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5,665 gates, 4,862 stiles, 1,054 bridges: but who maintains the Yorkshire dales?

One of the many reasons Sally Williams loves the Yorkshire dales national park is because its dramatic landscape has been marked by centuries of human activity. “It’s not like you get in America – a huge area of undiscovered land that nobody has ever trodden on,” she says, standing near the entrance to an old limestone quarry. “It’s an area where people have lived and worked for centuries, and you can see the evidence of that all over the countryside.”

The 67-year-old former librarian is one of an army of nearly 100 volunteers who, every summer, undertake a survey of the park’s 1,628 miles (2,620km) of public rights of way. The volunteers, mainly local retirees, walk every single path and bridleway, ensuring that the park’s “infrastructure” – including its 5,665 gates, 4,862 stiles, 4,399 signposts and 1,054 bridges – is accessible, undamaged and safe.

The land that makes up the Yorkshire dales is 95% privately owned, so public rights of way are its “veins and arteries”, says Alan Hulme, the head of park management. “It’s why people come to the dales. The majority of our visitors go for a walk or a cycle ride or a horse ride, and this is the network for them to get around and see why the place is special.”

All 15 of the UK’s national parks rely on volunteers to provide many of their services, but locals willing to give their time for free have become increasingly important in the wake of public sector cuts. Despite its footprint growing by 24% last year, the Yorkshire dales now receives £483,000 less from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs every 12 months than it did in 2010.

“A national park is something that essentially belongs to all of us and we should all be able to enjoy,” says Williams, wearing the khaki green volunteers’ uniform and clutching a clipboard holding maps and checklists of items she has to inspect. “If you love it and you want it to remain beautiful and well looked-after for future generations, you have a vested interest in keeping it that way.”

Williams started volunteering with the park about eight years ago, and every summer she is given a different parish to survey. She has been making her way along the paths assigned to her in Threshfield since around May; she thinks it will take her another half a day of walking to finish them.

“You can do this whenever you want and can take somebody else with you, a friend or a partner, but it’s important to make sure it’s a decent day, because it’s difficult to deal with all these bits of paper if it’s raining or windy.”

Gordon Hatton, 72, coordinates the volunteers in Wensleydale and Swaledale, in the north of the dales. He has been a park volunteer for 39 years and is determined to keep going until his 40th year, when he expects to be awarded a commemorative tankard or wine glass.

A self-confessed “softy southerner” from Swindon, he moved to the area to be a teacher and never left. “My wife accuses me of only getting interested in volunteering when my son arrived and there was the option of either changing nappies or going out into the dales national park,” he says. “But that’s not really true. Basically, it was just a love of the dales.”

For Hatton, much of each winter and early spring is spent poring over maps of the park on his sitting room floor, organising which volunteers should take responsibility for which areas. “There’s one parish, Downholme, which we joke is the one everybody wants because it only has two paths. You can do it in an hour and then retire to the pub for the rest of the day.”

He tends to give the harder paths to the fitter volunteers. “Some paths are literally no more than 50m long, and then there are some that are six miles plus and go over the tops of the moors,” Hatton says. “We’ve even got some that go, for instance, over Great Shunner fell, at 716m, so someone has to plod all the way to the top of that to check out one hand gate and a stile, and then go all the way down again.”

Does the work ever become a chore? No, he says firmly. “It’s the combination of the gobsmacking, beautiful scenery – the fells, the dales, the stone barns, the stone walls, the rivers,” he says. “It’s very easy to fall in love with the place. I’ll probably still be doing this when I’m going around on a mobility scooter. They’ll have a job to chuck me out.”

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