Stillness falls in Yorkshire's national parks as tourists are told to stay home

There is a stillness to the region’s National Parks, broken only by birdsong as thorny British brambles relay an ancient claim to these pitted paths and hills.

Kate Hilditch the Southern Dales Area Manager for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, near to her office in Grassington in Wharfedale. Picture: Gary Longbottom

This is the start of the summer season, when Yorkshire’s rural landscapes are normally filled with the chatter of tourists upon whose spend the economy is balanced.

But the Government has called on the nation to stay home to save lives and it is the only thing that can be done, when there is so much at stake.

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The rangers, conflicting as it may feel to do so, are now sending people away as they call on visitors not to undertake unnecessary travel.

Kate Hilditch the Southern Dales Area Manager for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, near to her office in Grassington in Wharfedale. Picture: Gary Longbottom

“Asking people not to come to the Yorkshire Dales is very strange,” says ranger manager Kate Hilditch. “But at these times, that’s what we have to do.

“In a way, it’s all the same. The landscape is the same, the hills are still here. But in terms of how if feels.... well, it’s very different.”

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Miss Hilditch manages a group covering the southern end of the Yorkshire Dales but the rangers, so used to engaging with communities, are grounded.

A deserted village of Grassington as everyone observs the lockdown. Picture: Gary Longbottom.

Their work, in repairing fences and bridges, in maintaining the public rights of way, has stalled and some, fuelled by a desire to help, are running food drop deliveries instead.

They are just “normal people in extraordinary times”, insists Miss Hilditch, but there is a pride apparent in her tone as she talks of the team taking food parcels to the isolated.

Easter, in a normal year, would have heralded the start of the busy season with places like Malham and Grassington buzzing with visitors.

But it is not a normal year and the steep hills of the Yorkshire Three Peaks, such a draw to hundreds of charity hikers every week, now stand empty.

An ewe keeps a watchful eye on lambs grazing in the fields near Grassington. Picture: Gary Longbottom

If there were a danger in the National Park, the rangers would act swiftly, says Miss Hilditch. But beyond that, their practical tasks are on hold as they monitor and patrol.

When the time comes, when it is safe to do so, they will catch up on the ‘bread and butter’ jobs that have been missed. It will have been worth it, says Miss Hilditch.

“People want to be here, people want to walk to the top of a hill and get that buzz,” she adds.

“The things that don’t change are the Dales and its landscapes. It will still be here, when people come back.”

Peak District Park Rangers Rob Kenning and Harriet Saltis pictured on Millstone Edge above Hathersage. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

Vehicle patrols

On the road in the Peak District is Rob Kenning, patrolling the National Park’s empty lanes and highways alone in his van. He joined as an engagement ranger in August.

It has been a steep learning curve, he says, learning about the park’s ecology, it’s birds, and the nature unique to this area. Memorising the footpaths, fixing gates and fences.

Many of the volunteers he manages have been trundling these paths for 15 years, he adds, and he learns every day from their pool of experience.

Then it came to an abrupt halt, with the arrival of the virus.

“The guided walks, the junior ranger programmes, building bug boxes, it’s all stopped,” he says. “The only thing now is vehicle patrols.

Peak District Park Ranger Rob Kenning pictured on Millstone Edge above Hathersage. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

“To encourage people to stay home. Knowing, with it being so dry, there’s an element of fire risk.”

There are fewer people within the park’s boundaries, he says. One old railway line, popular with walkers, has seen a drop in footfall of 95 per cent.

There have been two mountain rescue call outs in the past month, when it’s usually once every two to three days.

“It’s been incredibly quiet, in the lead up to Easter,” he said. “People are adhering to the guidance, they are staying at home. The last few days though, the guidance has been more mixed, and we’re seeing more people coming through.”

He’s alone on his patrols through the national park, and it’s a very different place to what it was just a few short weeks ago.

It’s difficult,” he admits. “All the rangers like people in the park, we like to share this beautiful place. But nobody plans on having an accident, and it would be a real problem if they did. The park’s message is absolutely just to stay home.”

'Bittersweet'

Any other summer, Harriet Saltis would be found leading a team of volunteers, carrying out conservation work across the Peak District National Park.

Together they would tackle the overgrown brambles, cutting back hedgerows to clear pathways and ensure clear passage through the park’s rights of way.

It hurts, she says, to be sending visitors away. Now, she is on daily patrols to do just that.

“It’s bittersweet, in a sense,” she adds. “It’s an awful situation, that we are all trying to get through together as a nation. It’s for the greater good, that we all take steps.”

The park, from the start, has echoed government guidance to stay home to save lives, and that applies to exercise.

But the mantra has become murkier in recent days, after the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced that it was lawful to drive to take exercise in England.

In the first weeks, people had followed the rules, says Miss Saltis. Now, they are beginning to interpret the guidance in their own way.

“Sunday was busier,” she reflects. “In the past few days we have seen an increase in visitors.

“There have been a couple of barbecues found. Because of the weather and the dryness, that is high on our radar.

“It’s been so dry, we’ve not had much rain. Fire can happen so quickly.”

Rural framework

The National Park covers 555 sq miles, across five counties. But there are no motorways, no cities, no major hospitals.

If there were to be an emergency, it would put a huge strain on emergency services, worries Miss Saltis. In this area, with fewer resources, it is amplified.

“When people set off, they don’t think about the way of rural life, or its remoteness,” she says.

Nobody leaves home for a walk, believing they may have an accident, adds Miss Saltis.

But in a vast, rugged landscape such as this one, it does happen. On the hillsides, it would be volunteer rescue teams to come to their aid.

“Think about the repercussions, and about everybody that would assist in getting that person to safety,” she says in a plea. “It could be life-changing.”

It’s a ‘new hat’, is the phrase Miss Saltis uses about her new role in turning visitors away, and it’s one that doesn’t fit comfortably.

Her hope is that, when the time comes to lift restrictions, it can be done with a careful plan.

“Everybody wants to look after the nation, and make sure that as many people as possible come out of this situation in the same way that we left it.”

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Peak District Park Ranger Harriet Saltis pictured on Millstone Edge above Hathersage. Picture: Bruce Rollinson
Peak District Park Rangers Rob Kenning and Harriet Saltis pictured on Millstone Edge above Hathersage. Picture: Bruce Rollinson