Seventy years ago today, on 31 March 1949, the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Bill began its second reading in the House of Commons.
My friend Len Clark was there. He has written of the ‘thrill of sitting in the public gallery of the House of Commons, with my wife to be [Isobel Hoggan], as we listened to politicians of all parties signing up to faith in their creation, at the second reading of the 1949 act’.
For Len and Isobel it was a good day out. However, I believe my mother (of similar age to Len) decided to celebrate her 32nd birthday elsewhere!
It was a long debate running to 200 columns of Hansard (3.50 – 10 pm on 31 March, and 11am to 3.58 pm on 1 April). The bill introduced much that was new: national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, national nature reserves, definitive maps of public paths, long-distance paths (now national trails), and access agreements and orders. It was an extremely important post-war initiative, though some parts of it were much better than others.
A memorable moment was when Lewis Silkin, then Minister of Town and Country Planning, in moving the second reading, said (column 1493):
This is not just a bill. It is a people’s charter—a people’s charter for the open air, for the hikers and the ramblers, for everyone who lives to get out into the open air and enjoy the countryside. Without it they are fettered, deprived of their powers of access and facilities needed to make holidays enjoyable. With it the countryside is theirs to preserve, to cherish, to enjoy and to make their own.
I read those splendid words to a gathering yesterday to celebrate the ninth anniversary of the South Downs National Park. This is the newest national park, but it was on the original list identified in the 1947 report of the National Parks Committee which was chaired by Sir Arthur Hobhouse. The committee wrote of the South Downs:
We were impressed with the importance of including at least one national park within easy reach of London. There exists in the South Downs and area of still unspoilt country, certainly of less wildness and grandeur than the more rugged parks of the north and west, but possessing great natural beauty and much open rambling land, extending south-eastwards to the magnificent chalk cliffs of Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters.n we recommend it unhesitatingly on its intrinsic merits as well as on the ground of its accessibility.
There was a long campaign to get the South Downs made into a national park, and we missed Len yesterday: he was deeply involved in that campaign and often came to these celebratory events, but now the journey from Farncombe in Surrey is a bit too much for him.
After the speeches, at the Queen Elizabeth Country Park near Petersfield in Hampshire, we enjoyed a six-mile walk, taking in the attractive village of Buriton
and back through the beech hangers.
And after the walk I went alone to the top of Butser Hill, with misty views and skylarks.
The downs are not as unspoilt as they were when Hobhouse reported; much of the chalk downland and sheep walks have disappeared and there are significant development pressures. But they are still beautiful and inspirational, and provide enjoyment for thousands of people.
Indeed, the national parks of England and Wales are a success story, but they need stronger protection and more funding—something for which we constantly argue—so that they really can fulfil the 1949 dream of a countryside for the people, in Silkin’s words, ‘to cherish, to enjoy and to make their own’.