60 years of park life

PUBLISHED: 10:40 08 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:47 20 February 2013

Yorkshire Dales

Yorkshire Dales

Tony Greenway looks back 60 years to a hugely significant moment in the history of the Yorkshire Dales National Park PHOTOGRAPHS BY MIKE KIPLING AND NATIONAL PARK AUTHORITY

'Forgive me for getting a bit flowery,' says David Butterworth, 'but the UK's National Parks are really important for people's state of mind. If you have the ability to get out of the cities and lose yourself for an hour or two in these fantastic, beautiful areas... well... that's got to be worth celebrating, hasn't it?' David is biased, of course, because he happens to be chief executive of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, a role he describes as 'one of the best jobs in the country'.

Going for a walk in the Yorkshire countryside wasn't always as easy as it is now though, largely because the National Park didn't exist until 1954. Looking at the varied landscape of the Yorkshire Dales National Park today - all 176,200 hectares of it, with its average of 8.5 million visitors a year - it's hard to believe that, once, it wasn't open to the public. In fact, if you tried to go for a quiet ramble across the fells in the first half of the 20th century, you were likely to have someone's dogs set on you. 'There had been pressure on the Government to give people access to the countryside for decades,' says David, 'particularly from those who were living and working in towns. In the 1930s there was a mass trespass in the Peak District, called the Kinder Trespass, which became famous.'

The ramblers were thrashed with sticks by gamekeepers and five people were imprisoned for between two and six months. Open Access? Right to Roam? No chance. You've got to be kidding. But after the war, everything changed. The Government realised that the creation of National Parks had to be a priority because parts of Britain were being rebuilt and restructured, which potentially put huge tracts of the countryside at risk. Plus, says David, there was a humanitarian reason too: 'The nation had just been through a war that had mainly been fought by people who lived in towns and cities. Our National Parks were created in recognition of that sacrifice, and an acceptance that the common working man should be able to go into the countryside with his family and enjoy the experience for themselves.'

National Parks might have been new to Britain, but they weren't elsewhere in the world. America's National Park model, for example, was already hugely successful. In 1949, the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was passed in Parliament with all-party support and things were off and running. 'A commission was charged with setting up the National Parks,' says David. 'The secretary of which, by the way, was Harold Abrahams, better known for winning an Olympic gold medal in 1924 and being one of the subjects of the movie Chariots of Fire. There were loads of public meetings, culminating in fierce debates in what used to be the North Riding and West Riding county councils.'

But this was a simpler time, so when it came to setting the boundaries of the National Park, they sent out a couple of officials with a map and a felt-tip pen. 'It was a bit like "Ummm, that part is worthy of going in, but, oooh, not sure about that bit",' says David. 'It did get more sophisticated as time went by, but that was how it was done initially. You can almost imagine these guys driving about the Yorkshire countryside in a black Austin 7, straight out of Herriot.'

Prior to 2004, the public could only walk on four per cent of open countryside in the YDNP - the lowest percentage of any National Park in the UK. But then the Government introduced new Open Access provisions, allowing ramblers the right to walk over the wilderness without having to stay on footpaths. 'The new legislation gave access to 66 per cent of the National Park,' says David. 'That was a massive increase. If you buy a map, the Open Access areas are clearly marked, but there is this point to consider: do you really want to trudge over unmarked footpaths through thorn and gauze, because it's very difficult to do? As a rule, we find the public mainly want well-maintained, well-signposted footpaths.'

There are those who believe that any human activity in the National Park will have dire environmental consequences. Are they right? 'My personal view is no,' says David. 'It's a vigorous landscape. But the Government has recognised that there might be a conflict between conservation and recreation. So in 1973, it produced new legislation which basically means that if there is a conflict between the two and it can't be resolved, conservation wins. But I think that if we can't resolve conflicts between conservation and recreation, we've failed in our task.'

As to the future of the YDNP, David would like to see the extension of the National Park boundaries in the north west. 'But not for any "I've got a bigger car than you" reasons,' he says. 'It's because if you walk in those areas you'll know that they are some of the most beautiful parts of the region - and they're not in the Park.We're finding that the local communities in those areas are increasingly wanting to be brought into the National Park for protective reasons because of the march of the wind farms. National Parks are exempt from wind farm development.'

The challenge for the National Park Authority is to retain the jewels in the Dales' landscape while recognising the importance of keeping the area relevant to people's lives, particularly those who live and work there. 'The importance of hill farming and the way it shapes the landscape is critical,' says David. 'Farmers and landowners are essential to the well-being of the area. It's a balance between conservation and enhancement, between the continual development and growth of the area and, if I can put it like this, not killing the goose that lays the golden egg.'

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