The news that The English Lake District has received UNESCO World Heritage status-up there with Machu Picchu and The Great Barrier Reef- has been met with mixed reactions depending on one’s perspective. For environmentalist, George Monbiot, writing of the possibility back in May, it would be...and now is presumably..’a disaster!’. For like a lot of environmentalists, George sees the Lake District as one of many UK ‘Sheepwrecked landscapes’. An artificial environment where a once healthy and diverse ecosystem has been bludgeoned to near death by the heavy hand of man. All in the interest of profit above ecological sustainability.
In particular, the farming and landowning community who own so much of the Lake District and who have left the mountains and valleys tamed and de-wilded through their agricultural and forestry activities. Hillsides once richly laden with trees now grazed to the bone. Valleys similarly tamed, manicured and reworked in the accepted contemporary tourist chocolate box image.
For the Lake District Tourist Chief Executive, Richard Leafe, it’s ‘Great News!’ which will see at least a 20% increase in the number of Lake District visitors. Great News indeed...if you are looking forward to sitting in an 8 mile tailback on the Kendal By-Pass approaching Windermere, instead of a 5 mile tail back! The thing is, the last thing the Lake District needs is more tourists. As someone who does in fact like the Lakes, even though it is in effect a manicured park as opposed to a wild mountain area-like many people, I wouldn’t go within a hundred miles of the place during the summer holidays. Winter and late autumn are the best times to visit although compared to North Wales and Scotland, it’s still fairly busy. Spring is an option although by then it becoming noticeably busier, but come the third week in July....Release Hell!’
Places like Bowness, Ambleside and Keswick resemble London’s Oxford Street for crowds and who in their right mind would put themselves through that?? So...what exactly will UNESCO World Heritage status bring to the table? Actually...nothing really. The same planning laws will apply. The same wages will be paid to Polish bar staff and Romanian hotel chamber maids. The car parks will still be full. The B&B’s and self catering cottages will still charge an arm and a leg and the pubs will still sell their beer at marked up prices compared to northern town and city prices. People will still queue to climb on Raven crag, walk in a slow convoy up Helvellyn, tear arse around Grizedale Forest on mountain bikes and picnic in great numbers on Catbells.
But it will give Tourist advertising agencies another angle to sell the dream. The images will inevitably show snow topped mountains, a boat gently bobbing on empty waters, red squirrels, daffodils and long dead poets. The UNESCO award could though be seen as rewarding farming bad practice. Furthermore it rewards a ruthlessly exploited property system, driven by wealthy outsiders, which has led to social cleansing of local people. Victims of sky high property prices and the second home boom which brings in train the inevitable social consequences. Lake District second homes equals school closures, shops and post offices closed down. Bus services ended. Once living villages reduced in winter to slumbering film sets where no dog barks, the windows are shuttered and the chimneys are dead and cold. It rewards short sighted bureaucrats who are more concerned with profits and numbers than sustainability, and it uses a very narrow market definition of what constitutes a site worthy of world heritage status.
I will still visit the Lakes to pick off some of the summits I’ve never done and take a sup for old times sake in the ODG, but the whole UNESCO thing leaves me quite cold I’m afraid. You do have to question the credentials of UNESCO officials AND the Lake District blow in Petite bourgeoisie who have driven this ill conceived exercise in self promotion over environmental impact.