Monday, 25 August 2014

Longshaw and the National Trust

The National Trust is responsible for the management of substantial parts  of the land around here and will shortly be receiving Burbage and other adjacent moors near Blacka on a lease gifted by Sheffield City Council, unless Sheffield’s citizens rise up and demand this will not happen (pretty unlikely). That will give the National Trust a sum of something like a million pounds, probably more in addition to the many more millions it receives from the public purse and the purses of the public. That latest sum, for environmental stewardship, can be verified on Natural England’s Nature on the Map (Magic) site. A Freedom of Information request to Sheffield City Council from me asking SCC to say how this money was going to benefit its citizens was unsatisfactorily answered –receiving the equivalent of a blank stare. Public debate has not happened.*** (see below)

It seemed therefore a good time to have another quick look at how the NT is managing some of its other nearby properties and cast a critical eye. Scrutiny of what the trust does in the national media, if it happens at all, usually focuses on its role with historic buildings. There was a debate at the Hay Festival a few years ago between cultural commentator Stephen Bayley and Sir Simon Jenkins, NT’s Chairman (once a critic of the trust himself doubtless appointed on the ‘better inside the tent’ principle). You can listen to it here:

Interestingly, perhaps, there is a BBC Radio 4 programme tomorrow morning entitled ‘What Is The Point Of The National Trust?’.  It may continue to be available later through the website.

(Tues addition: It is, here

Longshaw is less than a mile from Blacka just outside the city boundary. It is owned now by the National Trust. Its buildings used to be a lodge for the Duke of Norfolk when he was up here shooting grouse. But there are no tours of the buildings and the estate is managed as a country park/farm. 

When our children were younger this was one of the options for a weekend walk and for many families that continues now, although, unlike then, if you’re not a member ( typical family membership £73.50 with Direct Debit, £98 otherwise) you will now have to pay to use their car park; another of those decisions about whether you're going to stay longer than an hour.

The NT now also manages Padley Gorge and land beyond so talks not just about Longshaw but of the Longshaw Estate. When that's added to the even newer acquisition of Burbage and other moors plus a sharing of the Eastern Moors with RSPB, the Trust has built itself  a huge empire to the west of Sheffield. Longshaw has changed somewhat in recent years but it's essentially the same – a network of walks in a very controlled site following the tradition of NT sites in grounds of more lavish stately homes. In the past I always felt something was lacking at Longshaw for a worthwhile visitor experience. Now they seem to have tried to address this in ways the managers probably claim to be innovative but turn out to be standard workaday NT marketing. It still disappoints though adding Padley to your walk brings new perspectives. A pity you have to cross a fairly busy road to get there. 

At Longshaw itself you can't forget farming. The livestock control what’s on the ground replacing interesting things with generous dollops of animal manure. It's typical that there is lots of colourful interest in the verges alongside the road as you approach the entrance with tall elegant yellow hawkweed in flower.

But once you get inside the site you leave them behind and are more likely to find sheep and thistles, well past their best.

This is the essence of management control keeping the land in what they call 'good agricultural condition'. As there are some fine old trees around Longshaw (typical of its aristocratic past) parts of the site are favoured with good fungi in autumn. It’s fortuitous that the crop-and-crap ‘conservation grazing’ management still hasn’t found a way to get the sheep and cows to devour all mushrooms though they do tread and at times defecate on them. 

In more recent years there’s been some investment in Longshaw giving it a different character, at least on the surface, to what we knew 30 years ago. That grant funding plus membership growth and parking fees has enabled them to spend on some extravagant marketing. Online you can see photos and watch a video complete with syrupy music and a talk-over from a ranger

All fits the pattern of contemporary hype. You half expect a commercial for DFS sofas to pop up.
There’s a café, volunteers and lots of opportunities taken on the walk down from the car park to promote an image of a lively and diverse experience with banners and coloured chalks on blackboards. 

Much is made of ‘secret’ and ‘wild’ places for children to explore, all carefully labelled.

Not only is the nature here very controlled so is the public perception.

Opportunities for us to make up our own minds are limited to further afield, such as in Padley Gorge and Yarncliff Woods. But you’re never far from a carefully crafted notice, a fence, a gate with message telling you to keep your dog on a lead or a well formed cowpat. 

Children and adults may feel that Primary Schools are on holiday but the classroom experience never goes away.  In fact the site incorporates a classroom. Within the grounds is now a Moorland Centre devoted to indoctrinating children and other persuadable groups about the 'uniqueness' of heather moorland  thus ensuring a management role is preserved for generations to come.


***  Burbage Houndkirk and Hathersage Moors consists of 905 hectares yielding farm subsidy of £928,000 plus various capital sums.
Longshaw Estate consists of 592 ha and yields £648,000.
Eastern Moors consists of 2401 ha and yields £1.93million.
For each there are extra sums available for capital works and a share of substantial Nature Improvement Area grants.These in total £770,000 and a further £2.5million as detailed on Natural England's website here.

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