Common ground

Published: 25th April 2017

Read our Spring 2017 Journal article about Glenridding Common

StridingEdge2

The Lake District National Park Authority is consulting on a proposal for the Trust to take over the management of Glenridding Common – a very special area of land that includes one of the best-loved mountains in England, writes Rich Rowe

In most mountain areas, the main attraction is the highest peak, but not so in the Lake District National Park. While Scafell Pike is higher, it is Helvellyn – at 950m, the third highest peak in England – that is perhaps the most celebrated of all Lakeland fells. As Alfred Wainwright, the great doyen of Lakeland fell walking, wrote in 1955: “Legend and poetry, a lovely name, and a lofty altitude combine to encompass Helvellyn in an aura of romance”.

The high point on a lengthy ridge line, Helvellyn stands proud between Thirlmere to the west and Ullswater to the east. There are many ways to its summit; walkers who tackle the short, sharp routes from Thirlspot or Wythburn on the west side are keenly aware of the relentlessly steep slopes – a gradient that contributed to the terrible landslips that closed the main road between Grasmere and Keswick during the floods of December 2015.

But it is only once the summit plateau is reached that the mountain reveals a very different character: a plunging cliff-line, steep arêtes that connect a chain of lesser peaks, and a glacial tarn nestled beneath imposing crags. This rugged sweep of land is Glenridding Common, a 1,000ha area that stretches all the way from the village of Glenridding on the shores of Ullswater, up and across the famed Striding and Swirral Edges, then onto Helvellyn’s broad summit.

Thousands of walkers and climbers test themselves on the mountain’s precipitous edges each year, but the common also has its quieter sides: the much less-visited Keppel and Brown Coves, plus an area on the flanks of Raise that is home to a ski-tow run by the Lake District Ski Club.

This feature serves as a modern nod to a landscape that has been shaped as much by humans as by the elements. One of many areas of registered common land in Cumbria – a particularly English land use based on a system of collective management – Glenridding Common has served as an integral resource for generations of hill farmers. Today, it is grazed by two local farmers with commons rights.

The result is a rich physical and cultural landscape that the John Muir Trust hopes it might soon have the privilege of being involved in managing.

The Lake District National Park Authority (LDNPA) currently owns around 9,000ha, or four per cent, of the land in the National Park, the bulk of it comprising six areas of common land, including Glenridding Common.

In 2015, with funding squeezed, the LDNPA shared plans to review its property holdings with potentially interested parties as it looked to explore other ways of enhancing the special qualities of the land. “As a public authority we have a duty to find the best way of doing things, so it was sensible to explore this kind of option,” explains Martin Curry, Property Services Manager at the National Park Authority.

EXPLORING OPTIONS

The Trust made its interest known, with discussions eventually focusing on Glenridding Common – one of the jewels in the National Park’s crown. Under a proposed three-year lease of the area, the National Park would remain as the main landowner (part of the site is jointly owned with the National Trust), and the John Muir Trust would become a leaseholder. The existing rights of farmers to graze would continue unaffected, as would the Lake District Ski Club’s license for its parcel of land.

The Park Authority began a three-month consultation period on 17 January, during which the Trust has held numerous meetings with local stakeholders and shared its draft management plan for the common with interested parties.

Once the consultation finishes on 17 April, the LDNPA will evaluate the results and take them to its 20 members – all appointed by various public bodies. With the next full Authority meeting scheduled for May, a final decision is expected in early summer.

If the proposal is given the go-ahead, the Trust will be directly involved in managing land outside Scotland for the first time. “We’ve had a long-held ambition to be involved with a property south of the border,” says Peter

Pearson, Chair of the Trust. “Around 17 per cent of our members live in the north of England and we’re often asked when we will manage property outside Scotland.”

This is especially important at a time of political uncertainty, adds Peter. “The Trust is neutral on the debate over the future of the UK, but we want to ensure that whatever political changes might lie ahead, the Trust will continue to remain relevant to its members across Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland.”

It’s hard to overstate just what being involved with Glenridding Common could do for the Trust’s profile, particularly in England. As one of the most popular and well-known mountains in a national park that sees more than 17 million visitors a year, managing the summit of Helvellyn and wider common would put the Trust in the public eye like never before.

“Taking over the management of land which includes Helvellyn would be an ideal way for us to broaden our land management operations and increase our support base while remaining true to our historical focus on wild land,” says Peter. “Helvellyn has a special character and status – people feel close to it.”

One man who knows Glenridding Common particularly well is Pete Barron, the newest member of the Trust’s land team. Having worked for the National Park as a ranger for 23 years on everything from upland management and path maintenance to raptor protection, supervising volunteers and community engagement, Pete’s local knowledge is a massive asset to the Trust.

“It feels almost like I know every stone on the west side of Helvellyn following years of footpath repair work there, but the east side is also a special place for me,” explains Pete. “In my early days as a ranger, we helped cover the work of Fell Top Assessors during their days off, so I got to know the mountain exceptionally well in all conditions.”

Interestingly, Helvellyn is a mountain that attracts more winter weather than any other part of the Lake District. “Helvellyn has more of an easterly influence, so the eastern fells see a lot of winter climbers,” explains Pete.

CHALLENGES

But an influx of winter climbers can bring its own challenges, particularly when the crags are not ‘in condition’ – i.e. not fully frozen. In his previous role at the National Park, Pete worked closely with the British Mountaineering Council and Natural England on a project that encouraged climbing only in peak conditions – and for very good reason.

“The exposed faces in these high-altitude corries serve as a refuge for a range of arctic-alpine plants, many of which are real rarities in an English context,” explains Pete. “Unfortunately, these plants are all too easily damaged by winter climbing tools when they’re used on unfrozen turf. If the Trust gets the go-ahead to lease Glenridding Common, we’d look to progress this educational work.”

And arctic-alpine rarities are not the only natural assets of a common that sits within the Lake District High Fells Special Area of Conservation. The area also holds significant stands of juniper scrub woodland, plus a variety of montane and upland heath, grassland and flush communities. Some of that plant life now benefits from a Higher Level Stewardship Scheme, introduced by Natural England in 2013 for a period of 10 years, which determines grazing levels at specific times of the year.

Elsewhere, the frigid waters of Red Tarn hold a population of schelly, one of England’s rarest species of fish, plus England’s highest population of stickleback. Bird life is also rich, with snow bunting found on the high tops in winter, while upland species such as raven, wheatear and ring ouzel all breed here in the summer.

SEEKING ASSURANCES

The Trust has a significant presence in Cumbria through the John Muir Award, which the National Park Authority itself has embraced as a core part of its educational remit (see sidebar, At home in the Lakes). “We already have a strong working relationship and see the Trust as a responsible partner and a body that could really help re-energise our work at Glenridding Common,” comments the National Park’s Martin Curry. “Ideally, we envisage a long-term relationship with the Trust.”

Even so, the prospect of change and a different organisation taking over has met with hesitation in some quarters – much of which stems from the integral role that common land plays in the area. Cumbria has the largest concentration of common land in Western Europe, with much of it situated in the National Park. The resulting landscape of special cultural significance has been identified as one of the key qualities supporting the Lake District’s current bid to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“The local farming community has shaped the look of the Lake District through a land use that is epitomised by the area,” says Martin Curry. “As such, there is considerable support for the common land system to be maintained.”

Such concerns were raised at a public meeting in Glenridding in February 2017 when the Trust gave attendees assurances that its potential lease would not affect the rights of commoners to graze sheep at levels they have negotiated with Natural England, nor impact on the current trail hunting arrangements with the National Park and National Trust landowners.

“We also asked whether the Trust would be keen to work with local groups in preserving the industrial heritage of the site and again were assured this would be the case,” explains Rob Shepherd, Chair of Glenridding Parish Council. “We have every confidence that the Trust will do an excellent job of managing the common in a way that preserves the unique nature of the environment and ensures its continued benefit for visitors and the local community.”

While local stakeholders are keen to see plans fleshed out in more detail, the Trust’s draft management plan already makes a variety of firm commitments. These include working closely with graziers, neighbours and the communities of Glenridding and Patterdale to develop future plans; addressing issues such as footpath erosion, sheep worrying, litter and illegal parking; using the property as a basis for volunteering activity and conservation work parties; and gradually working towards a richer, more diverse landscape where people and nature thrive alongside each other.

“It’s understandable that there is concern locally and that’s why we welcome the consultation process as an opportunity to offer reassurances about our plans,” says the Trust’s Peter Pearson. “Our land management elsewhere aims to protect and enhance the ecology, culture and landscape – and that will be the same for Glenridding Common.”

Another positive that the Trust brings to the table as a membership organisation with charitable status is a potential to access new and additional funding streams to manage and staff the property that are simply not available to the National Park. “We have a strong track record of accessing funding from a variety of sources for these purposes,” stresses Peter.

Any future investment would certainly be of use when working with local communities on projects such as flood resilience – a key issue locally following the recent devastating floods in Glenridding.

“We are confident that we will work effectively with the Trust on our Community Flood Resilience Project,” comments Rob Shepherd. “We are also sure that the Trust will be supportive of other community initiatives to help both preserve and enhance our wonderful landscape while ensuring it’s not just a ‘museum’, but a place where real people live and work.

“We firmly believe that the values of the Trust match those of our community and that, as long as there is effective mutual consultation and cooperation, the management of Glenridding Common by the Trust can become a model of effective land stewardship in England.”

Such positive words suggest that the Trust is on the right track as it contributes to a process that allows all interested parties to learn more about the future plans for one of Lakeland’s most celebrated areas.

“Managing Glenridding is a great opportunity,” says Peter Pearson. “We’re not there yet, but hopefully we will be soon.”

At home in the Lakes

Although it does not yet manage property south of the border, the Trust already has a strong, long-term presence in England through the John Muir Award – and no more so than in the Lake District where the National Park Authority uses the Award as a core part of its educational remit.

“The Award has operated in Cumbria since 2003, so there’s a large section of people who have been introduced to the Trust and what it stands for,” explains Graham Watson, John Muir Award Manager, Cumbria.

As elsewhere in the country, the Award is well-used by a whole host of schools, outdoor centres and outdoor learners, with upwards of 3,000 Awards a year through National Park partner participation – and more than 1,000 by the Outward Bound Trust.

“One of the farmers neighbouring Glenridding Common has Award groups come to him through Outward Bound, so that’s a healthy connection,” adds Graham.

For the past three years, Graham has worked out of the National Park office at Keswick, which has helped create a close awareness of how the Trust operates. “I strongly believe the Award is one of the reasons why we have got this far in the process,” says Trust Chair Peter Pearson. “The National Park recognises we have a track record of managing other properties well, and with a real community focus.”

About the author: Rich Rowe is a freelance outdoors writer and a former editor of the Journal

The John Muir Trust is a membership organisation. Find out more about becoming a member

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