to be a particular problem in the South Downs, which has a far greater population density than most other national park areas, about the effects of large numbers of people coming into rural areas, and about anti-social behaviour.

I find this quite difficult to write about, because, as a little girl, I read so many books where it was all tied in with snobbery, in a way that still makes my blood boil!   Characters like the Famous Five are always making snooty remarks about “day trippers” – i.e. the people who are enjoying a day out, which they’ll have been look forward to for months, as opposed to the people who can afford to spend the entire school summer holidays in some picturesque location! – and blaming them for every gate that’s been left open or every piece of litter that’s been dropped!

Countryfile wasn’t like that at all, though, I’m pleased to say!  It was making the point that these are working landscapes, and that it’s not acceptable for people to treat them however they like.  As much as the national parks belong to everyone, setting up an unauthorised campsite close to areas where they are livestock is not appropriate.  And the worst problem of the lot is people failing to keep their horrible dogs under control, and sheep and other animals being attacked as a result.  I was reading the other day that the NFU (National Farmers’ Union) insurance company has called for changes to the Dangerous Dogs Act because of the growing numbers of attacks by dogs on sheep and other farm animals.  And there are issues about overcrowding.  That’s no-one’s fault – it just reflects the fact that the roads in the countryside weren’t built for huge numbers of cars, and that there isn’t room for parking for all those cars, nor are facilities in small villages able to cope with vast influxes of visitors.

This is sounding negative now!  It wasn’t a negative programme: it was a lovely programme, showing some of the most beautiful areas of our beautiful country (even if it didn’t include the Lake District, which is the most beautiful part of all!).  But, as with so many things, it’s essential to remember not to take what we’ve got for granted – and to show courtesy and respect to other people, to animals, to birds, to plantlife, and to the environment in general.

Due to the unfortunate fact of being a wage slave on Monday, also on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday (“The Manchester Rambler” – “I may be a wage slave on Monday, but I am a free man [or indeed woman] on Sunday”), I’ve yet to make it to the non-northern national parks covered by the programme.  I suppose I must have been through the South Downs on the way to Brighton when I was 13 (long before the South Downs even was a national park), but that doesn’t really count.  I would love to visit the Pembrokeshire coast, and especially to see Caldey Island because of its Chalet School connections, and the New Forest because of Children of the New Forest.  And I’ve been wanting to go to Exmoor ever since seeing the Polly Walker/Clive Owen/Sean Bean BBC adaptation of Lorna Doone when I was 15.  Yes, all right, all right, I don’t suppose much of it was actually filmed in Exmoor, but anyway!  And I’ve only ever made it to any part of the Scottish Highlands once.

I suppose that proves everything that those who took part in the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass said – that most of us don’t have much time to enjoy the countryside, and that that makes it incredibly important for us to have access to it in the time that we do have.

So it was certainly worrying to hear those involved in running our national parks, and those who farm within them, talking about the problems that they’re facing.  Without wanting to get political over this, there are big issues with severe funding cuts.  And, as already mentioned, there are issues with poor behaviour by some of visitors, especially in relation to dogs not being kept under control.  It’s certainly concerning.  Let’s never forget that the general public didn’t always have access to these beautiful places, and that people fought long campaigns, even spending time in prison in some cases, for our “right to roam” – which, even now, is limited, in England and Wales, and that we didn’t even have that much enshrined in law until 2000.   And let’s hope that ways can be found to deal with the challenges which the parks are facing at the moment, so that we’re able to keep enjoying them in the years to come.

And all hail the Kinder Scout heroes!  Quick chorus of The Manchester Rambler, anyone (as ever, if anyone’s actually read this!!)  😉?