Cowpats or chintz?
The right to roam is all well and good, as long as townies don't expect a pasteurised version of the countryside.
Saturday 27 March 1999
I sometimes see Jane's visitors. They stand next to the footpath sign down the lane from her farm looking self-conscious, like Koi carp in the trout pond - desperate not to be taken for "townies" but unsure about where they're allowed to be in this alien land, "the countryside".
The tourist board this week advised farmers who take in guests for bed and breakfast that people want more genuine down-home country cooking, more homeliness, more mud. "Don't make your farms too twee," tourism experts said. People don't come to the country for chintz; they want cowpats.
But not all of them. For some visitors to these parts, the "where to walk" dilemma doesn't arise. Philippa's guests frequently never get further than the sitting-room window. She runs a B&B at the top end of the price scale: more cushions on beds than in a tart's boudoir, colour-coded towels, every surface - hard or soft - Farrow and Balled or Osborne and Littled to within an inch of its life. Gold taps, even.
"They come for a rest," she told me. "Top people with horrifically busy lives. They want everything done for them. I'm just waiting for the day when I'll have to wipe some barrister's bum." In between ministering to burnt-out members of the judiciary and exhausted TV execs, Philippa's a sheep farmer, but, sensitive to her customers' needs, she put the herd of rare-breed pretties in the field in front of the house. "The lambs are in there now. Cute as anything. The guests like to see them. But that's it. They look at the view from the windows. They don't want to do anything. It's not the Lake District, after all, is it?"
That just about sums it up. Not the Lake District. Not the moors. Not the coast. All that visitors want from this little corner of the English countryside is to pass through it, or have it as an undemanding backdrop for the consumption of premier cru chablis, like those big tropical landscape photos you used to see in Chinese restaurants.
Who's going to fight for the right to roam around here? The beauty of this landscape doesn't shout, it comes to you in a thousand whispered voices from the hedgerows with all their dazzling complexity, from the repeated quiet shape of a field and its copse. This is the Richard Thompson of the countryside. You have to know what you're looking at to see how good it is.
Most of England is like this, quiet and rolling, understated loveliness vested in its detail. It's biodiversity, to give the posh name. But it's the detail that we've been losing fast for 50 years and are likely to lose even faster. This is because we're all fabulously ignorant about our own countryside, and this is not simply the wilful ignorance of the person on the way to a fast buck via a concrete swath over the nearest Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
We get ramblers out from our nearest big town; they come over the stile opposite our house and stand outside the kitchen window in the lane looking at maps. They chat, they ask directions. They are clearly having a lovely time, and yet one of them said to me: "I like walking round here. It's like scampi and chips at your local pub. You know, nothing special, but nice." When I asked him if he'd noticed the orchids growing beside the path he looked confused, then grinned - I was pulling his leg, surely. "Orchids? You don't get them here!"
Jane's husband Stewart has lived on their farm all his life. Loves his tractor, his pigs, his fields. Cried the day the cows were sold. Whenever I tell him I've had to go to London for work, he shudders. "Cor!" he says, "Can't stand the place!" and he shifts his cap with the agitation of even thinking of the city's congestion and lack of green. But during his tenure of the farm he's ripped out half the hedgerows and drained two ponds. He says: "You don't see birds like you did when I was a boy," as if it were nothing to do with him, as if the decline in our songbird populations were like Jerry Springer, or two-pound coins, all part of the world generally going to the dogs.
Stewart welcomes walkers on his land, and they walk happily across it thinking how neat and green his fields look. The walkers don't know that the field should be full of plants other than bright, chemically fertilised Italian rye grass, and if they don't know, then who is going to tell Stewart Woods that the reason he doesn't see birds any more is because he's left them nothing to eat and nowhere to nest?
Of course, we aren't short of the wilful variety of ignorance around here either. We have a little catch- phrase at home, said in the thickest cod rural accent available: "You doan unnerstan' coun'ry ways". It's mostly applied to a nearby farm whose owners we have nicknamed Cow Pat and Bin Bag. They have a constant bonfire going, fuelled by plastic waste, sump oil and whatever out-of-date chemicals they find in the back of their barn. Their slurry pit - unfenced, illegal and about to engulf the public highway - has been a constant source of pollution to their neighbours' natural lake for 20 years. They leave herbicide and fertiliser sacks with remnant contents intact in the fields to scorch the grass and seep into the stream. Needless to say, they long ago ploughed away any evidence of footpaths or bridleways crossing their land. If anyone challenges their "guardianship of the countryside" they snarl over their pints about "incomers" (they are from two counties away themselves) and townies: "You doan unnerstan' coun'ry ways".
After decades of being shut out by landowners, the British public is about to be unleashed unfettered on to the land. The more militant ramblers may eventually find their way past Cow Pat and Bin Bags' barbed-wire and dogs, and the spotlight of public disapproval may finally force them to slap a little cosmetic neatness on their disgusting abuses.
"The Right to Roam" is democratic for sure, but without a little education on either side - landowners and walkers - I don't see how this new access will be good news for most of the English countryside. The walkers will exercise their "right" in the high-profile beauty spots of the National Parks, where farmers may make money out of the increased numbers of visitors. But in the quiet majority of the countryside landowners and farmers will go on chipping away - without understanding - at the precious little details in order to try to stay in business. Walkers won't come here in big enough numbers to make an economic impact, and they won't be effective watchdogs because they don't even know that they've just trampled the last stand of incredibly rare orchid in the land. Seems to me that doan nobody unnerstan' coun'ry ways.
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