The Yorkshire Dales - A beautiful success story

The wonderful landscape of Swaledale with its intricate patterns of drystone walls and scattered stone barns.
The wonderful landscape of Swaledale with its intricate patterns of drystone walls and scattered stone barns.
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The Yorkshire Dales National Park is celebrating its diamond jubilee. Roger Ratcliffe assesses a lavishly illustrated book on 60 years of protecting one of Britain’s most cherished landscapes.

But the suspicions of locals about what living in a National Park entailed were wrong. Since being established in 1954 it has been an overwhelming force for good, as shown in Colin’s book The Yorkshire Dales National Park: A Celebration of 60 Years.

Colin is perhaps the only person qualified to write such a history, being one of a few people who have made a massive difference to how the National Park is used and appreciated, along with Dales luminaries like the late Arthur Raistrick and writers Marie Hartley and Joan Ingleby. The author of more than 50 walking guides, he devised the Dales Way, a 78-mile walk from Ilkley to Bowness-on-Windermere, and his Dales Rail initiative in the 1970s helped keep the Settle-Carlisle line alive. He is also a driving force behind the DalesBus service, which carries thousands of passengers into the National Park, and founding member of the Yorkshire Dales Society.

The idea for National Parks, Colin writes, came out of the pre-War desire to open up landscapes for enjoyment and concern that some areas badly needed protection from development. But even before the designation order for the Yorkshire Dales was signed, big quarrying firms were already racing to beat the deadline and get in applications for yet more limestone extraction.

Colin’s book shows that the quarries, particularly in Ribblesdale and Upper Wharfedale, were a major source of pollution and eyesores which made a mockery of the park’s objectives. For decades, quarrying traffic would deprive these areas of peace and quiet and, although some loads are now transported by rail, the process is still far from complete.

The other major threat facing the landscape in the first few decades was the planting of unsightly forests, a problem made worse because of generous tax concessions. Writes Colin: “It soon became a popular way for industrialists, speculators and newly wealthy pop stars to keep their wealth out of the hands of the tax man.”

Rectangular blocks of dark conifers changed the landscape. One of the first tests was at Greenfield above Langstrothdale, one of the remotest places in Yorkshire, where huge plantations of conifers were proposed by the government-backed North Pennines Rural Development Board.

“But when it was discovered the Board could overrule the Park committees over major forestry schemes, there was uproar,” Colin says. “It was feared this part of the Dales would look something like the vast Kielder Forest in Northumberland, obliterating the landscape.” One objection at the time, about the problems caused by timber being extracted in huge wagons along totally inadequate tracks and minor roads, has turned out to be proved painfully true, writes Colin.

For many years the Yorkshire Dales were effectively two national parks, one governed by the old West Riding council, the other by the North Riding. Each seemed to see its job differently, and an interesting anomaly highlighted by Colin is the more relaxed attitude to new housebuilding that existed in the North Riding part of the park. This manifested itself in a lot more bungalows being constructed there than in the West Riding part.

One story retold by Colin suggests that North Riding planning meetings were less than stringent. When the Test match was on, officers were instructed to get through the agenda briskly to ensure that councillors could get round to the day’s serious business, watching the cricket on television.

Despite all the challenges, Colin concludes that – superficially at least – it’s remarkable how little the landscape has changed since the National Park was established. The majestic forms of Ingleborough and Penyghent look much like they did in 1954, as does Malham Cove, Aysgarth Falls or the slender Gothic arches of Bolton Priory by the River Wharfe, he says, but in other places the character of the Dales has been altered.

Whilst there are certainly more trees in the landscape than before thanks to projects like the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust and the Dales Woodland Restoration Programme, and many barns and walls are in pristine condition, on remoter hillsides there are now obvious signs of a deteriorating landscape. Even farmsteads have been abandoned 
because of the changing economics of hill farming.

Meanwhile, the pressure on housing for holiday cottages and retirement homes has driven out Dalesfolk in some areas, while village shops, post offices and schools have closed. And the National Park organisation itself has been hit by the post-2008 austerity squeeze, losing one-third of its staff. The challenge for the future, he says, is to ensure that it does not suffer death by a thousand cuts.

It’s important to maintain the ideals of the national park, he argues. “Even if you are poor, you can walk, cycle or perhaps catch one of the remaining bus services into the Yorkshire Dales, climb to the summit of Ingleborough to enjoy that magnificent sweep of open fells and distant shoreline, walk into the awe-inspiring limestone chasm of Gordale, stroll through the flower meadows of Swaledale, amble through Strid Woods in the gold and crimson glory of late autumn, see the pale winter sunshine glisten off the frozen surface of Semerwater, or wander along the Dales Way in Dentdale as the first primroses unfold in hedgerows and riverside.”

A 60th anniversary retrospective it may be, but Colin also looks to the future of the Dales. He sees many exciting opportunities, not least the possible extension of the National Park to embrace the whole of the Howgill Fells, which were described by Alfred Wainwright as looking like “velvet curtains in sunlight”. The result of a public inquiry into the proposal is imminent, and perhaps the start of a brand new chapter in the history of the Yorkshire Dales.

The Yorkshire Dales National Park: A Celebration of 60 Years by Colin Speakman is published by Great Northern Books, price £16.99. To order from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 01748 821122.


1931: A National Park in the Yorkshire Dales was first suggested by planners, but to include only the Craven district and part of Swaledale. However, the idea of National Parks in England and Wales was put on hold because of economic problems and then the Second World War.

1945: Ilkley-born architect John Dower, who was appointed by the Government to assess which areas were in need of protection, produced a report recommending the establishment of National Parks.

1949: The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was passed. The Peak District was the first park to be established, followed by the Lake District, Snowdonia, Dartmoor, Pembrokeshire Coast, North York Moors and Exmoor.

1952: The new National Parks Commission visited the Yorkshire Dales to determine which areas should be included in the proposed park.

1954: Following opposition from councils and others a public inquiry was held. The inspector rejected objections and an order creating the establishment of the National Park was confirmed. It came into being on November 16.

1957: To begin with, the park was run by two committees, one for the West Riding and one for the North Riding, but these were now co-ordinated with a Joint Advisory Committee. A token arrangement, said critics.

1963: Wilf Proctor appointed as the first warden by the West Riding. Two years later he began recruiting voluntary wardens.

1964: Norman Crossley was appointed warden for the North Riding. There were 400 applicants.

1968: The old Reading Room at Clapham became the first National Park Information Centre.

1974: From April 1 the park came within the new North Yorkshire Council and smaller parts in Cumbria. A National Park Officer and other staff were appointed, and central government now paid 75 per cent of funding.

1981: In October the inaugural meeting of the Yorkshire Dales Society, set up to ensure that the park’s users had a stronger voice, took place at Buckden in Wharfedale.

1997: The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority established with its own administration, finances and legal services working from new offices at Bainbridge in Wensleydale.

2005: Following the Countryside & Rights of Way Act 2000, the Yorkshire Dales was finally declared “open” for public access. Previously only four per cent of land had public access, but now the figure was 62 per cent.