Review: “Fight for It Now – John Dower and the Struggle for National Parks in Britain” by David Wilkinson

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Adrian Philips reviews David Wilkinson’s new book on the incredible story of John Dower, a man who, more than any other, created our National Parks as we now know them.

Why is it called John Dower House?” asked my friend as we stood looking at my former offices in the middle of Cheltenham, previously the seat of the Countryside Commission and Countryside Agency. “Because we wished to record our debt to the man who, more than any other, created our National Parks as we now know them” I replied.

So, I was always aware of the debt that we owed John Dower. I have had the privilege of working briefly with his widow, Pauline: his sons, Michael and Robin, have been friends for many years. But John Dower remained for me a distant figure, whose words spoke only through a copy of his 1945 report – Command 6628 – which sits on my shelf. But of Dower the man, his story and the extraordinary struggle he went through to win the fight for National Parks, I knew rather little. David Wilkinson’s splendid biography has put that right: it is a record worthy of a life that has had a huge impact on the countryside of England and Wales. Perhaps it would be an exaggeration to compare John Dower to Nye Bevan, but they were both architects of the post war settlement that, in different ways, helped shape the lives of millions of people for the better over the ensuing 75 years.

John Dower was literally an architect too.  Born in 1900, he was brought up on the edge of what is now the Yorkshire Dales National Park, in the pleasant small town of Ilkley.  Colin Speakman called it a sort of “Innsbruck in miniature” and a “ramblers’ town”, and Dower got to know the pleasure of walking as a child.  Luckily just too young to be dragged into the nightmare of the First World War, he studied history and architecture at Cambridge. Wilkinson reminds us that architects, like Patrick Abercrombie and Clough Williams-Ellis, were prominent in the inter-war movement to protect the countryside against the threats of ribbon development, billboards and more. Dower joined Sir Herbert Baker’s practice in London and studied for his RIBA qualifications. He was invited to participate in the annual Lake District Hunt, a demanding challenge of fell running organised by the Trevelyan family for themselves and their friends. Through this connection, he met Charles’s Trevelyan’s daughter Pauline; they were married in 1929.

John Dower. 

Wilkinson’s account of Dower’s youth is quite brief but becomes more detailed as he describes how he came to be at the heart of the campaign to create National Parks. The trigger was the publication of the Addison report in 1931, which had been commissioned by Ramsay MacDonald’s government to look at the case for National Parks but whose recommendations were abandoned in the financial turmoil which overwhelmed the economies of the world at that time. That spurred Dower into action. Joining with some of the leading intellects of the time – such as Julian Huxley, Leonard Elmhirst and William Holford – he became part of the Political and Economic Planning group, a think tank that planned to reshape Britain. His contributions covered a wide range of planning issues, but he became increasingly engaged in battles to protect the Lake District against the threat of large-scale afforestation, driven by a confident and aggressive Forestry Commission. In 1936 Dower helped to take the battle to a national level, as he was one of the key players in forming the Standing Committee on National Parks. This campaigning alliance brought together 21 constituent national bodies to make the case for National Parks and is now called Campaign for National Parks. 

At the outset of the war, Dower was keen to enlist so that he could use his skills to help improve the nation’s fortifications but – an ominous sign – his health soon failed him, and he was declared unfit for active service late in 1940. By March 1941, he had joined the Ministry of Works where Sir John Reith – of BBC fame – was leading a group of talented experts in looking forward to Britain’s post-war reconstruction.  Dower was thus at the centre of this extraordinary episode in our history, when a group of remarkable visionaries came together, at a time of extreme national peril, to plan a better future for their country.

With access to some sources that have not previously been used, Wilkinson describes in detail Dower’s tireless efforts to develop the case for National Parks, travelling across war-time Britain to identify the candidate areas; to work out how they should be run; and to develop plans for other parts of the countryside of England and Wales that he thought worthy of special protection. He relates how Dower had to adjust his plans to the emerging parallel thinking on town and country planning and the future of agriculture. The result was the publication of John Dower’s monumental report of 1945. This led, via the Hobhouse Committee’s recommendations in 1947 (in which Dower again played an important role), to the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act.

But what might have been a rather tedious account of Whitehall in-fighting comes across as an extraordinary story of personal courage, dogged perseverance and a race against time. Dower had to overcome the resistance of some of his departmental colleagues and the Treasury who took fright at his radical ideas. The Ministry of Defence and the Forestry Commission especially seemed determined to gut his proposals to protect beautiful landscapes from their predations.  He had to work against a background of the dangers, privations and inconveniences of wartime and immediate post-war Britain. And, most of all, he had to contend with his declining health as TB steadily tightened its grip on him and – time and again – frustrated his efforts to persuade others to support his vision for National Parks. But, one way or another, he overcame all these adversities, except the last.

After Dower’s death in 1947, his friend, William Holford, wrote:

“In spite of periods of enforced rest, which he must have known were insufficient to bring him back to health, he concentrated more and more on his great objective.  He wrote continuously and with increasing decision, as if he felt the that the project could only be hammered out at white heat”.

One cannot read Wilkinson’s account of Dower’s work from 1943 to 1947 without recognising that white heat, nor fail to be moved by his undaunted fight for National Parks as he struggled against failing health.

John Dower did not live to see the legislation enacted that, somewhat imperfectly, gave effect to his vision. But his legacy is intact and the debt that Britain owes him is immense. Dower’s principal memorial will always be the magnificent mountains, moors and coastlines of the Parks that he helped to protect. David Wilkinson’s book does the man, and his achievements, full justice.

By Adrian Phillips

Fight for It Now – John Dower and the Struggle for National Parks in Britain” by David Wilkinson can be bought by clicking here.