The Peak District National Park became the United Kingdom’s first national park on 17 April 1951. Statistically, the area is enormously popular sitting as it does between Manchester and Sheffield west and east, and north of Nottingham and Derby. It’s accessed quite easily from Manchester, indeed you can reach its edges in around thirty five minutes. This reason alone is why I’ve become increasingly fond of the place and I think this is more than personal subjectivity. It concerns how people feel about living in a big city amongst its horrors and how the hills offer escape. It’s not just me.
Northern England used to be an industrial area with Liverpool once rivalling London in terms of power and influence, when its ports facilitated worldwide sea trade. Manchester was once the most important industrial city in the world, heart of the Industrial Revolution – for good and bad, source of wealth for some but workplace exploitation for others as described by Friedrich Engels. Sheffield used to be a major producer of steel. Bolton, like Manchester, was a major town for the cotton trade; its mills powered by water of which there is plenty because of pronounced rainfall. Newcastle was a city of coal mining and heavy industry. In the 17th and 18th centuries Leeds was a major centre for wool production and in the Industrial Revolution expanded into engineering and iron work. It is I think this historic character of the North, with close proximity to fine countryside, which marks the Peak District in a particular way.
This aspect of the Peak District is however a double sided topic. I find it irrelevant if people speak repeatedly of grit stone climbing fifty years ago and how such activities were a recreational political escape for working class people: as if no other discourse is possible. The hills, as such, are inert geography oblivious to any chips you might carry on your shoulder. This is not a trivial point. The hills are for everyone, irrespective of who you are; this is one part of their value and it means the Peak District is not the ideological property of one group of people. Where access rights remain an issue – and they do across the country – it’s not only a concern for, as it were, men in cloth caps complaining about the guvnor in a pub. I’m not sure Woodbines still exist, if they do they have to be sucked outside, and hurrah for overdue legislation. Times change. Women also walk the hills. The hills, interestingly and importantly, remain the same.
What I’m considering then, is social and political ideas the Peak District in particular embodies. It was a working class playground, especially important when working conditions were foul. The worse the working week, the more important the hills become. Further, the Peak District was an area controlled by the aristocracy, prompting the important Kinder Scout Mass Protest. It was an idea whose time had come: you can’t stop us walking in these hills if we arrive here in large numbers. The power of the land owning toff crumbled. Not entirely – and the dispute remains also in Scotland for example – but the toffs got a “thrashing,” as they used to say, when they used sticks or the flat of a sword against the upstart working class. Kinder Scout protesters were beaten. There’s a scene in EM Forster’s novel Howard’s End I find very poignant and upsetting in regard to this topic. The toff Charles says “In that case he must pay heavily for his misconduct and be thrashed within an inch of his life.” He proceeds to inflict that thrashing on innocent working class Leonard, already victimised by society, and who reels and falls backward and is killed by falling furniture. Forster depicts accepted class brutality the equal of any racist or religious killing. Charles feels entitled to assault Leonard and gets away with it because of his social class.
The Peak District has emblematic association with such class based topics, and importantly so. But times have changed since the Edwardian era and since the Kinder Scout protest. The political significance of the Peak District remains, but it’s now 2013 which means unreconstituted tales from another time are not materially relevant. But they are symbolically relevant and I – who only worked in a factory as a boy – align myself very closely with the complexities of the struggle, but not with its tired old formulations and dusty tribal habits.