Blencathra is up for sale. Its owner hopes it might be bought by “some daft Russian”, but a campaign hopes to rally the public to buy the mountain instead. Could this ambitious idea work? And would the actual benefits outweigh the cost?
It’s one of the most beloved places in Lakeland, cited by Everest climber Doug Scott as his favourite mountain in the world and once described as “the perfect hill walker’s hill.”
Now Blencathra is going up for sale. Its owner Hugh Lowther, the eighth Earl of Lonsdale, is hoping to sell it in a bid to clear a £9 million inheritance tax bill.
Adopting an unconventional approach to salesmanship, Lowther told the Daily Mail he hoped he would find “some daft Russian” or Chinese buyer. But a campaign has been started to rally the public to purchase the mountain instead.
Leicester-based BMC member has started the website Buy Blencathra, which describes the sale as: “A once in a lifetime opportunity to purchase a mountain and donate it back to the nation in perpetuity.”
The sale of Blencathra might sound drastic, but as far as access for walkers and recreational enthusiasts go, little will change regardless of who owns it. The mountain is designated as Open Access land under the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act, meaning recreational users can roam where they like (subject to certain conditions).
Various levels of environmental protection also apply to Blencathra by virtue of it falling within a national park and being part of a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), so any potential development on the mountain would face very stiff legal obstacles.
Andy concedes this point, saying: “It’s a bit of a strange one in that at the end of the day, whoever buys it, the access will stay the same, and very little change is allowed under planning laws. Quite a few people have said ‘what’s the point?’
“In one respect there is no point at all, other than the mountain would not belong to an individual any more, it would belong to the community and the people as a whole. It’s quite an ideological point, in a way – to me it’s more the symbolic than practical value.
“My precedent for it was the 1923 purchase of Great Gable by the Fell and Rock Climbing Club. I thought, could we do something similar with Blencathra? It’s also a hundred years since the start of the First World War, and I thought it could be a very apt way to mark that.”
Andy’s campaign has generated early interest, with the website attracting 800 hits in two days and the Buy Blencathra Twitter feed gaining more than 250 followers.
“At this stage I’m just trying to get the idea off the ground and create a forum where people can gather views,” Andy says. “If we did try to progress we need to get a decent amount of people involved with the right expertise – I couldn’t do it single-handedly, would need a pretty strong group of people.”
Andy mentions the National Trust as a potential manager of the mountain if sufficient funds were raised, but stresses “there could be more than one solution.”
Value for money?
Even if enough money could be raised by the public, the question remains – what real value is there in spending millions on a mountain which is already open to the public and enjoys considerable statutory protection? Could the money be better spent elsewhere?
One possible answer is that an organisation like the National Trust or the John Muir Trust could have an influence over the way the mountain is managed if they owned it. Large-scale development may be effectively prohibited in National Parks, but ecological and environmental stewardship is a different matter.
The National Trust’s work to regenerate the moors of the Peak District, including Kinder Scout, or the John Muir Trust’s efforts to improve the natural habitat around Ben Nevis, show that environmental organisations can make a difference as landowners within protected landscapes by introducing measures to control and revitalise the natural environment.
Could something similar happen on Blencathra? Could we see the John Muir Trust introducing ‘rewilding’ measures, or the National Trust controlling grazing, modifying paths and planting new woodland?
Elfyn Jones, BMC Access and Conservation Officer for Wales, recalls the furore and hype surrounding the purchase of the southern flank of Snowdon in 1998 by the National Trust, and sees some parallels with the current sale of Blencathra. He said: “In 1998 the National Trust raised millions of pounds from public donations to ‘Save Snowdon’ for the nation. But many asked, what did Snowdon need saving from? Certainly there was no real or direct threat to public access or of inappropriate development as the mountain is fully protected by conservation designations and is mapped as open access.
“However, ownership by the National Trust has meant that a more appropriate conservation plan for this part of Snowdon has been adopted, a more sustainable grazing programme introduced and the actual conservation status of the land has improved.
“But the question still remains about the efficacy of conservation designations in the UK. Why is it that the public have to donate their money to conservation bodies in order to protect land that is already within National Parks and supposedly has the greatest level of conservation designation in Europe?”
Catherine Flitcroft, BMC Access and Conservation Policy Officer, said: “Blencathra is one of our most iconic mountains in England set in the beautiful Lake District National Park.
"Whilst the BMC feel the current level of protection awarded to the area will safeguard public interest, it is essential that whatever happens to this mountain, its value as a wild, exciting landscape to explore continues to be cherished.”
What do you think? Should the public donate funds to buy Blencathra, or is this money better spent elsewhere? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
WALK: These routes on Blencathra
Blencathra via Hall’s Fell (medium)
Blencathra via Sharp Edge (hard)