“Live like a tiger for a day, rather than a mouse for a lifetime”
Jan Wilkinson, widow of Mark Weir
One evening last March, Mark Weir set off home in his helicopter from his business, Honister Slate Mines, which lay near the top of a mountain in a remote part of the Lake District. It was a journey he had done hundreds of times before. The helicopter hit the side of the mountain and he was killed instantly. No one is suggesting it was anything other than an accident.
I’d seen Mark a few days before and I’d found him tired, distracted and overwrought. Mark was worried about the future of his business which he had built up over 20 years from nothing into one of the Lake District’s best visitor attractions. His problem was that Natural England had served him with a “stop notice” on the cornerstone of his business, the Via Ferrata, or Iron Way. The Via Ferrata was a perilous walk which followed the path which the slate miners used to take up the side of the mountain. The walk could only be tackled by wearing a harness and hard hat, but the public loved it because of the sense of danger. Natural England wanted to close it down because, they said, it had been deviated from the original path causing damage to some native plants. They were threatening Mark with prosecution. This was bad enough, but it also meant that Mark had had to withdraw a planning application for another attraction, a zip-wire which would have brought those brave enough to try it back down from the summit at 60 mph.
Mark was certain that the zip wire plan would be a hit with the public and would secure the success of his business and its 30 employees. His plan had the support of all the tourism bodies, including mine, the Lakes Hospitality Association. It was warmly welcomed by Eric Robson, who had visited Honister with Alfred Wainwright, and by Chris Bonnington, the mountaineer. But a group who call themselves “Friends of the Lake District” (they are anything but), whose mission is to suck the life out of the Lakes, organised a campaign against.
After Marks’ death, the decent thing would have been to drop the threatened prosecution, but Natural England went ahead and Mark’s widow, Jan Wilkinson, was fined £15,000 plus £14,000 costs. Undaunted, she bravely re-submitted the planning application for the zip-wire.
These events were filmed in a BBC documentary about the Lake District National Park, which I watched this morning, before hosting a Lakes Hospitality lunch at which its Chairman, Richard Leafe, was the guest speaker. Richard, almost alone amongst the swathe of government officials, had been willing to put his head above the parapet and support the zip-wire project, and didn’t mind being filmed saying so. When I introduced him to our guests I described him as a hero. But neither Richard, nor his planning officers, make the decisions in planning matters. That’s down to a 14 member board, most of whom are government appointees. They voted 9-5 against. Since the programme was aired, the National Park have been inundated with emails, of which 97% have been critical of their decision. Now that the BBC has revealed the truth about this whole sorry episode, my guess is that Jan will resubmit the planning application and that it will be passed. But Mark should be alive to see the realization of his dream. The decision to prosecute him was petty, unnecessary and disproportionate. It was made by people who should reflect that if it wasn’t for people like Mark, who have the guts and energy to build a business like this there wouldn’t be the taxes to pay their salaries. My personal opinion is that if Mark hadn’t been driven to distraction by their campaign against him, he would be alive today. If their actions then were disgraceful, their decision after Mark’s death to pursue his widow who, as they knew, had been left with three small children, was nothing short of evil.