This year marks the 70th anniversary of the legislation that sought to protect our natural assets and throw them open to the masses. The result of sustained
lobbying by pioneers of the national parks’ movement, including visionary campaigners from the Ramblers, the 1949 Act safeguarded our rights of way
and laid the foundations for national trails and protected landscapes.
By Andrew McCloy
For most of us today, a Britain without national parks, nature reserves or signposted footpaths is simply inconceivable. Imagine what unchecked development in the countryside would look like, or the open hills declared permanently out of bounds? Remarkably, that was the reality just 70 years ago, until a visionary Act of Parliament changed the landscape and our relationship with it forever. So how did we get to that point?
As the Industrial Revolution gathered pace across Europe during the 19th century, it had a cultural impact that went far beyond the stark new factories and mills. Rapid population growth led to urbanisation and a new working class of people increasingly cut off from the natural world around them. A middle class also began to emerge, but they would use their comparative affluence and leisure time to escape from the crowded towns and cities, often via the new railways that spread rapidly across the countryside. Here, a different sort of revolution was under way. Food production needed to be stepped up to feed the hungry urban masses, but with mechanisation and crop improvements went a series of Enclosure Acts that dramatically changed the nature of land holding and denied access to hitherto common land, driving millions of dispossessed rural poor to the cities.
Meanwhile, a cultural shift among artists, writers and intellectuals was also under way as Romanticism rejected classical forms and railed against the dehumanising effects of industrialisation. Instead, the likes of Turner, Wordsworth and Ruskin celebrated wild beauty and transformed the way we interpret and appreciate the natural world.
This social upheaval was the backdrop to the 1949 legislation, as 20th-century Britain took stock and developed a growing appetite both to protect its natural assets and secure a rightful public access to them. At the extreme it was embodied by the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass of 1932, when a group of young people felt so passionately about their right to walk on private moorland in the Peak District that they were prepared to go to prison to achieve it. Elsewhere, there were mass access rallies at Winnats Pass in Derbyshire but, in fact, protests against footpath closures went back much further, including a large demonstration on Winter Hill, above Bolton, in 1896.
Along with the Ramblers, some of our most eminent conservation and access bodies were formed in these years, including the Open Spaces Society, National Trust and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE). The agenda for change was becoming irresistible.
Realising the dream
Emboldened by this growing public clamour for action, a standing committee to campaign for the creation of national parks was set up (eventually it would become the Campaign for National Parks). It first met in May 1936, the year after the Ramblers’ federated groups came together under one name, and was made up of influential groups (alongside the Ramblers), including the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales, Open Spaces Society, Zoological Society, Cyclists’ Touring Club, RSPB, Holiday Fellowship, YHA and the National Trust.
The Ramblers quickly honed their campaigning skills, which would be crucial in getting the 1949 Act over the line, producing, among other things, a pamphlet entitled National Parks: An Appeal to Ramblers, Cyclists, Campers, Hostellers and all who love the Beauty of Britain. At the organisation’s heart were a number of commanding personalities whose tenacity, energy and conviction shines through even today. The Ramblers long-time secretary, Tom Stephenson – probably best known as the architect of the Pennine Way – used his experience as a journalist and press officer to drive the agenda forwards and cultivate political support in Parliament.
When it came to translating the vision, Tom turned to his friend and ally John Dower, Secretary of the Standing Committee on National Parks, and it was his official report in 1945 that became the national parks’ blueprint. But there were others at the Ramblers who helped lay the groundwork, most notably the then president Francis Ritchie, who served alongside Tom on a government committee chaired by Sir Arthur Hobhouse, tasked with progressing the new bill. • Another was Anglican priest and ardent conservationist HH Symonds, who much later would also be the Ramblers’ president.
The Hobhouse Report was published in 1947 and endorsed Dower’s recommendations, but even with victory so close, a crowded legislative timetable and an unhelpful civil service threatened to scupper the bill. The Ramblers responded by organising an intensive lobbying of MPs and ministers, bombarding them with letters, resolutions and public meetings. Tom Stephenson even led a three-day walking trip along the intended route of the Pennine Way for a group of MPs, including Barbara Castle and former Chancellor Hugh Dalton, which sparked such huge press interest that the group was followed all the way to the top of Cross Fell by journalists and photographers.
‘As press officer at the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, Tom wrote the first statement of intent for the 1949 Act for Minister Lewis Silkin,’ explains Kate Ashbrook, chair of the Ramblers’ Board of Trustees. ‘Tom, with his burning belief in the value of access and wild country, was uniquely placed to have a major impact on the Act. It was a stroke of genius to lead the parliamentarians on the Pennine Way generating much publicity. He was enormously influential.’
Those same Labour politicians had just enjoyed a landslide election victory in 1945 and it was their modernising legislation, imbued with hope and idealism, that not only reshaped health and education provision and created the modern welfare state, but also – for the first time – delivered a protected and accessible countryside that we hold so dear.
Pioneering and momentous
The campaigning paid off and the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, described by Lewis Silkin as ‘the most exciting act of the post-war Parliament’, passed into law on 16 December 1949. Most obviously, it paved the way for the creation of national parks in England and Wales. The Peak District was the first to be established on 17 April 1951, closely followed by the Lake District, Snowdonia and Dartmoor.
John Dower was quite clear about their role: ‘National parks are not for any privileged or otherwise restricted section of the population, but for all who come to refresh their minds and spirit, and exercise their bodies in a peaceful setting of natural beauty.’ Seventy years later, Britain has 15 popular and much-loved national parks, covering almost 20% of the land area of Wales, a tenth of England and 7% of Scotland, and accounting for over 170 million visitor days and £5 billion spending annually in the rural economy.
On its own, the creation of Britain’s national parks was pioneering and momentous, but the 1949 Act went much further and it’s all the other component parts, especially when taken together, that make this such a landmark piece of legislation and the Ramblers’ role in its delivery so significant.
The 1949 Act also provided for the creation of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), which were identified as naturally beautiful landscapes not suitable for national park designation because of their small size and lack of wildness. The first was the Gower Peninsula in South Wales in 1956, and another 45 followed in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (and 40 National Scenic Areas in Scotland). The Act paved the way for official long-distance paths (now called national trails), of which the Pennine Way was the first, and it also gave us national nature reserves (NNRs), designed to protect some of our most important habitats.
There are now 224 NNRs in England alone and they include The Wash, Wicken Fen, and Studland and Godlingston Heath. Crucially, the Act also set up the public bodies that would implement these new designations – the National Parks Commission (later the Countryside Commission) and the Nature Conservancy.
Definitive maps and much more
Another vitally important provision resulting from the Act required highway authorities (usually county councils) to carry out a survey of all public rights of way in their area and produce a Definitive Map and Statement. For the first time, there would be a record of where the public was legally allowed to go, which would eventually lead to 140,000 miles of recorded public rights of way in England and Wales, providing the ability to walk recreationally and from one place to another on foot –sometimes via paths that have been walked for thousands of years. These maps have proved to be invaluable in protecting paths from being closed, obstructed and built on.
In the decades after the Act’s introduction, however, there were setbacks and inevitably not all of the original aspirations were fully realised. Apart from in the Peak District, there were few new access agreements. It took almost 20 years to create any long-distance paths, and under-resourced highway authorities and opposition from landowners meant that work to record and map local rights of way was often arduous and slow.
Keeping ambitions alive
Despite this, the Ramblers continues to keep the ambitions of the 1949 Act alive, for instance successfully lobbying to replace the rather toothless joint advisory committees that had been set up to manage each national park with stronger and fully independent boards. Locally, Ramblers groups helped plot the routes of new walking trails like the Pennine Way (as they are doing now for the England Coast Path), and gathered evidence of local paths and other historic routes for recording on the new Definitive Maps.
In 1985, the Forbidden Britain campaign launched, which eventually led to the introduction of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000, granting walkers the ‘right to roam’ across 865,000 hectares of mountain, moor, heath and downland. This was swiftly followed by the Land Reform Act 2003, securing responsible access over most areas in Scotland. In 2009, the public won the right to walk along the entire coast of England – efforts of local Ramblers have been invaluable in identifying and mapping the best route of the forthcoming 3,000-mile England Coast Path.
Volunteers have also been working to save an estimated 10,000 miles of forgotten historic routes and get them inscribed on the Definitive Map ahead
of a 2026 deadline.
Read about how things worked prior to the Act.
Building on 1949
The Ramblers continues to campaign on the vision of Stephenson, Dower, Ritchie and others in 21st-century Britain, as well as completing some ‘unfinished business’ from 70 years ago. ‘We remain inspired by • the ambitions of the 1949 Act and continue to build on what it achieved in a way that is relevant to the needs of walkers today and tomorrow,’ explains Ramblers’ chief executive, Vanessa Griffiths. ‘Our Don’t Lose Your Way project continues to put historic ways onto the Definitive Map, and our campaigning work on national trails has led to the creation of the England Coast Path. We are also currently campaigning for the Environment Bill to be supported by mandatory targets around connecting people to nature, an Agriculture Bill that makes public access a public good, and better public transport links to our national parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty to improve accessibility.’
One of the great legacies of the 1949 Act for walkers is the network of 16 national trails that today crisscross England and Wales (and latterly Scotland’s 29 Great Trails), and the Ramblers continues to campaign for their upkeep in the face of relentless budget cuts. A similar challenge faces the much-cherished rights of way network – let’s not forget the contribution of thousands of Ramblers volunteers playing an enormous role in protecting and maintaining our paths. But now there’s the added threat of the 2026 deadline to record historic public paths before they are lost forever. The Ramblers’ campaign slogan, Don’t Lose Your Way, could equally reflect the organisation’s sentiment not to allow the wider achievements of the 1949 Act to be lost or devalued.
From the very early days of protest and lobbying through to connecting people with nature in a modern and ever more urban Britain, the Ramblers were clear, just as John Dower was more than 70 years ago, that national parks and access to open and wild places are essential if minds and spirits are to be refreshed and bodies exercised.
‘The 1949 Act caught the spirit of the time,’ reflects Kate Ashbrook. ‘The Ramblers was crucial in achieving the Act, and our role remains vital today as we lobby to ensure that our countryside, access and paths are secured and improved for future generations.’
Timeline: on the campaign trail
Yellowstone in the USA becomes the world’s first national park.
Kinder Scout Mass Trespass leads to the jailing of five ramblers.
Ramblers’ Association founded after its federated groups come together.
Ramblers join first meeting of the Standing Committee on National Parks.
John Dower’s report advocates national parks, countryside protection and access in England and Wales.
Ramblers celebrate campaign success as National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act passes into law.
First four National Parks are created in the Peak District, the Lake District, Snowdonia and Dartmoor.
Pennine Way, inspired by Ramblers secretary Tom Stephenson, is opened as Britain’s first long-distance path (national trail).
Countryside Act creates the Countryside Commission – rights of way to be signposted.
Environment Act makes national park authorities fully independent with enhanced powers.
Sustained campaigning by the Ramblers helps to win the Countryside and Rights of Way Act and the ‘right to roam’ on mapped mountain, moor, heath and down.
First national parks in Scotland formally established – Loch Lomond and The Trossachs and Cairngorms.
Ramblers Scotland celebrates the Land Reform Act, which secured responsible access over most areas of land and water in Scotland.
Sustained Ramblers campaign helps to establish the Marine and Coastal Access Act, setting out new England Coast Path National Trail and coastal access.
After a very long campaign, South Downs designated as a national park.
Ramblers Cymru celebrates the opening of the Wales Coast Path – the world’s first uninterrupted route along a national coast.
Independent review of England’s national parks and AONBs due to report to government in the autumn.
For a more detailed timeline, visit ramblers.org.uk/1949Act
The Glover Review
Read about the independent review of England’s protected landscapes, led by Julian Glover
Be a Ramblers campaigner
Inspired? We rely on our members to campaign with us and keep the original ambitions of the 1949 Act alive. Sign up and receive a free downloadable vintage poster of the Autumn cover and join the movement: ramblers.org.uk/1949Act