It is a new job, and a new area, both for me and for the Trust: an amalgamation of a number of properties being thought of together for the first time. We take in the land around and beyond the outer edges of the Lake District National Park, stretching far into the quiet emptiness of the Eden Valley east of Penrith, and to the heavily populated coastline of north Lancashire. Since I started in this job I have often heard of people refer to our area as ‘the National Trust in miniature’, and it certainly does reflect the full range of the organisation.
We have historic houses with their gardens and wider country estates, both large (Sizergh Castle, near Kendal) and small (Acorn Bank, in the Eden Valley underneath Cross Fell). We have a country park (Fell Foot) on the southern shore of Lake Windermere, bustling with boats and picnicking families. We have a number of smaller properties like Cartmel Priory, and Dalton Castle, and remote Pennine farmsteads. In Heysham Head we have a vital green lung amidst the houses, factories, power stations and docks of Morecambe and Heysham. And we have incredible countryside: the windswept Sandscale Haws National Nature Reserve with its beaches, towering sand-dunes, rare orchids, chorusing natterjacks and breeding birds; the lunar desert landscapes of Holmepark Fell – all jagged limestones and battered trees; and the homely, soft landscapes of Arnside and Silverdale with their neat drystone walls, coppiced woodlands, grazed pastures and sea views.
Ah, the views. If there’s one thing that helps to bring our area together and to give it an identity it is the views. Everywhere I go in this job I have that Lake District skyline set out before me: Scafell Pike, the Coniston Old Man, Crinkle Crags, Helvellyn, Red Screes, Ill Bell, Black Coombe; the names a constantly shifting poem but that view somehow remaining the same.
This blog will I hope shed some light on what it is like to be a ranger for the National Trust – the huge variety of our tasks and the many ups and downs. But I also hope it will serve as a celebration of this fantastic landscape, of the wildlife that inhabits it and of the people who help to make it what it is. I hope that it will draw you in to our properties if you haven’t already been; and that it will raise a wry nod of recognition amongst those of you who already know them.
My time so far has been spent getting to know my new places, and the staff, farmers and volunteers who care for them. At the end of last week I visited two neighbouring farms on the ancient Sizergh Estate, which for me confirmed all the richness and diversity of the job, and of the modern National Trust.
East of the A590 is Low Sizergh, set amidst lush green dairy pastures that roll down to the rushing gorges of the River Kent. We looked round the tenants’ farm shop, gleaming shelves of mouth-watering local produce: ice creams, cheeses, meats and pickles; adverts for courses in growing and cooking. It is in many respects a model enterprise: of farms working together to add value to their products and to preserve rural livelihoods, and of the customers desire to help them through eating it all. Out in the rain we talked of utilising the latest scientific research to increase grassland productivity not through the application of chemicals but through the clever use of fencing and by detailed monitoring of stocking densities and timings.
Back across the road on land straddling Sizergh Fell I saw our Ranger team helping another tenant farmer to restore an ancient ‘cop’, an unusual hybrid field boundary consisting of an earth bank topped with a hedge and faced with a low dry-stone wall. The stones have been salvaged from the field - mechanically riddled out of the earth on a digger bucket, but they are the very stones that were hand-scraped out of the ground by estate workers centuries ago. The quarries they got them from are still there, low stone faces in the wooded field corners, now home to a spectacular display of wildflowers worthy of any nature reserve. We saw Solomon’s seal, a carpet of cowslips and five different species of orchid in flower, including more early purple orchids than I have ever seen before, anywhere in the country.
As I stood there in the April showers of early May, it was that view that struck me again. Not the celebrated one north towards the Lakeland fells this time, but the one southward across the shimmering shifting sands of the Kent Estuary and then the treacherous muddier brown tides of Morecambe Bay beyond. Between the two the comforting solidity of Arnside Knott stood out, in whose shadow I am now living. Home; already it feels like home.