Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

Lake District – A World Heritage Site

So: we’ve won it. What now? At the celebration for the Lake District’s winning of UNESCO World Heritage Site status, views were mixed.

One of the people who’d been most involved in the long application process – it took more than ten years – told me, almost in the same breath, ‘The Lakes should have this accolade because the place deservers it’ and ‘Now the real problems will start!’

I asked what he meant, and he replied ‘Tourism versus conservation.’ The UNESCO listing will draw more tourists, he believed, and that will put more pressure on the very environment they come to see. On the other hand, when I talked to a representative from English Nature, the conflict she immediately mentioned didn’t include tourism at all. It was ‘Nature versus farming’.

The truth is that no one quite knows, and the benefits and problems will come from any directions. Yes, ‘inscription’ (as it’s called) will bring more tourists from overseas: believe it or not, there are actually people who trek around the world collecting as many World Heritage Sites as they can! On the other hand, this may be reduced by things becoming more difficult for overseas tourists in the wake of Brexit. And if more overseas visitors do come, that may be good anyway because (again a result of Brexit) UK visitors may be spending less money. Though of course there might be more UK visitors because (Brexit again) it may not be so cheap or so easy for them to holiday abroad. And do it goes on.

On the plus side, World Heritage Site status may make it easier for conservation, environmental and creative causes in Cumbria to win funding, as their activities will sustain and justify the ‘inscription’.

Moreover, the Lake District has been made a World Heritage Site as a ‘cultural landscape’ – that is, not just because it is a beautiful landscape, but because it is a landscape that sustains, and is shaped by, a unique traditional method of farming. If the environment is damaged, or if the traditional sheep farming methods are imperilled, then UNESCO can threaten to take away the ‘inscription’. Both Liverpool Docks and the Tower of London sites are currently teetering on the edge of losing their status as World Heritage Sites because of encroaching inappropriate development. Losing world heritage site status can be expensive and shaming. It can be a protection for those qualities that won the inscription in the first place.

Local word has it that when the UNESCO people came to look at the Lakes, the two things that troubled them were low-flying aircraft, and the nuclear facility at Sellafield. It’s unlikely the RAF will increase the number of training flights going over. But the WHS might be a powerful weapon to use against the nuclear industry as it pushes to expand its activities in (and under!) Cumbria.

As for the vexed question of re-wilding, I’m cautious. In Ennerdale it has worked well. But much of the Lakes is not like Ennerdale. Where Ennerdale has a low-lying somewhat boggy landscape shaped by a river which often changes its course, other parts of the Lakes have become what they are now because of a balance between farming and natural processes. To clear out the sheep – known by some as ‘the white plague’! – and let the fellsides go back to the wild would be disastrous. The first result would be even vaster tracts of land covered with bracken, and valleys filled with an impenetrable waste of nettles and brambles. A landscape farmed for more than a thousand years doesn’t go back to ‘nature’ – because it is starting from an unnatural condition. The answer is to get the balance right. Enrich the environment where possible. Re-wild here and there judiciously. And – the one thing nobody wants to hear these days – be patient.