Filed under:Blogs, Kingsley Jones, Lake District National Park, lockdown in the Lakes
Lake District resident and mountain professional, Kingsley Jones, reflects on the past year and what the future holds for the National Park
The past year has been unimaginably hard. In the Lake District nearly all jobs and businesses rely on tourism, but the unlocking of lockdown hasn’t produced the tidal wave of visitors that was predicted. Covid has changed so much; the type of tourist and their needs, different user groups, economic spending patterns, and visitor stay habits.
Before exploring how things have changed, let’s first get a snapshot of how things were during lockdown, within the National Park. I know that us locals were in an exceptionally privileged position, to live in such a place, but the themes and scenes seen nationally were the same. Especially in the first lockdown, roads fell completely silent.
As I walked my border collie across the main road in Ambleside, where usually a crossing involves a minute of waiting for a gap in the traffic, not a single car passed. It was silent. Two Jacob sheep calmly walked up the high street, as though they owned it.
As we walked along the water meadows to Galava fort, there was silence. No rumble of car noise, no rattling trucks, no aircraft vapour trails in the sky. Silence as never witnessed in many generations. After the confluence of the rivers Rothay and Brathay, we walked to the marshes of Waterhead, at the Northern tip of Windermere.
Not a single boat sail. No throbbing and rumbling of boat engines. No even a canoe or a SUP. The lake looked unsullied and peaceful. Most noticeably the water clearer than I have ever seen. Sediments had settled, un-churned by the propellors and wash from the ferries and bobbing Gin Palace cruisers.
On the fells, people were exceptionally few and far between, and on most days you had the mountains completely to yourself. Mountain Rescue warnings were for people to keep much lower, and to walk from their door, to avoid call-outs where whole teams could be compromised by infections. While there was never a ban on visiting the fells for locals, the consequences of an accident, which could happen to absolutely anyone, were too much to consider for most people.
Locals knew absolutely everyone, and the few lockdown breakers stood out like a sore thumb. As Lockdown 1 eased, and then was replaced by Lockdown 2, things changed. The virtual total compliance of the rules, saw far more people pushing and ignoring the restrictions. Increasingly desperate to escape restrictions in urban areas, some visitors came but had nowhere to stay, so ‘fly camping’ sadly grew.
Very distinct from wild camping which adheres to Leave No Trace principles, fly camping was the antithesis, with a festival-style throwaway culture. Tents were bought, pitched, used and abandoned, generally with litter from the overnight party strewn all around. Human waste was left, trees damages for firewood, and fires left unattended. It was a worrying and highly destructive phase in the Lakes, as people escaped the restrictions of Lockdown in their towns and cities.
There grew the perception of a sad ‘them and us’ culture, where locals were cast as hating all visitors, and the visitors were all destructive and damaging to the National Park. To counter the first assertion, nothing could be further from the truth, as so many locals jobs and businesses are completely supported by tourism in normal times.
Before the vaccine roll-out, locals were justifiably scared by the infection rate rising again, as the NW had some of the highest numbers nationally in the earlier stages of the pandemic. Equally, not all visitors were bad or destructive. Some travelled permitted distances, kept themselves very much to themselves, and were highly responsible.
But the damage was already done. The phrase that I kept hearing were adaptions of; “We have a right to visit the Lake District. It’s a National Park, so it is for everyone, and no one can stop us. It’s not owned by the locals, but by everyone.” It was tragic to keep hearing these statements.
Of course the Lakes isn’t owned by locals. Let’s avoid the feudal origin discussion of who actually owns the fells, but in my perspective the fundamental role of the National Park is to protect this unique place for the best interests of the nation and the population. This does not bequeath a right for destructive access, and the sole purpose of the various Lockdowns was to restrict the spread of the pandemic.
What did become manifestly clear, is that the restrictions of the successive Lockdowns, made the public who felt cooped up, yearn for open access to wild upland spaces, more valuable than ever before. During the third Lockdown, when schools were closed, there was a marked change in attitudes and the atmosphere. Builders vans flitted everywhere, and the roads became steadily busier. There was a steady build-up in walkers and climbers in the fells.
During the exceptional cold snap in February, the Lake District saw once-in-a-decade ice climbing conditions, and suddenly adherence to the rules plummeted with the temperatures. Cars and vans crammed into every parking spot near to frozen waterfalls.
Then there was the tragedy of the accident on Red Screes, in which Patterdale Mountain Rescue team member Chris Lewis suffered life-changing injuries in a 150m fall (donate here; https://www.justgiving.com/campaign/Chris-Lewis-Support-Fund-LDSAMRA-Patterdale-MRT), whilst rescuing a wild camper with a medical issue, during the midst of an icy winter’s night during lockdown. This accident was everyone’s worst nightmare, and the national publicity surrounding this made many very aware of the risks. People largely kept off the fells for a good few weeks.
At the end of Lockdown 3, local schools reopened, and then the date of the opening of self-catering accommodation fast approached. The day came and went without a bang. The predicted tsunami of visitors never materialised as predicted. Occupancy was often cited as around one third of normal. The non-essential shops reopened. But the normal numbers of visitors didn’t appear.
Some village car parks were busy in the daytimes, but with day trippers, and by early evening the roads fell silent again. Even on the recent May Bank Holiday, there were few people in the fells, with the majority of visitors meandering a few hundred metres from their cars, others wandering around the shops, a few hardy souls sitting in cold pub beer gardens. Each evening, the Lake District emptied and fell silent.
The ferries and some motor boats are now rushing up and down Windermere, and the water is cloudy once more, the sediments that had settled during the Lockdowns, stirred up again. The road are busy during the days, as people head in and out of the National Park, but the fells are still relatively quiet.
The key message is that things haven’t returned to normal yet. Many local businesses are questioning if they ever will. While there were early predictions of a bumper summer, there’s no sign of it as yet. Maybe once B&B’s and hotels reopen, things will step up a gear, but who knows? On rainy days, the public car parks stand virtually empty.
So that’s where we are in the Lake District at present, and what we saw during the Lockdowns. There’s definitely a knowledge that we witnessed a unique period, for good or for bad, in which we saw an unprecedented reclamation by nature. Otters were spotted in rivers they’d not been seen for years, osprey fished in Windermere, and the water quality improved massively. The actions of those who disrespected nature stood out all the more.
We stand at a new crossroads in our National Parks. This global pandemic has made outside space more aspirational than ever to many, and newer user groups. We have yet to learn how these new visitors will interpret and use the space. Even though international travel is slowly planning to re-open bit by bit, there’s no doubt that many people are electing not to battle with the undoubted hassle of travel this year, and so the National Parks face new challenges, as more turn their attention to domestic travel.
There’s no doubt that the Lake District can’t just ‘re-open’ as before, and if early indications are a reflection of sustained changes, it seems as though the higher fells aren’t the primary focus of all the new visitors. Sure the honeypots, and lists of the ‘Top 10’ routes will always be a conveyor belt of humanity on busy weekends, but it’s noticeable how many are now using the lowland open spaces; parks, lakeside walks, and access land.
It’s many of the ‘new users’ of the National Parks, who through no fault of their own, but attracted by greater attraction of open spaces post Lockdown, may not have ever been educated with staples such as learning the Countryside Code, or what to wear and carry on the fells, or how to navigate or what to do in an emergency.
There have been several great initiatives, such as Grasmere School’s guide to the cracking the countryside code (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nwzrCImdzw), or the Lakes Plastic Collective litter picking efforts (https://www.instagram.com/thelakesplasticcollective), to be both proactive and reactive for the influx of new visitors.
So the Lake District is slowly unlocking, and only time will tell how busy it will get, and how people use the space. New and unique challenges will be revealed, and hopefully some benefits and opportunities too. What’s beyond doubt, is that we need to quickly decide if we want to harness and protect some of the changes we saw during the Lockdowns.
The return of nature was magical to see, and the tranquility of the fells, roads and lakes, were so special. The Lakes truly became a Natural Park for a few short months. Is that worth preserving? Is it aspirational? Is it desired more than the government promoted focus on the economic bounce back?
I fear that inertia of change, will soon see these positives lost. The lake is now filled with the hum of engines, the roads groaning with traffic, and the bins (when used) overflowing each weekend. This isn’t the National Park that so many quoted was ‘theirs’. It isn’t an infinite resource, or a non-sensitive landscape.
The crossroads is where we need to decide if it is the very special and delicate upland environment that we wish to preserve, or unfettered access with increasing damage. Restrictions are not against the people, but to protect it for the people. The Sanford Principle on which the National Parks were founded, truly in action.
We have a huge need for sustainable tourism, but few significant actions. Public transport is expensive, limited, and underused. There are no park and ride schemes, and no tourist taxes to support sustainability projects. If we have learnt anything from the past year, surely it is that the National Parks are more fragile than ever, and whilst visiting them may be more pressured than ever, before visitor numbers really pick up significantly, we need to seize this moment to implement positive actions to protect the landscapes we all wish to enjoy in an unsullied state.
When heading into the National Park, everyone has a part to play, to minimise their impact on it. Try and car share when it is possible, take your litter home with you, and consider visiting quieter corners of the fells rather than all congregating in the same few places. There are other ridges than Striding Edge, other scrambles than Jack’s Rake, other climbs than Middlefell Buttress, other swims than in Rydal. Use your imagination.
Treat the National Park as though it really is one of the nation’s jewels. Protect it for yourself, for others, and for future generations. Used as previously, it will fast become a degraded resource, and after the last year that resource is more valuable than ever before.
If you’re heading into the fells, get advice on what to carry if you aren’t used to the mountains. Take waterproofs, spare layers, food and water, and enough to be self-sufficient in case of changes of weather or conditions. Always use your phone as your primary communication device, not to depend on it for online navigation due to the battery sapping effects, and poor signal in many areas.
However in event of an emergency, download the free OS Locate app (https://apps.apple.com/gb/app/os-locate/id810024913) that provides the same coordinated as the map you should also carry. It avoids closed-source apps such as What 3 Words, which have repeatedly been found to be less accurate, and which could delay the arrival of emergency services including Mountain Rescue.
Post lockdown, we are more delicate, and the landscape is too. We need to #RespectProtectEnjoy in equal measure. But, let’s seize this moment of change to decide what a National Park can be, and exactly what it is that we want to protect. It’s a time where too easily we can slide back to our old habits, but equally where we can dream.
Lockdowns have given us much time for introspection and dreaming, and we can make positive change after the depths of sadness of the past year. Let’s revisit those statements heard during the Lockdowns once more; “We have a right to visit the Lake District. It’s a National Park, so it is for everyone, and no one can stop us. It’s not owned by the locals, but by everyone.” Perhaps rather than refuting the elements, let’s embrace the spirit of the statements.
People are declaring that the Lake District is important to them, and they desire to visit it, for how it looks and how it has been protected. It is a national treasure, and we must treat it as such. Historically it has been used for its natural resources; mining, farming, and tourism, but now is time for a new dawn where it is to be revered not diminished.
Personally I look forward to seeing you out on the fells again. I hope our paths cross in a quiet corner of this magnificent National Park, on a rarely visited peak, and we leave no trace behind us. Is this too much to dream?