Phil Penfold: The filthiest county in Britain, why litter makes me ashamed of Yorkshire

A litter pick along the river Aire in Leeds - but is this the impression that Yorkshire wants to give to the world?
A litter pick along the river Aire in Leeds - but is this the impression that Yorkshire wants to give to the world?
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YORKSHIRE is the largest county in the UK. It boasts many of the biggest towns and cities in the kingdom. It excels in sport, in the arts, in its produce. It leads the way in diversity. And now we can add another tick to our achievements. We are probably the filthiest county in Britain as well.

And it’s not urban litter. It is strewn everywhere. In hedgerows, in ditches, in the fields, at roadsides, in lay-bys, in trees, at picnic spots. Anywhere and everywhere.

In the last month or so, various assignments have taken me from Hebden Bridge and Todmorden in the west, to Whitby in the east. From Doncaster and Barnsley in the south up to Sheffield. From York in the centre up to Thirsk. And litter is everywhere, and in hideous profusion.

Instead of the roadside vegetation telling us that life is starting to sprout into the trees and bushes, they reveal that obscenely wanton people just could not care less where they dump their detritus.

In my limited travels, I discovered several black spots. There is a nature reserve not so far from the village of Cadeby, near Rotherham. It is an eyesore, and the lanes that lead to it are piled high with waste. The rail line that runs up to Barnsley from Meadowhall, and onward to Sheffield, has embankments that are scattered with tyres, boxes, bags and bulging sacks full of heaven knows what.

The approach to Bradford Interchange would make anyone contemplating a stay in the city think again. The trees and undergrowth bear strange fruits of domestic cast-offs, bin and carrier bags, and just about anything that the previous owners clearly thought was surplus to their requirements. In Doncaster, and not a mile from the centre of town, there is a low brick wall with a patch of scrub behind it. You cannot see the ground for a layer of drinks cans and plastic bottles. In front of the wall, there is (ironically) a large bin. It is seldom used. Around the bin there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of cigarette butt ends.

Some of the locals come here to sit on the wall, have a fag and a drink (in a designated public space) and when they have finished, they just leave the filth behind them. Simple as that. If the fine for throwing away the finished fag were to be imposed, Doncaster would be the richest borough in Britain.

But the journey that I made the other day was jaw-dropping, and also eye-boggling. It was by bus from York, out to Malton and Pickering, then to picturesque Thornton-le-Dale, with a last leg up to Whitby.

From the top deck of the 840 service, you can get some wonderful views. And what you also see is that we are steadily despoiling our countryside. There wasn’t a single stretch of over 50 yards or so that didn’t offer vistas of jettisoned pop bottles, drinks cans, polystyrene cartons, cardboard pizza boxes, plastic crates. You name it, it was junked there. Just before the turn off from the main road down into Goathland, someone had driven several miles to leave an old office chair in the middle of some wild heather.

In a layby not so far away, someone else had left a mattress which was obviously no longer needed. On the side of a bridge over a rushing beck, another considerate person had cleared up all their picnic wrappings and containers, and had put it in an orange carrier bag which they had then hung on a stake to the right of the stonework.

From the identify trade-marks on some of the cartons and boxes, it became obvious that there are drivers who think nothing of buying their fast food in (say) Scarborough, and then travelling for miles to find a place to park up, have their meal, and then…..just throw it all out of the window (along with a few lager cans) and then just leave it all behind.

There are tiny pockets which are pristine. Stockton-in-the-Forest is one, and Goathland is another. Both clearly have a strong sense of community pride, and the bins are used correctly. But the road into the place which figured for so long in the TV series Heartbeat is eye-bogglingly disgusting. The location is the North York Moors, and it is defiled by rubbish. In fact, there was so much of it that I was concentrating on the destruction of our natural countryside to the point where I forgot to look at the countryside itself.

And let’s not forget that this particular bus trip is made by one of the hugely popular Coastliner services which, in the coming weeks and months, will be packed with visitors and tourists. What a wonderful impression of yucky Yorkshire they will get, an unrolling vista of squalor.

What will the business executive, going to Sheffield or Bradford to seal a deal, think of what they see from the carriage window? That it is a fine Yorkshire tradition to empty our house contents and or car boots onto embankments in some sort of bizarre merry prank? Or that we are a dirty lot who could not give a fig about the environment?

If you read this, and you feel that this is journalistic spleen, mixed with hyperbole and exaggeration, then I urge you to take the train, or any top deck bus journey. We are ankle-deep in litter.

There are, or course, no sure-fire certain solutions. Overstretched police forces aren’t going to be found lurking in the gorse bushes at the Hole of Horcum (another beauty spot that is defiled) to catch litterbugs and tippers. But, when local magistrates hand out community service orders, could it be arranged that offenders are organised into supervised litter-picking units who would be compelled into tackling the issues of litter? Is that a feasible proposition?

In the meantime, I have a suggestion for Sir Gary Verity. Would that champion of all things Yorkshire care to take a couple of members of his
team on the Coastliner to Whitby? Get up there on the top deck, Sir Gary, and see what the visitors to Yorkshire will see – an evil tsunami of litter and tipping, objects large and small, in every ditch, copse, hedgerow, field and lane.

And with your no-nonsense, incisive insight, Sir Gary, maybe, just maybe, we can arrive at a means of curbing this foul menace. Many people in this county say how proud they are of living here. You know, at the moment, I am ashamed by it.

Phil Penfold is a journalist and theatre critic from South Yorkshire.