In the company of deer

Early Morning MagicSummer can be the cruelest season for landscape photography. Early sunrises and late sunsets don’t fit comfortably into the modern pattern of life. Sunrise before 5.00am often means rising at 2.00am to be in position on a Pennine hill top to catch the first colours of dawn. Sometimes it can be an exhilarating experience to spend a summer night on the moors waiting for dawn, but it isn’t something that can be done regularly if you have to function like a normal human being and do a day job, resisting the overwhelming urge to fall asleep during the afternoon.

It isn’t unusual for me to deviate a little from my normal approach to landscape photography during the summer months. Often I will use the long daylight hours to visit historical buildings, or scout out new locations. Last year I enjoyed photographing new fern fronds unfolding in our garden, lavender buds bursting into life and butterflies visiting the buddleia. Often a summer project will present itself to me naturally.

Defending His Domain

The Rut

This year, springtime had been unusually busy. With a general election approaching I had been frantically producing materials for my local (newly formed) Green party. Once the election was over, my thoughts began to turn back to routing around in the history around me. A walk around the monuments at nearby Wentworth Castle presented me with a new project, but not one that I had expected.

I can see Wentworth Castle from the end of the road that I live on. A wooded hilltop across the valley that has been occupied since at least the Iron Age, now crowned with an 18th century castellated folly. A little further down the slope stands Wentworth Castle, a huge country pile sat on the hillside in all its Georgian splendour. For more about the history of Wentworth Castle, see my earlier post. While researching this, I decided that I needed to have a proper walk around the parkland and explore the monuments.

I parked near the Strafford Arms, walked through Strafford Gate and up the hill to the restored Serpentine Bridge. Following the path along the Serpentine (originally an ornamental river, but now a series of half dried-up ponds) I eventually reached the small patch of woodland, heading for the Rotunda. As I emerged from the woods, there in the field before me was a couple of Fallow Bucks, with Red Deer further down the hill. I was of course immediately smitten! I made a return trip with my camera with the intention of photographing the Serpentine Bridge and Rotunda, it didn’t take much for my attention to turn towards the deer and my summer project was born.

Red Stag & HindsIn a Sea of GoldI returned to Wentworth Castle Park almost every day over the summer. Sometimes walking the dogs, sometimes with my camera but always watching the deer as closely as possible, getting to know their habits and just how closely they would tolerate me. While the fawns were still young, the does were quite jumpy. They would bark their dismay when I drew close and an early lesson in respecting distance was learned when a red doe charged at one of my dogs. Fortunately, there was a big wire fence between us but it demonstrated that these are not just docile, passive animals. They should be respected and given space.

There has been a deer park at Wentworth Castle/Stainborough since at least the Elizabethan era and two species of deer inhabit the park. Red deer, which are farmed at Round Green nearby and smaller Fallow deer, which seem to live a more-or-less wild existence. Red deer seem to abide by a herd mentality where as the Fallow deer seem more likely to wander in small groups or individually and are more flighty. Once you get too close for comfort, they will spring away with a bounding grace, where Red deer will just ease out of your way.

Early Morning at Wentworth CastleCall of the HerdI gradually learned how to get closer. I realised quite early on that trying to sneak up unseen was pointless. Dozens of super-sensitive eyes, ears and noses will know you are there before you even see the herd. I found that giving them time to get used to my presence, while gradually moving forward diagonally produced the best results. Eventually, I found that I could almost walk amongst the herd, although respecting a certain distance is still important and by using a long lens, I don’t need to get too close anyway. There are only so many close-up head-shots that are useful and I prefer to try to capture the deer in their environment. I feel that the wellbeing of the animals is by far more important than getting photos and after a while (usually no more than an hour) I withdraw and let them get on with doing whatever deer do when humans aren’t around.

As summer turned towards autumn, the foals grew bigger and the does became less jumpy. The stags began to joust as rutting season approached and were becoming too distracted to worry much about me. I was starting to recognise individual animals by this time and have to confess a certain fondness for the biggest stag of the herd, a monarch stag who I nicknamed ‘The Big Feller’. He is an impressive creature with huge antlers and when he throws his head back and lets out his baleful bellow, it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

Getting close to Fallow deer is a different proposition to the reds and often turns out to be more by luck than judgement. I found that I was more likely to bump into them than follow them, as they favour the areas of mixed woodland and long grass. The bucks seem to be more relaxed than the does and will tolerate you more closely. There are a couple of bigger bucks that once they were in rutting season didn’t seem bothered by human presence in the slightest. In fact they have passed within a few feet of me without concern.

In the Long GrassStags & GrassesOne occasion left me almost speechless. While photographing a couple of bucks in long grass the large white buck announced himself by crashing through the undergrowth. He and the other large buck began ‘parallel trotting’ (a way to size each other up before fighting) towards me before locking antlers with a ferocity that belies their cute appearance. These animals are 200lbs of pure muscle with antlers attached to the front, that bear a close resemblance to medieval weaponry. They were so close that at one point I had to jump out of the way! It was an exhilarating experience.

There is something about deer, stags in particular that strikes a deep chord within me. During the Mesolithic period, the image of the stag was scratched into cave walls (such as Creswell Crags) to influence the success of the hunt through ritual magic. The image of the shaman is of a human form bearing antlers. During the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods, stags’ antlers were modified into picks that dug the great ditches around Avebury and many of our other Pre-Roman monuments. From the Celtic horned god Cernunnos to Edward Landseer’s painting, ‘The Monarch of the Glen’, the image of the stag has been a potent symbol, embedded in our folklore for millennia after millennia.

Woodland StagWentworth SunriseIt maybe that the stag represents the spirit of nature, purity and freedom. Dwellers of the green forest, survivors of a primeval past before humans held the ascendency over nature. Even after spending most of the summer around the deer at Wentworth Castle Park, I still feel a deep pang when rounding a corner and coming face to face with a stag, or hearing his bellow nearby. That sense of wonder has not left me with familiarity. I’m looking forward to following the rutting season throughout the autumn and hope that I’ll have plenty more images to share here in the coming weeks.

Stags on the Horizon

The lost towers of Worsbrough Common

When I first moved to Barnsley in 2004, I was keen to discover the history of the area that I was moving to. A quick search on the brilliant megalithic.co.uk website lead me to an entry on Pastscape detailing that an Iron Age Hillfort had occupied the very hilltop on which I live in Worsbrough Common.

Although this was exciting, searches on the ground soon confirmed that nothing seemed to remain. Unlike the nearby hilltop at Stainborough, which still bears the ditches of its hillfort, Worsbrough Common has a large council estate built in the 1950s. It is likely that this swept away any traces that might have remained. The highest point of Worsbrough Common is still tantalisingly marked as ‘Castle Hill’ on OS maps. At first I thought that this might be the only trace of the hillfort that remained, but I was to find out that it came by its name for a different reason.

Although it seems that the hillfort is probably lost, Worsbrough has a fascinating history that has largely been preserved by the good fortune of being located on the edge of Barnsley. During my research into the hillfort, I came across an ancient tome ‘Worsbrough: Its Historical Associations and Rural Attractions’ by Joseph Wilkinson, published in 1872. Among its illustrations is an etching plate, dating from 1779 of Worsbrough Common (below) which piqued my interest.

Worsbrough Common in 1779

Worsbrough Common in 1779

“The towers and trees which once stood here gave an air of antiquity and romance to the place, and the observer on contemplating from a distance their fortification-like aspect, was carried back in thought to the days of chivalry and warfare.”
Joseph Wilkinson, Worsbrough: Its Historical Associations and Rural Attractions.

The etching depicts a view across Worsbrough Common, with the Highstone (Black Rock) in the foreground and the hilltop horizon dominated by a line of castellations and towers. Although the drawing doesn’t accurately match the topography of the landscape, the drawing could have been made from memory and a certain amount of artistic license allowed, the track could correspond to the current position of Mount Vernon Road, which would place the castellations on the skyline running from Kingwell Lane, past what is now Mount Vernon Hospital, towards Black Rock and Castle Hill. As the area is now heavily built over, I considered that all trace of the castellations would now be lost. Especially as the towers have not been included on the OS map of the area, from the 1850 edition onwards, but were included on Castle Hill on the first issue OS map of the area, dated 1841.

The 1841 First Issue Ordnance Survey map of Worsbrough.

The 1841 First Issue Ordnance Survey map of Worsbrough.

I was delighted to hear from a local source that two of the towers still survive in Kingwell Woods. In fact there is a local tale that the woods are haunted by a Blue Lady dating from the Civil War, who died by falling down and abandoned mine shaft or tunnel in the area. It didn’t take me long before I went to have a look.

Kingwell Woods is a forlorn place. A narrow strip of land on a steep bank between Elmhirst Farm and Kingwell Road, it feels like a forgotten corner of Barnsley. One of the towers is easy to find, perched high on the bank, surrounded by thick woodland, it can be seen from the road once you know where to look. It is in a sad state, perched partly on natural rock outcrops, it still has bits of walling adjoining it and the remains of stone steps leading up the steep bank. Looking like it is used as a drinking den, empty cans and the remains of a fire litter the interior.

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One of the lost towers in Kingwell Wood.

The second tower is proving a bit more elusive. I headed down into the woods, but after a couple of hundred yards wading through tangles of brambles and ivy while carrying a heavy tripod, I turned back before I met the same fate as the Blue Lady. There were scatters of what could be drystone rubble, but nothing identifiable (there was a pinfold in this area that may also add to the confusion). The woods are so densely overgrown that I may have walked right past it. So that is another adventure for another day. Probably once some vegetation has died back in the winter and without heavy camera gear.

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Another view of the tower in Kingwell Wood.

How did these towers come to be on a hillside in Barnsley? There was certainly no castle here throughout the medieval period and the construction is definitely not in the same fashion as medieval fortifications. The answer lies in an 18th century local family feud that came to rest on the hill on the opposite side of Dove Valley, known now as Wentworth Castle.

When the second Earl of Strafford died childless in 1695, Thomas Wentworth (1672-1739) expected to inherit the estate at Wentworth Woodhouse. However, the estate was unexpectedly passed to his cousin, Thomas Watson. In 1708, he purchased the estate of Stainborough Hall from the Cutler family and began creating an estate to rival that at Wentworth Woodhouse, changing the name to Stainborough Castle. A new Barque wing was completed in 1715 and in 1731, Thomas completed a mock castle behind the house on the hill top that was the site of the previously mentioned hillfort. He then changed the name to Wentworth Castle.

William Wentworth (1722-1791) succeeded his father in 1739 and inherited his father’s appetite for building, adding another wing to the house. The 18th century was a period with a taste for follies, usually along classical lines, they were almost always of a romantic nature. Wentworth Castle certainly has classical follies, but there was another agenda at play here.

The Wentworths were engaged in a show of one-upmanship with their relatives at Wentworth Woodhouse and what better way to promote your estate from that of a country house, than to declare it a castle of ancient origin. The estate was much larger than it is today and included the hillside of Worsbrough Common, which is clearly visible from Wentworth and a line of castellations would have looked magnificent from the grounds of the house (especially with the sun rising above them). Along with the folly on top of the hill at Stainborough Castle, it would also have given the landscape a feeling of ancient continuity.

View of Wentworth Castle from Worsbrough Common.

View of Wentworth Castle from Worsbrough Common.

So what date could we attach to the building of the towers on Worsbrough Common? The 1817 Enclosure Act for Worsbrough Common gives us the following information.

“Enacted that all the Castle-ruins, and Ornamental Buildings which have formerly been erected by William Earl of Strafford, or any of his ancestors, upon the said Commons, shall, with the ground whereupon the same do stand, at all times hereafter be deemed the property of F.W.T.V. Wentworth, &c., with liberty to repair, support, and rebuild the same, and for that purpose to carry materials through and over the allotments adjoining to the said Castle-ruins, and Ornamental Buildings.”1

This seems to confirm that the towers were certainly the work of either Thomas Wentworth or his son William. If built by Thomas, they could have been constructed at the same time as the Stainborough Castle folly, around 1731. The tower in Kingwell Woods is similar in appearance to those that rise above the folly entrance.

Stainborough Castle folly, before two of the towers fell in a storm.

Stainborough Castle folly, before two of the towers fell in a storm.

Another clue could be the date carved into Black Rock. It is said that the Earl of Strafford thought that the rock was hollow and intended to convert it into a summer house. This would explain the three arched doorways carved into the rock face. That date carved above the central arch is 1756, which places it firmly in the time of William Wentworth. William certainly had a taste for building follies and built the Corinthian Temple and Rotunda, which stand in the current parkland around Wentworth Castle, Archer’s Gate, Strafford Gate, Serpentine Bridge, the Obelisk at Birdwell and possibly the now lost pyramid at Blacker Hill, known as the Smoothing Iron.

The likely conclusion is that the Worsbrough Common towers were constructed at some time between 1731 and 1756. It is possible that they are contemporary with Stainborough Castle folly, but given William’s passion for folly building and that he was responsible for the masonry work on Black Rock, this could well point to him also being the builder of the Worsbrough Common towers.

It is a great shame that what remains of the towers that once dominated the Worsbrough skyline are now forgotten and in such a state of disrepair. Especially given that Wentworth Castle park has been so spectacularly restored of late. Perhaps a little bit of care and attention is over-due for this little piece of Barnsley heritage.

 

  1. Worsbrough: Its Historical Associations and Rural Attractions. Joseph Wilkinson (1872).

Marsden Moor Revisited

Marsden Moor
I’ve written about Marsden Moor quite extensively already on this blog (here and here), but it is always good to revisit and take the opportunity to find something new.

I find that whenever I visit Pule Hill, the temptation is to head straight for the top. That is exactly what I did on a recent visit with my nephews and niece recently.

As I was pointing out the ventilation shafts for the Stanage Tunnel , it struck me that I hadn’t ever taken the time to go and photograph the area on the side of the hill, usually bypassing it in favour of the summit.

So the next day I went back, armed with my camera and a determination to capture those industrial towers rising from the hillside. I found that unlike Redbridge Engine House on the other side of the, road (another relic related to construction of the Stanage Tunnel), the ventilation shafts weren’t quite so photogenic. Despite frequently changing lens, moving around the brick towers and trying different compositions, I just couldn’t settle upon an image that quite captured what I wanted.

Pule Hill Ruins

Fortunately, Pule Hill is rich in other features and eventually I eventually settled on the image above, in which the ventilation tower is relegated to a middle distance feature, with the course of the path and a ruined hut providing foreground interest.

Telegraph poles and the boardwalk over a particularly boggy section of path, also provided good subjects and I couldn’t resist having another crack at the old milestone at the foot of Pule Hill, which dates from the old turnpike road, build by Blind Jack Metcalf of Knaresborough.

I was a little disappointed that no light managed to break through, but I think that the dark skies suite the nature of the place well.

Path to Pule HillPule Hill Milestone

Deadmanstone

DeadmanstoneThe Deadmanstone at Berry Brow near Huddersfield, is a nearly forgotten outcrop of rock, through which a natural tunnel runs. Numerous legends surround this unassuming eruption of rock from the hillside, that may or may not explain how it came about its name.

Local folklore tells that in the days when the church at Almondbury served as the parish church for the Holme Valley, funeral processions passing the stone would stop and rest the coffin. A distant local memory also recalls that corpses would be taken from their coffins and pulled through the hole, before recommencing on their journey to Almondbury. Perhaps this represented some symbolic form of passage to another world.

Another legend is equally gruesome and gives various accounts that the remains of a ‘soldier’ were found walled up either at the stone (possibly in the tunnel) or somewhere nearby. Variants state that the soldier was either Roman or maybe a victim of Scottish Boarder Reivers, who raided deep into England. The legend isn’t specific about where or when the soldier was found and could possibly be transposed from the site of the (now demolished) Deadmanstone House or its medieval predecessor, which was a fortified manor house with deep cellars.

A further possibility could be that the Deadmanstone was the site of the burial of a prehistoric chief or warrior and the legend has become confused over the years. Indeed the name ‘Deadman’ could have been derived from ‘Dobman’ or ‘Dobbie’, a legendary shape-shifting spirit, popular in local lore and often associated with guardianship of burial places. The hole in the stone may also be associated with healing or ritual purposes, by passing through the stone as above.

The stone is also associated with another enduring legend that a tunnel leads from the nearby ancient fort of Castle Hill, about a mile away. Castle Hill is associated with a number of tunnel legends, which could possibly denote solar or lunar alignments from the hill. Or may have been influenced by the deep cellars of the former manor house, that stood on the land directly above the Deadmanstone, now occupied by a modern housing estate.

That so many legends are still attached to this odd outcrop is heartening. Especially as it now sits enclosed by modern housing and is often passed by cars entering and leaving the estate. A small remainder of Huddersfield’s past clings doggedly to the hillside, despite how its surroundings have changed.
Deadmanstone Berry Brow
Deadmanstone: Door to the Other World: Steve Sneyd, Northern Earth No. 99, 2004
Legends & Traditions of Huddersfield & Its District: Philip Ahier, 1944
The Old Stones of Elmet: Paul Bennett, 2001

The Lost World of Wardsend Cemetery

7389937988_724f00b70f_oOn the overgrown hillside overlooking Hillsborough in Sheffield, known in the 11th century as ‘Wereldesend’, lies the now near forgotten Wardsend Cemetery. Victorian monumental headstones loom out of woodland and dense ivy undergrowth. Rusted wrought iron railings and the tombs to which they are attached, tumble back into the earth to join those that lie beneath.

The land on which the cemetery now stands, was bought in 1857 by Rev. John Livesey when the churchyard of St. Philip’s Church on Infirmary Road (since demolished) closed for burials. It was consecrated by the Archbishop of York, Thomas Musgrave, on the 5th of July 1859. The first burial being a two year old girl, named Ann Marie Marsden. She is, in keeping with tradition, the ‘Guardian of the Cemetery.’ A small chapel and Sexton’s house were included, only the ruined footings of which remain today.

The cemetery has a close association with the nearby Hillsborough Barracks and an obelisk commemorates the soldiers of 6th, 19th, 24th, 33rd, 51st, 55th Regiments of Foot, Victorian Army, who died whilst at Hillsborough Barracks during the period 1866 – 1869. There are graves of several soldiers, killed during both World Wars as well as some of the 240 victims of the Great Sheffield Flood of the night of 11th/12 March 1864, when the Dale Dyke reservoir at Bradfield collapsed.

Local legend has it that of the four clock faces on the old St. Philip’s Church tower, one was never lit at night. This, it was said, was to allow the bodysnatchers at the nearby Wardsend Cemetery to carry out their grisly work, unable to see when the witching hour had come.

7389936400_f6df3f8372_oNefarious deeds came to light in 1862, when a labourer named Robert Dixon accused the sexton, Isaac Howard of disinterring newly buried bodies and selling them for dissection.

Dixon had moved into the sexton’s house in the cemetery and in his own words, “I observed a curious smell in the room above the stable. I thrust some knots out of the deal boards, and looked down into the stable. We had then been there two or three weeks. I saw about 20 coffins – some of persons about 15 and 16 and 10 years old – others were those of stillborn children. None of them appeared to be the coffins of grown-up persons. I had seen Howard lock and unlock this door, and knew he had the key. The coffins were not covered over with anything, and were lying on the ground, piled in heaps on the top of each other. I saw some broken-up coffins piled in a corner by themselves – the wood appeared to be new. Those pieces are there now. The day I flitted (last Monday) I and several other men saw in the stone shelf near the house four or five sides and lids of coffins.”

The suspicion was that Isaac Howard was supplying the Sheffield Medical School with corpses for dissection. Also that money supplied by the medical school for the ‘decent burial’ of remains legally obtained from the workhouse, was being kept by Howard and the bodies disposed of in a less than respectful manner.

As the news broke, it caused revulsion amongst the occupants of Sheffield, many of who would have had family members buried at Wardsend. On the evening of June 3rd, what became known as the Sheffield Cemetery Riots of 1862 took place when a crowd gathered at the cemetery to find a large hole containing coffins, with and without bodies, one of which had clearly been dissected. Underneath the coffins was said to be several feet of human remains. Many of the crowd began to disinter the coffins of their relatives and a number of graves were found to be empty.

The crowd forced their way into the sexton’s house demolishing the windows and doors, before marching to Howard’s home half a mile away in Burrowlee. Howard learned a mob was on the way, fled and went into hiding, eventually being found in Bakewell, Derbyshire. The crowd set fire to his house, which was completely destroyed.

7389939922_63439c5149_oIt emerged that the law had been breached by both the medical school and the town’s workhouse. The workhouse had sent bodies to the school in sacks and the school, after dissecting them, had allowed Howard to convey them to Wardsend in plain wooden boxes. The law required that coffins should be used.

It appears that the medical school, nervous of its reputation as a school for bodysnatchers, were trying to hush up its activities.

Now the grim tale took a sensational twist as suspicion began to focus on the Rev. John Livesey. It was revealed that he had made a false entry in the burial register, having failed to check that the body of a boy named James Greatorex had been interred.

On June 11th, a public meeting of parishioners at the Peacock Inn, Hoyle Street, severely criticised Livesey. The next night a crowd of 3,000 Sheffielders gathered in the Temperance Hall, Townhead Street, and demanded Livesey should be suspended until he had either been cleared or condemned.

On June 23rd, Livesey was committed to York Assizes, charged with making a false entry in the burial register. Isaac Howard made a statement implicating Livesey. He said that he had removed bodies from their graves, but only on the instructions of the Vicar. Howard was committed to York Assizes, charged with unlawfully disinterring the bodies of two children, William Henry Johnson and Charley Hinchliffe.

Although there was little evidence against Livesey, the jury found him guilty. The judge showed what he thought of the verdict and sentenced the clergyman to one week imprisonment. Howard, also found guilty, was also treated leniently and was given a three month sentence. Livesey was later pardoned, after Howard came clean about his crimes.

By the turn of the century over 20,000 interments had taken place and in 1901, a further two acres of land on the other side of the railway were added. Wardsend Cemetery remains the only cemetery in England with a railway running through it!

The final burial took place in 1977 and the cemetery was officially closed in 1988. Since then it has been virtually abandoned by the church and despite efforts by the council and the Friends of Wardsend Cemetery, it remains one of the few truly lost romantic spaces in South Yorkshire.

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A Moorland Grave Mound

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O gentle Spirit of the hills,
Come stay with me, and rest
Where rolls this lonely heather sea,
Grey-billowed to the west ;
The passion of the day hath died
Along yon fading height,
And white the stars like flowering thong
The garden of the night.

In upland hollows lies the mist,
In folds of silver grey,
And sleeping lies the harvest wind
Among the new mown hay ;
The moor crags rise against the sky,
A dark and ragged line,
And red along the dusky hills
The farm-house windows shine.

Far from the rude and noisy throng,
By some sweet impulse led,
I like among the grass that hides
The long-forgotten dead ;
And thou, meek spirit of the hills,
O hearken to my plea !
For fain would I miss this summer night
Go down the past with thee.

The purple flame of August ling,
The bracken green and deep,
The sweet, clear bugles of the wind
That play along the steep ;
The flush of dawn, the grey of eve,
The storms that rip and rave,
Have they not brought thee secrets from
This lonely moorland grave ?

Then say in what departed age
This simple mound was reared,
By what strange people of the past
With pagan rites and weird ?
Whence did they come, and whither gone
The unknown mountain race ?
Who found on this bird-haunted hill
A noble burial place ?

How lived they on these windy heights ?
What simple span was theirs ?
To what strange customs were they bound ?
To what god said their prayers ?
A speck of dust, a smear on Time,
Is all that we can see !
So much will future ages know
Of all my friends and me.

And who was laid with reverence here,
What mother, youth, or maid ?
Or stalwart father don to death
In some wild hunting raid ?
Or heathen seer whose name by all
The hillmen was revered ?
Or warrior chief whose spear of flint
Had made him great and feared ?

Perchance some maid, the loved of all,
The flower of her race,
Here gave to earth all that was her’s
Of loveliness and grace !
And here, maybe, some valiant youth
Was stretched upon the pyre !
While hapless kindred wailed around
The red cremating fire.

O well it is these ancient dead –
That their last sleep should be
Upon the high and heathery moor
Where all is wild and free !
Though dark and rude their earthly path,
Their gods to us unknown !
Are they less sacred than the dead
Beneath the sculptured stone ?

I feel sweet Spirit, thou art near,
So holy and profound !
I feel thy presence in the night
Above this grassy mound !
I hear thee speak a mystic tongue
In accents all divine !
A language that immortals speak
In other worlds than mine.

Good-night ! sweet Spirit, I am earth,
And dark and dull and foul,
And all unfit to question thee
Who art the purest soul !
And as I came, so I return,
Still leaning in thy trust !
What far off ages gave to thee
An ancient Britain’s dust.

 

Ammon Wrigley (1861-1946)
Songs of a Moorland Parish, 1912.

Beware the Infrastructure Bill

Beautiful views across our National Parks and your rights to access them will soon be under threat.

Beautiful views across our National Parks and your rights to access them will soon be under threat.

As I write, the ‘Infrastructure Bill 2014’ current sits in its committee stage before the House of Lords (next due before the Lords on 14 October 2014). You may or may not have heard of it. Its best known component is to introduce the right for companies to ‘frack’ under your home, without first seeking your permission.

There is however an even more insidious aspect to this bill that could undo decades of progress in terms of the formation of our national parks, access to our landscape and the protection of our wildlife.

The intention of this bill is clear. Its primary purpose is to ease the way for corporations and developers to gain unhindered access to any part of our land that they wish to use for development or to frack for shale gas. As a landscape photographer, lover of nature, supporter of public ownership of our nation’s assets and access rights to our cherished landscapes, this bill causes me deep concern.

It is beyond dispute that we need more homes (although an awful lot could be done to assist local authorities bring empty houses back into use) and infrastructure to service those homes. It is however the nature of this bill that shows flagrant disregard for public ownership, public access and local consultation.

Local councils will be ordered to give over 90% of their brownfield land to the Housing and Communities Agency (HCA). Brownfield sites are previously developed sites that have become vacant, but could be reused and include parks, playing fields, allotments, woodlands, public facilities and village greens.

The bill states that, “The Secretary of State may at any time make one or more schemes for the transfer to the HCA of designated property, rights or liabilities of a specified public body.”

It continues,”These transfers are to take effect irrespective of any requirement to obtain a person’s consent or concurrence, any liability in respect of a contravention of another requirement, or any other interference with an interest or right, which would otherwise apply.”

This bill will take away any local power of decision over land use and pave the way for publically held land to be transferred to the HCA, who can extinguish existing protection and rights of way, such as access under the Countryside Rights of Way Act 2000, possibly even protection for Scheduled Ancient Monuments and Sites of Special Scientific Interest, grant permission for new roads and buildings and sell off land as it sees fit.

Any private company that buys the land will no longer be subject to local planning regulations and consultation. The Secretary of State will be able to grant to any development without the involvement of locally elected members or council departments such as planning , simply by consulting a panel of as little as two people.

In short, we could well see our national parks, playgrounds, village greens, woodland, allotments or any other publically owned facility, sold off to private companies to build on, frack, quarry, lay railway lines or do whatever they like. One thing can be taken as a certainty, we will have no say.

As for fracking, that is another matter entirely which would need an extended essay in its own right. Let’s just say that it would be a disaster for our national parks, countryside or communities to have this nightmare imposed upon them. It represents no cure at all for our energy security or economy, will not bring about any appreciable long-term boost for jobs, will not lower energy prices and will be an environmental disaster in terms of its effect on wildlife, water supplies and air quality. I urge you to go and find information on fracking for yourself and not take my word on this matter.

The Kinder Mass Trespass in 1932

The Kinder Mass Trespass in 1932

Rights of access for ordinary people to some of our best loved landscapes could be lost. It would be as if the Kinder Trespass had never happened. The lifetime of hard work by Tom Stephenson, who’s commitment and passion led to the opening of the Pennine Way, undone. Our national parks just a fond memory (massive budget cuts have already seen the Peak District National Park Authority forced to put many of its best loved locations up for lease or sale)and the long fought for ‘Right to Roam’ extinguished. We could well see a return to the days when ordinary people were excluded from their own landscape.

The Infrastructure Bill represents the biggest land-grab since the Enclosure Acts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. When George Osborne stated that green spaces would be protected, he meant the estates of his wealthy friends. Lands belonging to the Crown are conveniently exempt.

What do Labour have to say about this? Surprisingly little. Surely we can rely on Labour to champion the rights of common people? Unfortunately not, they have no current plans to oppose the bill. It seems that the transformation of the Labour Party from its socialist roots to neoliberal corporatists is complete.

Benny Rothman of the Kinder Trespass (left) and Tom Stephenson, creator of the Pennine Way (centre)

Benny Rothman of the Kinder Trespass (left) and Tom Stephenson, creator of the Pennine Way (centre)

So there we have it, all nicely stitched up for a foregone conclusion. Private companies win and the rights of ordinary people are trampled over once again. Once these measures are passed into law, they will be very hard to reverse, even if the will from any future government to do so is there and all current indications point to that being unlikely.

What can we do to stop this? In all probability, not an awful lot but we must try. You can write to your MP or councillors and express the strength of your opposition. With next year’s general election on the horizon, your local politicians will be keen to gain your support, especially in marginal constituencies. Let them know how much of an important issue this is. You can get involved in your local community groups, rambler’s groups or outdoor sports groups and spread the word, or get involved in your local anti-fracking group. But most important of all, keep the spirit of Benny Rothman, Tom Stephenson and all of those men and women who fought for our right to protect and access our beautiful landscape alive!