To The National Park

To The National Park

AS THE Jacobite threat receded, industrial development spread over the Midlands and the north of England generally, Providing an increasing source of spare money for those able to invest in commerce or industry. A new class of industrial or commercial entrepreneur began to emerge with sufficient wealth and leisure to emulate the life-style of the established aristocracy (who were also investing in the new industries as a means of supplementing the declining income from their traditional agricultural sources). Thus, the landed gentry, the professional classes (lawyers, physicians and clergy) and the emergent industrial middle classes were able to set off in all directions, establishing country residences from which they could pursue picturesque diversions in their vacations or retirement.

In Cumbria many houses, halls, lodges, etc., were built during the last quarter of the 18th century by the local gentry and by nouveau  riche settlers. Building styles were mainly variations on a mock Gothic theme, but the attendant gar­dens varied from the lush romantic idylls of William Gilpin (careful gradations linking formalism round the house with a designed chaos at the periphery) to the puritan naturalism of Richard Payne Knight who cast down rough hewn bould­ers at random and then trained brambles over them. This was the time of the instant Gothic ruin and the do-it-yourself stone circle, of cannons discharging across lakes to produce horrendous echoes from the surrounding cliffs, of tastefully embowered musical ensembles, and of set viewing stations with their paraphenalia of plano-convex mirrors and vari­ously tinted glasses.

All this picturesque dilettantism was recorded in mid-century by the Gentleman’s Magazine and various art prints of Beilers and Sinith, but articulation really set in during the 1770s with Thomas Gray’s Journal (1775), Thomas West’s Guide (1778) and innumerable writings by William Gilpin in the decade 1772-1782.

All these, in the main, were self-conscious expressions by educated men of their mannered time. Thomas Gray’s professed fearfulness apropos the Sty-Head Pass – “All further access is here barred to prying mortals” – and his apprehension that Lodore Crags would fall on his head are not really credible in a man of his education, while the frequency with which, in West’s Guide, roads and rivers serpentise hither and thither may well have an unsuspected Freudian significance.

Thomas West’s guide led the mindless tourist carefully by the hand to the precise spot (or station) from which to “appreciate” each and every view. The recommended views were themselves carefully specified, with foreground and background carefully balanced to fit the current visual theory of tasteful landscape.

William Gilpin’s contribution to what even then was becoming a spate of Lakeland literature was, according to Edmund Hodge, to “give the tourists their Duckspeak.” Before Gilpin the dilettante tourist approached each view­ing station with his sketchbook, a piano-convex mirror, variously tinted glasses, and an open mouth. Gilpin created a popular vocabulary for the expression of contemporary landscape aesthetics in suitably stylised phrases.

Pedestrian tourists appeared at the end of the 18th cen­tury. Joseph Budworth visited the area in 1792 and again in 1799 and wrote various accounts of his perambulations. Not only did he assiduously climb and scramble over Skid­daw, the Langdale Pikes, Helvellyn and Coniston Old Man, he was also interested in, and reported on, the local people whom he met – not with Olympian Academic detachment, but as over a tankard of ale.

Under the weight of incessant dilettantism, Cumbria was divided into two separate areas – “The Lake District” and the industrial surroundings – and strenuous attempts were made to reserve “The Lakes”, like some exotic dessert fruit that had been stripped of its rind, for those whose palates or purses could appreciate the experience.

To William Wordsworth the “poor and rustic” were the noble savages of the industrial revolution, to be protected from the influences (and the benefits) of contemporary steam technology. He strenuously opposed nearly every railway and steamer scheme for the area, not on existential grounds but because of the profits that would accrue to the builders and the corrupting effect of an industrial society’s ideas on his archetypal Old Cumberland Begger. If Gilpin gave the self-conscious middle-class tourist a superficial vocabulary, Wordsworth – by founding the Lakes Poets cottage industry – gave their enveloping exclusiveness an air of respectability. It is interesting to note, in this con­text, that Wordsworth was quite willing to invest in railway stock, provided that it promised a suitably high interest rate.

In the development of “The Lake District” as a region both separate and sacred, Wordsworth represents a signi­ficant growth-point. Unlike Gilpin, he had achieved national stature; his views were thus engraved on stone tablets as though Rydal Mount was a new Sinai. But what of the man himself? This book is not the place to argue the charges of betrayal that can be levelled at every phase of Wordsworth’s life from 1792 onwards. But there is space to examine in one instance how truly Wordsworth appreci­ated the conditions of the people among whom he had grown up and among whom, in his maturity, he was bury­ing the wreckage of his youthful ideals:

A man must be very insensible who would not be touched with p easure at the sight of the chapel of Buttermere, so strikingly expressing, by its diminutive size, how small must be the con­gregation there assembled, as it were, like one family; and pro­claiming at the same time to the passenger, in connexion with the surrounding mountains, the depth of that seclusion in which the people live, that has rendered necessary the building of a separ­ate place o worship for so few. A patriot, calling to mind the images of the stately fabrics of Canterbury, York or Westminster. will find a heartfelt satisfaction in presence of this lowly pile, as a monument of the wise institutions of our country, and as evidence of the all-pervading and paternal care of that venerable Establishment, of which it is, perhaps, the humblest daughter.

– William Wordsworth, Guide to the Lakes.

An idyllic description, but the living of Buttermere at that time (as Wordsworth must have known) was so poor that the incumbent had to live “whittlegate” – staying with each family in the village for a week at a time, and taking such additional work (labourer, spinner, scrivener, etc.) as he could, according to the season.

The early Victorians had plunged headlong into the flood-tide of the new steam technology, endeavouring to expiate the romantic and revolutionary fervour of their recent past by an equally excessive drive to gather, with all haste, the financial harvests of mass industrialisation. In so doing they developed a Shangri-La neurosis – a need for a haven of rusticity that they could preserve for themselves (as aesthetes) against themselves (as industrialists). Cumbria, as the Wordsworthian epitome of Arcadia, was cast in the role of focus for the Victorian social conscience; and the earlier lush sentimentality, sedulously fostered by the Wordsworths, by de Quincey, by Southey and by Coleridge, was maintained through the 19th century by John Ruskin, the Don Quixote of Coniston:

There are men working in my fields who might well have fought at Agincourt. I don’t want to let them see Hel­vellyn while they are drunk.

Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley, vicar of Crosthwaite, canon of Carlisle Cathedral and co-founder of the National Trust, was an archetypal promoter of causes célèb’res. He initiated commemorative plaques by the score and wrote poems by the thousand. He led an army, 400 strong, up Latrigg to demolish a footpath obstruction; and he devel­oped the organisational techniques of middle-class protest in such battles as Thirimere, the Duddon dam, Loughrigg quarry, the Ambleside electric tramway, the Windermere sewage works, and railway after railway.

The classic preservation battle was joined in the late 1870s over the Manchester Water Board’s proposal to convert Thirlmere into a reservoir by raising the surface level by about 50 ft., thereby doubling the lake area. The opponents to the scheme were the large (and largely absentee) land­lords, the nouveau riche settlers (who had made their for­tunes grubbing about the wastelands of the industrial Mid­lands and North) and a number of local clerics.

The arguments that were developed then are in use 100 years on – what is natural is good, what is man-made (especially if it is profitable) is bad. The description “natural” has all the precision of a movable feast. It is applied to the dry-stone walls, although these were the result of a legalised rape on the common rights of less than 200 years ago; it is used to ossify the shapes of lakes, even though that same shape is constantly being modified by silt, reed encroachment and land erosion; it is used as justification for subsidising hopelessly marginal upland sheep farming.

The National Trust acquired its first property, at Der­wentwater, in 1901. During its early days it was essen­tially a Lake District (rather than a National) Trust, and by the end of the 1930s was, on aggregate, one of the largest Cumbrian landowners. In addition, it had acquired a sub­stantial measure of control over a large acreage of other property by devices such as restrictive covenants. The Friends of the Lake District was founded in 1934 by, and still draws its strength largely from, middle-class, middle-aged settlers and holiday cottagers.

Together with the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, these twain refined the techniques pioneered by Canon Rawnsley to become the de facto preservationist popular front. As the economic excesses and industrial/ political divisions of the 1920s and 1930s slid into the in­exorable cataclysm of the 1940s, they steadily advanced the ideal of National Parks. Because access to the countryside was not the problem in the Lake District that it was else­where (notably the Peak District and the North Riding), bodies such as the YHA and the Ramblers’ Association, though interested fellow travellers on the National Park road, were not so directly assiduous in the work of preserv­ation.

In 1931 the Addison Committee’s recommendations, for a National Parks Commission to sponsor and advise local authorities on the planning and establishment of what would essentially be Local Parks, were lost in the economic and political collapse of that year.

In 1941 the Scott Committee, having been charged “to consider the conditions that should govern … develop­ment in country areas (after the war) …”, started its report by declaring “a deep love for our countryside” and swept on into rhapsodies about Merrie England of sixty years before. Considering the tenor of the times, an up­dated version of “this precious stone set in a silver sea” was perhaps inevitable.

In 1945 John Dower, commissioned to investigate the practicabilities of National Parks, based his report on the credo:

An extensive area of beautiful and relatively wild country in which – for the national benefit, and by appropriate national decision and action

  • the characteristic landscape beauty is strictly preserved — access and facilities for open-air enjoyment are provided
  • wild life and buildings and places of architectural and historic interest are preserved
  • – the established farming is suitably maintained.

Further on in Dower’s report:

local action … might well provide … local parks, or by joint action, regional parks … but the result would inevitably be … piecemeal in character; the essential elements of national decision, choice … responsibility would be lacking, and a unique opportunity . . . . missed of stimulating the best kinds of open-air recreation.

After studying the Dower Report the Hobhouse Com­mittee recommended that in National Park areas farming and essential rural interests should be encouraged as a right, but all else permitted (if at all) only as a privilege. While noting the relationship between the character of an area and the capacity to absorb different quantities of people at any given time, the committee (and subsequently the govern­ment) insisted that control be removed from the local authorities. During the second reading of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Bill the responsible Minister, John Silkin, said:

“We cannot afford to set aside large areas solely … for establishing a museum. I can give no guarantee (not to) permit undesirable development … (nor) to permit some part … to be used for national defence; it may … be necessary to utilise the mineral wealth . . . to ensure the economic life of the people”.

And so, in December 1949, the Bill was enacted; and in 1951 the Lake District National Park was created.

The Watershed

Since their inception various social, commercial and quasi-political developments have cumulatively subjected the National Parks to stresses far greater than could have been foreseen in 1949.

The explosive growth in the car-owning population and the building of a national motorway complex has effectively brought most of Britain into week-end reach of the Lake District National Park, so during high summer Borrowdale resembles Blackpool Sands and Keswick market place resembles Piccadilly Circus. The paradox is simply stated: if free access is maintained the peace, solitude and room for contemplative recreation which is the basis of the attraction of the district  for the holiday-maker will be destroyed; if access is arbitrarily denied to Some (no matter how pure the motives behind the ban) one of the basic principles on which the National Parks were based will have been shattered. Similarly, the demands on all the National Parks by govern­ment agencies and monstrous industrial corporations for space in which to build radar stations, oil storage depots, water reservoirs and mineral extraction plants are increasing both in magnitude and frequency, and usually under the cloak of some undefined national interest. Subtler pressures are exerted by industry and commerce on the various local authorities to straighten-out this stretch of road, and widen that; both in the name of road safety and to minimise com­mercial transit costs.

All these pressures affect the oration of the National Park, and the lives of the people who live and work within it. Their requirements for a standard of living comparable to that taken for granted in the urban centres of Britain – for adequate roads, modern sanitation, housing and the free­dom to make a decent living for themselves and their children – are increasingly ground to nothing between the National Park planning restrictions and the financial re­sources of the “off-corners” who voraciously transform all available property into holiday cottages and retirement homes.

Examined in the contexts of geology and social develop­ment, it becomes apparent that the area between Carlisle and Lancaster, bounded in the west by the coastline and in the east by the Eden-Lowther-Lune valleys, is essentially an integrated whole. Within this area there are sub-cultural divisions, mainly imposed by the radial drainage pattern and allied geographical features, but each segment interacts with the others. The logic of this has been accepted in the local government boundary changes which provided a unified county of Cumbria covering, more or less, the specified area.

All discussions involving the amenity aspects of the area (either in preserving them, or in utilising the land for some other purpose such as surface water storage) take great stock of the generally unspoken, or at least unquestioned, premise that “the Lake District belongs to the Nation.” This is a nonsense. The “Lake District” is an imprecise, and thus meaningless, term. The “Nation,” within the context of reservoirs, or mineral extraction plants, or preservation societies, is a portmanteau euphemism for whoever has set up the given context.

As Norman Nicholson has said: “Let industrial Cum­berland decay, and the National Park will become no more than a Convalescent home for a sick civilisation.” Equally, let the National Park either ossify into a Wordsworth Museum or aitern!atively, having been raped by a succession of mining companies, road constructors, and water authori­ties, lie exhausted and unwanted by the wayside of progress, and industrial Cumberland will disappear beneath an accu­mulation of effluent and slime.

In all the discussions that take place in the Department of the Environment, in the columns of the Guardian, among commercial developers or in the committee rooms of preser­vationists, one group of voices is not heard to any great effect – that of the dales farmers and the small shopkeepers in the market towns. The people who make the backdrop against which all the discussion takes place. Those, in fact, who make their living in Cumbria, not those who make a living out of Cumbria, or merely live there.