National Park family

View of Ogdens

Shaping of national parks

People have lived in the areas now designated as National Parks for thousands of years. As early as the 19th century the romantic poets such as Byron, Coleridge and Wordsworth wrote about the inspirational beauty of the ‘untamed’ countryside. Until then remote and relatively wild areas had been seen as somewhat uncivilised and dangerous. It was Wordsworth that famously claimed the Lake District as 'a sort of national property, in which every man has a right and an interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy.'

It was after this that the first National Parks were set up in America in the 1860s when the government saw the need to protect wilderness areas from exploitation and make them available for all to enjoy.

Although Britain at that time had no such wild areas – our moors and mountains were nearly all farmed or managed in some way - there were influential individuals who recognised that increased industrialisation was a threat to the beauty of our more remote countryside.

Spiritual refreshment

These people founded conservation organisations such as the National Trust and began to lobby for more formal protection from the government. Social reformers also felt that it should be the right of all to access clean air and enjoy the spiritual refreshment offered by walking in open countryside.

Movements such as the Co-operative Holidays’ Association brought young factory workers on outings to the countryside, eventually building their own guesthouses such as the one in Hebden in Yorkshire which was opened in 1909.

Mass trespass

By the1930s more and more people were seeking an escape from towns and cities and there was growing conflict with landowners.

The mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the Peak District was one of the more famous examples where walkers exercised what they saw as their right to walk unhindered on open moorland. They faced opposition from gamekeepers employed by local landowners. Scuffles broke out and the police arrested several of the trespassers with five walkers ending up in jail.

At the end of World War II, the Labour government set up committees to examine long term land use and ‘nature preservation’ became part of the post-war reconstruction effort. Thanks to the pre-war campaigns there was an emphasis on making countryside available for recreation for all, not just nature conservation.

Great natural beauty

John Dower – architect and rambler – was asked to report on how the National Park ideal could work for England and Wales. John lived at Kirkby Malham in the Yorkshire Dales and was secretary of the Standing Committee on National Parks which had been formed in 1936.

The Dower Report in 1945 led directly to Sir Arthur Hobhouse’s 1947 report which prepared the legislation for the creation of National Parks in England and Wales. The Report presented a first list of 12 areas which are all designated National Parks today.

Sir Arthur Hobhouse described the essential requirements for a National Park as follows:

'…it should have great natural beauty, a high value for open-air recreation and substantial continuous extent. Further, the distribution of selected areas should as far as practicable be such that at least one of them is quickly accessible from each of the main centres of population in England and Wales. Lastly there is merit in variety and with the wide diversity of landscape which is available in England and Wales, it would be wrong to confine the selection of National Parks to the more rugged areas of mountain and moorland, and to exclude other districts which, though of less outstanding grandeur and wildness, have their own distinctive beauty and a high recreational value.'

In 1949 the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was passed and 10 National Parks were created over the following decade.

National Park Year designated Area (square miles)
Peak District 1951 555
Lake District 1951 885
Snowdonia 1951 840
Dartmoor 1951 368
North York Moors 1952 554
Exmoor 1954 267
Yorkshire Dales 1954 685
Northumberland 1956 405
The Broads 1989 117
Loch Lomond and the Trossachs 2002 720
Cairngorms 2003 1,467
New Forest 2005 220
South Downs 2009 1,020

2009 saw the 60th anniversary of the Act which enabled the creation of National Parks in England and Wales and paved the way for the National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000 that created Loch Lomond and the Trossachs and the Cairngorms National Parks. In 1988 the Broads was given its own special protection designation under the Broads Act and became a member of the UK National Parks family.

Living, working landscapes

Although ‘national’ in the sense that they are of special value because of their beauty and the recreational opportunities they offer to all, National Parks are not nationally owned. The rich patterns in the landscape were created by farmers and landowners over thousands of years and today most of the land remains in their hands.

National Park authorities work alongside many others to make sure National Parks have the sustainable future intended by all those who fought for the conservation.

To protect our National Parks, help visitors enjoy them, and look after the needs of local communities, we manage public rights of way, advise farmers on grants, work with woodland owners on good management, encourage the conservation of historic buildings, provide Centres where knowledgeable staff help people to make the most of their visits and education services, run events and much more.

National Parks face many challenges, from changes in upland farming, pressures from tourism and the need for affordable housing, to the impact of climate change on the environment.

You can help by:

  • Respecting the life and work of people who live here - remember much of land is privately-owned
  • Being a green tourist - support local businesses, eat locally and stay overnight; give your car a holiday and consider using public transport to get around
  • Learning more about the importance of National Parks and what we can all do to care for them.

Above all make the most of these national treasures.

Find out more about National Parks in the UK at

  1. National park family
  2. Shaping of national parks (you are here)
  3. Columbia partnership


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