In praise of nature’s gems

Dame Fiona Reynolds.
Dame Fiona Reynolds.
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Dame Fiona Reynolds is passionate about conservation. Chris Bond talks to the former head of the National Trust about the challenges facing our green spaces.

DAME Fiona Reynolds is no stranger to these parts.

Back in the early 1980s in her then role as Secretary to the Council for National Parks, she spent several months living in the village of Addingham, near Ilkley, while involved in a public inquiry to stop a huge hole being gouged out of the limestone hillside behind Kilnsey Crag in Wharfedale.

In the end the campaigners won a partial victory. They had objected to this beautiful stretch of Wharfedale being dug up for materials to build roads. It was eventually decided that if the limestone had to be extracted it would only be used for chemical processes.

Since then Reynolds, who was made a Dame in 2008 for her services to “heritage and conservation”, has carved out an impressive reputation becoming chief executive of the Council for the Protection of Rural England and later director general of the National Trust, a post she held for 11 years before stepping down in 2012 to become the first female master of Emmanuel College, at Cambridge University.

Throughout her career Reynolds has never been afraid to question or challenge the status quo but she has done this from a position of influence on the inside, rather than as a protester looking in.

She is back in Yorkshire again this weekend for a special lecture at Sheffield Hallam University to celebrate the Friends of the Peak District’s 90th anniversary. In her talk, entitled The Case For Beauty, she will discuss the inspiration behind the countryside conservation movement and the challenges we face in protecting our green spaces, both in towns and cities and in the country, for future generations.

It was the wild, rugged beauty of the Peak District that first sparked the right-to-roam movement, when walkers tackled Kinder Scout in the mass trespass of 1932. Since then we’ve seen the creation of national parks which has led to an appreciation of the natural wonders we have on our doorstep.

“Beauty is not just something that we would like to have it’s something that we need,” says Reynolds. “Places that are beautiful, like our national parks, improve our quality of life.”

The campaign for beauty which has shaped the conservation movement in Britain was born out of the clash between beauty and industrialisation during the 19th Century. It led to the establishment of national parks, nature and countryside protection, the safeguarding of historic buildings and monuments, and, in more recent decades, the gradual ‘greening’ of farming.

“The conservation movement began in the 19th Century when a group of brave Victorian radicals stood up and said there was more to life than simply exploiting our natural resources,” says Reynolds.

She believes that today we have a choice that is as stark as that faced back in the nineteenth century, with the uncertainty of climate change and the ever growing pressure on our natural resources. “The world has become obsessed with growth and material value, but beauty enriches our lives, too, just in a different way.”

Even so, our green spaces are under growing threat. A report this month published by the National Housing Federation said that Yorkshire risked being faced with a shortfall of over 200,000 homes by 2031, as a result of successive governments failing to build enough new homes to address what is regarded as a national housing crisis.

This has put added pressure on local authorities to find land to build on. However, while it’s perhaps tempting for politicians and business leaders to focus on the bottom line, nature - whether it’s the rolling hills of the Dales or a city centre park in Bradford - improves people’s wellbeing in a way that can’t be measured by profit margins.

Not only that, but once you lose your green spaces you don’t get them back.

Reynolds doesn’t believe this has to be the case and points to the lasting impact of the Attlee government following the end of the Second World War when the country was on its knees. “That postwar government realised there was more to human beings than jobs and houses. It created the NHS but it also argued the case that national parks and nature reserves were just as important and gave people a broader quality of life - and we need that argument to happen again.”

Reynolds was born in Cumbria and grew up surrounded by nature. “My parents were passionate about the countryside and walking and that rubbed off on me. Since leaving university I’ve spent almost my entire career working for conservation organisations.”

She became a champion of National Parks and during her tenure at the National Trust made it her personal crusade to bring more ordinary people into the Trust’s 300 historic houses and gardens, three quarters of a million acres of land and 700 miles of coastline. One of the campaigns she’s most proud of was 50 things to do before you’re 11 and 3/4, aimed at encouraging more youngsters to have fun outdoors. “Exposing a child to nature can have a huge impact and it shouldn’t be one of those nice little extras, it should be essential.”

Getting more children to explore nature is one thing, but tackling the encroaching threat of climate change is another. She says we may have to become less dependent on our cars in the future but admits there are no easy answers. “It’s a very significant issue and addressing climate change is just as important as protecting the countryside.”

Housing, too, is another challenge. “We are using the resources of three planets not one and we need to find a more sustainable way of living. We still have very large areas of disused land in urban areas which could be developed, and this has huge potential.”

Reynolds believes that rather than being a threat to our landscape, houses, if designed smartly, can help create better places to live. “We have a choice now, we can remodel our cities and suburbs and make them more sustainable by using better design and using nature and green spaces, something we’ve not really done before.

“As a society we are under pressure, we’re a crowded island with limited land but if we put our minds to it we can make better use of our resources.”

At the heart of the matter is the need to create places to live that protect the countryside and are also well designed, attractive places to live. “It’s good for the planet, it’s good for the local environment and it’s good for people,” she says.

Dame Fiona Reynolds’ lecture The Case for Beauty, the Cantor Building, Sheffield Hallam University, October 25 at 7pm. Tickets cost £10 with all proceeds going to Friends of the Peak District. Go to www.friendsofthepeak.org.uk or call 0114 279 2655.