Jayne Dowle: Quiet revolution as great outdoors breaks barriers

Events like hovercraft racing have attracted people from all backgrounds to locations like Rother Valley Country Park.
Events like hovercraft racing have attracted people from all backgrounds to locations like Rother Valley Country Park.
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ARE you beginning to despair of finding something to be positive about in Great Britain? If so, I suggest a day trip to the countryside. In our own glorious region, you won’t have to travel far.

If you’re really lucky, you might even be able to get there by train. Or bus if you’re even luckier. And when you do arrive, take a look around. Not just at the lovely vistas before you, but at the people unfurling their picnic blankets across the grass.

We might be living in a country where elected politicians seem incapable of representing our interests, but democracy rules in the countryside. Can it really only be 15 years since Trevor Phillips, then chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, described the absence of black and Asian people visiting the countryside as a form of “passive apartheid”?

I haven’t forgotten the hand-wringing by rural watchdog the Countryside Agency, who set about finding out why so many people felt excluded from England’s green and pleasant land. And it wasn’t just ethnic minorities. Their researchers also found that “there appear to be significant constraints affecting social grades D/E in terms of health and personal circumstances (including lack 
of money)”.

How things have changed. And with respect to the Countryside Agency, which was merged into the Commission for Rural Communities and abolished in 2013, this embracing of the landscape, and all it can offer, has occurred without the assistance of any government quango.

It’s a cultural shift that we can put down to the internet expanding our horizons and making it easier to find out basic information, such as walking routes and disabled access, and to a growing desire to connect with nature in an urban world that can be harsh and unfriendly.

As Sheffield-born writer, television presenter and all-round good egg Michael Palin says: “Geography is no longer just something which you learn from a book and a map and that’s it. It’s very much now a collaborative thing. The world is out there, you can go and see for yourself, very often now for very small amounts of money, what the world looks like, and I think that’s a great opportunity.”

He was speaking in response to the news that geography is enjoying a renaissance as a GCSE subject, but he would have seen this in action during our family day out to the Rother Valley Country Park last weekend.

It’s a lovely place in South Yorkshire, with lakes and watersports and acre upon acre of grass and woodlands. However, what really impressed me was the sheer diversity of humanity. All kinds of people, from all kinds of ethnic and social backgrounds, all hanging out in the sunshine together.

Over there was a group of African families enjoying a cook-out, complete with a marquee where a young man was spinning tunes on the decks. Next to us was a huge gang of under-10s, tearing about on mini-quad bikes and kicking footballs, all with broad Sheffield accents and some with dreadlocks.

Behind us sat a quiet couple with two Labradors and an impressive kayak, observing the scene with wine glasses in hand. And as we made our way back to the car, we admired a handsome young collie pup straining at his lead with giddy curiosity. His owners were Polish and almost as friendly as their dog.

While irresponsible politicians and commentators have attempted to whip up hysteria over immigration and economics, a quiet revolution has been taking place. Without overt social engineering, the countryside – in leisure terms at least – has become a shared space where race, social background or accent don’t matter.

I noticed it earlier this year when we visited the Lake District. My teenage son and I fell into easy conversation with a couple of families who spoke English as fluently as their native Eastern European tongue. The parents had organised a mass bike ride through Grizedale Forest and the children were flying around the car park on their mountain bikes. It struck me then that we might be going backwards in some respects as a nation, but we’re going forward in mutual respect and shared interests.

Then one Sunday afternoon in June, we popped up to the Longdendale Trail near the Woodhead Pass to have a picnic. We encountered a boisterous extended family straight out of the C4 series Shameless, a group of young Turkish men solemnly carrying their cool-bags up to the viewpoint, a very fancy couple who bid us good afternoon and informed us they had come over from Cheshire, and two little Asian lads playing dares with our daughter, Lizzie, as they jumped off rocks into the cool water below. If Trevor Phillips and Michael Palin had popped up from behind a bush, I wonder what they would have both made of the scene.

I can only speak for the North of England. If this is happening elsewhere – or not – I’d be interested to know.