Green and pleasant lands

The much-cherished North York Moors National Park celebrates its 60th birthday this year and, says Roger Ratcliffe, still looks remarkably unscathed by modern life.

Surviving intact is not easy for a green landscape, or for that matter one which turns vivid purple in late summer or is gilded and bronzed in autumn or dazzles snow white in winter. It seems that every season presents a new threat to some corner of the North York Moors, even though many people are under the impression that the status of National Park makes the area immune from the ravages of modern life.

But since it was born in 1952, the North York Moors National Park has known some dark days. In fact, for a few years in the late 1960s one development after another threatened to seriously disfigure what is Europe’s biggest continuous expanse of heather moorland.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

There was a gigantic reservoir proposal, which would drown Farndale’s much-photographed wild daffodils. Serried ranks of conifers were ready to march across the airy uplands. New potash mines were about to sully one of the most picturesque coastlines in England, while a 1,000ft TV mast was sprouting from the moors’ beautiful northern escarpment.

The flooding of Farndale and its daffs was fended off successfully, and 40 years later it is still the most celebrated victory for environmentalists – and old-fashioned common sense – in Yorkshire. But other developments went ahead, and along with the ploughing up of moorland on the eastern fringes for crop growing they are the North York Moors’ most obvious battle scars from 60 years as a National Park.

Despite these developments, however, most of the landscape has managed to retain the special qualities that made it a natural choice for protection when the UK’s National Parks were established in the early 1950s, and the North York Moors now attract seven million people each year.

Most of these visitors are drawn by those characteristic expanses of heather, and in springtime by the famous sheets of daffodils. They also come to enjoy the charm of Coxwold, Hutton-le-Hole, Thornton-le-Dale and Robin Hood’s Bay – some of the prettiest villages in England – and the great abbeys and monasteries like Rievaulx, Byland and Mount Grace.

But the area’s success as a national park has been hard-won. In the early 1950s, when the idea was suggested, many of the 25,000 people who lived in the North York Moors were deeply suspicious of what it would mean.

It didn’t help that the concept of the world’s first national parks – Yosemite and Yellowstone in the USA – was as something akin to a preserved wilderness, without any resident populations. A misconception, as it turned out, since even these landscapes – far from being untouched by humans – had actually been shaped by the native North American Indians. But among some of those living in the North York Moors it was feared that a fence was being thrown round the area, and from that day onwards everything within it would be virtually preserved in aspic.

This early dread of what life in a national park would be like was particularly prevalent amongst older farmers, who feared that the needs of wildlife and of ramblers would be put before food production. But their fears were unfounded. In fact, the traditional farming methods for managing haymeadows and other parts of the landscape were vital to the National Park’s objective of preserving the landscape.

Further suspicion came from the old North Riding councillors and officers at County Hall in Northallerton, who resented the interference of the newly- appointed National Park staff in their governance of the moors.

In his memoirs, An Eye to Perceive, the National Park officer for 20 years until 1994, Derek Statham, recalls: “Many councillors regarded the Parks as a sort of socialist ‘Big Brother’.”

The councillors’ contempt was obvious when Statham arrived in 1965 to become the senior planning officer for both the North York Moors and Yorkshire Dales National Parks and found he had been given an office not at County Hall but at the nearby courthouse, which he was expected to share with visiting barristers and vacate whenever the court was sitting.

“It was implied that the best way of dealing with the problem was to take myself off to the National Parks for the duration and catch up on site inspections and visits,” writes Statham. “I needed little encouragement to adopt this strategy.”

It sounds like something from the Yorkshire Television series Heartbeat, which was set in the area, and his informal accommodation is a far cry from the National Park’s modern-day headquarters in the Old Vicarage at Helmsley, which has housed the principal staff since the 1970s.

The 70s saw the whole concept of the National Park expand, following its independence from the county council, and perhaps the greatest change has been to establish North York Moors as a brand name in the minds of tourists. At the same time, farmers have found more and more common ground with the park’s staff, thanks to pioneering initiatives like the Farm Conservation Scheme. These involved a park officer surveying a farm to identify small-scale conservation projects which would enhance the landscape habitats, and then the park providing funds for work – such as tree and hedge planting and pond creation.

Today, the National Park’s chief executive, Andy Wilson, sees the relationship between farmers, landowners and the park as being like that of a family.

“Of course there are minor problems, as in any family, but we are all still part of the same family. And if you look at the new South Downs National Park which has been created, there’s been huge public support for that within its boundaries, so it’s clear that those early misgivings about what a park might stand for have gone.”

It’s unfortunate, says Wilson, that in the early days there was an attitude of being apologetic for the fact that the UK’s parks had human populations. This was particularly inappropriate in the case of the North York Moors, because the human influence on the landscape is especially deep and rich.

People have lived there ever since the hunters and gatherers of Mesolithic times, 8,000 years ago, and there are more ancient monuments and listed buildings than in any of Britain’s other National Parks. This interaction between humans and the landscape is what makes the North York Moors unique, Wilson believes.

And it’s a never-ending process. The latest challenge for the landscape and its people is to find ways of holding back intense rainfall events, which occur more frequently because of climate change, in order to stop flooding in places like Pickering. This is being done by creating dams further up the watershed.

Another challenge is to find affordable housing for many people who cannot compete with the second-home and holiday cottage market that has been built around the popularity of the National Park.

“I think the next decade or so will bring more pressures on protected areas like the North York Moors,” Wilson predicts.

“We’ll need to answer the question of how much more food can these places produce without their landscapes being damaged? How much more clean water can they produce? And how much more tourism can they take without destroying what makes them special?

“We need to get a better grasp of what these areas can do for us while keeping them suitably tranquil and protected.”

An Eye To Perceive: Memoirs of a National Park Officer, is published by the North Yorkshire Moors Association. Price £6.

Sixth park prepares for 60th anniversary

The confirmation of the order of the designation of the North York Moors as a national park came on 29th November 1952. This made it the sixth national park. The Yorkshire Dales became the seventh two years later.

Most of the land is still privately owned, but the 1,400 mile network of footpaths and bridleways gives access to much of the area, and now more than 90 square miles of open moorland can also be explored on foot as it is open access.

Walkers, cyclists and horse riders find a warm welcome and many of the towns and villages in and around the park make attractive centres for active holidays. In the summer the park’s network enables walkers to do linear walks as well as exploring without a car.

It’s the diversity of the landscapes to be found here which makes it unique and the park is known especially for its vast open space of heather moorland.

History is all around, from the mysterious marks left by neolithic man – also responsible for its largely tree-less state – to romantic abbey ruins, churches, crosses, and the ancient routes known as trods.

The park owes a great deal of its splendour to the underlying geology, the results of more than 200 million years of slow change as this part of North Yorkshire was successively flooded by oceans, covered in huge river deltas and most recently invaded by great sheets of ice.