BATTLE OF THE GREAT OUTDOORS

The hills are alive with the sound of four- wheel-drives, motorbikes, mountain bikes, walkers - and a growing furore about what, and who, our National Parks are really for
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"WHOAH! Whup! Whup!"

"Nuttterrrrr!"

"Winch time!"

We were in a convoy of three Suzuki jeeps going over the tops in the North York Moors National Park, an empty landscape of peat and heather: a big silence broken by the cry of a peewit - and the howl of Barry's wheels, stuck up to their axles in the mire, spinning and throwing thick black mud all over the windows. We had been driving for miles, on dirt tracks and forest roads, which was all very well, but once you've mastered the four-wheel-drive and the gear changes you want something to get your wheels into; in this case, a monster mudbath 50ft wide with all the heather torn off and great ruts and pools, one of them 5ft deep. The trick is to follow the ruts, keeping the steering-wheel pretty free, letting the wheels find their own way; then, when you hit the mud, give it the power and go like hell till you get out - or not.

"It's not that you want to get stuck," mused Andy Young, the 23-year- old owner of Moor-land Adventure Sports, to whom we'd paid pounds 150 for the day out. He thought a bit. "Everyone wants to get stuck, but you don't go in trying to get stuck. You go in trying not to get stuck." But if you weren't planning to get stuck, you wouldn't go out in a convoy of jeeps with thick ropes wound round the bull bars, and an electric winch attached to the lead vehicle. As it was, we messed about in the mud for the best part of an hour, nearly rolling the jeep, trying to reverse into position to get Barry out with the winch.

"What's caused all these ruts?" I asked, having lied in the name of truth and told Andy I wasn't a journalist. Might it be the farmers? "Oh no," said Andy. "This is all me. I've had 2,000 vehicles over this in the last two-and-a-half years." The other week they had run over a lamb - well, they had caught it by its tail. "Mint sauce," said Andy.

Up in North Yorkshire, there's a frenzy of controversy over Moorland Adventure Sports - articles in the papers, protests, pieces on the TV news. There is, in fact, a frenzy of controversy all over the country about four-wheel-drive vehicles churning up the countryside, and about motorcycle trailriders making a noise, and mountain bikers startling the walkers and hang-gliders spoiling the skyline, and dayglo leisure wearers upsetting the older generation, and walkers eroding fragile peat bogland with their feet; and about farmers closing their land off from walkers, and horsey people thinking they've more right to be on bridleways than mountain bikes, and climbers with mobiles phones taking calls from the office on mountain summits, or calling the mountain rescue centre to ask it to fax back maps to their portable faxes.

A survey published last month by the Countryside Commission shows that visiting the countryside has become the third most popular national leisure pursuit: 1 billion visits to the countryside were made during 1994. But what is most dramatic is the rise in the number of people using these areas for "active" leisure pursuits: their numbers doubled during the Eighties, and they are now thought to acount for one in five of all visits to the countryside. And so, as pressure on the environment grows, a complicated row is developing over who and what the countryside is for. At its heart are issues of land rights, class, Nimbyism (Not In My Back Yard), Noteism (Not Over There Either), and urban stress. The row will become noisier in the next two months: a Select Committee on the Environmental Impact of Leisure Activities has been working since January and is due to report in July; and a new Environment Bill, expected to go to its final reading later in the summer, may include the most dramatic changes in legislation relating to National Parks since they were set up nearly 50 years ago.

Much interest focuses on one particular phrase: "quiet enjoyment". It is the key phrase in an amendment to the Environment Bill passed at committee stage in the House of Lords in February: the purpose of the National Parks, this stated, lay in "promoting opportunities for the quiet enjoyment and understanding of the special qualities of those places by the public". Lord Norrie, who tabled the amendment, was, he says, prompted by his concern over the increase in mechanised leisure in the countryside - four-wheel- drive vehicles, motorcycle trail bikes, microlite aircraft, jet-ski bikes and powerboats. "There's a danger that when people go to the country for a bit of peace and quiet, the volume of these activities might become rather offensive," he said. The Hansard record of the ensuing debate gives some idea of the can of worms the amendment has opened. Since vehicles and motorbikes were allowed in the parks on public roads, it was asked, was the committee saying that it wanted to ban them from the parks altogether? And how would the amendment affect more traditional but equally noisy sports? Or even fairly noisy sports?

That, indeed, is the point. Does a four-wheel- drive vehicle affect others' enjoyment more than a fox hunt? Are traditional recreations more acceptable than new ones? Is a stuck jeep louder than a tractor? Than a horse's hooves? A gunshot? A cow? Does one jeep make more mess than 1,000 mountain bikes? Than 10,000 walkers? In the Lords, it was recognised that "the issue was not as clear-cut as might at first glance be supposed". What is clear is that the debate raises important questions about the balance between individual freedom and the collective good. As the economist Fred Hirsch argues in his book The Social Limits to Growth, "Wider participation affects not just how much different participants get out of the game, but the game itself... The choice made by each individual in a piecemeal way ceases to be a valid guide to what individuals would choose if they could see the results of their choices along with other people's choices."

THE Derbyshire Peak District, Britain's first National Park, is dominated at its northern end by the looming and symbolic shoulder of the Kinder Scout plateau. Symbolic, because in 1932 Kinder Scout was the scene of a mass trespass of up to 600 Manchester workers who defied landowners and gamekeepers by asserting their right to roam in the open countryside. It was an action in tune with the growth of mass demand for access to the countryside; a demand that culminated in 1949 with the National Parks & Access to the Countryside Act, which, in turn, led to the setting up of 10 National Parks in England and Wales (there are none in Scotland). The Derbyshire Peak District was the first, in 1951, followed over the next six years by parks in Northumberland, on the North York Moors, the Yorkshire Dales, in the Lake District, Snowdonia, the Brecon Beacons, the Pembrokeshire Coast, Exmoor and Dartmoor, each run by the relevant local Authority. (The Peak District and the Lake District were later to be run by separate Park Authorities.)

The parks, the Act said, were intended to satisfy twin objectives: those of conservation and recreation. That may have been so, but at the heart of the National Parks movement were two more private notions: of relaxing in peacefulness and emptiness, and of freedom from the hurly-burly of urban life. Drive around the Peak District on a busy Sunday now, and these feel like unattainable ideals. It's like being in a crowded drawing in a children's book. See - here is a hanglider, here is a hot air balloon, here a hiker, a motorbike, a mountain bike, a Land Rover. See the lovely horse! Apart from Mount Fuji in Japan, this is the most heavily visited National Park on Earth. Surrounded on every side by industrial conurbations - Manchester, Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham, Derby, Stoke - the Peak District Park attracts 22 million visitors a year.

National Park officials talk of "honeypots", scenic and accessible areas which draw in the punters in droves: Windermere in Cumbria, Wharfedale in the Yorkshire Dales, and the Derwent Valley in Derbyshire, where green, gently wooded hills roll down to a series of winding reservoirs. Indeed, the Derwent Valley, with its 1.5 million visitors a year, has, in effect, become one of the more remote of the country's pedestrian precincts. There is a park and ride scheme, similar to those on the edge of cities. There are yellow lines. There is a traffic warden. And there are people who break the rules; as I drove with a ranger and a local farmer up a winding track through the forest, where anything with wheels was not supposed to be, a group of mountain bikers with dayglo outfits and helmets were whizzing downhill, ready to startle walkers. The farmer, Peter Atkin, ruddy faced, portly and tweed jacketed almost to the point of caricature, was taking us to see what the four-wheel-drivers have done. "The trouble is, they're all roaring round the cities in their Fronteras and Suzukis. They think they've got a vehicle that'll go up a lamp post, go up a tree, so they bring it out here to see what they can do. They have great bloody wheels on the things. If we don't need wheels like that, and we're working the land, what do they need them for?"

We drove down over a smooth, green hillside which was once, apparently, "like a billiard table". Now it was rutted with deep, black gashes. "If it's wet," said Atkin, "a farmer won't go out in a Land-Rover or a tractor unless he has to. The minute it rains I have convoys of seven or eight of these idiots roaring past my farm. They come out in the snow. They come out at two o'clock in the morning and then they get stuck and they're knocking on the door asking me to pull them out with the tractor." And what does he say? "I tell them," says Atkin, "that it's naughty."

NAUGHTY it may be, but not illegal. At present, almost all the "leisure pursuits" complained about in the context of the National Parks are within the law - so long as participants keep to the rules regarding noise which cover the rest of the country, and so long as they stick to the areas to which they have access. But where they have access is far from clear.

In England and Wales, the land in the National Parks is owned by various interests: private landowners, forestry and water authorities, the Ministry of Defence, the National Trust and the park authorities themselves. Access is confined to designated rights of way and to certain areas where the landowners have given the public "freedom to roam". It is over the designated rights of way that the worst confusion reigns. The classification system for unpaved roads - which show up as white on Ordnance Survey maps and are known as "green lanes" by off-roaders - is as clear as the mud four-wheel-drivers so love to get stuck in. Footpaths are just for feet. Bridleways are for horses, cycles and feet. But the rest of the ancient highway system is a bewildering network of RUPPs (roads used as public paths), BOATs (by-ways open to all traffic) and UCRs (Unclassified Roads) - all legally open to vehicles, some confusingly sporting illegal signs saying "Private" or "No Vehicles". To muddle matters further, under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, Local Authorities are supposed to be reclassifying all RUPPs as BOATS, bridleways, or, occasionally, footpaths. Miles and miles of green lanes are currently the subject of legal battles being waged over details of past usage. Which means you can't rely on an Ordnance Survey map, or even the definitive maps held at council headquarters, to tell you where you are allowed to drive. Off- road clubs, and commercial organisations such as Moorland Adventure Sports, go to some lengths to make sure that they drive only where they are legally allowed to. But confusion is easy for naughty types to hide behind.

The extent to which National Park Author-ities would be able to enforce a "Quiet Enjoy-ment" clause, should it become law, is unclear. It seems likely that then, as now, the only way for the authorities to stop activities which they believed violated the clause would be through existing legislation - noise abatement orders, traffic regulation orders, planning restrictions. But what the clause would create is a dramatic shift of emphasis: a flagging- up of the notion that some ways of enjoying yourself in National Parks are more appropriate than others - that some are to be promoted and others discouraged.

But where do you draw the line over who's spoiling what for whom? "The difficulty is you're dealing with ideas as well as practicalities," said Gordon Miller, a Derbyshire Park Ranger (and chairman of the International Rangers Federation). "Some of the problems are generational. The old-school walkers might be put off and terrified simply by what mountain bikers wear. You have to watch out for prejudice and try to keep the problem in proportion."

He took me to the Pennine Way, on the high land to the north. There was not a soul in sight, just acre after empty acre of great, stark shoulders of moorland. A large percentage of visitors, he said, stay within 100 yards of their cars; almost one in five never get out of them. But, however rooted visitors may be to their vehicles and picnic tables, they all want, as Miller says "to know the wilderness is there".

Not, as Miller points out, that this is, strictly speaking, wilderness: "If this was wilderness it would be covered in trees," he said, nodding towards the heather ."It was cleared in the last century and farmed for grouse. The whole area is managed and drained. To find real wilderness you have to go to Canada or Alaska."

Call it, then, a wilderness-type experience. None the less, Miller said, "People still have very fixed ideas of what does and doesn't belong here." The Peak District Park, for instance, has done tremendous work in combatting erosion by the half-million feet that tread the Pennine Way each year - laying biodegradable mesh where the delicate peat landscape can regenerate, and creating a pathway of flagstones on the most heavily eroded sections. But "People even complain about that", said Miller. "They say they've come to get back to nature and they find themselves on the yellow brick road." When you are dealing with the territory of the imagination - and millions of different imaginations - rights and wrongs, appropriatenesses and otherwise, become hard to untangle.

BUT IF the imagination encompasses green laning by four-wheel-drives and motorbikes, the debate becomes stark in its simplicity. "In the old days, it was witchcraft or wolves; now it's four-wheel-drives," is the furiously beleaguered view of Tim Stevens, spokesman for LARA (the Land Access and Recreation Association). LARA is an umbrella organisation of motoring groups put together nearly 10 years ago to promote a more responsible image for off-roading. It needs one: the number of off-road vehicles in Britain increased by 400 per cent between 1989 and 1993, and although a small proportion of these ever escape the tarmac, more and more are doing so - and are much vilified for it.

The Ramblers Association, for example, argues that motorised traffic should be outlawed from all byways in the countryside, and by that it means all unsurfaced roads. Kate Ashbrook, the Association's new and forceful chair, takes the view that "There are very few wild places left where you can go to find quiet, peaceful recreation. You don't need wild, peaceful places to take part in noisy activities."

Here, of course, is the nub of the argument: the implicit view that four- wheel-drivers and raucous trailbikers are not what park people should be - not the sort of people to shut gates after them, not the sort to respect to the country code, not the heirs to the tradition of youth hostels and good healthy hikes across empty moors. "I think there is something very different about these motorised sports," one park official reflected in Derbyshire. "I think that they are bringing in a type of person from cities who is not a natural lover of the countryside." Andy Young of Moorland Adventure Sports reinforced this argument. "I don't think my customers come for the view," he said. "They come for a laugh and a day out with their friends."

Yet the lager-loutish generalisation doesn't hold. On an unsurfaced track between Malham and Wharfedale in the Yorkshire Dales I stopped two motorcyclists, scarily done up in dayglo leathers and helmets. I was expecting yobbish urban youth, and discovered two mild-mannered, elderly engineers from Bolton who told me that their other hobby was hiking and that they had been walking in the Dales for 30 years. They liked the trailriding because it allowed them to see 100 miles of countryside in a day. It was a challenge, an adventure.

This is a line Tim Stevens is happy to pursue. "I like to travel the routes my grandfather rode on in 1910," he rhapsodised. "You can almost see your forebears' footprints" - until you drive over them, of course. LARA, as you would expect, promotes a code of conduct incorporating what it tweely calls "The Four Ws" - Weather, Weight, Width and Winches - which states that drivers should not go out in weather so bad that the tracks will be damaged beyond natural repair, should not go on tracks that won't take their weight, or width, and should not use winches except when absolutely necessary. For some drivers, they might as well have added a fifth W - "Wimps - be at all times; do not have any fun." As with any sport, LARA argues, off-roading has its rogue minority. "There are drivers who go out to flaunt every rule in the book," said Stevens. "I'd like to string the little sods up."

In an attempt to prevent the little sods from ruining things for every four-wheel-driver, LARA is introducing voluntary motoring restrictions on over-used green lanes and is encouraging members to work with local authorities to help repair them. Management solutions, as the terminology has it, may do the trick. There are hints, too, in circulars accompanying the Environment Bill, that "zoning" - the establishment of distinct and separate areas in which distinct and separate leisure pursuits may be followed - might be seen as a solution.

But Stevens still feels got at. "Why don't people say horses spoil the countryside for others?" he raged. "The prejudice says that you take a wild animal, put metal hooves on it and walk it up and down, and then that's natural. Have you ever heard a horse and cart on a stony road? Who ever said that the countryside is supposed to be peaceful?"

There is more at stake here than the challenge of manoeuvring wheels through mud. There are also less specific ideals at stake. There is a yearning, for example, reflected in that fashionable marketing phrase "all-terrain" (used in the sales literature for sub-Mad Max jeeps, and in advertisements for boots that feature brave male models dragging their way through swamps without getting their feet wet) that suggests a need to know that, if stranded in all-terrain wilderness, pitting yourself against the elements, you could, albeit using a bloody great jeep, survive. This is different from wanting to stand alone on moorland, hearing curlews and discovering things about your soul, but it's not unrelated; just as it is related to freedom, and even to fairness. It must not be forgotten that the spirit of the Kinder Scout trespass maintained that prejudice of wealth, class or taste should not put one person's need for the countryside above another's. As a rag-and-bone man from Sheffield, unloading his trail bike in a car park at Longendale in Derbyshire, put it: "Why should a load of toffs on horses be allowed up here, knocking the walls down chasing after a fox, and not us?"

In truth, the Peak District Park Authority considers the off-roading problem to be minor compared to that caused by ordinary cars; on one day early in May this year, for instance, the ozone level in the Derwent Valley was the second highest in the country as a result of local and non-local traffic. Rogue mountain bikers, too, who stray off the tracks, have the potential to inflict far greater damage than the odd jeep. Two out of every three bicycles sold is a mountain bike; 1.5 million people bought them last year. And then there are the scars in the heather on the Pennine Way, scars 100 yards wide, created by the sheer weight of feet.

But, Tim Stevens observes, "People today see the countryside being overused. They look for things that they don't want to do and try to stop it." And the LARA code ruefully and accurately complains that "The man in the countryside may no longer be the easy-going type that he was a few years ago, content so long as visitors to his area respected his way of life and livelihood. An increasing number of people are moving out to the countryside to seek what they regard as a higher quality of life. Once they have established their little patch they do not want anything outside their definition of 'acceptable' to happen near it."

THE HAMLET of Selside in the Yorkshire Dales is a tiny huddle of grey stone buildings in the wide valley of Ribblesdale. Grey-green hills rise on either side, criss-crossed by dry-stone walls. In the early evening, smoke hangs still above the rooftops, the smell is of woodfires and farmyards, the sounds are of distant sheep. There are already three major tourist routes running through the valley - the Pennine Way, the Three Peaks Way and the Ribble Way. None actually touches Selside. Now there are plans to introduce another, a bridleway that will pass right through the village. "Selside?" said a resident of nearby Ingleton, when I mentioned the place. "Oh-oh. Touchy."

Nine years ago, in improbable nursery rhyme fashion, a riding enthusiast called Lady Towneley rode from Derbyshire to Northum-berland on horseback, using ancient drovers' routes. The idea came to her of creating a new Pennine Bridleway, a 200-mile cycle and riding trail, running from Derbyshire to Cumbria and using, as far as possible, existing rights of way. For the past six years, the Countryside Com-mission has been trying to fill the gaps, working out routes, getting permissions from farmers and landowners, dealing with objections. "The protests we have received have been very localised and very noisy," says Susan Rogers, who has been responsible for much of the fieldwork. "They are usually stimulated by one or two people who are often well-educated, and new to that area. You get the feeling that they don't want to share it with anyone else. I notice there are three main ways of dressing up nimbyism in respectable terms: concern for farmers, for conservation and for road safety."

Wilf Fenten lives in the middle of Selside. He is also at the centre of a sophisticated campaign of letter-writing, press coverage and legal action against the proposed bridleway. Rather unfortunately - in some eyes - for his role as the voice of the local people, Fenten lived in Fulham until five years ago and was born in Germany. But the initiative for the protest, Fenten explains, sitting in a room that is rustic in the modern sense - bare white walls, open fire in simple surround, striped sofas - did not come from him. "A farmer here, Johnny Lambert, is the chief victim. They want to use the track which runs between his house in the village and his land. He has 20 to 30 stock movements on the track each day. He came to me. I have a computer, I have a fax machine, so I have the wherewithal." Fenton speaks reassuringly, smiling after each point. "And then there is the environmental question. There's one stretch of fell three miles up that I'm very worried about - it's very sensitive. Also we have down by the river, which is a salmon river, the Manchester Angling Club. They haven't been consulted at all. The new footbridge would go across the important salmon spawning pool. But my main argument is the economics of the Dales. You very easily damage the agriculture if they all come flooding in... And you see it would have to cross the road, which is used by 20-ton quarry wagons as well."

But why should someone else have the bridleway? Wasn't Selside lucky to have been skirted by all the other rights of way? "Yes, but we have a pothole. We also have regular steam trains [the Carlisle to Settle railway]; literally you have hundreds of cars by the roadside."

Where should the bridleway go, then?

"It should be removed from the Three Peaks area. It should go round it. But I think first of all you have to ask the question: do we need highly publicised tourist routes? I think if you take as sensitive an area as the National Park, the answer must be no. You mustn't take away all initiative. You mustn't destroy the thing you came for."

But didn't he feel that visitors had as much right to be there as he?

"Yes, yes, that's probably true. But, as somebody said, 'There come another thousand to enjoy the loneliness of the fells.' "

UP ON the fells above Selside, Alexander Morphet, who is 70, farms the land which was his father's before him. At the end of the day he was sitting in front of a roaring fire, in a room which is modern in the northern rural sense - a patterned fitted carpet, a fire in a bricked-in surround, leather sofas. His farm is crossed by the Pennine Way, the Three Peaks Way and the Ribble Way; it is also the site of a pothole. Cavers have to come to the house and let him know before they descend into the cave. When Susan Rogers approached him three years ago about letting a linking section of the bridleway cross his land, he gave permission straight away.

"I couldn't understand why people were so against it," he says. "They've been on the phone to me about it. It might get your back up if you're that way inclined. But we've got used to the visitors, more or less. You get the odd ones leaving the gates open, you know, but they don't cause that much trouble. One of my sons is dead against it after hearing all the talk. He's on the council. Since all this has been on the boil they've got one another persuaded that they don't want it, kicking up a shindig.

"Maybe I'm too old to get worked up. But I don't think this bridleway will make much difference. The way I look at it is live and let live."

This sort of old-fashioned, accommodating approach is being eroded as rapidly as the peat and heather. National Park residents are campaigning increasingly vociferously for more control over the running of the parks - and some of them, of course, earn their living from visitors and want to encourage them. Peter Atkinson, a backbench MP who has tabled an amendment to remove the word "quiet" from the quiet enjoyment clause of the Enviroment Bill, has part of the Northumberland National Park in his Hexham constituency. "People who live in these parks feel beleaguered by a variety of pressure groups all trying to push their own interests," he says. "They are not here to be dotted around in smocks chewing hay for the benefit of people visiting from towns. They have a living to earn."

IN THE House of Commons on a hot Wednes-day in May the Select Committee on the Environmental Impact of Leisure Activities was listening to evidence of almost unbearable turgidity from an organisation called Business in Sport and Leisure. "We would therefore submit that effective partnership means mutual promotion of partnership objectives," its evidence droned on. Over the past few months MPs on the committee have waded through hours of spoken and reams of written evidence from over 100 organisations. They have been taken by helicopter to see the erosion on the moors in the Peak District, and by road to Windermere to look at the problems of congestion and power boats. There, in the Lake District, a public inquiry has been trying for over a year to decide whether speed limits on Lake Windermere should be set at 10mph - which would effectively rule out powerboats and waterskiing. So far there have been 50 days of public inquiry, involving nine barristers, two QCs and evidence from 37 organisations and 75 individuals. They might be near a decision by July.

Helen Jackson, MP for Sheffield Hillsbor-ough, who sits on the select committee, has part of the Peak District Park in her constituency. "There are enormous conflicts of interest in the countryside," she says. "I think the only way to resolve the problems is with very careful, well thought- out planning and management. It's all a question of finding a balance - but that's a very difficult question."

Measures may have to be extreme. The Peak District Park's evidence to the select committee included in its proposals "Action to limit the numbers of motor vehicles in National Parks" and "An enhanced programme of public investment in traffic management and park and ride." Zoning is a real possibility. Martin Doughty, chairman of the Peak Park Authority, says that "If the pressure continues to grow at the current rate, there may come a day when we simply have to say, 'The park is full.' "

The wilderness experience seems certain to change; how drastically remains to be seen. A spoof newsletter recently produced by LARA, called National Parks Tomorrow - Silent Spring 1996, included reports on people with surnames beginning with the letters G to P being allowed to visit the parks for one week only between Easter and October, or a fortnight outside those dates; walking being the only means of transport allowed apart from wheelchairs; and morris dancers being obliged to use rubber batons and hold up signs saying "Ho!"

But perhaps it won't quite come to this. Benny Rothman is a former Manchester motor mechanic who masterminded the Kinder Scout mass trespass in 1932, and was jailed for four months as a result. Now 84, he has this to say: "I hope people will remember that the National Parks are for everyone. You've got to move with the times, try to ally people, be sympathetic to all groups, and try to cater for everybody: all ages, all degrees of health, and all tastes. The important thing is that there is a conscious effort to find a situation where everyone will be satisfied. In spite of all the difficulties, I hope they'll give it a try." 8

Comments