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The Natural Beauty of National Parks in UK

With rugged hills, unspoilt coast and acres of gentle beauty, our national parks are a wonderful natural asset. Sara Maitland looks back at the parks’ history, and the joy they have brought her.

South Downs TelscombeI have stood on Hadrian’s Wall looking at the long view northwards, with the wind in my face and deep sympathy in my heart for those poor Roman legionaries. I have watched herds of red deer come down to the road to feed less than a mile from hundreds of skiers taking advantage of a late cold snap by making a day trip to the slopes. I have had my best-ever cream tea in a thick mist on Exmoor after failing to see a singlemarsh fritillary butterfly all day. All these, and many other delights, have happened to me in a national park. There is almost certainly a national park near you. Most of us live within an hour of at least one huge area of iconic countryside – conserved and protected from most development and with a legal obligation to “promote opportunities for [your] enjoyment”. Off-road cycling, craft shopping, natural history expeditions, surfing, historic ruins, village fetes and, of course, walking are all available.

These parks are not there by accident. In 1949 the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was passed. It was a small but significant piece of legislation from Clement Attlee’s radical postwar Labour government. It created a legal framework for the present-day national parks, and specified relative ease of access: “The distribution of selected areas should as far as practicable be such that at least one of them is quickly accessible from each of the main centres of population.”

By 1957 there were 10 national parks, and another five have been added since. The most recent addition was the South Downs national park in March 2010.

They were a long time coming. In 1882, after a legal and political battle, the mayor and the City of London Corporation opened Epping Forest with the commitment that the conservators should “at all times keep Epping Forest unenclosed and unbuilt on as an open space for the recreation and enjoyment of the people”. This was a brand new idea: a large area, whose primary function was to provide recreation space for people who did not live in it. It was also Britain’s first “nature reserve”. Epping became a forerunner of the national parks idea. It was badly needed.

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