Moun­tain Lives

A life in the moun­tains is a dream for most – but not for Pete Bar­ron...

Trail (UK) - - Contents - PETE BAR­RON JOHN MUIR TRUST LAND MAN­AGER

“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.

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