A life in the mountains is a dream for most – but not for Pete Barron...
“I ONLY WENT OUT FOR A WALK AND FINALLY CONCLUDED TO STAY OUT TILL SUNDOWN... FOR GOING OUT, I FOUND, WAS REALLY GOING IN.” JOHN MUIR
With a life thoroughly shaped by the Lakeland fells, Pete Barron BEM has not only made a living in the mountains but made a lasting difference to the place he loves.
One thing is for sure about Pete Barron – and that is all is not what it seems. Down to earth and unassuming, he’s quite happy for you to go on thinking he’s just an average bloke. But under the Trail spotlight, Pete’s reluctant layers were gradually peeled away to reveal a man whose life’s work and achievements are anything but ordinary.
National standard fell-runner, recipient of the British Empire Medal, 20-year Mountain Rescue team member, fell-top assessor, and cross-country ski-racer are just a few achievements of a man born and bred in the Lake District.
Pete’s role today is the new land manager for the John Muir Trust. The conservation charity, better known for its work to protect wild places in Scotland, just this year took on Glenridding Common in the Lake District, making Pete the guardian of the iconic Helvellyn and its infamous Striding and Swirral Edges.
For a man who received the British Empire Medal (BEM) in the Queen’s birthday honours list 2014 for his contribution to the Lake District, it is fitting role, and to be able to continue his work in the mountains is everything Pete hoped for.
“John Muir is a legend,” says Pete. “He’s known by most Americans as laying the foundation for National Parks, and the Scottish conservationist and mountaineer deserves to be better known here. He was a visionary and was raising some of the issues we’re discussing today over 100 years ago.”
John Muir, like Pete, did more than just love the great outdoors. Muir, born in Scotland in 1838 and later an emigrant to North America, saw the intrinsic attachment of humans to nature, and the importance of protecting and connecting with wild places. His writing and campaigning inspired millions to safeguard rather than destroy the environment – and the John Muir Trust is dedicated to the same cause.
Pete’s life of dedication to the mountains and natural spaces of the Lake District started with the 300m peak of Gummer’s Howe. For this Cumbrian-born lad it sparked a passion for the hills that would make sense of the world and shape the rest of his life.
“I was ‘exported’ away from the Lakes for a few
years of my childhood due to my dad’s job. Fortunately a schoolteacher called Mr Forshaw would take a few kids fell-walking in the Lakes each weekend. He helped me to the top of every single Lakeland Wainwright before I left school and confirmed my desire to be back in the Lakes as soon as possible,” says Pete.
After leaving school, Pete’s first job involved drawing maps for Cumbria County Council. His office window faced north and the distracting view of the southern fells enticed him to move into the central Lakes, working with the YHA.
Pete then moved on to become a National Park ranger, and oversaw the status of Bassenthwaite Lake change to National Nature Reserve and Special Area of Conservation. “We won national awards for our environmental works at Bassenthwaite, and the work area quickly expanded to much of the upland area of the north of the park, including Helvellyn – an area which was my responsibility for 23 years, and remains so with the John Muir Trust,” he says.
Living in the Borrowdale valley, Pete and his family have been part of its rural community now for nearly 40 years – but Cumbria is much more than just a home for Pete. “I once heard a saying that your character is shaped by where you live and I think that is largely true. People who live in the uplands tend to be very resilient, no messing and say it as it is! Living in among the fells is for me irreplaceable, but it is not for everybody as it comes with inconveniences such as no mobile phone coverage, no local shop, no direct TV signal, less sun and loads of rain!”
As Pete’s love for the hills drew him further into the fabric of the Lake District landscape and its conservation, he became the protector of land (and the people intrinsically linked to it) through the devastating effects of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001 and the more recent floods. His life’s work and passion has hinged upon striving for a careful balance of conservation with the needs of the
“THE RESTORATION OF ERODED FELL PATHS IS EVIDENT WHEN YOU KNOW HOW THEY LOOKED BEFORE...”
people, businesses and the communities of the Lake District, which – as shown by the recent debates over the Thirlmere zip wire and the potential impacts of Brexit – is not always a straightforward ambition.
“We seem to struggle to achieve joined-up thinking and working across the agencies in a way which would truly benefit the area and its communities. Often the system seems to be more important than the outcome. But I still get satisfaction from seeing the many miles of new hedges, woodlands and riverbank protection I have been involved with,” says Pete.
“The restorations of eroded lake shore and fell paths are also evident when you know how things looked before. The busy path onto Helvellyn could be seen from Keswick in the past, but work over years has blended it into the landscape and I am in the privileged position, working for John Muir Trust, to continue to have an influence going forwards with an ethos of achieving that balance of conservation and thriving community.”
“WHEN ONE TUGS AT A SINGLE THING IN NATURE, HE FINDS IT ATTACHED TO THE REST OF THE WORLD.” JOHN MUIR
“KEEP CLOSE TO NATURE’S HEART.” JOHN MUIR “OF ALL THE PATHS YOU TAKE IN LIFE, MAKE SURE A FEW OF THEM ARE OF DIRT.” JOHN MUIR
Of all his achievements, being part of the team to return the osprey to Cumbria is one which he feels most privileged to have been involved with. “As a result of our work, there has been 17 years of ospreys nesting successfully at Bassenthwaite to slowly expand the Cumbrian population to its present number. It’s a real success story, which has engaged over 80,000 people a year in viewing and learning about ospreys and the wider environment. Having osprey chicks in your hand for ringing or colour ringing is very special,” says Pete.
As it turns out, Pete is a bit of a real-life Dr Dolittle, being able to call a ring ouzel to hand. He first became trained and licensed in bird ringing in the late 90s, after which he became part of a national survey. “We used a audio-taped lure to call the male birds as part of the survey work,” explains Pete. “After that I found that I could call a male ring ouzel myself without the tape, and it still works!”
Describing himself as a ‘60-kilo pencil’ at school, Pete says he was never going to be a rugby player. Instead, he discovered fell-running and found he was rather good at it.
Although it’s hard to glean much detail from a modest Pete, he completed the Lakeland epic of the Bob Graham Round within 24 hours, and admits: “I was fortunate to have been running when standards and times were at their highest and I still have race times that stand up even today, although sixth was the best position I could achieve in the British Championships.”
While Pete’s running kept him fit, he also spent some time living and competing in cross-country ski racing in Norway. All these mountain skills later translated into 20 years on the Mountain Rescue team where he assisted in an immense 700-800 rescues, dealing with everything from injury to fatalities.
“A real highlight of my time in Mountain Rescue was the privilege of training a search and rescue dog, Midge. She was amazing and we had some times together that will stay with me forever. On one occasion, she picked up an air scent from 500m in shocking winter conditions, finding a hypothermic group. To save a human life is unbeatable. But the complete team effort and trust between dog and handler is everything.”
Pete’s life and work in the Lake District is a living embodiment of the ethos of John Muir – a mountain man born two centuries ago – and is just one Cumbrian’s example how a love for the hills can sculpt and shape a life into so much more and grow to great achievement.
Legendary environmentalist John Muir, circa 1902.
Above: balancing conservation with the needs of hillwalking visitors to Striding Edge is part of Pete’s remit with the John Muir Trust.
Top right: on Pete’s patch on Glenridding Common past Greenside Youth Hostel.