Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Something in the air

Mark Weir outside The Honister Slate Mine

The first programme in the current BBC4 series National Park Stories, brought into sharp relief the conflicting interests which inevitably are brought into focus when economic development and conservation issues meet head on within an area of natural beauty. In this instance the controversial Honister Zip wire application in the Northern Lakes of England. An tourism initiative which more than any recent issue within the mountain environment, highlighted the deep divisions between those who see the natural environment as a resource to be exploited and developed in the interests of profit and employment,and those who would see economic activity such as this,sacrilegious and a dereliction of the National Park Authorities' duty and obligation to protect and preserve our wild places from exploitation.

An issue which is given greater significance within our national parks by virtue of the fact that despite attracting millions of incomers each year, unemployment,particularly in this period of economic instability,is a massive issue with serious social implications within the wider area.

The Story so Far......

The Honister slate mines are in fact a group of underground and open cast slate quarries situated above the Honister Pass with workings on the flanks of the mountains of Fleetwith Pike and Dale Head. Their situation between the beautiful valleys of Buttermere and Borrowdale, high above the road which dissects the peaks, gives the workings a high degree of visibility within an area popular with fellwalkers,rock climbers and general outdoor activists. Of course those who come to the area to get their outdoor activity fix are overwhelmingly outnumbered by  general sightseeing tourists who drive over the pass in their hundreds of thousands each year.

The main quarry on the Fleetwith Pike, in common with most quarries which date from the Victorian era, has seen its fortunes ebb and flow over the decades as demand for its product has declined and revived. Ownership changed hands regularly,with periods of complete closure coinciding with world war hostilities.

Honister Quarry like most UK slate quarries the post war period became a statistic in a a massive closure programme as cheaper imported slate replaced home produced material. The Honister mine closed at the end of the 1980's. A closure given added poignancy when legendary fellwalker Alfred Wainwright,tramped through the dead workings with Eric Robson for a television programme. Wainwrights feelings of 'great sadness' amplified by the sombre grey skies projecting salvos of gusting  rain which rattled the empty work sheds and emphasised the passing of an era.

Enter Mark Weir. Local lad made good Mark Weir, acquired the Honister Mine under Fleetwith in 1997 and set about reopening the mine for small scale production but more importantly, from both an employment and conservation perspective,developing the mine for tourist activities. Underground guided tours were a few years ago complimented by the UK's first Via Ferrata, literally Iron Road. Popular on the continent.Via Ferratas offer the adventurous walker the opportunity to experience the rock climbing experience in relative safety. More difficult sections of cliff are studded with metal rungs with rope or cable alongside to clip into. The Honister VF followed an old miners path up Fleetwith with deviations.

Now it starts to get complicated. The Via Ferrata was installed without planning permission. To add fuel to the fire,The headstrong owner of the mine then went ahead with a planning application for one of the world's longest zip wires.Running from Fleetwith's summit to the quarry car park half a mile below. To say that the application went down like a lead balloon with Lake District conservation bodies and outdoor organisations like the British Mountaineering Council would be an understatement! The climbing forums for example were positively smouldering with hostility for the zip wire proposal.

By a coincidence,the BBC were filming proceedings for  the aforementioned BBC series on National Parks. The programme confirmed what we already know about local politics, That is,planning applications such as this are immersed in a tide of bureaucracy and pettiness,with the main protagonists equally unappealing in their intransigence. Before the zip wire application even reached its denouement, The main player in the saga, Mark Weir was dramatically killed in a helicopter crash just yards from the quarry itself. Despite the tragedy, it is perhaps not too controversial to suggest his 'vision' might in future have more chance of success now that he has left the stage. In truth,The BBC programme revealed him as at times,an overbearing and boorish figure. Witness him haranguing two young volunteer conservationists and shouting at them as they were being filmed putting the conservationist argument. Accusing them of getting their facts wrong. A performance made even more gruesomely embarrassing by the fact that they were basing their objections on Mark Weir's own planning application which stated that the zip wire would run from the summit of Fleetwith Pike and not the lower subsidiary peak of Black Star,as he claimed at the time.

With the zip wire application THE burning issue, an added complication arose when it was revealed that the Via Feratta...the one established without planning permission...passed through a protected SSSi. As Mark Weir accompanied a sodden band of ecologists and planners up Fleetwith's ravaged flank in a downpour, it was hard not to sympathise when he pointed out that the route up the wasted mountainside was home to the ubiquitous Herdwick Sheep. The ecological implications of allowing sheep to freely roam upon a site which conservationists claim is of national ecological significance is bizarre, contradictory and just plain daft!

The zip wire application was thrown out by the planners after Mark Weir's death. Despite the fact that he had closed the Via Ferrata to pacify the planning authorities and conservation bodies. ( The Honister Mine website is at present advertising the VF as open for business however ) For outdoor activists and conservationists, it was surprising to see figures like Chris Bonington and chair of The Wainwright Society broadcaster,Eric Robson, attending the planning application IN SUPPORT of the application. Despite the fact that Chris holds positions within mountaineering organisations who are four square against the proposal.

The void which separates the two sides highlighted by the statement from Richard Leafe, Lake District  Chief  Executive, who stated that he wanted to see the Lake District become  'The UK's Adventure capital' A statement so asinine and clunky that it would make the tea boy at Saatchi & Saatchi blush!  Yes...the Lake District is such a backwater where there is absolutely nothing to do.Just like North Wales in fact !

My own conclusions for what they are worth. Despite my deeply held conservationist instincts, I did have some sympathy for Mark Weir's argument that the area to be exploited upon Fleetwith  has already been degraded by human activity. I personally don't have an issue with the Via Ferrata as I agree with the late entrepreneur that if the site is so important then get the bloody sheep off it! I think the planners were right to throw out the zip wire application though. Somebody zipping through the air at 60mph dressed in garish safety gear is quite a visual intrusion and distraction.Particularly for an unwary motorist trundling over the pass who may suffer a 'WTF!!!' moment. Yes..I know about RAF jets and helicopters but I'd like to see the back of them too.

As it stands, Mark Weir's widow and the Honister company are vigorously pursuing a fresh application to construct a zip wire (or Zip Weir as they are calling it in tribute). In fact in a display of confidence-or arrogant bravado?-the company are actually advertising  zip wire rides on their website. Mind you,at £35.00 a go for an experience which would take less than a minute to complete, then it remains to be seen how many takers there will be if the fresh application is successful? One thing for sure...I won't be in the front of the queue!

To be continued.......
John Appleby

first published on To Hatch a Crow: 2/11/2011