National Treasures

An opening double-page spread in Country & Border Life magazine
An opening double-page spread in Country & Border Life magazine

Country & Border Life

In the year Wales’ national parks celebrate their 50th birthday, Simon Whaley walks through history and discovers that the idea behind these gems is much older …

“Where’s McDonalds?” cries a young boy clambering out of a car near St Justinian on the Pembrokeshire Coast.

“There isn’t one,” says Mum, retrieving a picnic hamper from the boot.

I can’t help but smile as I sit amongst the pink thrift flowering beside the coastal path, and overlook the lifeboat station with its slipway jutting out into Ramsey Sound. With a gentle sea breeze ruffling my hair, skylarks whistling overhead and a warm sun reflecting off the tranquil sea, any development here would be completely inappropriate.

How lucky then, that where I’m sitting is within the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, one of three national parks to be found in Wales.

With a combined area of over 411,000 hectares, the Brecon Beacons, Pembrokeshire Coast and Snowdonia National Parks cover 20% of Wales. Whilst they’ve all survived more than 50 years, the story behind National Parks dates back to the end of the 19th Century.

The very first national park to be designated anywhere in the world, was Yellowstone, USA, in 1872. The idea was seen as groundbreaking and pressure for similar protection of our most naturally beautiful landscapes began to grow at this time too. The expansion of the railways for example, meant that people from the towns and cities could travel to these areas, and experience the great outdoors for themselves. Many enjoyed walking out amongst the hills and getting the fresh air that they were often denied in their ordinary, working day lives. During the 1920’s and 1930’s, organisations such as the Rambler’s Association, the Youth Hostel Association and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales were formed because of this upsurge in enjoyment of outdoor activities. There were high hopes in 1931 when a government committee chaired by Lord Addison recommended that a National Park Authority should be established to identify which areas of England and Wales needed protecting with National Park status. Yet nothing happened.

So in 1935, several voluntary organisations formed the Standing Committee for National Parks, which later became known as the Council for National Parks, to pressurise the Government. They lobbied hard for several years, but unfortunately, the Second World War diverted most people’s attention to more pressing matters elsewhere.

Labour’s Legacy

Despite this, there was still some work going on behind the scenes in the early 1940’s whilst the country was at war. Lord Justice Scott said in a 1942 committee report that “the establishment of national parks in Britain is long overdue.” When the Ministry of Town and Country Planning was set up in 1943, one of the first actions it took was to ask architect, John Dower, to investigate what problems might occur in establishing national parks. It was Dower who defined that a national park should be “an extensive area of beautiful and relatively wild country in which, for the nation’s benefit and by appropriate national decision and action, (a) the characteristic beauty is strictly preserved, (b) access and facilities for public open air enjoyment are amply provided, (c) wildlife and buildings and places of architectural and historic interest are suitably protected.”

In 1945, whilst planning the post war reconstruction of Britain, the Labour Party published a white paper on the creation of National Parks. Four years later, with all party support, the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act led the way to the creation of National Parks across England and Wales. Snowdonia was the first National Park to be designated in Wales in 1951, the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park was created in 1952 and the Brecon Beacons were designated in 1957. Each National Park has its own Authority, and they are charged with two aims:

• To conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the National Parks and,

• To promote opportunities for the public understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the Parks.

If ever there is a conflict between the two aims, then it’s the first aim that takes precedence. Although each National Park Authority is independent, it is part of the local government framework and the Parks work closely with the appropriate local authorities. The National Park Authorities are also the local planning authorities, which mean that they have the final say on any development within the park. They are not against all development, but any development that occurs has to be appropriate and in the right place.

Park Promotion

But that’s not all that they do. The second aim of the 1949 Act is to promote opportunities for exploring the special qualities of the parks. It’s a finely balanced job because increased visitor numbers puts more pressure on the very landscape they are charged with protecting. As Richard Barnett from the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority says, “the best and most environmentally friendly way for visitors to travel is on buses run by Pembrokeshire Greenways, a partnership that includes the National Park Authority. The services, named Poppit Rocket, Strumble Shuttle, Celtic Coaster, Puffin Shuttle, and Coastal Cruiser have been running for 8 years, and last year carried 60,000 passengers around the coast within the National Park. Thirty thousand fewer car trips were made in the National Park last year thanks to the buses.”

A common misconception is that the National Parks are nationally owned. This is not the case. In fact within both Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons, 70% of the land is in private hands. In Pembrokeshire this figure rises to nearly 90%. You cannot just go wandering off on National Park land anywhere you like. As well as being outstandingly beautiful, these places are also working communities where people are striving to work hard and earn a living. Ironically, it was the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 that increased access within our National Parks, by creating Open Access Land, something that many outdoor groups had called for long before the 1949 National Park Act, which gave us these protected parks in the first place.

National Parks have a difficult job to do. It’s a fine balancing act trying to preserve the peace, tranquillity and beauty of a landscape, whilst encouraging more people to explore and learn about the wildlife and history of the area, and also fostering the social and economic well-being of the communities within it.
Picking up my rucksack, the coast path beckons once more and it’s time to get moving again. I often wonder what this coastline would be like, if the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park didn’t exist. Would the oil terminals at Milford Haven have expanded and obliterated the sights I see before me now? Who knows?
Heading back to the car, I can’t help but think about what the late broadcaster and journalist, Brian Redhead said when he was President of the Council for National Parks. He noted that these places were “not ours, but ours to look after.” I whole-heartedly agree.

This month, there are three walks to tempt you into each one of our national parks. The Snowdonia and Pembrokeshire routes are relatively gentle, whilst the Brecon Beacons route is a bit more challenging. For more information about events taking place in your nearest National Park, and other walking ideas, visit the relevant National Park website or contact one of the National Park visitor centres (see box).

Snowdonia National Park – Torrent Walk near Brithdir and Dolgellau

2 ½ miles – Gentle
OS Map – OL23 – Cadair Idris & Bala Lake

Park in the small lay-by on the B4416 opposite the school, between the village of Brithdir and the main A470 road. Follow the B road towards Brithdir until you reach St Mark’s Church on your right, and a narrow lane on your left. Turn left, down the lane and follow this for over a kilometre, passing a couple of farms on both sides. You may be able to hear the Clywedog stream in the gorge on your left as you pass through some gates and enter a Forestry Commission area. Fork gently to the left and at a lane, turn left, so that you cross over the stream, and then turn left again, through an iron gate.
Proceed along this path, with the stream on your left, through the trees, and look out for three large boulders across the path. Continue, ignoring any paths off to your right, passing a bench. Eventually, the path crosses the stream once more over an iron bridge to rejoin the B4416. Turn left, passing a lane on your right to Caerynwch, to return to the lay-by.

St Mark’s Church is one of the few Art Nouveau churches in existence in Wales. Step inside and marvel at the brightly painted walls and ceiling, and the copper pulpit and altar.

Pembrokeshire Coast National Park – St Justinian’s near St David’s

2 miles – Gentle
OS Map – OL35 – North Pembrokeshire

Either park in the small lay-by at the end of the St David’s to St Justinian’s road, or take the Celtic Coaster (seasonal) minibus from St David’s, and follow the lane heading back inland, passing several buildings at Rhosson. Just after passing a campsite on your right, take the signed footpath on your left, along a track, passing two properties on the left. Where the track bears right, continue ahead on signed path towards Porthselau Sands, with a caravan park on your left. Ignore the footpath joining from the right.

At a junction with the coast path, turn left and follow this around the headland, with great views to your right of Carreg-gafeiliog rocks, and as the path bears left again, Ramsey Island. Look out on the rocks and islands for any signs of seals, or dolphins swimming off the coast.

The path eventually turns sharp left again, with excellent views of the lifeboat station, before bearing right to come up behind it. Once past the wooden shed, turn left to rejoin the lane and return to the car, or await the Celtic Coaster to return you to St David’s.

Brecon Beacons National Park – Pen Y Fan near Brecon

4 miles – Strenuous
OS Map – OL12 – Brecon Beacons National Park Western Area

This energetic and steep walk takes you to the summit of the highest peak in the Brecon Beacons, and offers fantastic views across the national park. Walking boots are recommended for this route. From the Storey Arms car park on the A470 (Brecon to Merthyr Tydfil Road), take the path signed to Pen Y Fan (near to the toilets), pass through a kissing gate, drop down to cross a stream and then begin to climb. Follow the main path as it bears gently left and then begins a long sweep right, up to the top of the ridge, where you meet a junction of paths. Take the second path on your right, which skirts around the right hand side of Corn Du, before being joined by a path on the left. Climb up the final section to the summit of Pen Y Fan and its big cairn. Admire the spectacular views and get your breath back!
Return back along the path you came, but this time, at the fork, bear right to continue a long the ridge and climb up to the summit of Corn Du. From here, bear left to pick up a path which drops back down to the junction of many paths you reached earlier. Return to the car park using the same path used to ascend to this point, and discover that going down hill uses different muscles as going up!

Facts about the Snowdonia National Park.

• Snowdonia was the third National park to be created in England and Wales in 1951, and is the second largest, covering 823 square miles.
• There are over 10.5 million day visits to the area every year.
• Snowdonia stretches from the Dyfi Estuary in the south to Conwy in the north, and the Conwy valley in the east to Cardigan Bay in the west.
• Snowdon, (Yr Wyddfa) is the highest mountain in the park at 3,560 feet.
• There are 9 mountain ranges within the park, covering 52% of its entire area.

Facts about the Brecon Beacons National Park

• The Brecon Beacons is 50 years old this year, being the 10th park to be created in England & Wales in 1957.
• It covers an area of 520 square miles between Hay on Wye and Abergavenny in the east to Llandovery and Llandeilo in the west.
• 7 million day visits take place within the park every year.
• In October 2005, the Brecon Beacons became the first Geopark in Wales, and the only National Park in the UK to be awarded Geopark status. Geoparks recognise the exceptional geological qualities of the area, as well as its scientific, educational, historic and cultural qualities. There are only 31 Geoparks in Europe.

Facts about the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park
• Pembrokeshire is the only coastal National Park in England and Wales.
• Created in 1952, the fifth in the National Park family, it celebrates its 55th birthday this year, with approximately 5 million day visits annually.
• It covers 240 square miles, stretching from Amroth near Saundersfoot and Tenby, westwards round to Poppit Sands, near Cardigan.
• It’s not just cliffs and beaches. The National Park includes the Preseli Hills, between Cardigan and Fishguard, where the stones were taken to construct Stonehenge in Wiltshire.

National Park Authority Contacts
Snowdonia National Park Information Centre
Royal Oak Stables, Betws-y-Coed, Conwy, LL24 0AH
Tel: 01690 710426

Pembrokeshire National Park Visitor Centre,
The Grove, St David’s, Pembrokeshire, SA62 6NW
Tel: 01437 720392

Brecon Beacons National Park Visitor Centre
The Mountain Centre, Libanus, Brecon, Powys, LD3 7DP
Tel: 01874 623366

Become a Friend!

All three National Parks have ‘friendly’ societies, comprising people who want to learn more and support the work the parks do. This ranges from volunteering for practical conservation work to offering guided walks and talks. To find out more contact:

Snowdonia Society: Ty Hyll, Capel Curig, Conwy, LL24 0DS

Friend of Pembrokeshire National Park: PO Box 218, Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, SA61 1WR

Brecon Beacons Park Society:

Council for National Parks: 6-7 Barnard Mews, London, SW11 1QU

© Simon Whaley