Saddleback and the Honorary President of the Friends of Blencathra-Chris Bonington.
The news that the Earl of Lonsdale has put the iconic Lakeland mountain of Blencathra up for sale with bids starting just short of £2m, has certainly achieved wide spread publicity across the national news media. From The Telegraph to Trail, The Guardian to Grough, writers and broadcasters in both the news and outdoor media, have found the story offering great scope and potential for some good old fashioned stereotyping. Particularly since news emerged that a group of locals had banded together in an attempt to raise the necessary amount through public pledges and subscriptions. With revered local mountaineer Chris Bonington in the role of honorary president of the ‘Friends of Blencathra’ group, the media have certainly found the romantic angle to hang the story around.
Plucky locals taking on the huge challenge of scaling the financial heights against the odds and even more disturbingly, possibly taking on the financial might of an outsider! Russian oligarchs, Texan oil barons, Saudi sheiks have been mentioned...who knows who might be attracted by highly desirable handle ‘Lord of the Manor of Threlkeld’ and the potential to sweep an arm over the mountain and say ‘One day Mohammed/ Ivan/ Chuck....all this will be yours’!
I admit to being a bit cynical about these well publicised mountain sales. Although it has to be better for a charity or organization to own an estate than an individual, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really alter the general publics’ statutory right to access a mountain like Blencathra, and the strict planning controls within our national parks make it impossible to develop them anyway. Apart from grazing , forestry and possibly small scale hydro developments -which are taking off here in the Snowdonia National Park- fat cats are always going to find slim pickings in the mountains.
So...if the Friends of Blencathra do purchase the mountain, what happens then and what difference will it make for the general public? I imagine those who farm the lower slopes will still enjoy the grazing rights, the footpaths will remain although who has responsibility for maintaining them...The National Park Authority or the Trust/Private owner? At the end of the day, for those who currently avail themselves of Blencathra’s charms- be it through physical exertion or photographic/artistic interpretation- will still be in exactly the same place as they are now. The difference being that a feudal relic will be a couple of million quid better off!
In the Snowdonia National Park, we’ve seen some pretty well publicised mountain estate purchases by the National Trust which are remarkable for the gross financial ineptness of the Trust’s management committee and its financial advisers. Paying through the nose for the Hafod y Llan Estate which included part of the Yr Wyddfa summit, and the Llundy Isaf Farm near Beddgelert, has not changed the landscape one jot for the general public but it has seen the private landowners who sold the estates, almost certainly dancing a jig. Incredulous at their own good fortune in encountering a charity who throws money around like a drunken lottery winner!
So...Good Luck to the Friends of Blencathra but from an environmental perspective, it might be better for a Charity/Trust to spend a couple of million pounds purchasing a lowland estate where ecosystems can be protected, where traditional skills can be taught, where habitats can be developed and threatened species can be saved. And yes...where our socially disadvantaged inner city kids can be accommodated and given the opportunity to experience outdoor activities and be taught environmental studies. That type of financial investment really would make a difference to the environment and it would provide much needed jobs as well. As it stands, just buying Blencathra will achieve very little in social or ecological terms. It will make a nice story in the Guardian though.