“ONE of the most important achievements of the national park is reflected in all the many things that didn’t happen,” says Colin Speakman, founder member of the Yorkshire Dales Society and creator of the Dales Way, whose new book celebrates 60 years of the national park.
That invisible legacy reaches out over unspoilt expanses of limestone pavement; windswept heather moorland and blanket bog; picturesque valleys – or dales – with flower-rich hay meadows, sheep farms, drystone walls and traditional field barns; an underground labyrinth of caves; and the Three Peaks of Ingleborough, Pen-y-ghent and Whernside, to which 100,000 visitors flock each year.
The Yorkshire Dales was the eighth national park to come into being, and is beloved of walkers, cyclists, geologists, cavers, naturalists and Settle-Carlisle railway enthusiasts.
Home to 20,000 people, the towns and villages within its 1,762 sq km (680 sq miles) include Sedbergh, Dent, Ingleton, Settle and Hawes. Boundaries may soon expand to include the northern Howgills, Orton Fells, Mallerstang Valley and Wild Boar Fell. A decision is awaited from the Secretary of State following a public inquiry.
Dr Speakman says ‘two remarkable individuals’ did more than any others to lead the campaign for cherished places to be protected.
Ilkley architect John Dower and fellow Quaker Arthur Raistrick, a landscape historian, captured the idealism of post-war Britain by promoting the idea of ‘lived-in cultural landscapes’ where townsfolk could refresh their spirits with clean air and outdoor recreation.
John Dower’s 1944 report paved the way for the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949, but it would be another five years before the Yorkshire Dales National Park was created.
Many voices were raised in protest at the public inquiry, where one town clerk described the proposals as ‘a scheme of fanatics, idealists and those out of touch with the countryside’.
The Yorkshire Dales National Park came into being in November 1954 with two purposes: ‘to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the area’ and ‘to promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the national park by the public’.
The park has faced many challenges, not least economic hardships in upland farming; pressures from tourism, developers and second-home owners; the need for affordable housing; and climate change.
The park authority, which has 22 members and 120 staff, works alongside many partners. Some 250 volunteers also give their time – 5,000 days a year – and enthusiasm to guided walks, archaeological surveys, drystone walling and footpath repairs.
Erosion, especially on the Three Peaks, is a constant struggle, with every metre of footpath repair costing £28. The Three Peaks Project offers people a chance to ‘chip in’ by paying to become a Friend, or buying the official app for £1.99.
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Joanna Swiers, policy and performance officer, says taking care of the 1,300 miles of footpath, bridleway and green lane is a major priority. Protecting fragile habitats and iconic species, such as black grouse and red squirrel, is also the focus of much work.
Looking ahead, author Colin Speakman anticipates a continued squeeze on finances, and believes the parks are more ‘desperately needed’ than ever for their health-giving properties.
“It’s preventative medicine, the national parks, getting people out into these beautiful hills,” he said.
The world’s elite cyclists will be doing just that as they pedal through the Dales and over Buttertubs Pass on Saturday, July 5 for the Grand Départ of the Tour de France.
Some 400,000 cycling fans are expected, and Peter Charlesworth, chairman of the park authority, described the event as ‘the ultimate birthday present that will allow us to show off this beautiful landscape to three billion people worldwide'.
Sarah Nicholson, communications officer, added: “What more could we ask for than the spotlight of the world on the Yorkshire Dales?”