Maintaining links between our landscapes and communities

John Wilson, chief executive Tony Gates, Couns Glen Sanderson and Anthony Murray.
John Wilson, chief executive Tony Gates, Couns Glen Sanderson and Anthony Murray.

Northumberland National Park – one of 10 in England – is a real jewel in the county’s crown. Reporter BEN O’CONNELL went up to Ingram in the Breamish Valley this week to find out more about how those responsible for the park see their role, as well as their plans for the future.

National Parks in the UK are not the same as those in the US, they aren’t simply wildlife reserves, but living and evolving landscapes.

How The Sill will look.

How The Sill will look.

As chief executive of the Northumberland National Park Authority, Tony Gates, says: “It’s a cultural landscape; yes, it’s got natural beauty, but it’s also shaped by the people.”

A good example of this is one of the key archaeological assets of the park, the 2,000-year-old hillforts, which are some of the oldest in northern Europe and a clear tie between the landscape and the people who lived there.

“That link between people and landscape is important, it’s not one or the other,” said Mr Gates.

“It’s not about preserving it in aspic, but managing change over time.

“The National Park’s future is very much tied to the future of the upland communities.”

And it’s for that reason that the authority will sometimes get involved in issues such as the potential closure of Branton Community First School and the loss of Harbottle Surgery – because of the detrimental impact on those communities.

And Coun Glen Sanderson, who became chairman of the authority in the summer, is clearly on board with that message.

He explained that he sees his and the authority’s roles as ‘ensuring tourists have a fantastic experience, but just as important is that the people who live and work here feel that they have the full backing of the park and the same opportunities as those who live in more populated areas’.

“The authority isn’t a heavy-handed, bureaucratic organisation,” he went on. “It’s very much an enabler and a friend to the people who live in, work in and visit the park.”

Mr Gates added: “We try not to operate any other way than with the community.”

Coun Sanderson became chairman in July and he says lots of things have happened since then, not least the final sign-off and start of the construction of The Sill.

Described as a National Landscape Discovery Centre, Northumberland National Park Authority members overwhelmingly approved the decision to move forward with the £14.8million development in September.

Construction has now begun at the Once Brewed site, in the west of the county, starting with demolition of the current National Park Visitors’ Centre and Youth Hostel.

Coun Sanderson said: “It’s a great success, but that’s just a part of the National Park. This part where we are now is just as important.

“The Sill is going to generate a lot of events and educational opportunities for the whole park.”

That view is clearly echoed by others, not least Mr Gates, who said the ‘very exciting project, the largest project ever undertaken in a National Park’ was going to put Northumberland on the map in many ways.

“It’s not just about a building on Hadrian’s Wall,” he continued. “This is a huge opportunity for the whole of the National Park up to Wooler and the Scottish Borders.”

Coun Anthony Murray, who represents Wooler and is another member of the authority’s board, added: “It’s the activities that flow out of The Sill that matter just as much.”

Being a national landscape centre means it is there for everyone and is an interactive environment where people can find out more about the landscape, how it was formed, what it’s like today and who lives and works there.

Mr Gates said: “It came from feedback from visitors who came for Hadrian’s Wall, but left with abiding memories of the landscape.”

Referring to Glendale Agricultural Society’s Children’s Countryside Day, which sees youngsters from Tyneside learn about farming and where their food comes from, he said: “That’s what the National Park should be doing – reconnecting people with the landscape.”

The Sill should be up and running by June 2017 and then when funding can be found, in an era of less and less coming from central government, the plan is to create satellite sites around that hub.

Mr Gates said: “We want to capture people there (at Hadrian’s Wall) and show them what else there is.”

Like Ingram, for example.

John Wilson, one of the local representatives on the authority’s board, recalls the hordes of people coming to the valley from the county’s urban areas during the pitmen and shipbuilders’ fortnight in the 1950s.

Coun Sanderson said: “We want to get back to those days when people from Ashington and Blyth are coming here again because the park is just as much theirs as ours.”

Whatever happens, there is a great deal of optimism and excitement for what’s to come over the next decade.

Mr Gates said: “We want to stay relevant. I like to think we have a really good relationship with the people who live here.

“We are also doing things differently in Northumberland, we are trying new and innovative things as well as encouraging other people to do different and innovative things.”

Coun Sanderson added: “We are very ambitious, because we want to make sure we are doing what we set out to do.

“Government funding will continue to fall, whoever’s in power, and we will have to do more on our own initiative.”