Ethel – The biography of countryside pioneer Ethel Haythornthwaite

March 07, 2024 13 min read

Ethel on her pony Bracken in the Dark Peak. © CPRE PDSY

Ethel on her pony Bracken in the Dark Peak. © CPRE PDSY

An environmental campaigner and pioneer of the British countryside movement, Ethel Haythornthwaite is practically unknown to history yet her tireless campaigning led to the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 and the creation of the Peak District National Park – protecting a much-loved wild and varied landscape at a time when simply being a woman was challenging enough. Ethel, by award-winning author Helen Mort, celebrates the life of this countryside revolutionary.

A eulogy to Ethel’s legacy, Ethel links two female writers over the spectrum of time, each passionate about the beauty and accessibility of the British countryside. In this blog, Helen reveals how Ethel shaped her local landscape – extending the boundary of Sheffield to accommodate an increasing post-war population, without impinging on Sheffield’s green belt – to an area where, years later, Helen’s dad worked as a teacher and she spent much time as a child.


The Belt 

Boldly the boulders o’er the valley stand,
And lift their heads against the lofty air;
Their jutting crags command the lower land
Like couchant dragons looking from their lair.
(The Pride of the Peak)

Where does Sheffield as I know it end? The notion of a green belt feels almost enchanted, like one of those children’s books where a tree reveals a hidden door, or a wardrobe is porous, or a knife cuts a gleeful window in the air. To find the edges of the city as Ethel would have experienced them, I have to go above it and below. In her essay collection Findings, Kathleen Jamie chastises us for not looking upwards enough, not studying the tops of buildings and cities. She describes a transformative moment in Edinburgh:

I was crossing Charlotte Square ... I happened to look up and, between chimney stacks and cupolas, saw this beautiful brass comet, a shining ball towing a deeply forked tail. Maybe I don’t look upward enough ... before the comet, I’d never wondered what the city raises ... what its domes and spires offer to the winds.

The same can be true of walking. We stare at the ground and miss the heights of things, the tips of trees, the uppermost branches. I am setting out uphill, cycling through Crookes and Crosspool, thinking of John Donne:

Licence my roving hands, and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below

I’m imagining those sensual words, addressed to a lover, transformed into an instruction to the feet, the body in landscape. License my roving steps I need to be above this stretch of open land, in front of it and overshadowed by it, pressed by its edges.

Today, I want to climb. I also want to dart under the surface of the city, to be a stitch, just for a moment. So I go to Redmires, where I can do both. I cycle to the place where the road runs out and abandon my bike, trusting that nobody here will steal it. If I can’t have faith in that, what can I have faith in? It’s an off grey day anyway, and there’s nobody to rob me except grouse (heard but not seen) and perhaps, I fancy, a curlew. I imagine a curlew atop a bicycle, stately, using its curved beak for balance. I strike off from the track to the left and answer the call of water, the path winding round to a little shore. I once swam here when the light was breaking, 5 a.m., chill and misty. Everything was under a sheet until suddenly it wasn’t: some unseen hand whisked the mist away and I was left with glassy water and the intent stare of the sun.

I am shedding layers. I am wading in. The mud sucks at your toes here, feels almost inviting, cushioned. There are ducks bumbling around by the bank, reprimanding each other, diving theatrically. I walk out until I am up to my knees, then my waist. I stop and watch the ripples that arch out from me, seeking. What do I want from this body of water? What does it want from me? Perhaps it wants me to leave it alone. Sheffield is full of ‘wild’ swimmers, cheerful on Sundays with their dryrobes and cameras. I imagine the ripples telling me to go home, go home, go home. But I am obstinate and – by my human nature – arrogant, so I trust myself to the water anyway and plunge in, up to my neck, then duck my head under and come up splut­tering.

Later I will dry off and follow the path along to Stanage Pole and from there to the edge where I can peer down like a child who wants to be so much taller. Bracken. The spectre of the dark woods. The boulders that preoccupy climbers, fascinated by their small puzzles which feel like big puzzles.

‘I am always obsessed by one place or another,’ says M. John Harrison in his delightfully slippery anti-memoir. Wish I Was Here. Trying to describe a specific part of Wales (‘the enchanted hinterland’ between the A496 road and the Rhinogydd) he says:

There’s a real sense, in this landscape, of haunting, but rarely by any thing specific. Yes the trace of use, but the moment you try to imagine by whom, or for what, or begin to believe you might ‘bring it to life’, it slips quietly back into the twilight downslope, the wind contorted tree. Every site is very calm, despite the things it must have seen. Even to say that is to say too much ... Where every­ thing you can say is either an understatement or an overstatement, a liberalisation or a fiction, it’s not your place to say anything.

I stand on the edge. I try to keep my mouth shut for once. I try to keep my mind quiet, but it is full of surroundings, Sheffield’s borders.


Describing her early apprehension of Sheffield, Ethel once said:

My childhood impressions of the city were – a gloomy noisy shape less phenomenon: but outside the city – there one began to live. To escape into the clean air, the gradual return to nature; with these came satisfaction and peace ... Along with this came the sickening realisation, as the ugly suburbs straggled out and the farms disappeared, that it was all going. But a helpless uneasiness may be replaced by action, and now some who comprehended the significance of Sheffield’s surroundings to her citizens, spend a large part of their lives trying to save them.

I’m interested by Ethel’s depiction here of Sheffield as female. The some what cloying image of landscape as the female body, to be protected but also conquered, or at the very least charted. The attempt to secure a green belt for Sheffield – a big preoccupation for CPRE over decades – could be seen as an attempt to enforce shape, to cinch the city’s waist; so much of the language from the time feels problematic to a modern audience, but the intent was to preserve and protect, to safeguard, to cherish.

In The Story of Sheffield’s Green Belt and a Guide to its Future published by CPRE in 1984, the purposes of a green belt are neatly summarised:
1. To prevent the sprawl of towns which are already far too big for the comfort or pleasure of the citizens.
2. To provide the townsman with the opportunity to escape from the noise, congestion and strain of city life and to seek refreshment in the countryside.

The image of a townsman seeking refreshment conjures up visions of bowler hatted executives spilling their beer outside the Norfolk Arms. And the idea of a town too big for the ‘pleasure’ of its citizens might warrant some unpicking. But CPRE’s statement of purpose declared the urgency of protecting the area’s river valleys which ‘penetrate as green wedges deeply into the built up areas of the city, providing ready and attractive access to the open countryside’, a countryside considered a ‘special asset’, absent from the environs of most industrial cities.

In 1936, a speculative builder bought eighty-four acres on the north side of Hathersage Road and nine acres opposite the Dore Moor Inn. The plan was to build almost a thousand new houses. Ethel went to consult with her influential friend Alderman Marshall, who rallied in outrage, noting that it was not just this area they had a responsibility to: ‘we must save them all,’ he famously said. After successful campaigning by Ethel and others – notably Marshall –the Corporation of Sheffield eventually paid the builder £22,000 in compensation (with CPRE offering to contribute £3,000 if needed) to stop the housing development taking place. It would have been keen to avoid having to pay such large compensatory sums in future, so perhaps that made officials more than usually receptive to Ethel’s view that they should ‘fix some limit as to where the town should end and the country begin’. Ethel addressed the Highways and Planning Committee, expressing a hope that the Whirlow area could be permanently saved as a kind of space where no building other than agricultural would be allowed and then consider expanding that to secure a larger, permanent green belt area. She concluded her address:

The possession of such fine country at its doors has always been our City’s greatest pride: the loss of it would be its greatest catastrophe.

In her 1954 lantern talk reflecting on the eventual demarcation of the green belt, Ethel reflected on the longevity of the campaign. ‘It took seven years to get the Council to take action on our report and it was not until 1933 that the Sheffield Bylaws prohibiting disfigurement by advertisement in rural areas were adopted.’

Looking back on her intervention to save the area between Totley and Owler Bar, and her offer to buy it, she mused:

In the north you know, we never believe folks are genuine till their pockets are touched.

Summarising the outcome, she highlighted the importance of those involved seeing the landscape:

A special meeting of councillors was arranged. A fleet of taxis proceeded to Owler Bar. They looked on the threatened upland. They said ‘this shall not be spoiled’. The plans went to blazes and my pocket was saved – til the next emergency.

Alderman Marshall reinforced Ethel’s conviction at every turn, exerting pressure on the Highways and Planning Committee. In her lantern talk, Ethel would give thanks to him, noting, ‘he could be relied on not only to be enthusiastic but firm. He did not give way and neither did we.’ At an exe­cutive meeting in 1936, Marshall stated that he was taking a deep personal interest in securing a green belt on all sides of the city. In 1937, CPRE was asked to submit a map of where it felt a green belt should be.

Ethel and Gerald carried out the surveying work together, mapping the moors on all the fringes of the city and visiting areas that overlapped with other local authorities. Their recommendations were submitted on 1 February and came under several headings. First, they had identified areas they felt should be preserved as green belt. The biggest of these was a vast moorland and upland pasture area taking in parts of Dore and Totley, Ringinglow, Redmires, Wyming Brook, the Porter and Rivelin valleys, and Burbage and Houndkirk – areas that swarm with fell runners today on wind scoured Sundays, recognised as challenging terrain. To this, they added Beeley Wood, Birley Edge and strips of farmland on the borders with Derbyshire. They even included parts of the east and north-east, already subject to much industrial development: Tinsley golf course and High Hazels Park were notable, in the area where the iconic Tinsley cooling towers once stood, known today as the side of town that houses the eerie green domes of Meadowhall shopping centre. Ethel would refer to this part of Sheffield as ‘that long suffering region’.

Having sketched out these parameters, Ethel and Gerald moved on to the issue of how areas included as green belt should be treated. The headline was that they must be ‘strictly rural’, with building only allowed for limited agricultural purposes. In some locations, they felt that playing fields would be a suitable use for the land. Where building was necessary, this should be sympathetically done, with local stone used and advice taken from CPRE approved architects. They also emphasised the importance of getting neighbouring local authorities to cooperate: some areas to the north of Sheffield (like Loxley and Ecclesfield) were governed by West Riding County Council. To the south, the Chesterfield Regional Planning Committee had responsibilities for areas close to Coal Aston, Mosborough and Eckington.

All of these plans were approved by the corporation by a small majority in 1938. But this was only the first victory in a long war of attrition, a steady, slow change, like water over stones. And it would be interrupted by the advent of the Second World War. Members of the public considered the green belt an established fact, but Ethel was suspicious, watchful, eager to remind the corporation to honour its commitments. After all, it was still provisional in the sense that it had no legal protection. And her staunch ally, Alderman Marshall, was on the verge of leaving the corporation. Some of Ethel’s worst fears were confirmed when the government ordered the construction of a war factory near Middlewood Road, north of the River Don. Ethel was of the firm conviction that an alternative site could have been found. The corporation had – in the eyes of CPRE – failed to properly consult, using the war as a distraction. Even during a testing personal time for Ethel, with Gerald away and her memory of Henry Gallimore’s death awakened, she remained focused, attentive, refusing to let her defence of the green belt slip.

The aftermath of war brought further challenges. In 1951, there was population pressure in Sheffield after slum clearances. The corporation began to enviously eye the green open spaces within their own belt and those in the catchment areas of neighbouring counties too. They promoted an extension bill to take 1,400 acres of Derbyshire land and 6,490 acres from the West Riding and, when this failed, suggested building on 400 acres in the Meersbrook, Rivelin and Sheaf valleys. Ethel and Gerald (now Lieutenant Colonel Haythornthwaite) led the argument against the scheme, arguing that there was a pressing need to rebuild blitzed and cleared areas close to the centre of Sheffield and reminding the corporation that there was land available to develop at Handsworth, Greenhill, Arbourthorne, Hackenthorpe and Brincliffe, all outside the provisional green belt. Their objections were supported by a petition with well over 6,000 signatures from members of the public. But success was partial: some areas of Meersbrook and Rivelin were allowed to be purchased and built on, and there was approval for building huge tower blocks at Gleadless; today they sit beside the huge expanse of woodland. I imagine the flats and trees watching each other uneasily, each briefly aspiring to the condition of the other.

It is important to note that Ethel and her allies were not naively opposed to the development of new housing per se. It would be easy for people of their social privilege to remain comfortably insulated, distanced from the problems of accessing affordable and suitable living spaces (and indeed, Ethel’s manner of describing some of the industrial parts of the city in the north-east could seem a little condescending). They accepted that changes were necessary, that new housing was necessary. But they rejected the idea that this had to continue inexorably outwards into areas of outstanding natural beauty. It stemmed, perhaps, from Ethel and Gerald’s belief that access to green space was a fundamental human right, a source of spiritual enlightenment and intellectual improvement. In some ways, there’s some thing a little paternalistic about this, a sense of the middle and upper classes knowing best, or championing a kind of virtue. But it came from a kind of generosity, from Ethel wanting others to have the same transformative experience of countryside that she had.

A key suggestion CPRE made with regard to housing was that there was land towards North East Derbyshire which could be used for building without impinging on the green belt. In 1967, approval was given to extend the Sheffield city boundaries to incorporate 5,050 acres of Derbyshire land, including the villages of Mosborough and Beighton. There was potential for this area to accommodate an overspill of 40,000 people. The Mosborough area is a place I used to mooch around as a child, because my dad was an English teacher in the secondary school there. I remember new estates shoulder to shoulder with old cottages, the large pub and the presence of fields, the nearness of Rother Valley Country Park with its flat water and spooky tunnel bridges. It had the character of a Nottinghamshire mining village, and my dad always talked about reading D.H. Lawrence to his students and them finding some of it relatable. I always felt a kinship with Mosborough as someone who lived in North East Derbyshire: it was a gateway to Sheffield. Ethel had always insisted it was the place to build.

When I think about what a belt really is, I think of something flexible as well as durable. I think of the edges of Sheffield adapting to an imaginary shape, widening and waning. In 1955, MP Duncan Sandys, the Minister of Housing and Local Government, issued a circular to planning authorities which called for a check on unrestricted housing sprawl across the country. A tightening of the belt. Local authorities were invited to submit boundary plans. The green belt plan for Sheffield finally became operative in December 1983, nearly half a century after CPRE first began campaigning for it. An inspector appointed by the Secretary of State for the Environment noted the special circumstances for Sheffield, which justified its green belt being ‘tightened’ more than elsewhere:

Foremost among the reasons for having the green belt tightly drawn is the remarkable quality of the landscape on all sides of the city but the east. It is a landscape of bold relief with spurs of high land separating valleys which are often deep and which provide natural ‘green wedges’ into the built up area. (Mr D.F. Harris, 1982).

It is because of the green belt legislation that I can wander the moorland beyond Redmires, joining up vast networks of paths. I can lose elevation and take the track by Wyming Brook, curving down to meet the water. In winter here, the trees are indelible. It is thanks to Ethel’s insistence that I can explore the Trans Pennine Trail out from Woodhouse and towards the part of North East Derbyshire where I spent most of my childhood, running through Shirebrook, startled by the skittish movements of a stoat or weasel – some tiny and unlikely thing – across the leaves in front. I am going into the water again. I’ve done my circuit and I’m back for another immersion. Sinking into Redmires always stirs up mixed feelings, silty, murky feelings that dissolve with the action of swimming, the clarity of cool water. So much of outdoor swimming in an area like this is predicated on a nebulous kind of trespass, venturing into reservoirs and ponds where access is not officially condoned.

Why should we not climb fences? Why should we not go where our feet take us? Why should we not plunge in? But, on the other hand, I resist the kind of glib entitlement that can accompany those kinds of movements through space and place. Why should I get in the water just because I can? Why am I not content to look at it? I hate the detritus around places like Stanage in summer. I am terrified by the wildfires that rage across parched moorlands, started by careless fires or cigarettes. I distrust the human impulse to leave traces, even as I made these brash marks across the page with my clattering keys, my clumsy typing. I do know that I like to feel the way the water touches me, finds out my weaknesses, how when I emerge again I feel that I am being spat out, that I’ve reached the edge of my familiar landscape and somehow ducked under it, tried to be a stitch but come back unstitched, undone, ready to begin the daily business of sense making all over again.