IT had obviously been a lavish picnic. Sandwiches, crisps and cakes from Marks & Spencer, washed down with a couple of litre bottles of Coke.
I knew what they’d eaten and drunk because all the packaging and the empty bottles, plus plastic bags in which they’d been carried, had been scrunched into the crevices of the Cow and Calf Rocks, above Ilkley. A couple of hundred yards away, in the car park below, there’s a litter bin.
Evidently, it had been too much trouble to walk that far. A fellow walker and I raged to each other about the sheer loutishness of some people before we prised the rubbish free and between us took it down to the bin.
It’s the same wherever you go. Over the past few weeks, I’ve come across similar casual defilement of beauty spots on the climb from Goathland to the top of the North York Moors, on the rocks below Scarborough Spa, on the trail to Holme Moss, above Holmfirth, on the path from Haworth to Oxenhope.
Everyone who has their favourite corners of Yorkshire will have the same story to tell – rubbish just chucked to get caught in the heather or snagged in a hedgerow, sometimes whipped up out of reach by the wind, to flap from the branches of trees like a flag declaring that people who couldn’t care less have passed this way.
You see them all the time. Families eating and drinking and then just getting up and walking away, leaving behind the detritus, the parents setting the worst possible example to their children, creating a whole new generation of despoilers of places that should be pristine.
And challenging them can be perilous. A volunteer I know at a nature reserve in South Yorkshire feared she was going to be assaulted after politely suggesting to a couple she saw dropping their fast-food leftovers that they put them in a nearby bin instead, such was the level of aggressive abuse to which she was subjected.
Now that the schools have broken up and the summer holidays are in full swing, let’s make a plea to families setting out to enjoy themselves to give our countryside and coast a break from becoming dumping grounds, or damaged because of carelessness.
It’s not hard. In fact, it’s very easy. It just means hanging on to the leftovers of picnics until you find a bin to put them in.
It means not buying foul-smelling disposable barbecues and lighting them on tinder-dry moorland where they start fires that leave vast swathes blackened and barren.
It means having a greater degree of care and consideration for the places you’re drawn to visit, and doing nothing to harm them. There seems to be a disconnect in the minds of too many visitors between what attracts them to majestic landscapes and the detrimental effect they can have.
They appear to think that causing harm has nothing to do with them. Tidying up is somebody else’s business.
If I had the power to put signs up at every lovely place in Yorkshire to which the crowds will flock over the next few weeks, they’d carry the time-honoured walker’s motto – “Leave nothing but footprints”.
It’s a simple, but potent, message that ought to strike a chord at a time when public awareness of environmental harm is higher than ever before, and there is generalised determination to reduce the amount of single-use plastic in circulation.
But you’d sometimes struggle to believe that such a level of awareness exists, when every year the volume of rubbish collected by volunteers in the national beaches clean-up increases.
Last week MPs sitting on the House of Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee announced an inquiry into the environmental impact of tourism and transport. Great. It will hopefully be another step along the road to taking better care of the sort of special places that our county has in abundance.
But if those places – like the Dales, the North York Moors, the Wolds, the coast – are to stay as special as nature created them, the people who go there have to be friends as well as visitors.
Caring for these landscapes is the business of everybody who loves them. Encouraging people to have that mindset is the difficult bit, so it’s time to embark on a programme of public education to capitalise on concern for the environment, especially amongst the young.
Just as drink-driving has been rendered socially unacceptable by steady campaigning over decades, so too we could make despoiling the loveliest places we have unthinkable for a majority of people.