David Behrens: Horses for courses – isn’t it better to help your community than be an April fool?

The Kilburn White Horse
The Kilburn White Horse
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THE constraints of health and safety in the workplace – that old chestnut – have this week put out to pasture the volunteers who, for decades, groomed the white horse carved into the limestone moors above Kilburn.

The work of cutting back the gorse and applying an occasional new coat of paint to the 160-year-old carving will now have to be carried out by professionals licensed by the Forestry Commission.

At first glance, this seems Draconian, and indeed the volunteer group was mightily put out by what it saw as an ultimatum to cease and desist. But in fairness to the Forestry Commission, most of the volunteers are now in their 60s and 70s, and the thought of someone that age descending a cliff face, a rope in one hand and a pressure spray painter in the other, is an accident waiting to happen.

Yet it is exactly the sort of maintenance regime that could, given the right conditions, usefully be carried out within the community. It would not only lighten the load on the public purse, but also encourage people to take more responsibility for their surroundings.

The trouble is that young people, by which in this case I mean those under 60, do not appear to want to do it.

The White Horse Association, like many such organisations, has struggled to attract a new generation of volunteers who could take its work forward. As a result, it is now having to consider its future.

It’s a shame and also a surprise – I’d have thought that downhill paint spraying is exactly the kind of activity to which people would be attracted. They’ve made sports out of less raw material. Saturday night TV shows, too.

And what is the white horse anyway if not 19th century graffiti? Since when have young people been averse to that?

The irony is that the horse was carved in the first place with the help of youngsters, who laid out the white chippings for their teacher. If, as the secretary of the volunteers’ organisation pointed out, there 
had been health and safety 
regulations in 1857, the horse would not be there.

There will, if the weather holds, be thousands of people in the North York Moors this Easter weekend and many will stop to take pictures of the distant horse. It’s an easy destination, in that you don’t have to suffer the A64 to get there and you don’t have to get out of the car to see it. The late Victoria Wood observed that such sites are recognisable to a generation of tourists only when a tax disc is placed in the bottom left of the picture.

But if not spray painting a horse, how will the younger generation spend the holiday weekend?

Perhaps the most depressing aspect is the fact tomorrow is also April Fool’s Day – a date which seems to resonate more than the religious holiday. Removing the filling from a Cadbury’s creme egg and replacing it with Hellman’s mayonnaise holds more attraction, I fear, than going to a service at church. A tremendous way to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, I’m sure you’ll agree.

A few other April Fools jokes have emerged already. Virgin announced that it had developed a “travel experience” that would, for £88, allow customers to journey back in time. I don’t wish to rain on their parade but you can do that already, and for slightly less money, simply by stepping onto a Pacer train from Leeds to Harrogate.

I thought that Starbucks’ latest offering might also be a joke, and even now I’m not sure. Its “Royal English Breakfast tea latte” is, it says, “a select blend of rich, full leaf black teas from India and Sri Lanka, lightly sweetened with liquid cane sugar and topped with steamed milk”. Just a cup of tea, then.

The origins of April Fool’s Day may actually be rooted in religion, and in particular the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century.

When Pope Gregory XIII decided that New Year’s Day should be celebrated on January 1 and not at the end of March, those who failed to heed were made fun of, and sent on fools’ errands. Earlier still, in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale, a vain rooster is tricked by a fox on April 1.

But I doubt that either of those conjectures will be much in the mind of anyone who would sooner prank their friends with a mayonnaise-filled chocolate egg than offer a service to their community. Happy Easter.