This November will mark the 60th anniversary of the creation of the UK’s third-largest protected green space: the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
Its area encompasses slightly more than 683 square miles from north of Skipton to beyond Reeth. It is wedged between the Lake District National Park and the North Yorkshire Moors National Park The 80-miles Dales Way runs through it; the 270-mile Pennine Way passes through it; Alfred Wainwright’s 190-mile coast-to-coast walk from St Bees Head to Robin Hood’s Bay crosses it; the 72-mile Settle Carlisle Railway traverses it; the Three Peaks can be found in it.
It’s only when all these different phenomena are put together with the variety of activities they inspire – fell running, cycling, walking, rock climbing, water sports of all sorts, orienteering, caving, serious hiking and horse-riding – that the bigger picture of the Yorkshire Dales National Park becomes clear.
But the Park is more than a weekend or bank holiday playground. Farmers work the land, principally growing grass for hay and raising sheep and cattle.
More than 19,000 people live in some 7,400 households, mainly in small villages.
In advance of the Park’s diamond jubilee, Great Northern Books has brought out a richly-illustrated book written by the Park’s former principal officer Colin Speakman, the Ilkley man credited with creating the Dales Way and an active campaigner for the Settle-Carlisle railway which was saved from closure 25 years ago.
He said: “It wasn’t until 1997 that the current Yorkshire Dales National Park was formed. Between 1974 and 1997 it was run by North Yorkshire and West Yorkshire County Councils (West Yorkshire was abolished in 1986).
“It has a budget of £4 million, about 20 per cent down on what it used to be.
“It’s a lovely area to live in but the people who do come to live there are wealthy and old. The Tour de France Grand Depart in July will raise the profile.
“Welcome to Yorkshire has done a great job, been very supportive, recognising the Dales is a great brand and have gone for it.
“People have come out but have not been spending as much, but it’s getting a bit better. It’s the footpaths, the cycling, the Settle Carlisle railway that brings visitors.
“Tourism keeps the Dales going, even farmers depend on diversification as it’s called, selling specialist cheeses and other farm produce, turning part of the farm over to bed and breakfast – these things bring in the extra money that allows them to keep going. Hill farmers especially have a tough time but without them the landscape would decline.”
Anthony Bradley concludes the chapter on farming in the Dales by making precisely this point: “There is an irony that as direct support for agriculture has been withdrawn, food production is now often being cross-fertilised by farming families from their non-farming income.”
Looking back, he added: “The first 60 years of the park look and felt tumultuous for farming, but in ways unrelated to the National Park as such. The geography of the Park means pastoral farming. That farming produces the magnificent landscape that led to the original designation.
“We have always had short-term difficulties with severe weather, and there is nothing more soul destroying than digging out dead sheep and lambs from snow drifts.
“But that landscape and the way it is shaped by farmers has changed because of forces beyond and bigger than the National Park. UK and EU agricultural policy seemed too often deliberately to operate counter to the objectives of the Park and sometimes counter to the wishes of farmers, such as the abolition of the Milk Marketing Board (in 1994).”
Sixty years ago, though, the National Farmers’ Union opposed the idea of a national park in the area, as Colin Speakman spells out in the opening chapter of the book: “It was claimed that National Parks would lead to ‘hoards’ of trespassing visitors from the cities walking across their members’ fields and moorland pastures, disturbing livestock, spreading TB among attested herds of cattle, damaging walls, leaving gates open and dropping heaps of litter everywhere.
“At the public inquiry the solicitor engaged by the NFU arrived with a sackful of litter which he claimed had been left by visitors at or near the lakeside at Semerwater, Wensleydale, which he then proceeded to shake out on the table in front of the Inspector in a dramatic gesture of protest.”
The idea had been that the Park should be a centrally-funded autonomous body. The reality in 1954 was rather different. It was to be dependent on county council precepts. The post-war Labour Government had set aside £50 million to cover the costs of establishing and operating National Parks. In 1955 the Conservative Government returned the money to the Exchequer – with interest.
But at least the idea of National Park in the Yorkshire Dales, first suggested in 1931 in a report by John Dower, an Ilkley architect and planner, had materialised.
Mr Speakman writes: “It was established when Britain was still emerging from the economic impacts of a horrific war. We were a much poorer nation yet its leaders had ambitious priorities for our people, even if it took another six decades to fully realise that vision.
“The challenge for all of us is to ensure that this vision is recaptured, not in precisely the same way as in the past – we are now a different people living in a different society – but in ways that are relevant for the coming years of the 21st century.
“Economic change worldwide may indeed result in Britain becoming, in crude material terms, a poorer society, but in terms of spiritual values, as well as better physical and mental health, and wellbeing, a far richer and happier one.
“The Yorkshire Dales National Park will be there as a continuing inspiration, to enable such a transformation to happen.”
The Yorkshire Dales National Park: A Celebration of 60 Years, book by Colin Speakman, published by Great Northern Books at £17.99.