A Guide to the UK’s Mysterious ‘Ghost’ National Parks

The Cornish Coastal path is a protected national trail despite being something of a ghost park 2 (Image: Afterbrunel)

With their wild, rugged vistas, fog-shrouded moorland, and creepy local legends, there’s something wonderfully spooky about the United Kingdom’s national parks. Yet it’s not just lost hikers who might stumble across a ghoul when exploring the rural landscape. It turns out that the UK countryside itself is haunted by other spectres: the ghosts of the country’s ‘lost’ national parks.

Unlike their famous cousins, these places are the ones that never quite achieved national park status. Although they fulfilled most of the criteria, legal wrangles or a change of government consigned them to a kind of half-life. Largely unknown by all except their most die-hard fans, these ‘ghost parks’ are the ones that almost were. Here are 10 such places that came the closest to joining Britain’s official family of 15 national parks, including a handful that are still vying for recognition.

(Related: 10 Forgotten Stations Served by Britain’s ‘Ghost Trains’)

Ghost Park: Cambrian Mountains (Wales)

The Cambrian Mountains make up one of the UK's ghost national parks (Image: John Lucas)

After the proliferation of national parks that swept England and Wales from 1951 to 1957, no new park was created until The Broads in 1989. Yet those empty decades were haunted by the spectre of another park that nearly was. In 1965, the National Parks Commission picked Wales’s Cambrian Mountains as the site of the UK’s next national park.

A jagged row of broken peaks running like a scar through the beating heart of Wales, the Cambrian Mountains are nature at its most-rugged and wild. Wind-blasted hillsides slope down into tiny enclaves where villages have eked out a living for centuries, away from the howling winds. Vast, crystal lakes reflect the endless deep blue of the sky above. Walking into this world is like walking into an endless silence, one incomparable to anywhere else in the country. It’s easy to see why the government was eager to designate this a national park.

In 1972, a formal application was put forward. It was rejected one year later after protests by farmers’ groups. To this day, the desolate Cambrian Mountains remain unprotected, not even listed as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).

Cornish Coastal Path (England)

The Cornish Coastal path is a protected national trail despite being something of a ghost park (Image: LordHarris)

In a parallel universe somewhere, the awe-inspiring Cornish coastline is already protected as a national park. Long regarded as one of the wildest, purest parts of the UK coast, Cornwall was thought to be a shoo-in for NP status. The original 1949 report even recommended it be designated alongside Dartmoor in Devon and Exmoor in Somerset.

Unfortunately, the area they proposed was non-contiguous, instead highlighting patches of coast, interspersed with empty areas. As a result, NP designation was seen as too difficult to implement. Cornwall was instead downgraded to an AONB.

This is a shame, as if anywhere is deserving of NP status, it’s the Cornish coast. A collection of sharp, teeth-like cliffs and rolling bays unfolding along the Western extremity of the UK, the coastline is a place of rare and dangerous beauty. Seen at its storm-lashed best in the depths of winter, it is capable of invoking feelings of awe and terror all at once.

North Pennines Ghost Park (Northern England)

The North Pennines AONB is also northern England's ghost national park (Image: Alan J. White)

A world of deep lakes, soaring peaks, heather-covered moorland and tiny fishing villages, the north of England is an almost fabled place of bleak and bitter beauty. Five national parks already call the area home, from the majesty of the Lake District to the desolate charm of Northumberland. If things had gone slightly differently, that number could have risen to six.

It was the 1970s, and plans were afoot to find an alternative park to the failed Cambrian Mountains. One of the proposals put forward was the North Pennines. A collection of rugged, rock-filled fells, winding peaks and blasted landscapes, the North Pennines runs from the Yorkshire Dales all the way up to Northumberland, just skirting the Lake District. As beautiful as its more-famous cousins, its designation could have essentially created a giant super park, connecting four of the north country’s greatest landscapes in one continuous area.

In the end, it was red tape that undid those dreams. The North Pennines pass through five county councils, and administering the park in a way that pleased them all was thought to be impossible. Instead, the plans were quietly shelved, creating the north’s first ‘ghost park.’

Mourne Mountains Ghost National Park (Northern Ireland)

The beautiful Mourne Mountains comprises a ghost park in Northern Ireland (Image: Voyager)

Uniquely among the countries of the UK, Northern Ireland does not have a single national park. This fact is especially surreal when you consider how incredibly beautiful large parts of it are. In 2002, the government finally decided to put this right by applying to turn 202 square miles around the Mourne Mountains into Northern Ireland’s first NP. They couldn’t have chosen a better area.

Shrouded in mist, soaring up into the clouds before tumbling down to a crashing sea, the Mourne Mountains are like the spirit of Ulster province made flesh. Old stone walls lead the way to aquamarine lakes that shimmer in the sunlight. Ancient paths stagger on towards the distant ocean. Lonely tides lap at the shores of grey, mysterious beaches. The area is frequently voted Northern Ireland’s most-beautiful.

Yet, the designation never came to pass. In 2009, the project was shelved over local fears. Although some are still hoping for its revival, the creation of Northern Ireland’s first national park has never seemed further away.

Proposed Romney Marsh National Park (England)

The mysterious southern ghost national park of Romney Marsh (Image: Redlentil)

In the midst of the densely-populated South East of England sits a strange wilderness that seems to come from another world. Romney Marsh is an empty wetland that sprawls for roughly 100 miles across the Kent and East Sussex borders. It’s a world of surreal sights.

In the middle of its flat expanse sit lost villages and forgotten churches. Old military training grounds sink into the swamp, reclaimed by nature. On the coast itself sit a trio of concrete ‘sound mirrors’, looking like structures from some alien civilization. Canals stretch off into mist and vanish, bracketed on both sides by reeds and wild grasses. At times, it can be hard to believe that you’re standing in Kent.

Following the success of the South Downs National Park campaign in 2010, a similar campaign was set up to make Romney Marsh England’s 11th national park. At time of writing it is still ongoing. It took South Downs campaigners decades to get their local area added to the NP family. Time will only tell if Romney Marsh has the same success.

Epping Forest National Park (England)

The tiny ghost park of Epping Forest (Image: Aarandir)

All that survives of an ancient and mighty woodland, Epping Forest today occupies only a narrow scrap of land some 12 km long and less than 4 km wide. Yet it manages to cram more into this tiny area than many places ten times its size. Wild woodland that dates back thousands of years competes for space with deep, mysterious pools. Paths that were used centuries ago still funnel locals along ancient routes. Seen in autumn, as the sun sets hazily behind the trees, Epping Forest becomes a place of palpable magic.

It was here that something approaching the national park concept first took root in the UK. In 1878 the forest was saved from enclosure by the Epping Forest Act. Four years later, Queen Victoria declared it for “the use and enjoyment of my people for all time.” The resulting levels of protection granted are close to modern NP status. Many even see Epping Forest as the forerunner of all other UK national parks.

When the first NPs were designated, some considered elevating Epping Forest alongside them. However, the plan never went ahead. The forest was simply too small. At a mere 25 sq km, it would be the smallest national park by a margin of nearly 280 sq km.

Dorset and East Devon National Park (England)

Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty AONB (Image: Saffron Blaze)

The Jurassic Coast is one of the most-famous stretches of coastline in the whole of Britain. A 95 mile trail of ancient rocks, shingle beaches, windswept headlands and buried fossils, it’s a place where people come to step through time. The cliff faces record entire eons when this slice of Devon and Dorset was tropical swampland or burning desert, alive with strange and wonderful creatures. Already a UNESCO World Heritage site, the area is now in a race to become England’s 11th national park.

Like Romney Marsh, the park is still a long way from becoming official, although campaigners have a 2017 timetable for putting proposals forwards. Along with the Jurassic Coast itself, the proposed national park would include the Dorset and East Devon AONBs; two bucolic slices of country life, replete with rolling hills, patchwork fields and tiny woodlands. This is English nature at its tamest and most-gentle. A pastoral vision of the countryside not a million miles away from that of South Downs National Park. Whether the government thinks that is enough to warrant giving it NP status is something only time will tell.

Chichester Harbour (England)

Chichester Harbour has been proposed as a national park (Image: Smb1001)

Chichester Harbour is an odd one. One of the few undeveloped slices of coastline in Southern England, it is a tiny world of flat salt marshes, winding boat ways, rolling sand dunes and mudflats. This is a place where seals come to play. Where estuaries snake inland, cutting off farmers’ fields from one another. An empty little land measuring only 37 sq km, making it seem almost like an afterthought.

Protected by law after an Act of Parliament set up the Chichester Harbour Conservancy in 1971, the area has long been notably different from others. It’s an AONB. An SPA (Special Protected Area). It backs directly onto the South Downs National Park, divided only by the A27 road. It has its own authority. Yet it is not a national park. Nor will it likely ever be. Instead, it occupies a twilight world where it is both AONB but something more, national park yet something less. What is never in doubt, though, is its gentle beauty.

Greater London National Park City (London)

Greater London has been proposed as the UK's first urban national park city (Image: Christian Reimer)

As more and more houses are needed to accommodate the swelling population of the UK’s burgeoning cities, the protection of rural land has never seemed so important. Yet others have a different view. They see the UK’s national parks as a relic of a past that’s now gone forever. Instead of protecting yet more green space, they want national parks of the future to embrace the concrete jungle. Such is the thinking behind the campaign to designate Greater London the UK’s first urban national park.

The idea is not without precedent. In Canada, serious efforts have been made to turn an area of Toronto farmland into an ‘urban national park’, celebrating both the remaining countryside and the city’s influence on it. The Greater London Park proposal follows a similar idea. The whole of London would be designated, with the intent to preserve its parks and green spaces. Meanwhile the city itself would be protected, too.

This may seem like a strange and unlikely idea to many. Yet in 2015, City Hall threw their weight behind the idea, meaning the concept of an urban park may yet surface somewhere.

Proposed Isle of Harris National Park (Scotland)

The Isle of Harris had its potential national park status rejected by the Scottish Government making it a ghost park (Image: Phillip Capper)

Until 2002, Scotland had no national parks. That was the year Loch Lomond and The Trossachs was created, followed one year later by the mighty Cairngorms – still the largest NP in the whole of Britain. At the time, it was understood a third national park would soon follow, and different areas were put forward. In 2009, the Scottish government reached a decision. The next NP would be the Isle of Harris.

Part of the Outer Hebrides, Harris is a bracing and unusual place. While the interior is a rugged land of jagged peaks, battered stone paths and stunning lakes, the coastline boasts pristine white beaches, clear blue water, and an atmosphere unlike anywhere else in Scotland. The contrast is incredible. Lying on a soft, warm beach, you can watch grey, forbidding clouds scud across shadowy mountains. It’s not unlike somehow coexisting in two different worlds at once.

Although the population of Harris voted in favour of the proposals, the Scottish government rejected them in 2011, citing the economic climate. Since then, other places have been put forward as candidates for Scotland’s promised third national park but, so far, no definite decisions have been taken.

Related: 10 Lesser-Known National Parks of the United States


About the author: Morris M



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