Peace amid the madding crowds

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The Independent Online
Follow the line of Nether Beck as it tumbles from Cumbria's western fells towards Wastwater and it is difficult not to think that stories of hordes of visitors loving the National Parks to death might be overblown.

The beck-side path is plain enough on the map as a right of way. On the ground, as it climbs past the old hollies and rowans that overhang the falls and hidden swimming holes, it is less obvious.

Not many boots pass this way. Only if you follow the line on to the Mosedale horseshoe and the bulk of Pillar, one of Lakeland's highest peaks, is there a certainty of encountering other groups of walkers.

Yet the Lake District National Park reckons it gets 20 million day visits a year and the Peak District has just come up with a boggling figure of up to 31 million. Only the Mount Fuji park in Japan gets more.

Four out of five visitors are apparently happy to admire the parks from their cars or take a walk of no more than two miles. If, as the original campaigners believed, the parks are places where the urban masses should be able to breathe cleaner air and refresh the spirit, then the 100 million visits made each year should be a mark of success.

That was certainly the relaxed view of the late Tom Stephenson, father of the Pennine Way, even when confronted with the boot-made scars across peat moors at the start of his trail. But to local people, unless they are in the tourist trade, visitors are often an irritant, blocking narrow lanes with cars, frightening the sheep with their dogs, and bringing their noisy children into the pub for bar meals.

Of course, the visitors would be there whether Whitehall had designated the area a National Park or not. The status actually means more money and co-ordination in managing the numbers. For farmers, who often regard ramblers as a pain, there is help with dry-stone walling and a plethora of grants. In Swaledale and Arkengarthdale, North Yorkshire, more than 200 barns and 8kms of walls have been repaired, the value of the work exceeding pounds 1m.

Tourism earns pounds 75m a year for the Peak District economy. There is some resentment of trippers, but in the down-to-earth way of Derbyshire folk, it is not strongly felt. Contrast the sense of hostility to outsiders in the Welsh parks - even while taking their money - and the touch of superiority in the Lakes, a place for "persons of pure taste", according to Wordsworth.

The Peak is also way ahead in traffic management. It is a case of "needs must" with about 17 million people living within an hour or so's drive. Park-and-ride schemes operate in the Goyt and Upper Derwent valleys and at the Roaches, a gritstone outcrop where climbers' cars would clog the verge. The Peak supports bus and train services to the tune of pounds 150,000 a year.

"We have to persuade visitors that bringing their cars in does create all sort of problems and that public transport is a viable alternative," says Martin Doughty, the Peak park authority chairman. But it has to be done on a shoestring. Government funding for the Peak is down by 10 per cent to pounds 5.2m for this year. "Providing constructive measures to cope with the ever-increasing tide of visitors is more and more difficult," Mr Doughty warns.

Other parks are also promoting public transport. But the Lake District provoked cries of outrage from tourism and business lobbies when it suggested restricting traffic up some valleys. Much back-pedalling followed and the initiative is likely to be limited to traffic calming and the promotion of public transport and cycling.