The life of a Peak District National Park ranger
PUBLISHED: 15:33 19 May 2015 | UPDATED: 20:40 23 October 2015
Gordon Danks is celebrating his 40th year as a National Park Ranger. Derbyshire Life talks to him about the joys and challenges of a working life spent in the beautiful Peak District
After travelling for 14 miles along the Woodhead Pass on one of the highest and bleakest roads in the Peak District National Park, coming across Langsett Reservoir is like finding an oasis in a desert. On any fine day, the carefully maintained and well screened car park at Langsett is packed with vehicles left by visitors who have driven over the exposed moors to enjoy a blissful walk along the sheltered shores of the lake, where the footpaths are illuminated by dappled patches of light which have filtered through the tall trees in the dense woodland that flanks the reservoir.
Although some purists might dismiss the area around the reservoir as an artificial landscape that has been imposed on the natural moorland of the Pennines, National Park Warden Gordon Danks points out: ‘Langsett is no different from most other parts of the Peak District in being largely man-made. Most of the countryside that makes up the national park has been tamed and cultivated over many centuries, and even the bleak moors owe their appearance to their management as grouse moors.’
Gordon also rejects the commonly held belief that the north-eastern stretch of the Peak District is one of its least attractive regions. He says, ‘The appeal of the moors rests on their wilderness quality. They may seem featureless and colourless for much of the year, but from summer into autumn a cladding of heather transforms them into an area of great beauty. The moors also contain one of the largest areas of protection for ground-nesting birds in the country. For me, this remote stretch of the Peak is the best part of the national park.’
Gordon has been the National Park Ranger for this last outpost of the Peak since 1985. His office is located in Langsett Barn, a large agricultural building built over 400 years ago as a ‘post and truss’ construction, with timber trusses that support the roof being tied together by horizontal beams resting on vertical posts. The building was restored in the late eighties by the joint efforts of Yorkshire Water, the Peak District National Park Authority, the Peak Park Trust and Barnsley Council. The magnificent renovated barn now contains a large community room that is available for hire.
This year marks Gordon’s fortieth year as a National Park Ranger. After a brief spell working as a volunteer shortly after completing his A-levels, he was lucky enough to obtain a permanent position with the National Park Authority at the age of just nineteen. Thrilled to have landed a job that allowed him to work in the great outdoors and to tackle a wide range of challenging tasks, he threw himself into the role with an enthusiasm that is as apparent today as it was four decades ago.
He says, ‘After all these years, it is still a pleasure to set off to work each day, and it is gratifying to be doing a job that allows you to put back into the countryside what you have taken out of it in terms of your own enjoyment. And one of the very best things about life as a Ranger is working with volunteers who are drawn from every conceivable walk of life but are united by their enthusiasm and motivation. Our work as Rangers would simply not be possible without their contribution.’
One of the results of the collaboration between Gordon and his team of volunteers is a varied programme of Guided Walks, many with eye-catching titles. One of the walks is called ‘The Great Sheffield Flood’ and is centred on reminders of the tragedy that ensued in 1864 when the Dale Dyke Dam at Bradfield collapsed, sending 690 million gallons of water rushing towards the city of Sheffield and claiming the lives of 240 people. Another of the guided rambles recalls the activities of ‘body snatchers’ who stole bodies from the graves in Bradfield’s churchyard for use in medical experiments. But the walk with the most intriguing title of all is ‘North America in the Fall’. This particular ramble takes walkers to a ruined farmhouse that is known as ‘North America’, a name that illustrates the local custom of naming outlying farms after far-off parts of the world.
As well as operating with a team of volunteers, Gordon works closely with Yorkshire Water and the Moors for the Future Partnership, which is tackling the erosion that has left large areas of the uplands bare of vegetation. Of course, another major part of Gordon’s job is to form effective alliances with the farmers, gamekeepers and landowners who earn their living in the National Park. Gaining their trust was especially important when rights of access to previously prohibited areas were extended after the introduction of the new ‘Right to Roam’ legislation in 2005.
Clearly, one of Gordon’s great strengths as a Ranger is his ability to work with a wide range of people and organisations. He has a key role as the Chairman of the Peak District Fire Operations Group, consisting of six fire services based in and around the National Park. Recalling some of the devastating moorland fires of the past, Gordon said, ‘At one time, it was not possible to reach remote parts of the moors with fire-fighting equipment and our only means of restricting the impact of fires was to dig trenches around the affected areas. The situation is much better now, not only because we have better equipment, but also because we have localised and detailed meteorological data that allows us to identify areas at risk and cordon them off before fires can take hold.’
Another major emergency that had a big impact on the national park was the foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001. In those troubled times, there was a danger that Rangers would be compelled to revert to their old role of being wardens, when their primary task had been to ensure that ramblers obeyed the by-laws. However, Gordon reacted to the emergency as positively as he could by finding areas that were not affected by the disease and so could be de-restricted and opened up to walkers.
Over the years, Gordon has worked hard to improve routes for walkers and cyclists. One of his early tasks as a Ranger was to help in the conversion of the old Midland Railway line through Monsal Dale into a trail for walkers and cyclists. Much of his recent work has involved modifying gates to improve access for disabled people and he is currently involved in a project to create a new cycle trail that will link Sheffield to Dunford Bridge, a small hamlet deep in the heart of the Pennine moorland. In his voluntary role as a governor of Bamford Primary School, he leads pupils on walks in the surrounding countryside in the hope that they will look to the national park for recreation and enjoyment when they grow up.
Gordon lives in Bamford with his French wife Aline, whom he first met when he was on a walking holiday in Switzerland. He says, ‘Without Aline’s loyal support over all these years and the contribution of the salary from her work in community education and without financial support from my parents, it would not have been possible for us to buy our house in the national park or for us to support our two daughters through their university education. Rangers have never been well paid, but the reward of the job, which has kept me motivated and given me pleasure for forty years, is the satisfaction of doing something that helps to maintain a beautiful part of the country for present and future generations.’