Ethel Haythornthwaite: The woman who was a ceaseless champion of the Peak District

The countryside that surrounds our towns and cities appears timeless. For those not involved in its preservation you could be forgiven in thinking that this is the way it always has been and always will be for generations to come.

But to maintain the beauty of areas such as the Peak District – the country’s first National Park – decades of campaigning, educating, fundraising and purchasing has had to take place to either stop or shape developments that would take away from its splendour and dent the enjoyment of the millions of people who find happiness and sanctuary in its wide open spaces.

Every story has its hero and in her new book ‘Ethel’ Sheffield author Helen Mort pays tribute to Ethel Haythornthwaite, a woman who was at the forefront of ensuring the Peak District is still as unspoiled now as it was when she founded the Sheffield Association for the Protection of Rural Scenery in 1924.

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Ethel HaythornthwaiteEthel Haythornthwaite
Ethel Haythornthwaite

Later renamed as the Council to Protect Rural England (CPRE), the Peak District and South Yorkshire branch is celebrating its centenary today.

“One of the things that drew me to Ethel was not the obvious stuff, which is we’re from the same city and I share an affinity with the places that she wanted to preserve. I felt the affinity as another woman, she was also a poet who loved this landscape,” said Mort, who is a five-time winner of the Foyle Young Poets award.

“It was also her belief in the power of the written word and its persuasive effects. Writing as a means of resistance, which in my case is usually creative writing and using poetry or works of fiction to draw attention to issues.

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“For her it was that ceaseless campaigning work that often relied on meetings and writing to people to make those connections.”

Helen MortHelen Mort
Helen Mort

Born in Sheffield in 1894 Ethel had a privileged upbringing by the standards of the day. Her dad, says Mort, was “an Alan Sugar self-made man type” called Thomas Ward. An industrialist who made money upcycling materials from scrap during wartime, Ward was notable for introducing the first elephant to the city when horses were shipped across the Channel to help with the war effort.

“Despite living in an around Sheffield all my life and considering myself to be an outdoorsy person I knew shockingly little about Ethel Haythornthwaite until conversations with chief executive Tomo Thompson and others at CPRE about her influence,” says Mort. “I am always shocked that that’s the same for lots of other people I know in Sheffield.

“Even now we have the ‘Ethels’ and people talk about those hills in the Peak District without ever really knowing who Ethel was. It is astonishing that her life isn’t more celebrated. I’m not a biographer or historian or an archivist but I knew I could write something that would hopefully be accessible to a wider audience and illuminate some of the things about her life.

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“But also, crucially, for people beyond the Peak District who might not know its power, why she cared so much about the landscape and what it meant for her as a writer and environmental campaigner. Her poetry about the Peak District is beautiful.”

Ethel married her first husband Henry Gallimore in 1916. However tragedy was only weeks away as he died in the First World War. This proved to be a defining moment in Ethel’s young life as she writes about discovering the countryside and walking as a cathartic experience to get over her grief.

Mort said: “The way she talks about getting outdoors as helpful for your mental health is very progressive for the early 1900s. It was her response to that which made her determined to ‘save’ the landscape of the Peak District for future generations and people returning from the war.

“Around the 1920s was a decisive time for her. In 1924 they had a meeting where she drew people together, contacts she’d made through her father and people of influence, with an idea of making a change. That was the start of it before she became aligned with the Council for the Protection of Rural England nationally.”

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Those familiar with Sheffield’s relationship with the countryside around it will understand how the two co-exist. The countryside is not a separate rural idyll cut off from the industrial development – it is much more complicated and intertwined.

Mort said: “Ethel used some of her connections made through her father to make positive changes to the environment around Sheffield. A lot of it was about preserving land from development, getting wealthy contacts to buy land or doing the equivalent of a kick-starter campaign to buy land so it was accessible to people. A famous example would be the Longshaw estate and Blacka Moor.

“Later in her life she married again to Gerald Haythornthwaite a man a couple of decades her junior who had interviewed for CPRE. They then worked together so there’s a nice romance element where they were united in their love of the landscape.”

In her later years Ethel was on the National Parks committee and was instrumental in the Peak District becoming the first National Park in 1951. She died, aged 92, in April 1986.

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As chief executive of the Peak District and South Yorkshire CPRE Thompson is only too aware of Ethel’s impact. He said: “In her moment of grief Ethel had an immense positive experience from the areas of the Peak District. We are now celebrating our centenary and nothing has changed. When you get out there for the physical and mental benefits for everybody, nothing has changed.

“The stuff we’re campaigning about fundamentally hasn’t changed. We no longer have the money to buy our way out of the problem so we need to campaign more acutely, with a community and engagement focus to enable us to do stuff.”

See The Yorkshire Post on Thursday for the challenges facing the CPRE.

To buy the book ‘Ethel’ visit

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