The world – not least our government – is going crazy, and at times like this, I need to take refuge in the fresh air and big skies of wild terrain, so it’s hard to imagine life without our national parks. For me at least, they are the ultimate antidote to stress.
But when the first ones were established in the 1950s, not everyone understood their purpose. I’m told that some early visitors to the Yorkshire Dales National Park asked local people where they could find the swings, roundabouts and slides.
Thankfully, the concept of protecting our most cherished landscapes while providing good public access was soon appreciated. Keeping out inappropriate developments is still a constant battle, though, and I seem have been writing about desecrations of the national parks for as
long as I’ve been a journalist. Much further back, in 1844, the poet William Wordsworth took up his quill to defend his beloved Lake District after hearing of plans to build a railway line from Kendal to Windermere. “Is there no nook of English ground secure from rash assault?” he fumed.
I think Wordsworth would have been quick to condemn the latest scheme, a tourist-oriented development just a few miles as the crow flies from his former home village of Grasmere. If the word had then existed, he may well have described it as the “Disneyfication” of the Lakes.
The proposal is to develop a long-established slate quarry at Elterwater into a theme park complete with rollercoaster-like toboggan ride and high rope courses for adults and children. In language that would have tickled George Orwell, rather than calling it a theme park, the developers prefer the benign sounding “immersive learning” and “adventure tourism experiences”.
This is an area I know extremely well, so I will declare an interest. It is one of those sanctuaries from the world’s problems I’ve been using for almost four decades. When Covid struck in March 2020, I was the last person to leave one of the local inns, and among the first to return when that first lockdown ended a few months later. The view up Langdale from Elterwater Common is one of the most famous in the national park, and I’m horrified by the thought of standing on the summit of nearby Silver How and my eyes being unable to Photoshop out a theme park. Nor will the network of narrow drystone-walled lanes originally built for horses and carts cope with the huge increase in traffic.
Within a week of the proposal being made public by the quarry company, an online petition against it had garnered almost 35,000 signatures, but I don’t think the shirts at the Lake District National Park Authority really understand that this sort of thing is inappropriate in their landscape. A few years back, a plan to stretch zip wires across Thirlmere looked like it would get the go-ahead and only failed after the RAF raised concerns for the safety of aircraft that sometimes used the lake for low-altitude training. Another zip wire at Honister on the west side of the Lakes was actually approved in 2018, although it has yet to materialise.
Those 1950s visitors to the Yorkshire Dales who were disappointed not to find huge playgrounds would no doubt have approved of such schemes, but I find myself throwing up my hands in despair.
Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe
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