The lack of streetlights makes a night drive through the winding mountainous roads to Cumbria’s Low Gillerthwaite Field Centre in remote Ennerdale an exercise in the power of positive thinking. ‘I am not scared, I am really not scared,’ I kept telling myself as I tried to dislodge my car from a muddy ditch, lost in a sheep field in absolute pitch black darkness. I arrived, finally, led to the Field Centre’s distant lights by a group of straggling rare breed local Chiltern sheep. ‘Our job is to develop interest in the night sky’ says Malcolm Morris, of the Dark Sky Association when I roll in. And I believe him - I definitely thanked the heavens that night.
In October 2011, Lower Gillerthwaite became one of six Dark Sky Discover Sites in the country – officially recognised for its low levels of light pollution and fabulous stargazing potential. I’m greeted by Malcolm and Ellen and Walter Cloete - the husband-and-wife team who live there as wardens. Totally at home in the rustic 17th century farm buildings which serve as their living quarters, a field studies classroom and a 40-bed hostel, the Cloetes are hard at work on eco renovations. Starting with an enormous wood fuel boiler, the plans also include an allotment to enable them to serve locally grown produce and the preservation of a local wildflower meadow. Ellen’s father was a warden 40 years ago, so having grown up there, she’s an old hand at welcoming the visitors - from school groups to mountaineers - who come to stay.
The three of us head outside and the absence of buildings, cars, or indeed pretty much anything manmade allows for superb sky views. It also means there’s no noise pollution – only the twit-twoo of owls and other nocturnal animals. We count the 12 stars that make up Orion’s Belt and Malcolm points out Jupiter and Venus. The snow capped mountain tops of Red Pike, Pillar (reputedly the birth place of modern mountaineering) and High Style Ridge, some of the Lake District’s most imposing peaks, can be seen. Far in the distance, there is the fading star Beetlejuice, red hued and blinking. And the Milky Way, and Mars… The longer you stay out the more stars you see but the freezing February night air brings us back inside after a while. Two years ago, Ellen says, the Northern Lights made an appearance.
Down in the valley, the next day, I learn about Ennerdale’s ‘wild development’ from the Forestry Commission’s Gareth Browning. As one of the Lake District’s most remote western valleys, Ennerdale has maintained a sense of wilderness, despite attracting some 60,000 outdoor enthusiasts every year. But while the valley itself was being cared for, its small community of 1,200 souls was hanging together by a thread as the once-busy local post office and shop closed. Then the Forestry Commission stepped in. The ‘wild development’ vision was put together in 2002 via a partnership with the National Trust and United Utilities, and the support of Natural England.
The question, Gareth says, was how a community can develop, and work alongside, nature and natural processes. ‘People told us the valley was special for them, they cherished the sense of wilderness. Everyone has their own definition of wild from unpredictable wind, to the wandering sheep to the bits of the mountain fall off now and then. We wanted the meaning of wild for people to evolve and develop as a wilder place benefitting people.’ The area is known for the ‘big fours’: big mountains, river, forest and water. ‘If you’ve experienced all 'big fours', you come away changed,’ he says.
Calling the project ‘Wild Ennerdale’, the landowners came up with a stewardship plan that would allow natural processes to flourish while tapping into the community’s know-how and love of the area. A huge part of this is made possible by the help of a core set of volunteers with various skills who meet every week to muck in on conservation projects. Encompassing a wide breadth and depth of expertise, volunteers do everything from lead guided walks, to planting trees, counting red squirrel, or dry stone wall building, to uploading tourism photos on Flickr. There is a mapping project underway for the West Cumbria orienteering club, and bird specialists help identify and preserve local species.
Ennerdale Lake itself is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and the conservation of the riparian habitat extends to an Environment Agency programme to preserve the rare Arctic Charr, which lives in the depth of the lake and spawns in the tributary. The 14-kilometre long valley is made up of conifer forest, heather and grassland. Part of the valley had come to look like a plantation, says Gareth, with fast growing spruce conifers planted in the post-war period in straight lines in long corridors. ‘We didn’t have a problem so much with the species, as with the way they were planted. It didn’t look like a forest.’ They felled some of the conifers and planted juniper and birch.
Another aspect of Wild Ennerdale is the experimental coming together of forestry and farming. In 2006, they introduced a herd of 14 native black Galloway cattle (one cow per 10 hectares) - a large herbivore to ‘disturb’ nature. A local farmer switched from producing food to producing wilderness. The herd, left to its own devices, spends most of its time in the forest.
The community pub
The third, and arguably most dynamic part of the story of Ennerdale’s self-willed salvation is the community-owned and managed pub, the Fox and Hounds Inn. The pub was about to suffer the same fate as the local shop and post office, but when it closed, the villagers came together and reopened it as a community venture. There is a warm West Cumbrian welcome when the Ecologist visits, and Judith Oakley takes time out of the hustle and bustle of serving the lunch crowd to tell the story of how the community saved the pub.
They had to act quickly when they learned the landlord was closing the pub, which dates back to the 18th century. Locals Peter Maher and his wife Marge hastily convened a meeting to talk about the possibility of purchasing the lease. Over a 100 villagers came to the meeting, when it was decided that they would form a co-operative and sell shares in multiples of £100, to raise the necessary £86,000 to secure the lease. With only 10 days to raise £86,000, so began a massive share sell in the newly formed 'Ennerdale Hub'. Community members put in between £100 and £4,000 to buy shares, including some from overseas. Judith proudly points to the fact that all shareholders are equal as no matter how much an individual put in, they only get one vote.
The pub reopened on April 4th 2011, but not before a massive cleaning and redecorating spree – which included gardening, refurbishing and electrical repair – all through community volunteers and shareholders. Running the pub is quite a task: some 80 volunteers take turns serving at the bar, cleaning and preparing the three bedrooms, doing banking and accounts to gardening. Some put in as little as 10 hours a year, while others Judith and her husband Jeff do weekly bar shifts and who fill in during ‘exceptional circumstances’. Judith herself is originally a PE teacher and proudly says she will officiate as a goal ball for visually impaired at the Paralympics. She is also a first responder. ‘What I do here has to fit around my PE, but’s it’s a novelty.’ Judith introduces me to Dr. Sullivan, another volunteer who comes in every morning to clear out the recycling and get the pub’s cosy fires going.
The Fox and Hounds has become a real community hub boasting a self-managed library with 400 books, a weekly arts and crafts group that shares spinning, weaving and papercraft skills and a baking group. ‘There is a lot of camaraderie, everybody mucks in. In the six years I’ve been in the village, people have begun to appreciate the different skills people have,’ adds Judith. They serve locally sourced real ales, are featured in the Real Ale guide and the pub grub is whipped up from locally sourced ingredients. The community spirit now alive and kicking, the next step is to reopen the post office, which will double as a shop that will sell everything from shoelaces to Galloway beef for the walkers on Wainwright’s coast-to-coast walk, who pass through Ennerdale on the first leg of their journey. Judith beams: ‘I’ve seen a growing sense of empowerment. If we could do all this, what next?’
Need to know:
Stay: The community-owned Fox and Hounds Inn and B&B in the village of Cleator offers en-suite rooms from £52 per night in the heart of Ennerdale. The nearby Low Gillerthwaite Field Centre offers rooms in its 40-bed hostel from £13.50 a night.
Getting there: The closest station to Whitehaven. Virgin Trains run frequent services from London Euston to Carlisle, where you change to a Northern Rail service to Whitehaven. See www.nationalrail.co.uk for more information.
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