Malcolm Barker: A political quagmire in High Dale country

NATURAL England’s plan to extend the Yorkshire Dales National Park by adding sizeable chunks of Westmorland and Lancashire appears to be bogged down, an apt metaphor in this case because the land involved is frequently prone to quagmire.

It is also some of the most beguiling country in the world – the area designated for the Dales includes such wonders as Mallerstang. This may sound more like an imprecation than a place-name, but it is a small, perfectly formed dale, even if it lacks a mellifluous title like Wensleydale, Swaledale, or its upland neighbour, Whitsundale.

The extension westwards of the Yorkshire park and a matching eastward growth of the Lakes District National Park was suggested upwards of five years ago by the quango English Nature. Subsequently there were consultations and enquiries of the kind that bring joy to bureaucrats, but eventually recommendations were lodged with the Environment Secretary, then Owen Paterson, in September 2013.

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Nearly two years on, they rest in the in-tray of Mr Paterson’s successor Liz Truss, a Norfolk MP. Now four representatives of countryside campaign groups, including Malcolm Petyt, vice-president of the Yorkshire Dales Society, have written an open letter to her, calling for the designation of the extensions to be confirmed.

Their letter reminds Ms Truss, who was educated in Leeds, that the Conservative manifesto for the General Election included a commitment for stronger protections for our natural landscapes, indicating a fond belief on the part of the signatories that politicians actually mean what they say despite much woeful evidence to the contrary.

The writers also point out that there is strong public support, now rated at more than 90 per cent of those affected, for Natural England’s idea.

Early in the discussions those attending a public meeting in Mallerstang were equally divided, with 14 voters in favour of joining the National Park, 14 against, and two abstaining. However, opinions in favour have strengthened since then, possibly in the hope that being in a National Park would preserve the dale from such horrors as the communications masts at Aisgill on the summit of the Settle-Carlisle railway line.

Mallerstang is a mere five miles long, a thinly-populated dale with only 101 voters on its electoral roll in 2011. It is a civil parish, but lacks the numbers required for a parish council, so it has to make do with local government at its lowest level: a parish meeting. It is said to have once been part of Yorkshire at a time when the county extended right across to the Irish Sea.

Peter Gunn touched on this in his book The Yorkshire Dales – Landscape with Figures (Century Publishing, 1984), writing that Mallerstang “topographically and historically clings to its past as part of the Yorkshire Dales”. If Ms Truss can be stirred, the wish enunciated by Mr Gunn 31 years ago may be realised.

Lying below High Seat (2,328 ft, 709 metres) and Wild Boar Fell, a lesser eminence by only four feet, the valley is to the west of the Pennine watershed. It is drained by numerous becks descending from the fell.

One, rising in the wilderness of Blackfell Moss, is credited with being the source of the Eden. Gathering strength as it heads north down the dale, it eventually reaches Hell Gill, a dark and deep-cut ravine where the nascent river undergoes its birth pangs before flowing to the Solway Firth.

The valley was once part of the lands owned by the great Yorkshire heiress, Lady Anne Neville. Her seat was Skipton Castle, but she possessed four similar fortresses, including Pendragon in Mallerstang, which has alleged associations with King Arthur.

The intrepid old lady would travel to Pendragon on a litter suspended between two horses. She had the castle rebuilt and was there when she made her will in 1673, dying two years later, aged 86.

Mallerstang is now in Cumbria, the hybrid created by the union of Westmorland and Cumberland, where, of course, it will remain, because there is no question of changing the county boundaries. even if one day it does become a western extremity of the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

It is on the fringe of a great wilderness, which the knowledgeable and prolific author WR Mitchell referred to as High Dale Country in the title of one of his books (Souvenir Press, 1988).

At one time it was largely empty, its wastes untrodden except by hardy shepherds, but it is now crossed by the route of Wainwright’s Coast to Coast walk. Those heading west to east from St Bees Head to Robin Hood’s Bay – (the preferred direction because it keeps the prevailing wind to the walkers’ backs) – ascend the hills from Kirkby Stephen and enter the high country in the borderland between the North Pennines Area of Natural Beauty and the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

Their numbers are legion, and their boots erode the fragile vegetation on the flanks of the upland, creating wide muddy tracks.

On their way they pass one of the great wonders of the Pennine watershed, tall, conical dry-stone constructions known as The Nine Standards. Who built them, when, and to what purpose, are unsolved mysteries, but now they have their very own Friends organisation, and are undergoing thorough investigation and maintenance. They appear to be timeless, but an expert dry-stone wall-builder encountered on the Coast to Coast route pointed out that they embodied many different techniques, indicating that generations had cared for them over the centuries.

Hikers who brave these uplands develop a great affection for them, for a great calm prevails despite the incessant winds as astonishing vistas reveal themselves.

The 10 English national parks have sustained a 33 per cent reduction in funding in the last six years. Their pips are already squeaking, and the Government may be dragging its feet over extending them for fear that costs involved might be used to resist further cuts. Perhaps those who care for the lonely heights may conjure up protests like a Pennine gale to blow away Whitehall’s lethargy.

Malcolm Barker is a former editor of the Yorkshire Evening Post.