Celebrating the Peak District

The UK's first four National Parks turned 70 in 2021. Here's how this unassuming, city-locked swathe of upland became a rallying point for access to a monopolised land – and became the country's first protected area of its kind.

Weather-sculpted rocks line the edge of the plateau of Kinder Scout, at 636 metres elevation the highest ground in the Peak District. 

Photograph by Alan Novelli, Alamy
Published 20 Dec 2021, 13:09 GMT, Updated 23 Dec 2021, 18:45 GMT

ZOOM OUT, zoom out, and zoom out again, and with each click of the mouse the satellite images on Google Maps reveal ever more compelling evidence of why the Peak District deserves national park status. Bookended by the steel city of Sheffield to the east and the urban sprawl of Manchester to the west, the Peak District also finds itself sandwiched between Huddersfield and Barnsley in the north and Stoke-on-Trent and Derby on its southern boundary.

The proximity of these industrial conglomerations vindicated the establishment of a national park here 70 years ago in more ways than one. The risk of massed armies of factories and houses marching over precious habitats explained the need to defend and protect these landscapes – while the need for these urban populations to have access to the countryside provided the political justification when the national park was officially designated on April 17, 1951.

Ruined 11th century Peveril Castle from Cave Dale, near Castleton. part of the so-called 'White Peak', the area is underpinned by limestone, giving it a greener, more verdant aesthetic. 

Photograph by Robin Weaver, Alamy

The Roaches, a gritstone escarpment in the 'Dark Peak', in the Staffordshire part of the Peak District. Though replete with the occasional pointed outcrop or hill, the word 'peak' is said to refer to an ancient tribe, the Pecsaetan, who settled here.   

Photograph by Kevin Palmer, Alamy

A 'people's charter'

Two years earlier, introducing the National Parks Bill to the House of Commons, Lewis Silkin MP, Minister of Town and Country Planning, said: “This is not just a Bill. It is a people's charter – a people's charter for the open air, for the hikers and the ramblers, for everyone who loves to get out into the open air and enjoy the countryside. Without it they are fettered, deprived of their powers of access and facilities needed to make holidays enjoyable. With it the countryside is theirs to preserve, to cherish, to enjoy and to make their own.”

Silkin specifically highlighted the case of the High Peak, where the only access was from: “concrete or tarmacadamed [sic] roads, despite the fact that there are millions of people living in conditions of great congestion within 25 miles of the Peak district, whose only outlet to the countryside practically is in that area.”

The Peak District's 'edges' – such as Curbar Edge, Bamford Edge and in particular Stanage Edge, shown here – have been important training grounds for rock climbers. The quality of the gritstone's texture and blocky structure make it an all-weather rock for many.  

Photograph by Chris Craggs, Alamy

The unique Don Whillans Memorial Hut, dedicated to the hard-edged Mancunian rock climber who would hone his skills on the Peak District's gritstone – before taking part in some of the most significant British ascents of the 1960s and 1970s. The hut, or 'Rockhall Cottage' is hewn into the rock itself, and was once a gamekeeper's hut for the Brocklehurst Estate. Note the climber on the buttress above. It's now owned by the British Mountaineering Council. 

Photograph by Darryl Gill, Alamy

A trespass for freedom

Silkin's argument was more than a century in the making. As early as 1833, in the wake of cholera outbreaks, the Select Committee on Public Walks had prepared a report arguing that access to recreational space was vital for public health and to ‘preserve order’, by which they meant preventing the ‘humbler classes’ from indulging in ‘drinking houses, dog fights and boxing matches’.

By 1888, the Access to Mountains Bill – sponsored by James Bryce MP, after whom Mount Bryce in the Canadian Rockies takes its name – aimed to provide access to ‘mountain land, moor or waste land’, but by the time the law was passed it had been watered down to homeopathic levels. These delays and ineffective mandates left local people feeling fed up of pressing their noses against the window of the Peak District’s wild and open spaces without being allowed in. The most famous rally was the Kinder Trespass of 1932, when 400 ramblers squared up to gamekeepers on the privately- owned moors to protest their right of access: five of the right to roam protesters were subsequently jailed. 

The more verdant-feeling White Peak has as its more dramatic landscapes the gorge of Cave Dale (right) and Parkhouse Hill (left).  

Photograph by Robin Weaver, Alamy left, Robert Morris, Alamy right

“As a point of trivia, the ‘Peak’ name does not relate to the region’s uplands, but is thought to derive from an Anglo-Saxon tribe called the Pecsaetan, which settled in the area.”

Their leader, Benny Rothman, said at his trial, "We ramblers, after a hard week’s work, in smoky towns and cities, go out rambling for relaxation and fresh air. And we find the finest rambling country is closed to us… our request, or demand, for access to all peaks and uncultivated moorland is nothing unreasonable." The jailing of the trespassers stirred up even more unrest, and a subsequent protest rally after the trial was attended by 10,000 people.  

Looking back, Sarah Fowler, CEO of the Peak District National Park Authority, says the park was born of two movements; this right of access allied to the movement to care for the nation’s most special landscapes, both of which are as relevant today as they were when the national park came into existence.

“The care movement was born of Ethel Haythornthwaite, from Sheffield,” says Fowler. “She had married a soldier who died in World War One, and her family took her into the Peak District to try to give her respite, care and support for her mental well-being. From that, Ethel realised the huge value that these special landscapes and this beautiful countryside offer to people. She was inspired to create this movement to protect the Sheffield side of the Peak District.”

Sunrise on the ‘Great Ridge’, looking towards Lose Hill, separating Edale and the Hope Valley.

Photograph by Ed Rhodes, Alamy

On a sunny day, climbers enjoy routes on Stanage Edge. The Peak District's accessibility from major urban centres continues to make the area an important green space for city folk – one of the founding tenets of the UK access movement which led to the formation of this very first UK National Park. 

Photograph by steven gillis hd9 imaging, Alamy

Lands of light and dark

There’s a dual aspect, too, to the Peak District’s landscapes, split between the Dark Peak in the north and the White Peak in the south. The colours reference their bedrocks – gritstone for the cliffs and moorland in the Dark Peak; and limestone for the pastures and steep dales of the White Peak. As a point of trivia, the ‘Peak’ name does not relate to the region’s uplands, but is thought to derive from an Anglo-Saxon tribe called the Pecsaetan, which settled in the area.

Fans of the Dark Peak celebrate its brooding wild upland, where heather and cotton grass knit beds of black peat on the high moors of Edale, Kinder, Howden and Bleaklow. Magnificent gritstone edges run from north to south through the Dark Peak, offering endless routes for climbers at iconic cliffs such as Stanage, Curbar and Froggatt, where the millstones that now serve as the emblem of the national park were once quarried.

For visitors who prefer the ‘lighter’ side of the national park, the White Peak’s gin-clear rivers, like the Dove, Lathkill and Wye, and the kaleidoscope of wildflowers and orchids in its hay meadows and dales, make this the more attractive landscape. Like a primary school prize giving, it’s a beauty contest where everyone is a winner – although maintaining and future-proofing this beauty is a daily challenge for the park authority.

(Read: Walk hostel to hostel in the Peak District.)

“I want our national parks to be beacons for sustainable development, and by that I mean nature recovery, climate resilience, people engagement and social inclusion,” says Fowler.

“The role of caring for the Peak District’s extraordinary landscape – its natural beauty, natural and cultural heritage and communities – is not about a passive, defensive care. It’s a more nurturing, enhancing and forward-looking care... for the future as much as the past."

A place of transition

Situated at the pivot point between northern and southern Britain, the Peak District is the most southerly location for a number of species, including the mountain hare, that are threatened by global warming.

“How we adapt to a changing climate in the national park and understand what it means for our special qualities and, particularly, nature is one of most challenging questions we face,” said Fowler.

“I want our national parks to be beacons for sustainable development, and by that I mean nature recovery, climate resilience, people engagement and social inclusion.”

Sarah Fowler

She believes national parks can become beacons of nature-based solutions to mitigate climate change – the Peak District, for example, has a huge carbon store in its peatlands and is exploring initiatives for them to sequester more carbon.

But the park authority does not have a wand hewn from a magic money tree to wave at its challenges. To put its financial resources into perspective, the combined annual budget for all of the UK’s 15 national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty is, at £55 million, less than the subsidies given to the national opera – and below half the cost of the RAF F-35 jet that recently jettisoned into the Mediterranean.

Moreover, Britain’s national parks are unique in the fact that they are not publicly-owned lands, but living, working farms and estates. This means long-term goals such as sustainable development, nature recovery and enhanced public access can only be delivered through the park authority convening interested parties and persuading them to support its objectives and policies.

A rediscovery of nature

After the turbulence of the past two years, one silver lining to the pandemic has been the new audience who discovered the delights of the Peak District for the first time. The park is determined to ‘maintain the gain’, removing the perceived barriers for people who have traditionally felt they don’t fit in the countryside, and instilling a sense of belonging and responsibility among this new generation of visitors for these treasured landscapes.

Millstones lie beneath Stanage Edge. Made form the gritstone of the surrounding bedrock, they have been used for centuries to grind grains.  

 

Photograph by eye35.pix / Alamy Stock

Chrome Hill (right) and Parkhouse Hill form a picturesque due in the southern Peak District. Formed from an ancient limestone reef, the miniature mountains are often likened to the spines on a dinosaur's back.  

Photograph by Matt Gibson, Alamy

The Peak District by numbers

Surface area: 555 square miles
Counties: Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Cheshire, Yorkshire and Greater Manchester
Highest point: Kinder Scout 2,086 ft (636m)
Visitors: 13 million per year
Public rights of way: 1,600 miles

There’s no avoiding the fact that increased visitor numbers bring more traffic, more litter and even fire risk – a significant summer danger as tourists light stoves and barbecues on tinder-dry ground – but it’s also the case that hundreds of volunteers devote their time and energy to maintain the park and support nature-based projects in landscapes that they love.

Engagement ranger Tom Lewis, who has worked for the national park for 27 years, highlights the work of his drystone walling team from the U3A [University of the Third Age], who meet twice per month to repair the fabric of the estate, and the fieldwork of the Sheffield Bird Study Group as key examples of volunteers helping the park to achieve its objectives. The bird group’s surveys of the threatened ring ouzel, for example, have led to a partnership with the park authority and British Mountaineering Council to close crags to climbers during the ring ouzel breeding season to avoid disturbing nests. It’s a prime case of the national park’s co-ordination role, communicating and engaging with interested parties to achieve broader gains.

“With lockdowns and COVID I have noticed a much more positive attitude to the outdoors and we are welcoming some fantastic new audiences,” says Lewis.

“I have always been passionate about the outdoors, and working with groups like [homelessness charity] Crisis and refugee charities to encourage these people out to experience the Peak District gives me a buzz. I know I’m fortunate to live and work here, and I love sharing it. I’m always blown away by their reaction, because there is so much awe with what they experience. It’s wonderful to stop and listen to the feedback we get from these groups. It can be very levelling.”

Recent months have perhaps been a case of history repeating itself, says Andrew McCloy, chair of the Peak District National Park Authority, who draws parallels between the national park movement being forged out of the crisis and upheaval of the Second World War, and the global pandemic of the past two years. Both crises have “given us the opportunity to use the healing power of landscape and the natural world to rebuild a greener and healthier society,” he says.

“National Parks can lead and inspire our response to climate change and nature recovery, energising people at a local and national level, and embracing that pioneer spirit that we showed in the Peak District 70 years ago. We were set up to both protect our finest landscapes and also to educate and enrich peoples' lives, and now more than ever we need our national parks to help us understand how to live sustainably and at one with the natural world."

Jonathan Manning is a freelance journalist based in the East Midlands. He is the former editor of Country Walking and Outdoor Fitness magazines. 

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