Last week, 0ver 250 colleagues, friends and family of the late Sean Prendergast gathered at the Moorland Centre to celebrate the life of a giant of a man who did so much for the Peak District National Park.
Speaking first, John ‘Tommo’ Thompson spoke movingly of the many stories he and others had of working with Sean. John’s speech is here: SEAN PRENDERGAST – 11 June Celeb(2). I then spoke and my tribute is reproduced below. We then heard from one of Sean’s great fans, the actor and polymath Brian Blessed. Brian’s words are here:Statement on Sean Prendergast from Brian Blessed for the Tribute Event held at Edale Tuesday 11th June 2013
In a corner of the Moorland Centre just over there is a plaque with a quote from William Blake. It was one of Sean’s favourite quotes:
“Great things are done when Men and Mountains meet. This is not done by jostling in the street”
Sean was a man whose roots were the city streets of Manchester and Oldham, places that he was incredibly proud of. But he did great things in the mountains of the Peak District, a landscape that he loved and where he made his mark.
What makes our national park special is its close connection to the great cities that surround us. Sean was a vital part of that connection, helping us all understand the links between city and countryside and respecting the lives of the people who live in them.
Sean handled his illness in the way he handled everything else, with a positive ‘can-do’ attitude. His cancer brought down a big man all too quickly. It was tragic that he didn’t have the opportunity to fight it in the way that he was preparing to. But it would be wrong to dwell only on the last few sad and frustrating weeks of a life that achieved so much and that was characterized by energy, humour, compassion and companionship.
Everyone who worked with Sean admired the way he did things and will remember him only as a force for good. Those who worked closest with him came to see a wide range of qualities. The last few weeks has been a difficult time for those closest to Sean – Lynn, Anna and the rest of Sean’s family especially. It’s been tough for his most immediate colleagues. But it is to Sean’s credit that the strength of that team, the individuals and the team together have shown themselves:
- Andy Farmer has very ably stepped up to leading field services and he’s had some fantastic support from colleagues across the service and I know that Andy spoke movingly and with great ability at Sean’s funeral
- Karen Harrison has shouldered much of the responsibility for supporting Lynn and the family especially in the funeral arrangements and in organizing today with lots of support from Bob Young.
- Just a few weeks ago the Dambusters 70th anniversary took place in the Upper Derwent. An important national celebration which had at its core the volunteers and staff of the ranger service.
Sean would have been immensely proud of his colleagues in coping and exceeding everyone’s expectations at these events and in these circumstances.
He was an intelligent and sensitive man who thought more of others than himself. In the last few weeks many people have told their tales of small kindnesses:
- when Sean gave a volunteer ranger a second chance;
- when he supported a colleague facing illness and bereavement in their family;
- and when he guided his colleagues overwhelmed by the challenges they saw in front of them
Sean was an enthusiastic man, a big man and someone who put great energy and force into the case for doing something. Sometimes, this forceful character left some colleagues a little brow-beaten. Sean wore his emotions on his sleeve. Just as we knew when Sean was excited and supportive of something, then we knew too when he was disappointed or frustrated in himself, the organization or in us. But he was a big man who would bounce back and he never held grudges.
Sean had great energy, practical nous and vision. He was immensely proud of his work, his team and the things they did. He inspired them to greater things and did so by the power of his vision, enthusiasm and his exceptional abilities as a communicator. He was an accomplished platform speaker, the media’s favourite national park spokesman and charmed audiences across the UK and the World.
He was totally committed to our success as an organisation and to the deepest values of national parks. He made things happen and was the powering force behind almost all the best things we’ve done as a national park in the last two decades.
I want to talk about some of those things.
The ranger service today is the professional and coherent group that it is because Sean built on their great tradition but made it more focused on what it was here to achieve. He encouraged modern working practices and helped rangers adapt to new roles, supporting communities, working in new partnerships and making the Peak District rangers the envy of the UK and the World.
I heard a story from Sean that he had picked up from the US National Park Service and I know he would have loved you to hear it again today.
Several years ago, a group of tourists were visiting Yellowstone. After a few drinks they picked up their ice saws and went out to try some night fishing. As they began cutting a hole in the ice they heard a booming voice say ‘THERE ARE NO FISH IN THERE’. Worried and puzzled, they moved on10 feet and started cutting again. Once more they heard ‘THERE ARE NO FISH IN THERE’.
They then scuttled to the other side of the ice and resumed their cutting. Once more they heard the voice thunder out ‘THERE ARE NO FISH IN THERE’. Finally, one of the tourists said ‘OK, we give up. Are you God? The voice bellowed back ‘No, but you’re close. I’m a park ranger and tonight I’m patrolling the municipal ice skating rink’.
Sean told everyone that would listen that we had the best ranger service in the best national park in the World. He believed this and made his team believe it. When he made us believe in ourselves we lived up to it in what we tried to do and what we achieved.
The father of national parks John Muir said that ‘the power of imagination makes us infinite’. Sean made us all imagine we could be the best and achieve the best. As he took on wider roles, leading Moors for the Future, the estates, trails and countryside maintenance teams, visitor services and cycle hire, learning and discovery and access, Sean gave his new teams the same attention and confidence that he had done with rangers.
And he was about to do this for even more people in the national park in the new role he would have taken up just a week after he died.
10 years ago, Sean’s wisdom, energy and flair for working in partnerships delivered the new open access arrangements, doubling the area of open access land in the national park. He was delighted Defra chose to launch the first open access area here in the Peak District, and Sean took great delight in the Herculean task of accommodating the media and the VIP’s at the remote Derbyshire Bridge.
Just over 10 years ago a huddle of national park staff began to think about how to tackle the centuries-old problem of the vast areas of degraded peat in the dark peak of Bleaklow, Kinder and Black Hill. For years, academics, ecologists and national park staff had wrung their hands in woe at this environmental catastrophe. In that huddle, one man’s vision for fantastic ideas, combined with his ability to fight for them with energy, ambition and sheer chutzpah turned their discussions into the first Moors for the Future project. No hand-wringing for Sean. He got things done.
Moors for the Future has gone on to be recognized across the UK and the World as a pioneer of the new landscape-scale conservation approach, the inspiration for Sir John Lawton’s ‘Making Space for Nature’, a test-bed for cutting edge new ideas such as flood management through land use, and as a highly-skilled group of people admired for getting moorland restoration done.
In the Moors for the Future Team Sean was known as a great friend to have alongside them when the going got tough and as the man who would come up with the idea to save the day and who would probably make everyone laugh whilst doing it.
Sean’s passion for the moors of the Peak District has inspired many to follow his determination to protect them. One of his greatest achievements has been to think past the tactical challenges faced by moorland fires and to build a strategic alliance with the fire fighters in our surrounding cities.
He has personally convinced fire-officers in many forces the value of moorlands and brought his great vision, pragmatism and inspiration to building the Fires Operations Group. Many firefighters across the country now consider Sean as a friend and inspiration and the FOG group has a well-deserved national reputation and is cited by Government as an exemplar for adapting to the threat of climate change.
Sean believed passionately that everyone should experience the national park. But this was no abstract idealogical issue for him. For Sean it came down to very practically making the park accessible – he was a pioneer of greater physical access for all – and also reaching out to people in urban areas. Sean took great delight in showing the young Athac group from Birmingham the Peak District; he pioneered work with Barnsley’s social services. He has been a mentor and a leader to our new learning and discovery team who achieved more contact with children last year than ever before, inspired to reach further by their friend and leader Sean.
Few issues have been as controversial as the management of green lanes. Sean’s wisdom, expertise and deeply-held sense of fairness and justice have served us well in charting through this difficult territory. He believed strongly that everyone has a right to access the countryside and that the regulations are there to manage conflicts and not to bar anyone from experiencing this great environment, so long as they respect it.
Sean was just as comfortable welcoming VIPs, and he had a gift for managing complex visits, putting in place plans for visits by the Royal family, Prime Ministers and VIPs from overseas or other national parks. Faced with a call from me announcing a high security and confidential visit Sean’s response was always ‘Leave it with me Jim’. On the day, the practicalities always worked smoothly and as a result we have a reputation amongst all the national parks as the organization that does these things well, something re-inforced by the recent SNPS conference held here.
Sean was immensely proud of the Peak District National Park and he travelled all over the World, sharing his enthusiasm for our pioneering work, building great friendships and bringing back great ideas to apply here. We have had messages in the last few months from all over the World from protected area managers saddened to lose their great Peak District inspiration. There is a universal theme in these messages about Sean’s great vision, humour, warmth and enthusiasm.
Through his work with the many technical groups on national trails, implementing access legislation, the Countryside Recreation Network and the Countryside Management Association, Sean both contributed to the collective knowledge of these important forums and also brought that learning back to our park, adding further inspiration to his teams and colleagues.
For years, Sean’s favourite party trick for visitors was to take them through the closed railway tunnels on the Monsal Trail. Faced with the opportunity to open them and the huge technical challenge in doing so, Sean led a fantastic effort, drawing together all of the strands of the Pedal Peak District project. I cycled the Monsal Trail last Friday. The sheer joy this trail brings to thousands of people a day is a delight and an inspiration. When we were planning this project people said to me:
- it can’t be done
- it shouldn’t be done
- it will never be done
While we were tackling the technical challenges re-opening the tunnels, people told me
- it won’t be finished
- we shouldn’t have started this
One person throughout said ‘We can do this’. Sean. And working with his colleagues he did it. Standing on the trail at Water cum Jolly, Sean convinced successive sceptics that it was worth all the effort to show people that special place. The Monsal Trail’s success is Sean’s triumph.
In being the inspiration behind the Monsal Trail Sean has carved a tunnel of hope in the Peak District and all of our national parks a belief that we can be the very best places to cycle and to experience our landscapes. Today we’re about to hear about what will be a £17M investment in cycling in our national parks, inspired by the success of the Monsal Trail.
Now is a difficult time in public life as we adapt to the austerity years ahead. But Sean saw opportunities where others have only seen challenge. Over the last two years he has driven a new business-like ethic linking our deepest values to true commercial success, once again, enthusing the staff of our fantastic visitor services to believe they can achieve more.
Just a few days before he died, we celebrated the new Bakewell photographic gallery, a new commercial venture inspired by Sean that celebrates our landscape in photographs by the most talented Peak District photographers. The excitement and buzz in those 5 photographers and their national park partners at the launch of the gallery was the same buzz and excitement Sean has spread over so many of his friends, colleagues and partners.
Sean had immense potential as he moved into playing a bigger and more central leadership role in the Peak District National Park. Imagine the energy, vision, can-do and fun place it would be with Sean driving the exciting new enterprise areas of our work. We owe it to Sean to keep up the momentum on all that he had a passion for.
Sean was a great support, an inspiration and a friend to many people and I consider myself one of those who was regularly inspired by, challenged by and supported by Sean. I have never once in 10 years here felt anything other that Sean was a loyal friend and colleague.
He was also very much a family man and he was immensely proud of Lynn and Anna and how you have overcome your personal challenges. His wider family and Oldham friends were important to him too.
We all feel for you in your loss as he must have been a tower of strength to you as he was to us. We hope that we have reflected here the sincere thoughts of all of Sean’s friends and work colleagues and that these will be some comfort for you in your loss.