Ahead of a landmark englargement of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, Roger Ratcliffe explores the ‘new’ landscape and recalls the long fight to bring it into the fold.
A perfectly ordinary looking drystone wall meanders down a bracken-quilted fellside above a series of pretty waterfalls to meet the narrow road which runs through Barbondale, a classic U-shaped valley south of Dent village.
Inoffensive though it seems, however, the wall has huge significance. On one side every blade of grass enjoys the full protection of a national park and millions of pounds worth of government funding each year, while on the other side - at least in theory - there’s a risk of the landscape being invaded by an army of excavators and blotted by ugly developments like housing or industry.
That hasn’t happened in the 60 years of the Yorkshire Dales National Park’s existence, not least because Barbondale is too remote to interest developers. But nevertheless, the wall and the legal gulf it represents has long intrigued passing walkers and motorists, who can see no earthly difference between the landscape on either side, at least none so marked it explains why the border was set there back in the 1950s.
The national park’s boundaries follow countless other walls, tracks and becks from Bolton Abbey in Wharfedale northwards to the farthermost reaches of Swaledale and Arkengarthdale on the edge of County Durham.
In some places they appear to follow imaginary lines, there being nothing on the ground to indicate the perimeter of anything. And in the process these boundaries have raised many questions.
Why was the southern range of the Howgill Fells, which loom over the town of Sedbergh, given National Park status while the no-less scenic northern side was ignored? Why exclude the spectacular ridge of Wild Boar Fell, a favourite of Pennine Way creator Tom Stephenson and guidebook author Alfred Wainwright? Ditto Mallerstang Edge, which faces Wild Boar Fell to create one of the most dramatic valleys in the north. And why leave out the Orton Fells and their huge expanses of limestone pavement?
From August 1 this year, though, those questions will be consigned to history when the wrongs of the bureaucrats who created the Yorkshire Dales National Park back in 1954 are put right and the anomalies - some prefer the word “absurdities” - corrected.
The original boundaries were drawn in a hurry, believes Dr. Malcolm Petyt, a veteran of the successful campaign to enlarge the Yorkshire Dales.
“Ten national parks were created in a few years, so they just followed convenient local government borders,” he says. “In the case of the Yorkshire Dales that meant stopping at the county boundary between the old West Riding and Westmorland, even though the superb landscape clearly didn’t finish there.”
The case for allowing the landscape rather than Whitehall mandarins to dictate national park boundaries began forming back in the 1970s, the impetus coming not from Yorkshire but from the Friends of the Lake District pressure group, who envisaged that the unprotected areas might one day be added to their own national park.
The wheels of change turned incredibly slowly. The suggestion was stifled by a government review for most of the 1980s and early 90s until eventually it seemed to have been kicked into the long Howgill grass. However, the campaign was revived in 2001 with support from the Yorkshire Dales Society because of new worries about wind farms, power lines and reservoirs.
With the two National Park authorities on board, the campaign to enlarge the parks gained momentum and led to the government’s outdoors agency Natural England giving its backing. But it took a public inquiry in 2013 and two years of deliberations by the government before consent was finally given.
As a result, the Lake District National Park - which gets its own smaller expansion - will come within an arrow’s shot of the Dales on the other side of the M6 motorway and West Coast main line. The enlargement increases the Yorkshire Dales by almost a quarter of its current size, and brings under the Dales brand a landscape which is up to 20 miles inside Cumbria. With the extension come picturesque villages with names like Ravenstonedale, Maulds Meaburn and Crosby Garrett, enough of them to illustrate a whole coffee table book and give a boost to postcard makers.
So beautiful are the Orton Fells that the Lake District campaigned forcefully to have them included in its own national park. But the area’s strong resemblance to the Dales could not be ignored.
Indeed, driving there creates the illusion of having accidentally wandered into a parallel universe to Ribblesdale and Malhamdale, so similar are the landscapes. The only noticeable difference between these gleaming white scars and sheets of bone-white limestone clints and grikes is that there are fewer walkers.
Most of those seen there follow a 93-mile trail called the Dales High Way, which runs from Saltaire in Airedale to the town of Appleby-in-Westmorland in the Eden Valley. Chris Grogan, who devised the route with her husband Tony, says they considered the Yorkshire Dales border too arbitrary to provide them with a finishing point for their route.
“We always felt that the landscape doesn’t end on top of the Howgills,” she says. “In order to experience the Dales properly you needed to continue northwards to the Orton Fells. We think that was the right decision, not just because the national park is now being extended to include that terrain, but also because one of the most consistent pieces of feedback we get from people who have walked the Dales High Way is their surprise at how lovely it is up here. People are just blown away by the Orton Fells.”
How long it will take footpaths, signs, stiles and gates in the new areas to be upgraded to the standard expected in national parks is one of many unknowns. In the past five years the Yorkshire Dales has lost something like 40 per cent of its funding, so taking on an extra 25 per cent more territory with reduced money will be difficult.
Malcolm Petyt has already found footpaths neglected in some areas which will join the national park while surveying them for the Ramblers’ Association. He believes there will be the need for new volunteer rangers and at least one coordinator to make the paths suitable for the extra walkers attracted to the area.
For lovers of unspoilt countryside, there will perhaps be an attitude of “see it while you can” this year, especially around Orton, before the inevitable influx of visitors introduces a more tourist-oriented culture.
To some it might just be a few lines on a map, but for those at the forefront of the campaign, it will be a brand new chapter in the history of the National Park.