Got 100 seconds? Use them to tour Britain’s National Parks from the air

An exhilarating new film by National Geographic Explorer Daniel Raven-Ellison takes the high road to visual variety – and scientific insight – in tribute to the country’s wildest places.

Published 10 Feb 2021, 18:15 GMT
A small figure walks, wades, climbs or canoes through a bewilderment of landscapes, from coastal to ...

A small figure walks, wades, climbs or canoes through a bewilderment of landscapes, from coastal to river, to farmland, to mountain – the motif of Daniel Raven-Ellison's new film UK National Parks in 100 Seconds

Photograph by Daniel Raven-Ellison / Jack Smith Film

In a period when even local travel is in woefully short supply, a nostalgia for both spectacle and variety is understandable. But to Daniel Raven-Ellison, the National Geographic Explorer behind UK National Parks in 100 Seconds, there is a deeper rationale at play behind his new film.  

“I'm really interested in the gap between what we think the UK looks like and the reality on the ground,” Raven-Ellison tells National Geographic. “Back in 2018 I ran a poll with Friends of the Earth and we found that nearly 1 in 3 people think that over half of the UK is built on. Depending on how you measure it, the reality is closer to 5%.”

“That gap in people's geographical imaginations is a big issue,” he adds, “as people are forming opinions and making decisions based on a misunderstanding of what makes up our country. That matters because people are voting, consuming and acting on issues such as migration, housing and making space for nature based on it.”

Watch: UK National Parks in 100 Seconds

The short film, which was crowdfunded and supported by data from the Impact Observatory, features Raven-Ellison as a figure seen from above navigating a kaleidoscope of landscapes. Shot by drone film-maker Jack Smith and narrated by broadcaster and former Catatonia singer Cerys Matthews, it has a timely chime on two levels.

2021 sees the 70th anniversary of the opening of the first UK National Parks with the Peak District, Lake District, Snowdonia and Dartmoor all established in 1951. In addition, 2021 should soon see the government response to the Glover review of National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) – and its potentially landscape-shifting recommendations to safeguard and enhance the influence of these natural areas.

“I'm really interested in the gap between what we think the UK looks like and the reality on the ground.”

Daniel Raven-Ellison

Space for nature

National Parks were established to protect landscapes deemed as possessing ‘special qualities.’ Each has its own authority, but doesn’t own all the land within. Currently the UK has 15 National Parks: ten in England, three in Wales and two in Scotland, with the most recently established the South Downs National Park in 2010. And while most have towns and villages within their borders, they also encompass some of the wildest and sparsely populated areas of the nation – so while in total they cover 23,138 square kilometres, or around 10% of the UK’s land area, the National Parks are home to just to 0.6% of the population, at just over 431,000 people.

In the film, such sweeping breakdowns are eschewed in favour of a more visual treatment, which balances the screen time of its subjects according to the percentage of land each kind of environment comprises within our national parks. Pasture for livestock, for instance, gains just over 24 seconds; peat bogs 11 seconds, water a shave over a second and bare rock just a tenth of one. It's a canny visual breakdown of just what makes our national parks – and in the end, just how much humans have to do with it.  

“In the UK our National Parks are quite different to some of the world's "wilder" protected areas,” says Raven-Ellison. “They are living and working landscapes that are home to hundreds of thousands of people as well as wildlife.”

Daniel Raven-Ellison (far left) with film-maker Jack Smith (far right) and production assistants Seb Raven-Ellison (left) and Joe Smith (right). Filmed throughout Autumn, Raven-Ellison says that the shoot was challenging due to conditions and terrain. Of his locations, he says he always wants “to walk them. My exploration of the landscape is not explicit in the film, but my on the ground experience is a critical part of my thinking and storytelling outside of the frame.”  

Photograph by Daniel Raven-Ellison

For those residents, aside from the benefits of living close to nature and in an aesthetically appealing location, the designation is seen as a boon for tourism and employment, and attracts funding from the government to conserve wildlife and open spaces. Perceived downsides are higher house prices, crowding in peak season and tighter regulations on planning and development within their borders. Raven-Ellison – who led the campaign for London to earn the title of National Park City in 2019 – believes that understanding the bigger picture is the key to finding an accord between spaces to breathe, and a place to live.

“Conserving and restoring nature whilst providing space for people to enjoy themselves and supporting local cultures and economies is a significant challenge,” he says. “It's a balance that needs to be struck, and I don't think we're currently getting it right.”

An outdoor renaissance

In the geographical paralysis caused by COVID-19, many residents have rediscovered the nature closer to home – and during lockdown breaks have appreciated the space afforded by a network of national parks more accessible than many others in the world. UK National Parks in 100 Seconds will, Raven-Ellison hopes, give both the public and policymakers a moment of pause to consider an asset whose importance is enjoying a renewed rtelevance – as well as expending its key role in safeguarding biodiversity and natural heritage.  

“The health, climate and ecological crises are all putting pressure on both people and landscapes,” says Raven-Ellison. “We need to rethink how we use many of those landscapes to help mitigate these interlinked emergencies.”

He adds: “I wanted to make a film that not only celebrated our national parks, but used a scientific breakdown of how the land looks – so that we can see some of the opportunities more clearly. And make more of them in the future.”

Find out more about the work of National Geographic Explorers here

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