5 National Parks
Northern England has no less than five national parks. Each with its very own character, but each of them as special as the next. WideOyster Magazine meets nostalgic fishermen’s villages, Roman encampments, romantic lakes, endangered animals and the birthplace of the famous British right of way.
Mid September. Northern England rocks a three-day-beard. At least, there where agriculture is practised. The grains have been harvested and what remains is very appropriately called stubble. Not very charming, but so much the tougher. That last qualification, tougher, applies to most of the Northern English scenery, with its rough moors, tall limestone hills and rolling valleys, always veined with drystone walls.
‘This is the land of people with deep pockets and short arms. In short: economical,’ grins Bernie McLinden, park ranger of the North Nork Moors National Park, who takes us on a walk along the coast. ‘At least, that is what they say in the south. Fact is, this part of England has always been a bit less fortunate economically, so there might be an element of truth.’
North York Moors NP
Taking the piss
While we walk, Bernie inspects the route signs, gates and quality of the track. Maintenance and repair are part of his job. But today, his most important task is telling beautiful stories. About how clothing is painted in sixteenth-century Yorkshire, for example.
‘They used urine for that, among other things. A fine solvent, making for more vivid colours. Someone went door to door collecting urine in the morning. Did you know that’s where taking the piss comes from?’
Uh, no, actually I didn’t.
“Did you know that this is where taking the piss comes from?”
The Northern English scenery may be generally tough, the villages and towns can surely be charming. Take Staithes for example, a fishermen’s town that seems to have snuck straight out of the nineteenth century. You can’t reach it by car, so that makes quite the difference of course. Staithes is situated right against the cliffs, consists of houses painted in pastel colours, and it doesn’t surprise me one bit when Bernie tells me it is connected to the famous navigator and explorer James Cook.
While we are having a cup of tea in the Cod and Lobster, with views of the small harbour, Bernie says: ‘Young James worked in a store, Sanderson’s, right next door. Of course, he continuously heard the seamen’s stories, so no wonder he wanted to go out onto the sea one day himself. Sanderson’s, unfortunately, doesn’t exist any longer. The house was blown away by a storm years ago.’
Dracula & Captain Cook
After tea, we stroll through the harbour and talk to John, a fisherman who just returned with a crate filled with lobster.
‘A lousy catch today’, he grumbles. ‘There are only about 50 in total. Normally, I catch twice to three times as much. Most are for export to France and Spain, but local restaurants take a few of my hands every day as well.’
John is 69 and thinks about retiring soon. ‘I am beyond my prime and so are the lobsters. I catch them between March and October, but there’s less to catch nowadays. In the winter, I switch to whitefish, but my quota for that is way too small, it’s exhausted after only a week.’
“I am a bit past my prime and so are the lobsters. I catch them between March and October, but there’s less to catch nowadays”
He proudly explains his family has lived in Staithes since the year 1500: all generations were fishermen. When we continue on our walk, Bernie grins while bringing back memories of John. ‘One day, he was fighting with a fishermen-colleague. When the man disappeared, he grumbled indignantly. “Who does he think he is? His family has only lived here for 200 years!”’
We continue our walk in southern direction where there are other must-sees to discover, like Whitby and Robin Hood’s Bay. Whitby once was one of the most important seaports in the world. James Cook received his education to become a sailor here, and other famous sailors like Drake and Nelson learned the trade here as well. But the town is most famous for its connection to Dracula. The Transylvanian count, who stayed incredibly healthy by drinking a nice pint of blood at a regular interval, set foot on land here in the shape of a black dog and disappeared toward the cemetery. And after that? You can read the rest in the novel of the same name by Bram Stoker, the author who once stayed in Whitby and was inspired to write his famous story.
James Cook went to the naval academy of Whitby, and other famous explorers like Drake and Nelson learned the trade here too
When we finally arrive at Robin Hood’s Bay, I expect Bernie to come up with a beautiful boy’s book story about a benevolent villain who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Alas.
‘There is no reason to believe that Robin Hood, if he ever existed, has been to this place. But this was a true smugglers’ paradise. In the eighteenth century, literally every citizen here was a smuggler, from fishermen to farmers, from the local teacher to the pastor. They all hid their contraband in secret caves and deep tunnels, and not all of them have been discovered today. So, who knows…’
Robin Hood’s Bay attracts a lot of hikers as well. The village is the final destination of the 309-kilometre-long Coast to Coast path described in 1973 by Alfred Wainwright in a now-famous hiking guide. Bay Hotel, located on the beach, bears a sign in memory of the hiker, author and illustrator, and the hotel’s bar is named after Wainwright.
Poor, dumb Romans! Living the sunny life in Italy, eating spaghetti Bolognese every day with a chianti bottle in a wicker basket, visiting the Colosseum every Sunday for an entertaining gladiator fight with a refreshing dive in the Tiber to finish it off. Casa dolce casa, you would say. Home sweet home.
But what do the idiots decide? To march in northern direction as long as possible until they run into a troop of wild Scotsmen, build a wall to keep them out, and sit in their fort waiting for a lost bagpipe to blow their way.
Those are my thoughts when I walk through the remainders of the Roman fort Housesteads. It is part of Hadrian’s Wall, the wall emperor Hadrianus started building in the year 122, serving as the northern border of the Roman Empire on the British isle.
Hadrian’s Wall is 117 kilometer long, and runs for the most part through spectacular landscapes
Of course, it wasn’t just Italians who were based here. The Romans involved their soldiers from all over the empire. Real men by the way, because only the commander of the fort had central heating around here (yes, for real!).
You can discover Hadrian’s Wall in one or two days by car: there is a convenient road parallel to the wall. Hiking, as the Romans themselves did as well, is another possibility, which of course allows you to see a lot more. It takes about eleven days to cover the 117 kilometres, frequently running through stunning landscapes. Hikers used to walk on the wall itself before, but nowadays that is an absolute no-no.
Housesteads is one of the many forts along the wall that give you a great idea of how the Romans lived two thousand years ago. They are especially proud of their privies around here. No, the Romans didn’t collect urine, but they did enjoy each other’s company when going to the toilet.
The atmosphere of these long-lost times comes to life through the signs with drawings: look, there you see three legionnaires, each above their own hole, chatting excitingly about bread and games. Each of them holds a stick with a cotton ball at the top. For cleaning their behinds later on. It is obvious a lot has changed over the course of 2000 years when I want to use the restroom in the town of Chollerfold. ‘Restrooms are for customers only. Please don’t embarrass us by asking’, it says on the door of a store that also serves as a tearoom.
‘Can I have a bottle of water please?’ I ask. ‘And the toilet surely is in the back there?’
The lady behind the counter blushes and goes into a terrible coughing fit. I should be ashamed.
Large parts of Northern England are property by aristocratic landowners: dukes, earls and lords who inherited the land from their ancestors, farm it out to farmers and – very trendy – allow overseas hunters to hunt on their territory. Mostly birds: partridges in the woods and black grouse on the moors. Especially hunting black grouse appears to be a very posh affair.
‘You won’t believe the amount of money involved in a day of hunting bird’, a waiter tells me during lunch in a local pub. ‘Thousands of pounds! I don’t like it one bit, but it does create employment. When a Croesus goes hunting, he is usually headed by an entire company of beaters: people who wave flags and make a lot of noise to scare the birds. That way, they fly up into the air. There are people who continuously provide the hunters with freshly loaded guns. And of course, there are gamekeepers, who keep the hunting area intact.’
‘Well’, I say, contemplating, ‘work is worth something, right?’
‘It sure is’, the waiter says. ‘I will bring out your partridge in a minute.’
‘Uh… I ordered a Ploughman’s lunch. Cheese, bread and pickle.’
Popular but unspoiled
Lake District is the oldest tourist area in England. That’s because in the eighteenth century, a tradition came into being among the British elite called Grand Tour. To complete their impeccable upbringing, rich youths made an extended journey through the culturally well thought of areas in the continent, mainly France and Italy.
The French Revolution (1898-1899) brought that to a temporary halt. And wouldn’t you know: at that time, painter John Constable and poet William Wordsworth were paying tribute in their own way to the beauty of the English Lake District. Wordsworth even wrote a guide on it – Guide to the lakes (1810) – in which he praised the lake area as being Great Britain’s national property, which everybody in their right mind had to visit.
Two hundred years later, that reasoning is still watertight. The Lake District is a beautiful example of another kind of tourism: an economic lifeline without irreparable damage to the landscape.
All hilltops higher than 900 metres in England can be found in this area, among which Scafell Pike is the highest with 978 metres. In between those peeks – a great opportunity for an enthusiastic hiker – sixteen lakes can be found, mostly elliptical, being formed in the ice age by glaciers.
Weather-wise, the Lake District is absolutely trustworthy: you can set your clock for a fresh dose of rain. In the wettest areas, there is four times more rain than you will get in the Netherlands.
A shower here and there
At all times during the trip, the weather alternates between glorious and gloomy. I choose a glorious afternoon for a walk in the hills near Derwent Water and a gloomy morning for a visit to the birthplace of Wordsworth.
During his entire lifetime, Wordsworth praised the simple country life and the beauty of nature, and he lived in a cottage in the countryside with his sister Dorothy for many years. But he was born in the town of Cockermouth, as the son of a lawyer. His birthplace is, not surprisingly, fancier than you would expect from him, but he lived a happy childhood there. What helped: the house had an amazing garden. It still has by the way, even though National Trust and its many volunteers have got their hands full with flooding. Floods giving the town wet feet in the winters of 2009 and 2014 caused considerable damage.
By the way, the Lake District is also the domain of writer and animal lover Beatrix Potter. As a child in London, she kept an entire zoo with dogs, mice, rabbits, bats and hedgehogs. When she moved to the Lake District, she obviously started to breed sheep. And write children’s books. With various animals as the main character, but Peter Rabbit became her most famous creation.
And when your life is then made into a movie with Renée Zellweger playing the lead, you know you did quite well for yourself, right?
Pies with the Quaker
Our first introduction to Yorkshire Dales National Park is Cautly Spout Waterfall. For the splashing water enthusiast: with its 198 metres, this is the highest cascade of England, where water falls in stages down a steep and rocky slope.
The great thing about the hike to Cautley Spout is that you have an excellent excuse afterwards to have dinner in the White Cross Temperance Inn. The good thing about that is (a) they serve excellent pies and (b) Alan Clower rules the joint. He is Quaker, and doesn’t serve alcohol, but serves amazing stories instead.
‘Ha, you are Dutch? Good, I love cloggies. I think you are the same type as we Englishmen. I run a charity in South Africa, and your fellow countrymen of the Leiden University raised 5000 pounds for it.
Alan Clower rules the White Cross Temperance Inn.
joint. He is a Quaker, and doesn’t serve alcohol, but serves amazing stories instead
We go over Alan’s career. For years, Alan worked in several African countries as an electrician, but he retired at 49 because the company he worked for fell in the hands of the French Alstom. ‘And I refuse to work for the French!’
Now way in his seventies, he entertains every one of his guests with a story. Only once it is finished, can the guests move from the cosy parlour to the dining room, which is just as cosy, to eat a pie or another traditional treat.
In the Dales Country Museum in Hawes we are to meet park ranger Matt Neale. While enjoying a cup of coffee, he explains that the territory of the British National Parks is not, as it is in the US, state property. ‘This means we have to compromise with the sheep breeders in the hills and the grass growers in the valleys.
This goes fine most of the time, but sometimes it doesn’t. A lot of owners have improved the draining of the moorlands. Good for them, but because of that, other areas have to deal with a lot more floods than before, when the moors functioned as a big sponge.
Just as his colleague Bernie, Matt doesn’t particularly like the hunting of the partridge and black grouse. ‘I don’t see that as a sport, where for example deer stalking is a sport in Scotland, where you sometimes chase a sick deer for an entire day.’
He tells us about his love for drystone walls, that are much more expensive in maintenance than regular fences, but so much more beautiful and characteristic. ‘But my true love remains the red squirrel.’
‘And what does your girlfriend think about you calling her that?’ Frits asks seemingly concerned.
Matt can laugh at the joke. ‘In 1870, the Victorians imported a few North American Eastern grey squirrels. Those are twice as big as the native red one, so they need a lot more food and are thus a threat to the red squirrel.’
The threat also comes from a virus carried by the grey squirrel that doesn’t kill it but is lethal for its red colleague. The red squirrel retreats to the pine forests nowadays, where Matt and his colleagues arranged an area to protect the animal as well as they can: Snaizeholme.
Of course, we visit that area as well. The little rascals are incredibly lively and show a praiseworthy interest in Frits’ photo equipment. When one of them crawls over his long-focus lens and tries to push her nose against that of the photographer, Matt and I are certain: Frits is the one with a red squirrel as a girlfriend!
Peak District NP
Right of Passage
‘So you came here to hike, but you don’t know that the Kinder Mass Trespass was?’
‘Well, sit yourself down, because this is elementary knowledge, gentlemen.’
So, there we are, in the old train station of Hassop which was transformed into a catering facility. Sally Wheal and Janette Sykes, park ranger and guide respectively, cannot wait to fill this painful gap in our knowledge.
Sally starts: ‘When you wanted to go for a nice hike back in the day, you would always get into trouble with landowners who didn’t want you to cross their terrain. In protest of this, 400 people came together in Kinder Scout in 1932: a moorland plateau not far from here. They had warned the press, so when the landowners warned the police and the protest leaders were arrested, it gave them a lot of publicity.’
Jeanette continues: ‘This caused a discussion that eventually led to the Right of Way that is valid in all of Great Britain, but also to start of the long-distance track The Pennine Way and in 1949 the phenomenon of National Parks was established.’
Sally: ‘With the Peak District National Park as its first!’
Jeanette: ‘So much for your education, gentlemen. Get up, grab your backpack and take a hike.’
Sleeping in the car
How do you do the Peak District the most justice? We decide on a combination of driving around and hiking. This way, we get the chance to see the majestic mansion Chatsworth Estate, continue to have the viewpoints of Surprise Corner, Stanage Edge, Monsal Head and Winnats Pass fight their own competition in being pretty, and end up visiting extremely cosy villages like Ashford and Bakewell.
On top of that, we get to know the two personalities that coexist in the Peak District. In the North, you have the Dark Peaks, where heather-covered hills consist mainly out of granite. This is where Charlotte Brontë placed her rough character, Mr Rochester. In the south, the landscape is a little more charming. The valleys are green and the hills made of limestone: the White Peaks.
The next day, we take on Jeanette’s advice of ‘get up and take a hike’: we get up at six to watch the sunrise from the top of a hill in the area near the Dove River. Because after a gloomy day, we are now promised a glorious day full of sun.
On our way, we pass a car that is parked next to an unmetalled road. The windows are steamed up. Someone who had a very late night in the pub, lost his way and in desperation decided to sleep in his car?
‘No’, Frits decides. ‘It is probably a photographer who spent the night here to be able to catch the first light. We will probably run into him later.’
Half an hour later, it seems he was right. A man with a tripod and a photo case comes downhill. He looks as unruly and rough as the Northern English landscape. And of course, he rocks a three-day beard