In these times of political upheaval, we have at least one consolation – that we can escape into the countryside and leave petty partisanship behind. That’s a sweet idea, but now rather behind the times. Richard Leafe, Chief Executive of the Lake District, has announced that the country’s largest and most popular national park needs to change. Nature is not doing enough to be relevant, as Mr Leafe explains:
‘We are deficient in terms of young people, we are deficient in terms of black and minority ethnic communities and we are not particularly well-visited by those who are less able in terms of their mobility... We need to be able to sell the national park to everybody in Britain, all society, and it’s important that it doesn’t just become exclusive to one single use group.'
OK, facts on the table, the Lake District is not, in and of itself, access friendly. It is the most north-westerly county in the country, and a good five hours from the capital. It needs to be actively sought out, and once found, the results are rugged and remote. A land of mountains and meres, impassable crags and unfarmable fellside, only hardy Vikings could take to the land with open arms. Transport is notoriously difficult: the sinuous single-track roads are slow, and often hairy, and a train line no longer criss-crosses the national park. In some parts, it would take a good two hours to achieve in a car what a crow could manage in five minutes.
But, essentially, this land is challenging because it’s hard work when you’re there. In the real world, not everyone is drawn to the prospect of getting tired or wet or cold or lost, of situations being controlled by weather fronts and daylight hours. Nor, it happens, does everyone agree on what constitutes a beautiful view. And here is the crux of the matter: are these differences necessarily a bad thing, and should there be state coercion to ensure that everybody partakes equally in the good thing? For those devoted to the empty business of chasing international holidays for Instagram likes, a corner of Britain where you will lose the battery power to snap and the signal to upload is not an easy sell to the social-media addict.
Yet, for all its remoteness, the appeal of the Lake District continues to spread: in the six years from 2012 to 2018, tourist visitors rose by a third, from 15 to 20 million. Meanwhile, Mr Leafe is dutifully channelling the findings of a Defra-commissioned report from September into the state of its national parks, which observed that ‘national landscapes should work to develop a network of accessible, hard surface, stile free paths that are disabled and wheelchair friendly, deploy gates with RADAR keys, and provide all terrain mobility scooters and routes.’ (p.88)
Where possible, yes, but where impossible, such as on the unspoilt uplands of remote countryside, emphatically no. Save for one low-lying peak (Latrigg, 368m) a wheelchair cannot reach the top of the 250 or so Cumbrian fells. Regrettable but inevitable. For what is the alternative? Are we to support a Make Nature Safe Again campaign? Are the fells to be levelled off and tarmacked, lakes chlorine-treated and tiled underfoot, mountain tarns to be fenced off, and summits patrolled by accessibility wardens? Are warning signs to announce every uneven – i.e. every – step, and is the Park in turn to be sued for those who inevitably get injured?
Such absurdities set aside, we may turn to another finding of the Defra report, that ‘Many communities in modern Britain feel that these landscapes hold no relevance for them. The countryside is seen by both black, Asian and minority ethnic groups and white people as very much a "white" environment. If that is true today, then the divide is only going to widen as society changes. Our countryside will end up being irrelevant to the country that actually exists.’ (p.70)
Again, there is a truth to the predominant whiteness of these areas, as there is to most countryside regions. I file this piece from the Eden valley, the area of Cumbria where I grew up, and the whitest region of England (98.9 per cent). That proportion is shared by one other region, Allerdale. And it is these two regions that share the Lake District with Copeland (98.5 per cent) and South Lakeland (98.3 per cent). In other words, 99 of 100 locals are likely to be white, and only one in a thousand black. But, ever rife with tourists, the place is hardly a bastion of little-Englander whiteness: wherever you travel you will find tourists from all regions, whether visiting from elsewhere in Britain or anywhere abroad. Not only is there no reason that the Lake District should be unappealing to non-white Britons, but there is no reason why their level of engagement should steadily decrease.
I worry, too, about method. Of the thousand or so forays I’ve made into the national park, almost every visit has been under the radar. Mercifully, there’s no mechanism for anyone to establish my identity. Mr Leafe’s assertions are far more likely to come from some self-willed quango that commissioned a questionnaire and sent it to various city-dwellers. Ensuring that the predictable identity categories were declared and ticked, levels of engagement and knowledge will have been found to vary by age, race, socio-economic class and physical mobility.
And so we are again in the strange world of representative proportions. Should we demand that visitor identities match perfectly with those of England, or of the UK, or of the world? Of Preston and Peckham, of Prestonpans and Prestatyn, or of Pretoria and Probolinggo? If they do not, is the Park failing, and should coercive change be enforced? Or do different identities have different levels of interest in wandering around the Cumbria countryside, and we are to respect such divergence of interests? The unhappy and irreconcilable juxtaposition of sameness and difference emerges once more.
Yes, it would be excellent if everyone could enjoy a wander across windswept uplands, and could learn that the setbacks of a hard day’s slog in nature are humbling and fulfilling. The outdoors are a leveller, where common sense and curiosity are the only requirements. When you’re out in a national park, everyone exchanges a greeting – not because it’s an exclusive country club for a select few, but because there’s a mutual respect of something bigger than the self. Whoever you are and wherever you have come from, there’s no space for ego.
The far bigger problem, of course, is national engagement with the outdoors, with fitness, and with the simple pleasures of nature. When and where this is not being instilled by parents, it’s through education and broadcasting that these all-important vistas must be opened up. But as a country we are extremely lucky: a huge portion of the country is countryside, and freely accessible. Perhaps a nationwide scheme could be created to introduce schoolchildren to their local countryside, and a curricular course serve as a forerunner to the more exacting and happy-camping aspects of the Duke of Edinburgh Award?
The Lake District has many problems. The blight of second-home ownership, of brash offcomers playing the Nimby, of insufficient take-up of public transport, and of the littering and abuse of fell paths. Yes, it isn’t particularly cheap to stay – but what quarter of English tourism is? Still, full days can be had almost entirely without cost: sandwiches made, and with water on-tap from mountain streams, you can roam freely in more sense than one.
The real irony here is that, as a palimpsest of Celtic, Roman, Scottish, Viking and English, the Lake District is the embodiment of ethnic diversity. Although the place has never lost its independent identity, it has never been inwards looking, hosting visitors from across Britain and the world. It has been a staple on the Japanese world tour for decades, especially because of Miss Potter; even its remarkable brand of Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling regularly attracts French and Spanish teams from Brittany and Leon. The chief executive of such a park must know this, and should instead be protecting it for the nation, and projecting its appeal far and wide. He should not be curating its visitors or taming its wildness. So, whatever your politics, please leave nature – and the most beautiful part of England – out of it.