The owner of Church Beck, a Lakeland gyhll scramble that's popular with commercial gorge walking groups, has started charging a fee for access. So far this only applies to guided groups, not individual members of the public, but might it set something of a precedent?
The stretch of the beck in question is from Coniston village up to the big slabby waterfall at the bottom of the canyoning section of the beck, downstream from Miner's Bridge. Everything upstream from here is unaffected by the charges.
Si Withington of Lakeland Ascents, who regularly leads groups in the beck, explains the background:
‘Church Beck is one of the best ghyll scrambles in the Lake District, with jumps and obstacles to cater for any ability, all set in a beautiful steep sided gorge.'
'In the summer, there can easily be more than 10 groups a day using the gorge and sometimes these groups are big. You can imagine the potential impact on the area as a result of these numbers if it is not managed carefully. Fortunately however, responsible use by providers has meant this impact has been kept to a minimum and there is no reason why this cannot continue to be the case.'
Entry to the beck for outdoor companies is conditional on their signing up to a User Agreement. This was first drawn up in 2004, but a change of ownership at the site in 2013 has led to the imposition of a new agreement. As of 1st January 2014 members of the Church Beck User Group have had to agree to pay a fee of £6 per adult and £3 per child - though a 50% discount will apply until 31 December 2014 [it's not said why, Ed.].
Each company must submit a monthly return identifying the number of people they've guided, even if that's none, with the fee payable on a six-monthly invoice.
Guidelines on group behaviour are in force, and group leaders must wear numbered high vis vests so they can be identified by webcam.
So if charged and closely managed access is the landowner's preferred solution at Church Beck, what's the problem it is designed to solve?
Heavy use in the past has led to damage to a footbridge and a hydro electric dam, say the owners, Church Beck Limited and Garden House, Coniston. Parking, noise and general disturbance are also cited as issues.
'Private Centres are using a facility that does not belong to them to make money' state the owners. In addition, 'the land owner has the costs of repairing damage to his property.'
Perhaps it is only fair for commercial bodies to be expected to contribute to the upkeep of a resource they rely on, but if so then the wider implications of that principle may yet be unclear.
Though unguided members of the public should be able to continue using Church Beck freely, making access for groups conditional on charges and strict guidelines is an unusual setup. If charging for use works here, then might landowners elsewhere follow suit?