As keen walkers and lovers of the natural world, my partner and I seek out those remaining areas of the UK where we can enjoy the landscape and wildlife, in tranquillity. On the Pennine Way, approaching the summit of Great Shunner Fell, it feels as if you are on top of the world. All that can be heard is the rasping of wind through grasses, its gusting past your ears or the alarm calls of ground-nesting birds. The valley bottoms of this precious national park are hidden from view, far below and the only people encountered are long-distance walkers or an intrepid few with the energy and appetite to explore the windswept uplands. No tarmac roads means no cars and therefore an escape from the noise and air pollutants of the combustion engine – at least for a while.
In centuries past, prior to the landgrab by the powerful in society, known euphemistically as the Enclosure Movement, common land existed for the benefit of everyone. Today, those who are not ‘landed’ rely upon the few remaining green spaces available to all. National parks were formally designated to preserve in perpetuity the landscape and traditional ways of living and working, by demarcating unspoilt places of natural beauty to be held in trust for the nation. The demand for such places means that millions of visits are made to them each year, demonstrating how great is the interest in and need for the benefits which they can bring. Many studies1, 2, 3 have shown that mental wellbeing is enhanced by contact with the natural world. My own experience accords with the research findings. I feel a physical change in my body when we arrive in the National Park and I first glimpse the great contours of green interspersed with pale limestone, rising to high horizons in all directions. It is as if my heart is literally lifted and my eyes soothed before a vision of the natural colours and materials I was evolved to look upon.
Of course, there are many environmentalists, including the likes of George Monbiot, who argue powerfully that national parks are too manicured and insufficiently biodiverse to be truly wild and a good case is made for their overhaul. In the meantime, however, let us not underestimate the value of what we already have and ensure we protect the parks against sources of immediate threat. I refer particularly to the increased presence of 4×4 off-roading along green lanes and granting of permits for scrambling bike circuits.
During recent visits to the Yorkshire Dales National Park we have encountered convoys of 4x4s, engines revving to negotiate deeply undulating bridleways as they gouge ever-deeper ruts in the ground. Greatly dismayed we were too, when faced with a fleet of thrill-seeking quad bikers tearing along the Cam High Road, in Wensleydale, an ancient road built by the Romans where the original road surface survives in places. And just for the record – these were no farmers rounding up sheep or delivering feed to their flocks.
On another occasion, in Upper Swaledale which is served by no metalled road, the tranquillity of the place was wrecked by the whine of scrambling bikes scaling the fellside before descending steep gradients to race back to the start of another circuit. Are not those activities which involve noise, pollution and even the erosion of historical artefacts incompatible with the ethos of the national parks?
Of course, it is possible to argue that national parks are victims of their own success given their popularity. However, the scarce resources we have exist to be shared by all and there are some activities such as driving and riding motorbikes which can be done anywhere – even within the boundaries of the national parks – on established highways. And how those vehicles make their presence known on the roads and in the towns and villages! You only have to be on the approaches to Hawes or Kirby Lonsdale to feel threatened by the would-be, death-defying bikers or to be offended by the roaring engines in their multitudes as they congregate.
For those people who need peace and quiet, respite from work and stress, is it not time to keep the fells, footpaths, byways, bridleways and green lanes for walking or simply being immersed in the natural world?
References – accessed 15/04/2018