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The battle for Blencathra: A movement to ‘save’ a mountain

Thousands back campaign to buy Lake District fell to prevent sale to foreign billionaire

The travails of man cannot help but appear puny in comparison with the mighty, timeless massif of Blencathra – even those of a family as grand and as ancient as the Lowthers.

While once their forebears could walk from coast to coast without straying from their own land, today the ravages of death duties, divorce and a bitter family feud have left the 8th Earl down to his last 32,000 acres.

And his estate is about to get a little smaller still. Faced with a looming £9m tax bill dating back to the death of his father eight years ago, the current Lord Lonsdale, Hugh Lowther, is conducting what must rank as the world’s most spectacular garage sale, selling off one of the Lake District’s best-known mountains.

Visible from across Western Cumbria, the 2,848ft peak, nicknamed Saddleback for its sweeping and perilous ridge, has inspired everyone from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Alfred Wainwright. It was gifted to the family 400 years ago for their doughty support of the Royalist cause.

But suggestions that a buyer will most likely be found in Russia, China or India has sent an icy gale blasting down the valley with fears that Cumbrian massifs could join Premiership football clubs and superyachts as the must-have playthings of the international super rich.

Five days after it went on the market at £1.75m, plus VAT,  thousands of supporters have pledged backing and money to help buy the mountain, after two community groups sprang up on Facebook and other social media.

With local mountaineering legend Sir Chris Bonington in talks over the bid, the two groups are urging lovers of the great outdoors to club together and preserve Blencathra in the memory of the dead of the First World War.

Andy Luke, who established the Buy Blencathra website and Twitter account last Sunday, said there had been an extraordinary level of interest. “There is a sizeable walking community that loves the Lake District and ideologically likes the idea of what is being proposed,” he said.

There is a precedent. Following the Armistice, 3,000 acres of land around Great Gable in Wasdale were bought by members of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club and donated to the National Trust in memory of their fellow adventurers who would never return from the trenches. Each year a service is held to mark their loss.

The Earl of Lonsdale with his wife, Lady Lonsdale, and the sale brochure for Blencathra (PA)

Yet there would appear to be few benefits to ownership of Blencathra. It is within the National Park and its slopes are home to the sheep of 10 graziers with rights held in perpetuity. It is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest, so whoever owns the mountain will have little room for change and – it is claimed – will be forced to settle for the £1,000 a year generated by a hydroelectric station. The National Trust believes there are sufficient safeguards in place and is not planning to intervene.

But doubts persist. Mr Luke said: “It shouldn’t make a jot of difference who buys it. You can walk up it today and have your lunch on it – just as you will be able to in five years’ time. But whilst there is a very high degree of protection to the mountain I would imagine that there are some things that can be done. We just don’t know what they are.”

Lord Lonsdale is in little doubt of the lure of the place, which comes with an ancient manorial title, the Lordship of the Manor of Threlkeld.

“Prestige,” he said. Although he prefers to fly over it in his microlight, some may prefer to experience it on foot, he acknowledged. “People will want to be able to walk up it, stand at the top, look around and say: “I am a lord and this is my mountain.”

The Earl has already sold a family Turner to Tate Britain for £1.4m to meet financial commitments and is said to have preferred to dispense with the mountain rather than break up the tenanted estate.

The financial impasse stems from a bitter breakdown in family relations and a High Court battle over the 7th Earl’s will. It was claimed that the present incumbent was disinherited by his four-time married father on his deathbed in revenge for his son’s allegations of childhood sexual abuse.

But the Earl’s agent, John Robson, said the family would be happy to accept the community offer: “It is a very attractive idea … But they will have to be there on price and in time.”

Mr Robson said interest in Blencathra had been “off the scale” and that overseas purchasers could be proceeding through an English third-party agent. He said there had been serious interest from India.

Meanwhile, out on the misty hillside yesterday there was genuine concern. “People can always find ways around restrictions,” said Ben Lyon.

His walking partner, Ken Ledward, agreed with the idea of a memorial. “There will be millions of hill walkers out there who would love to contribute. I would,” he said.