70 Years of UK National Parks
This year National Parks Week upgrades to become Discover National Parks fortnight, running from Saturday 6th to Saturday 21st April.
The Lake District National Park, our home and the home of our beloved Herdwick sheep, was actually the second National Park in the UK to be officially designated. The first was the Peak District National Park, less than a month before.
How did British National Parks come about? Were we pioneers, or did we drag our feet?
How did British National Parks start?
For centuries, semi-wild and remote countryside in the UK was either in private ownership, with strictly private access and guarded by gamekeepers, or a Crown property (i.e. the Royal Family owned it). Save for those who owned the land and used it for hunting and recreation, particularly grouse shooting, remote landscapes in the UK were often viewed as “hostile, dangerous, and uncivilised”.
This perception started to change by the early 19th century. The romantic poets, such as Lord Byron, Samuel Coleridge, and our local lad William Wordsworth, travelled throughout the UK and wrote extensively about the “natural” beauty of the UK’s countryside (we use air quotes around the word natural because Britain lacks any substantial areas of true wilderness after thousands of years of human influence on the landscape).
Wordsworth in particular took huge inspiration from the landscape of the Lake District. His famous poem, I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud, references daffodils; the very same daffodils can be found on the shores of Ullswater near Glencoyne Bay:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Wordsworth’s inspiration from the Lake District affected him in a deeply philosophical way, and so he referred to the Lake District as a “sort of national prop-erty in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy”.
This idea of nature and the landscape being a cherished “national property” for the benefit of the public gained momentum in the mid 1800s. John Muir, a Scottish nature writer and conservationist based in California, USA, became hugely influential in the 1860s. Through his writing and activism he helped to establish and protect the Yosemite Valley as the Yosemite National Park, the USA’s first National Park, in 1890.
It took 50 more years for the UK to consider the idea of National Parks, the grip of private land ownership proving strong (and not to mention two World Wars). This started to loosen by the 1930s, largely because of the now-famous Kinder Scout Mass Trespass event.
The Kinder Scout Mass Trespass
On the 24th April 1932 a group of around 400 ramblers (walking ones, not chatty ones) organised an intentional mass trespass in the Peak District, centred around the area’s highest summit Kinder Scout. They did this to highlight the issue that walkers in England and Wales were denied access to open country, infringing on their “right to roam”. After returning from the summit several members of the group were arrested and later sentenced to 2–6 months in jail, despite the fact that trespass in Britain was not officially a crime.
The mass trespass, imprisonment of the ramblers, and subsequent newspaper coverage of the “harsh” sentences received all combined into a mass media campaign by The Ramblers Association. A follow-up rally staged at Winnats Pass in the Peak District attracted around 10,000 people, all seeking access to the high moorlands of the Peak District.
Sustained pressure by The Ramblers Association, along with other sympathetic activists and politicians, gained broad cross-party support after World War II and by 1949 the UK government passed the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. The Act created the National Parks Commission, which later designated the Peak District and the Lake District as the UK’s first National Parks.
British National Parks in 2019
2019 is a special year for British National Parks; it marks 70 years since the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 was passed, allowing the creation and maintenance of National Parks in the UK as we know them today.
Not long after the Act was passed a tidal wave of National Parks came into existence in England and Wales during the 1950s. The Peak District was first, established on 17th April 1951, in honour of the Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout, which arguably led to the Act being passed in the first place. Not even a month went by when the Lake District became a National Park on 9th May 1951. Six months on, Snowdonia (or Parc Cenedlaethol Eryri in Welsh) became the first Welsh National Park on 18th October 1951, and just over a week later Dartmoor became a National Park on 30th October 1951.
Legislators brought in the New Year by establishing Wales’ second National Park, the Pembrokeshire Coast, on 29th February 1952. The rest of the 1950s then saw the creation of 5 additional National Parks: the North York Moors on 28th November 1952; Exmoor on 19th October 1954; the Yorkshire Dales on 16th November 1954; Northumberland on 6th April 1956, and; the Brecon Beacons (Bannau Brycheiniog) on 17th April 1957.
Thirty years went by before the next National Park was established, The Broads in Norfolk/Suffolk on 1st April 1989. Scotland then established their first National Park on 19th July 2002 in Loch Lomond & the Trossachs, followed a year later by the Cairngorms in September 2003, which became the UK’s largest National Park.
The latest areas to boast National Parks are based on or near the south coast of England: the New Forest in Hampshire/Wiltshire on 1st April 2005, and the South Downs in Hampshire/West Sussex/East Sussex on 1st April 2011.
The future of National Parks and countryside access
70 years since the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 was passed, the UK now has fifteen National Parks: ten in England, three in Wales, and two in Scotland.
Other important milestones for passionate ramblers have occurred too. On 30th November 2000, the UK passed the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, also known as the CRoW Act, primarily affecting England and Wales. The Act granted the public of England and Wales the “right to roam” on most areas of “moun-tain, moor, heath and down”, as well as common land.
Scotland went one step further and passed the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, which made official the traditional Scottish right of unhindered access to all open countryside (as long as you don’t cause damage or interfere with activities like farming and deer stalking).
National Parks in the UK are afforded the highest level of protection against rapid land development and urbanisation, helping them to conserve the natural and scenic beauty of the landscape. For the Lake District in particular this power was further strengthened when, in July 2017, the Lake District became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognised for its “cultural landscape”; having been shaped by farming, industry, picturesque landscape design, and the conservation movement.
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