This Side of the Pond
Notes from an Uprooted Englishwoman
November 21, 2019
Bickering politicians is a simple fact of life, but sometimes what they’re arguing about really makes you think. I found myself thoroughly baffled this week to discover that my home county’s council is discussing the idea of making Dorset a national park.
As far as I can tell (and I have done as much research as can reasonably be expected, which includes but is not limited to a quick glance at Wikipedia) this national park would encompass the entire southern portion of the county and a chunk of the county to its left.
Now, I can understand on a theoretical level why Dorset would make an excellent British version of Yellowstone. We might not have wandering grizzlies, but we do have plenty of sites of both historical and natural importance.
We have the Jurassic Coast, covered in fossils and so beautiful it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We have Durdle Door, a huge limestone arch jutting out over the bay, and Old Harry Rocks, named after a local pirate.
We have the ruins of Corfe Castle as well as two castles and an abbey in Sherborne. We have award winning beaches, the sea wall that formed the iconic setting for The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the famous smuggler landings of Chesil Beach and Brownsea Island, birthplace of the Boy Scouts.
We have Iron Age hill forts, Georgian country houses and, of course, the second largest natural harbor in the world. I could go on, but you get the idea.
But while all of these things deserve both recognition and protection, Dorset also differs from our own big tourist attraction in one important way: there aren’t any people living in the middle of Yellowstone.
The towns of Poole and Bournemouth have overlapped to the point you can’t tell the two apart, and between them boast two thirds of the population of Wyoming. That sprawling metropolis has wisely been left off the park map.
But it’s not the only place Dorset people call home – and that makes the idea of a park seem like a disaster waiting to happen. With its market towns, villages and farms, Dorset as a whole is rocking over half a million human zoo animals.
The biggest problem I have with the national park idea, you see, is that it would turn every inhabitant of Dorset outside Poole and Bournemouth into a humanoid version of those poor buffalo who are just trying to nibble on the last of the summer grass but keep having to rid themselves of pesky drunken tourists.
On any given day, the inhabitants of our local villages would be inundated by visitors stomping across their yards to peer through gaps in the curtains. Serving fish and chips at the dinner table would attract even more attention, just like feeding time at the safari park.
Nobody else seems to be worrying about the inevitability of snooping outsiders, so perhaps they’re planning to put up a fence around each town. I’m not sure if the people who came up with this harebrained scheme have even figured out there might be a problem, but I do know I’m not the only one with concerns.
One county councilor argued last week in avid support of the plan, saying it would improve the local economy and increase the amount of tourism. This, the councilor said, echoing an age-old argument I’ve never disagreed with, would in turn boost local wages.
But as this is the only case I can think of where the attraction includes people’s homes, we’ll have the excitement of discovering whether my Dorset neighbors feel that more money trumps less privacy or the other way around.
One of the councilors who spoke against the national park concept said she had spoken with farmers in her area and found them to be “suspicious”. I’m assuming this was polite understatement, because the rural folk from my home county are known to be on the ornery side.
Another councilor made the excellent point that there would need to be a governing body specifically for the national park, which would be comprised of elected officials from other parts of local government. This would mean an extra level of bureaucracy, which is something you never want to introduce on purpose.
It would also mean that Dorset County Council would have yet another hurdle to leap through when making decisions about such things as new housing. It would have to consult the national park people and also the next county along, which would be a soul-destroying slog.
He also shared his concern that the national park would have the authority to decide how many homes were allowed inside its borders. The government sets targets for new houses that the county is obliged to meet, so they’d all need to be squished into every available square foot of Poole and Bournemouth.
I hadn’t realized that this national park idea has been around for a while. Dorset was one of the first areas listed over seven decades ago, but the Ministry of Defence didn’t want to give up its heathland training areas so our name was discreetly covered in whiteout.
It’s come up again now because the government is reviewing its network of 34 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and ten national parks to see if they can be expanded. We may need to rely on those suspicious farmers to keep the tourists at bay, or I’m pretty sure Dorset residents are looking at a dystopian future of ten camera clicks every time they step outside to hang out the laundry.