A Low-Level Walk from Sedbergh

Sedbergh – and you lift up your eyes to the wonderful Howgill Fells. A favourite range of hills for me. But the lower ground, in the river valleys below Sedbergh makes for grand walking as well. Just into the New Year we fancied a short walk in the area, so that we could spend some time browsing in the Sedbergh bookshops afterwards – it is after all a book town.

Brigflatts Quaker Meeting House (c) John Bainbridge 2019

Sedbergh is also the home of an English public (private) school. They were mowing the grass on the sports fields as we wandered through, for the pupils were due back later in the day.

As always, I think of one particular ex-pupil when I pass by the school – F. Spencer Chapman, whose books were everywhere when I was young. Spencer Chapman was a considerable mountaineer and arctic explorer in his younger days. He was on Gino Watkins’ last expedition in Greenland. He then spent over three years organising resistance groups behind the Japanese lines in World War Two. He wrote some memorable books, which are still worth reading, such as Watkins’ Last Expedition, Memoirs of a Mountaineer, The Jungle is Neutral and Living Dangerously.

There’s no doubt that his years as a soldier behind enemy lines affected him greatly. He seemed to have difficulty in settling down to domestic life in the post-war years. In modern terms he probably suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. His experiences and ill-health led him to suicide.

These places around Sedbergh must all have been known to him, perhaps fuelling his love of adventure.

The Quaker Meeting House (c) John Bainbridge 2019

Our walk led us down to the picturesque hamlet of Birks, before we took footpaths across the fields to Brigflatts. An interesting hamlet, for here is a Quaker meeting house dating back to 1874, visited and inspired by Charles James Fox. I’m going to do a walk soon in the steps of the Quakers so I’ll leave it there for now. All I will say, is that the Meeting Place is a building of great peace with a restful garden to sit in. Across the lane is the peaceful Quakers’ Burial Ground – the last resting place of the poet Basil Bunting.

We walked up to the road and then up a very beautiful bridleway past Ingmire Hall, though there are few glimpses of the building from the path.  Ingmire Hall is a 16th Century house built around the remains of a pele tower. It was enlarged in the early nineteenth century, partially destroyed by fire in the 1920s and partially remodelled in 1989.

Ingmire Bridleway (c) John Bainbridge 2019

A short road walk brought us to a farm track leading up to the old farming hamlet of Underwinder – appropriately named for it stands hard under the great hill of Winder, then a steep climb up to Howgill Lane, which we followed downhill back into Sedbergh. Then a delicious hour browsing in the second-hand bookshops. A heavenly way to spend a day.

But glancing up at the Howgill Fells – and there are splendid vistas of Winder as you do this walk – reminds us that it’s a while since we’ve climbed their beautiful rounded slopes. No wonder the Sedbergh school song celebrates this fine landscape:

Oh Eton hath her River and Clifton hath her down,
And Winchester her cloisters and immemorial town.
But ours the mountain fastness, the deep romantic ghylls,
Where Clough and Dee and Rawthey,
Come singing from the hills!

For it isn’t our ancient lineage, there are others as old as we.
And it isn’t our pious founders, though we honour their memory.
‘Tis the hills that are stood around us, unchanged since our days began.
It is Cautley, Calf and WINDER, that make the Sedbergh man.

(Winder to sound a bit like window, rather than winding something up).


70th Anniversary of a People’s Charter

The 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was one of the best bits of legislation ever passed by Parliament – by the far-sighted government of Clement Attlee. Kate Ashbrook of the Open Spaces Society says how we all benefitted. Do please click on the link at the end to see Kate’s original and beautifully illustrated article.

1 January 2019
This year we celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. Open Spaces Society general secretary Kate Ashbrook, explains what it achieved.

This is not just a Bill. It is a people’s charter—a people’s charter for the open air, for the hikers and the ramblers, for everyone who lives to get out into the open air and enjoy the countryside.

So concluded Lewis Silkin, Minister of Town and Country Planning, as he moved the second reading of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Bill on 31 March 1949 (column 1493).

These are uplifting words, which capture the spirit of that post-war period. The act, which received royal assent on 16 December 1949, was an extremely important start in protecting our most treasured landscapes and recording public paths. Unfortunately, though, Silkin’s words proved rather too optimistic, for the act fell short of the hopes and expectations of conservationists and outdoor activists. These included the Standing Committee on National Parks (predecessor of the Campaign for National Parks), the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (now the Campaign to Protect Rural England), the Ramblers, Youth Hostels Association and ourselves.

But the act did make a significant different and many of its provisions endure to this day.
The act introduced a wide range of measures.
It established the National Parks Commission (predecessor of Natural England) with duties which included the designation of national parks (section 2).
It created the mechanism for designating national parks. These were to be extensive tracts of open country in England and Wales, areas of natural beauty with opportunities for open-air recreation (section 5).
It introduced the concept of nature reserves (section 15) and sites of special scientific interest (section 23).

It required the production of definitive maps of public rights of way and set out how this should be done (sections 27-38). This was vitally important: until we had definitive maps you had to prove that the route was a public highway before you could persuade an authority to act against an obstruction.

It contained provisions for the creation, diversion and closure of public rights of way (sections 39-45).

It empowered the National Parks Commission to recommend to the minister the creation of long-distance routes (now national trails) (sections 51-55) with powers for a highway authority to provide and operate a ferry where the route required one (section 53).

It introduced a criminal offence of displaying a misleading notice on a definitive path (section 57).

It defined ‘open country’ as land consisting wholly or predominantly of ‘mountain, moor, heath, down, cliff or foreshore (including any bank, barrier, dune, beach, flat or other land adjacent to the foreshore)’ (section 59).

It defined ‘excepted land’ (eg agricultural land other than rough grazing, land covered by buildings, parks, gardens or pleasure grounds, quarries, land which already had rights of access) (section 60).

It required every local planning authority, within two years of commencement of the act, to review its area and ascertain what land there was which met the definition of open country and to consider what action should be taken, whether by access agreement or order, to secure access by the public for open-air recreation there (section 61).

Dunkery Beacon on Exmoor is open country but legal access there was not achieved until the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000

After completing the survey, the authority must either take the necessary action or forward to the minister a statement that no action was necessary and publish a notice setting out the contents of the statement and inviting representations. The minister could then call a local inquiry or afford those making representations the opportunity of being heard (section 62).

Within one year of the completion of the review the authority must, unless it had already submitted a statement, prepare and forward to the minister a map showing the approximate extent of the land which was defined as open country and explaining what action had been taken to enable the public to have access to that land, and publish a notice that the map had been prepared and where it may be seen (section 63).

A local planning authority might, with the approval of the minister, make an access agreement on open country (section 64) or, where an access agreement could not be achieved, an access order (section 65). There were also provisions for securing the means of access to access land (sections 67-68).

The National Parks Commission also had powers to designate areas of outstanding natural beauty (section 87) although the AONBs were not defined in the act, merely being referred to as ‘any area in England or Wales, not being in a national park, which appears to [the commission] to be of such outstanding natural beauty that it is desirable that the provisions of this act relating to such areas should apply thereto …’.

Worm’s Head at Rhossili in the Gower Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. This was the first AONB, designated in 1956.

There were at least two main disappointments in the act.

One was that the national park committees were spelt out as being independent of the local authorities. Those who promoted the act had envisaged independent boards with a full-time planning officer, and the parks administered as single geographical units regardless of their distribution across county council boundaries.

The first two parks, the Peak District and the Lake District, were established as independent joint boards as the act had intended. The remaining eight (Snowdonia, Dartmoor, the Pembrokeshire Coast, the North York Moors, the Yorkshire Dales, Exmoor, Northumberland and the Brecon Beacons) were established after Silkin had moved to housing and local government and was no longer involved. They were advisory committees to their county councils, relying on the councils for funding and their permission to take action. It was not until the Environment Act 1995 that the parks became truly independent.

Brecon Beacons National Park
The other disappointment was that, instead of creating a public right to roam on open country, the act merely made provision for access agreements or orders. Few were negotiated despite there being acres of open country where access was denied. The requirement for local planning authorities to carry out a survey of open country and determine how to achieve public access there was widely ignored, and it was never followed up. So the ‘access to open country’ provisions of the act were futile.

But we did get national parks, AONBs, long-distance paths and definitive maps of rights of way, and the act provided the foundation for much that followed, including the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and the coastal-access provisions of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009.

Coastal access in Cumbria
The 70th anniversary of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act is a great milestone.