Author interview: Paul Besley, Day Walks in the South Pennines
- Tuesday 28 July 2020
Day Walks in the South Pennines author Paul Besley delves into the region's rich societal and industrial history and the impact this has had on the region's landscape ...
Your work as a writer has focused on how the physical environment imprints itself on humans. How does the South Pennines fit into this?
One of the great joys about walking in the South Pennines is that it IS a lived in landscape. I think one of the beneficial things that has happened to the South Pennine area is that it did not gain national park status and therefore the development of communities did not cease. The area suffered terribly in the 1980s economic downturn, being so dependent on textile and garment manufacturing, the communities were devastated when all that work moved abroad. In truth the decline had been happening for a decade or more before that and there was a general air of decrepitation about the landscape, as money was sucked away from the local community, hill farming came under pressure from the economics of mass retail. One of the reasons the area was not accepted as a national park was that it was not seen as a beautiful place because of all the industrial decline and the knock-on effects that had. So, communities were left to get on with it themselves, and they did. Look at Hebden Bridge, already it had a thriving literary community with the Arvon Foundation and the work of Ted Hughes, and of course Sylvia Plath who is now buried in Heptonstall church yard. Artists were drawn to the artistic environment and the availability of cheap housing, it reminds me of what happened in the 60s in Wales and the climbing community. The Hebden Bridge nucleus began to emit waves of social change throughout the area. Abandoned mills, warehouses, isolated villages and hamlets all started to see people moving back, refurbishing and re-purposing buildings to create beautiful living and working spaces within glorious and evocative countryside. As money started to flow back in, new homes were added and these were often of a contemporary design, something that could never have happened in a national park. This makes walking a truly new adventure in this country. This landscape is still evolving and it is not unusual to have the traditional alongside the ultra modern and both sit entirely happily within the often gothic landscape of the deep valleys and high moorlands. It was a real revelation to me to see what could happen if the local people were allowed to continue developing their own landscape.
How has the South Pennines history affected its landscape and can you still see evidence of its heritage?
The history of the South Pennines is one of commerce, industry and society. This is the birthplace of the Co-op, the Building Societies. Wesley preached in most of the villages and towns. Methodism was a driving force in the valley communities and the isolated high moorland hamlets. But well before that the drove roads ran trade across the Pennines and the land produced the wool that made this area the wool capital of the world. Old mills are a common sight in the South Pennines, many have been re-purposed but many are still laying forgotten. It brings a sense of melancholy to the landscape, particularly when the mills have a backdrop of blackened gritstone high above on the moors. Heritage is all around. Sometimes the heritage is seen in the everyday, like the line of washing, high up on the moorland, that I came across. I loved it, because it said that this land was connected to the people. This wasn’t a place where everyone had their doors painted in National Trust green, this wasn’t a landscape trying to be something else. This was real. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century the area was developed to supply water to the growing cities of the north west and Yorkshire and by happenstance provided some wonderful walking across a big landscape. Of course the M62 cuts right through the middle of it and it was impossible to pass up the chance to walk through the most famous farm in the country and stand between the east and west tracks of that motorway, the traffic roaring by. To my amazement, there was almost silence, the road and its vehicles swallowed up by the enormity of the surrounding geography.
Where is your favourite spot to go if you want to give your dogs a good run around?
If I was to take my dogs anywhere it would be Hardcastle Crags and the surrounding woodlands. They are so beautiful in autumn, this is the country for nose ploughing golden leaf and getting lost under huge piles on the woodland floor. For a stretch of the legs it has to be Ilkley Moor and the great walk following the Stanza Stones.
The South Pennines is passed by thousands of commuters on the M62 every day but many of them will never walk there. Do you think the area has become more or less frequented over the past few years?
I think that the South Pennines is seeing a growth in people finding it for the first time. And I think, albeit I might be responsible in a way, that the growth in numbers has to be managed well. This is not a landscape that sees huge numbers of visitors at weekends and bank holidays yet. And that means that solitude can be found everywhere. It is ironic that the places the nation placed under protection have become the most sought after destinations for millions of people. And that has caused problems with traffic and infrastructure unable to cope with the continuous push for ever more ways of enjoying fewer places. It has left a great deal of beautiful countryside, with interesting, vibrant communities, to remain relatively unknown, and unencumbered by policies that on the one hand promote tourism and on the other seek to limit people's enjoyment. So, I think numbers will grow and I hope that it will not be to the detriment of the local community. We must move away from seeing the countryside as an amenity, something to be used.
Do you think the pandemic has had an impact on people's relationship with the South Pennines landscape?
I think one of the significant aspects to come out of the pandemic and the lockdown is that people realised that the countryside was not within the bounds of a national park, but was local, even on their own doorstep. Many of the national parks worked hard in keeping people away, often to the detriment of people who regularly walked, climbed and enjoyed the spaces the parks provided. People had to find other ways of fulfilling their need for exercise, fresh air, and the beneficial effects that being in nature brings about. People found that there was beauty and enjoyment in the local landscape. They realise that the countryside was not restricted to a national park, but that it was all around, and some places far exceeded what national parks had. The South Pennines is a perfect example. Because there is real beauty here, breathtaking scenery that all has a strong connection to people. Having once been exposed to this new place, that has been driven past by countless millions, people want to explore more and what delights them is the reality of the area, and the lack of focus on tourism. One thing people find in the South Pennines is peace with a hidden wilderness.