Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Monday 5th March 2018

LOCALS can be forgiven an air of triumphalism after the withdrawal of the Thirlmere zip wires proposal.

They fought a well-planned and spirited campaign to oppose the scheme, but ultimately it was the comment by the Ministry of Defence about the threat to low-flying aircraft that was decisive in prompting the applicant to withdraw before its proposal was due to go before the Lake District National Park Authority’s planning committee.

No matter how determined opponents of the zip wires were, their campaign did not hold a candle to the “real” battle for Thirlmere, which was fought out in Keswick Magistrates’ Court in January, 1985. It was one of the most important cases for the Lake District. A victory for one woman against the might of a whole authority.

The Thirlmere of today, with views opened up following the tree felling, is down to Susan Johnson, a slightly-built woman with glasses, who defeated North West Water, predecessor of United Utilities, with all their experts and fancy lawyers, by the indomitable power of her character and certainty of her argument.

As campaigners fought the zip wires proposal, I wonder how many of them remembered the part this remarkable woman played in shaping Thirlmere from its former Gothic gloom to the open vistas of today — “almost a new lake for the Lakes”, as one writer commented.

It was a David and Goliath court battle. Mrs Johnson, a scholarly woman who spoke Latin fluently and was an expert in Norse mythology, was the daughter of the Rev H. H. Symonds, one of the founders of the Friends of the Lake District pressure group.

She campaigned for rights of way and the future of village greens and commons, but Thirlmere was her defining battle. Manchester Corporation no doubt dismissed her as a silly and eccentric elderly woman who would be no match for their legal eagles in court. They were wrong. Very wrong. She made mincemeat of them, latching on to a legal phrase in the Waterworks Act of 1879 showing they had broken an agreement in planting 2,000 acres of conifers when the margins should have been planted with indigenous trees.

It took more than 20 years after the case, but United Utilities did finally begin pulling out hundreds of trees from along the shore, as per the promise Susan Johnson elicited on her day in court.

I remember Ian Brodie, former director of the Friends of the Lake District, saying that Mrs Johnson was “one of the most effective and influential conservationists we have ever had in the Lake District. There was no chit-chat — she was intense and very tough. When we held meetings at Brockhole she would walk over from Ravenglass, and walk back the next day. Right into her 70s she remained physically and mentally robust”.

Mr Brodie reckoned that Susan Johnson deserved to be ranked “up there with the Rawnsleys” as an avid conservationist. However, even Canon Rawnsley capitulated to Manchester Corporation and welcomed the opening of the reservoir in 1894, having been persuaded the project was of sufficient benefit to the citizens of Manchester to override other considerations. I’m not sure Mrs Johnson would have been as accommodating.

Her father, a headmaster in Liverpool, used to bring parties of young people to the Lake District. Susan probably came on those visits and formed an attachment to the area. Later, her father settled in Eskdale where he bought farms which he gave to the National Trust.

Ian Brodie recalled that, when she got the bit between her teeth, she went ahead 110 per cent. “She knew far more about the history of the area than most and had a tremendous brain and commitment,” he said. “The Lake District would not be the beautiful place it is today without people like Susan.”

Susan Johnson died in 2001 so never witnessed the fruits of her labours at Thirlmere. But her legacy can be seen today as you drive along the A591. Where once there was stygian gloom, there are now spectacular vistas.

I sat in court that day and marvelled at the courage and clarity she brought to her case. When I spoke to her after the hearing she would only say she felt her cause was right and the hearing had convinced the magistrates of the fact. It was that simple. She knew the law and had come prepared with the facts. She didn’t let go of things when she knew she was right. Like a terrier, a Lakeland terrier, once she had her teeth into a campaign she saw it through.

Reporters are supposed to retain neutrality. But that day in 1985, in the austere Keswick courtroom, I almost felt like cheering the verdict. Truly this modern David slew Goliath and I was privileged to witness Susan Johnson’s triumph.


THE Keswick Convention was a special place for American evangelist Dr Billy Graham, whose death at the age of 99 was announced last week.

I covered his visit to the centenary Convention in 1975 — indeed I almost got swept up in his entourage while trying to grab a word with the famous preacher who, in those days, was still filling sports stadiums with people anxious to receive his message.

It was in 1946 that Billy Graham was introduced to the “Keswick message” by his mentor, Stephen Olford, after they had spent several days in Bible study and prayer. Graham wrote in his autobiography Just As I Am that it had empowered his preaching ever since.

Graham, a confidant of 12 US presidents, converted thousands to Christianity with his global missions and TV programs. He opposed same sex marriage and abortion and was said to have been slow to embrace the civil rights movement, but he avoided the scandals that dogged many of his contemporaries.

At the centenary Convention he spoke to an audience of several thousand in Crow Park, having arrived by boat across Derwentwater. It wasn’t the fierce evangelism of old. A more measured Billy Graham, as I recall his address.

Then, as now, Keswick’s Convention did not win the hearts and minds of all local people. Big changes are now afoot with the planned move to the former pencil factory site away from the traditional Skiddaw Street tent. Some don’t like the Convention. Never will. But more than 40 years after Billy Graham’s visit, the old gathering, for all its controversies, is still going strong.


HAS the world really gone crackers? The other week total panic took over vast tracts of the British population — all because a well-known fast food purveyor had run out of chicken due to a computer problem which affected deliveries.

Obvious, innit. KFC ain’t got no chicken, so just go out and buy one from the supermarkets, take it home and cook it yourself.

But, no, clowns started ringing the police and even their local MPs because they had no idea how to cope in the face of adversity. Was it asking too much of them to go to another takeaway supplier or buy their own bird and stick it in the oven? Crikey, don’t they know you can even buy chicken drumsticks all neatly wrapped and ready to eat?

How would these idiots have coped in wartime with rationing? Heaven help us if there’s another war. They can’t survive a week without fried chicken. What would they do if there was a real food crisis? Start eating their family and neighbours, I suppose.


WELL done, the National Farmers’ Union which, for the first time in its 110-year history, has elected a woman as its president.

Minette Batters sounds a tough cookie — and she’ll need to be to sort out what’s going to happen to the industry post-Brexit. For the life of me I can’t fathom why so many farmers voted leave without the first clue how leaving the EU is going to affect their businesses.

But the NFU has shown itself to be thoroughly modern with its enlightened appointment of Ms Batters. Women have an important role to play in farming in this age of diversification. It’s no longer just a man’s world. Wives and families are heavily involved in ancillary businesses that are vital to the economic survival of many farms.

She’s co-founder of Ladies in Beef, an organisation promoting British beef. Minette Batters is an interesting left field appointment.