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People's park planned for the South Pennines

PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 November 2019

Blackston Edge looking towards the Roche Valley, from The Pennines by Helen Shaw

Blackston Edge looking towards the Roche Valley, from The Pennines by Helen Shaw

Helen Shaw

Moves are underway to create a people's park for the 21st century in the South Pennines, writes Richard Darn

Boulsworth Hill above Colne from The Pennines by Helen ShawBoulsworth Hill above Colne from The Pennines by Helen Shaw

'We've had quiet advocates for a long time - now we need noisy champions.' So says Pam Warhurst, a proud and passionate Lancashire woman who is spearheading a campaign to put the South Pennines on the map.

If you can't quite pinpoint where the 460 square mile region starts and finishes, you are not alone and you've hit on one of its major problems.

Despite lofty moors, breathtaking views and "higgledy piggledy" towns and villages brimming with character, it has been described as a Cinderella area, a vista on the horizon to tourists on the way to distant honeypots like the Dales and Lakes.

But plans are now afoot to create a South Pennines Park, allowing it to punch its weight as one of England's great landscapes.

Saddleworth Moor above Diggle The Pennines by Helen ShawSaddleworth Moor above Diggle The Pennines by Helen Shaw

'Because it spans the Lancashire and Yorkshire border no-one has been entirely sure how to promote it,' explains Pam, who is the chair of Pennine Prospects, a multi-agency partnership set up in 2005 to promote the area, comprising local authority and private sector members.

'But I'd challenge anyone to find a more distinctive part of the country. The western portion encompasses rural parts of Rochdale, Oldham, Rossendale, Blackburn, Burnley and Bolton and if you stand on a wild summit the scene is breathtaking. Yet the South Pennines is the only upland area of England that is not a national park or an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. That's a glaring omission, which is why we pushed so hard for the region to be considered as part of the Glover Review, set up by the Government to look at the future of designated landscapes. Not only that, but we hosted Julian Glover on a day long fact-finding and his final report makes clear how impressed he was with our plans to create a self declared park and forge a distinct path forward.'

Pam is a firm believer in people power and is something of a force of nature. That's why she believes such a park is best brought into being by the agreement of local agencies and communities, not handed down from government. The Manchester University graduate, born in Leigh, helped set up the city's first consumer advice centre, campaigned for animal rights and eventually became leader of Calderdale Council over in the border in Halifax.

She is also the prime mover behind the Incredible Edible movement, with "propaganda" gardens flourishing in urban plots to re-connect people with the food they eat. Now a world-wide phenomenon, Lancashire is a stronghold with scores of projects. In 2005 she was awarded a CBE for services to the environment.

'We don't want to ape what national parks do, but rather have our own focus on what matters, whether that's climate change or social inequality. Consistent branding for the park will also help promote the visitor economy. We have wonderful architecture, wild places, great local food, more micro-breweries than anywhere else and a vibrant arts scene. So we have plenty to shout about and local authorities working together to showcase these qualities is the key.'

If history had taken a different course the region might have enjoyed elevated status long ago. This year is the 70th anniversary of the act that brought national parks into being, a move inspired by the Hobhouse Report, which considered the South Pennines along with other places like the Peak District and North York Moors for designation. With its mills still working, the review concluded it was just too industrial in character at the time. But things have changed. The mills have mostly gone and industrial relics such as the Rochdale Canal and Standedge Tunnel are viewed as historic assets.

'The lack of designation has given us a recognition problem,' admits Pam. 'But it is very much in the DNA of Pennine people to find local solutions that work for them. There is a huge amount going on across the area and a tremendous vitality. What we want to do is to nurture and package this and promote it to the world. When people think of the Cotswolds an image springs into their mind and we want the South Pennines to evoke a similar instant evocation of what this landscape and its people are all about.'

If you are still not convinced about the case to create a South Pennine Park consider this: the region has one of England's highest proportions of nature designations (two Special Areas of Conservation and 15 Sites of Special Scientific Interest). It also has 2,600 miles of rights of way, including two national trails, the Pennine Way and Pennine Bridleway and it is the only breeding location in England for the globally threatened twite (Pennine Finch), a bird that may become the park's iconic image.

'Seven million people live within one hour's travel time and most of what they seek as a visitor destination can be found on their doorstep,' said Pam. 'Bracing yourself against the wind on the Rossendale Fells it's incredible to think Manchester is so close, yet seems a world away. Escapism is something the South Pennines delivers in spades.'

To find out more, go to pennineprospects.co.uk.

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