Great Landscapes Festival 2022

Great Landscapes offer endless opportunities for physical, spiritual and mental well-being but they are also under threat and, in our busy lives, we can take for granted the true beauty and importance of what is above, below and all around us.

Perspective: Landscape Charity.

Douglas Chalmers: Chief Executive, Friends of the Lake District.

“What makes the Lake District a World Class Attraction?”

Where do you start with a question like this? I’ve never believed that the Lake District needed World Heritage Site status to be recognized as a world class attraction. And whisper this, as it might be heresy, but I’ve never thought we needed the romantic poetry, brochures, travelogues, films or documentaries either.

For me, personal evidence is far more telling, and I’m not even counting the wittily worded, cleverly crafted comments on TripAdvisor.

It’s watching a visitor’s jaw actually drop as we come out of Pooley Bridge and they see Ullswater for the first time, opening up past the boathouse on a ground-frosted blue-skied winter’s day. (My first time was a very similar experience, but without the blue sky.)

Or sitting behind two excited Americans on the train in Lancaster Station, as they giggle and nudge and tell each other that any minute now they’ll be able to see “it” through the window.

We live in the most magical corner of England, in a landscape combining strength and delicacy unlike anywhere else in the world. It can be subtle or dramatic, gentle or rugged; a landscape that can convey grandeur and scale, while being so compact in area.

So let’s sit back, or maybe better still, stride out, and continue to enjoy our wonderful surroundings. But can we? Bill Bryson, one of our Patrons, once said, "There is a strange, blind, foolish inclination to suppose that the features that make the British countryside are somehow infinitely self-sustaining, that they will always be there, adding grace and beauty. Don't count on it."

Taking the Lake District for granted is a risk we must not take. It is perhaps easy to feel it is a timeless experience that has not changed for generations, always been there, always will. But this is a landscape at risk. Climate change has scarred our fells, ripped communities apart and no doubt will again, and its less immediate impacts loom over us all.

Post-Brexit uncertainty combined with a shortage of successors in our upland farming families begs the question, “Who is going to look after our land?” Inappropriate or thoughtless development plans continue to be generated, and clogged roads blight the lives of residents, businesses and visitors alike.

There always appear more opinions than questions, but sadly they are not always well informed. “We want more trees, fewer sheep, more cattle”. Well we do if they give us what the landscape needs. Simply asking farmers to produce less won’t magically improve the environment. Indeed they have the particular knowledge and experience we need. They are businesses, and follow policy, so let’s allow them a living and give them the policies that will encourage them to protect and enhance the Lake District, fostering the biodiversity we all call for. Who else could do it better?

Our tourism industry has certainly changed. Gone are the days when visitors stayed on farms and in villages and they topped up the residents’ main incomes. Much time and money are devoted to bringing even more people here. We now hear, “Young people wilI only come if we give them fancy attractions”. Of course some want adrenaline rushes, but they don’t need man-built mechanisms to get that fix here. And like us all, they also appreciate and benefit from the stillness and calm they can enjoy here when the rushing around is over. Someone recently said to me, “I agree with you that it is the special landscape and natural adventure that brings visitors back time after time, but we need that big attraction to get them here in the first place”. Really? That big attraction would destroy not just our peace and tranquillity, but our uniqueness. The dam, respecting and protecting our special surroundings, would be breached, and we would be just like everywhere else.

Over the last two years, World Heritage inscription has created debates over what the Lake District should look like, and how it should be looked after.

“The Lake District has to stay as it is now”. “The Lake District needs to look like it did twenty, fifty, a hundred years ago”. The very fact that we are having this debate is the evidence that our landscape has changed, and will continue to do so. Nature evolves. It has to. Turning the clock back isn’t a cure-all. When do you go back to? The industrial landscape described by Defoe? The days of wolves?

Norman Nicholson said that the Lakes’ landscape was shaped by a series of catastrophes – volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, inundation and glaciation, and that the last catastrophe was the coming of Man. Our landscape is managed. It has been for many, many years.

On the whole, we are happy with it, but we also know that it is in danger. So we need to agree what it needs, what we want, and how this fits together. We need an agreed direction, a plan, support, and a respect for and understanding of our environment and everything and everyone in it. If we have to change, we can do it. But we need to stop retreating into single-issue silos and agree the common good.

Economic drivers must not hold sway. The Lake District should not be judged on GDP alone. It should be obvious that the aesthetics of the Lake District are its chief financial asset – its USP. Why risk wrecking it?

Growing up on a livestock farm, I am used to the word “thrive” being a positive one. These days I am told that the word has been appropriated by the economic sector. I refuse to give this word up. I know that you need health before wealth. That’s what thriving means to me.

The Lake District is rightly a world class attraction, but it mustn’t just be defined as that. The Lake District isn’t a nature reserve. Neither is it a business park, an enterprise park or a theme park. It is a National Park. Everything and everyone within it shouldn’t simply function. They should live, and thrive.