A Sort of National Property 1895-1917

by Emma Bray

Ullswater from Park Brow © Beyond Imagination Photography

Early Campaigns for Conservation

In the conclusion to Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes, he suggested that people of taste would “deem the district a sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy”. The poet campaigned for the natural landscape and in 1844 was vociferous in his opposition to a proposed extension of the railway from Kendal to Low Wood near Ambleside. This successful campaign was the forerunner to others, in particular unsuccessful opposition to the creation of a reservoir at Thirlmere which was led by John Ruskin. He suggested a form of national ownership to protect the area. Ruskin met Hardwicke Rawnsley at Oxford. Influenced by Ruskin’s ideas, Rawnsley founded the Lake District Defence Society to fight the creation of a railway over Honister.

Sir John Ruskin by Sir Herbert Von Herkomer, watercolour 1879, NPG 1336 © National Portrait Gallery, London

The National Trust

The Lake District Defence Society led to the creation of The National Trust in 1895 by Rawnsley, Octavia Hill and Robert Hunter. The purpose was to buy land for the nation. Its first acquisition was Brandlehow on Derwent to prevent the building of lakeshore villas to “improve” the landscape, as had happened along the shores of Windermere. In 1906, it bought Gowbarrow Park which included Aira Force, a beauty spot which had been much altered by the Howard family who had planted a pinetum there in 1846. After the depression of the 1920’s, many traditional Lakeland farms went into decline. The Trust acquired many of them and Beatrix Potter bequeathed a number of her farms to it. Hartsop Hall near Ullswater was the first farm to be given to the Trust in lieu of death duties in 1947.

Aira Force © Beyond Imagination Photography

A National Park

During the 1930’s, the Lakes were once more under threat when the Forestry Commission planted swathes of Ennerdale with non-native conifers. The Friends of The Lake District was established in 1934 and successfully campaigned against further afforestation. In 1945, John Dower was appointed by the government to look at how the US National Park ideal might apply to England. This led to the National Parks and Access to Countryside Act of 1949 and the formation of the Lake District National Park in 1951. Wordsworth’s ideal of a sort of national property had come to fruition.

Helvellyn © Beyond Imagination Photography

UNESCO World Heritage Site

The campaign to protect the Lakes did not stop with the National Park. In 2017, the Lake District was appointed a UNESCO World Heritage site in recognition of its cultural landscape – “the combined work of nature and human activity has produced a harmonious landscape in which the mountains are mirrored in the lakes.”

UNESCO plaque in Keswick © Emma Bray

By Emma Bray

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