The perfect Pennines

For 25 years it has been a protected natural space. Brian Daniel explores the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty

Heather covers a hillside near Allenheads in Northumberland
Heather covers a hillside near Allenheads in Northumberland

IT is a special year for the North Pennines, as this stunningly beautiful part of the North East countryside is celebrating two anniversaries.

Ten years ago, it became Britain’s first European Geopark, a status that recognises the area’s outstanding and unique geological heritage.

It’s also 25 years since it was designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), recognising it as one of England’s most important landscapes.

The North Pennines is a distinctive landscape of high moorland and broad upland dales. It is unquestionably one of the most remote and unspoilt places in England.

Geographically, the North Pennines lies between the national parks of the Yorkshire Dales and Northumberland, with the former West Durham coalfield to the east and the Eden Valley to the west. The AONB is mostly within the boundaries of five local authorities: Durham, Northumberland and Cumbria County Councils, and the districts of Carlisle and Eden, with 2.6 square kilometres in North Yorkshire around Tan Hill.

The North Pennines also cross the boundaries of two English regions – the North East and the North West.

Among the North Pennines’ fans were the great English poet WH Auden, who spent much of his time in the area and set some 40 poems and two plays there. He referred to the region as his ‘Mutterland’, his ‘great good place’, and equated it with his idea of Eden.

Scores of Pennine place-names are found in his work, including Cauldron Snout and Rookhope.

The area was designated as an AONB on June 7, 1988. At almost 2,000 square kilometres, it is the second largest of the AONB family, with only the Cotswolds bigger. The North Pennines is bigger than all but two of the English and Welsh National Parks, with only the Lake District and Snowdonia larger.

The primary purpose of the AONB designation was to ‘conserve and enhance the natural beauty of the area’. That is the job of the AONB partnership, an alliance of statutory agencies, local authorities and voluntary or community organisations which care about, and for, the area. The work of the partnership is carried out through the AONB staff unit, based at Stanhope, in Weardale, and employed through its accountable body, Durham County Council.

It meets twice a year to consider issues related to the conservation and enhancement of natural beauty in the AONB. An executive group meets three times a year to provide support to the staff unit on operational matters.

A flavour of the work carried out by the partnership was last night given by its director Chris Woodley-Stewart, as he looked back on its anniversary.

He said: “The AONB partnership has supported, financially and perhaps more importantly with hands-on practical help, around 200 community projects over this time.

“Heritage skills programmes have created new jobs in the area, our historic environment is now better understood and more people are involved in discovering and caring for it; thousands of children have taken part in award-winning and celebrated projects with schools and young people’s groups, and nature is now firmly at the heart of the local tourism industry; but there is much still to do.

“The AONB designation itself is sometimes like a good referee in a football match – you don’t always notice the impact they have, but the game flows better for their presence.

He added: “There are lots of challenges ahead to ensure that the North Pennines remains ‘of outstanding natural beauty’ whilst being a place where communities and businesses prosper; not least amongst these is ensuring that the farming community remains strong and that farming is an attractive and viable business for young people to move into. There’s also certainly scope for more good quality development in the AONB, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that, or of the importance of good design in helping to bring it about.”

The landscape of the North Pennines contains numerous habitats of conservation value, including blanket bog, upland heath, species-rich hay meadows, oak and ash woodlands, juniper scrub, flushes and springs and unimproved and heavy-metal rich grasslands. Large numbers of birds, including 10,000 pairs of breeding waders and 80% of England’s black grouse, breed and feed on the open moors and adjacent grasslands of the area.

It has a high concentration of nationally and internationally important conservation sites. Some 36.5% of the AONB is designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest. There are also three National Nature Reserves, five candidate Special Areas of Conservation with five more under consideration and a Special Protection Area. There are footpaths and bridleways to explore, including the Pennine Way National Trail, the C2C National Cycle Route, the Pennine Cycle Route, the Pennine Byway and the Pennine Bridleway.

The 25th anniversary is being marked by the partnership with a series of activities throughout the year. Twenty-five educational events are taking place across the area to highlight the qualities that make it such a special place.

One of the major highlights in the year’s calendar is the first ever North Pennines Walking Festival.

This new festival is being lead by the Friends of the North Pennines, with the support of the partnership and many other organisations. The festival has been arranged to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Alfred Wainwright’s epic Pennine Journey, which saw him set off from his home in Settle on a solitary walk to Hadrian’s Wall, passing through much of the North Pennines. The festival is launched on September 28, the same day as Wainwright set off on his 11-day odyssey. There are 15 separate walks taking place on the day, each following the legs of the legendary walker’s adventure. Find out more about the festival at www.north pennineswalkingfestival.org.uk

Celebrations continue into the autumn and throughout the winter months with a series of events, including the highly anticipated launch of the North Pennines Dark Skies Discovery Sites. Ten places in the AONB are in the process of being designated as Dark Skies Discovery Sites - places where people can experience the best that the night sky has to offer.

Astronomer and award-winning photographer Graham Relf will be on hand at the launch night at Parkhead Station, near Stanhope.

Finally, on December 28 the partnership’s deputy director, Peter Samsom, leads a climb to the top of Bolts Law in the Rookhope Valley.

The AONB partnership has supported, financially and with practical help, 200 community projects.

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