'I'll never forget the sight of burning'

Janet Street-Porter revisits people she met during a walk from Edinburgh to London in 1998, before another foot and mouth outbreak was dreamt of
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The Independent Online
In 1998 I walked from Edinburgh to London in a straight line ­ about 350 miles through bogs, over moors, across main roads and through villages. En route I met a huge cross-section of people, from farmers to buddhist monks.

In 1998 I walked from Edinburgh to London in a straight line, about 350 miles through bogs, over moors, across main roads and through villages. En route I met a huge cross-section of people, from farmers to buddhist monks.

The result was a BBC television series, As the Crow Flies, and I also wrote a book about my experiences. A year earlier I'd walked from Dungeness in Kent to Bristol, and then from Weston-super-Mare to Conwy, so I've spent months on foot getting to know the British countryside intimately. I've enjoyed its beauty, raged at its destruction, seen litter and pollution at first hand. I've listened to farmers describing the pain of their industry and the loneliness of their existence.

When the foot and mouth outbreak started I decided to retrace the first part of my Edinburgh route and talk to the people I'd filmed, to see how their fortunes and that of the countryside have changed. Here is what they have to say.

Time after time, I heard the same thing: "If we knew how it spread, then we'd know how to deal with it."

As a walker I feel that closing footpaths is over-reacting. If this disease is spread on the wind, then all the buckets of disinfectant in Britain are going to make very little difference. And what about wildlife ­ from foxes to deer? Do they spread the disease or not? We have opted to shut down rural Britain on the flimsiest of evidence.

Even now, arguments are raging about whether to vaccinate livestock or to cull healthy sheep. My two-day journey through the North didn't produce the answers to any of these questions. It just seemed to throw up more.

I'll never forget the sight of burning cattle on a beautiful spring day and the revolting stench. I visited empty cafés and deserted pubs, and drove along car-free roads.

To get out of this mess, we need some tough decisions. Letting things run their course under the current plan is no solution, as everything from tourism to racing faces financial ruin. In a pub in Weardale a man sits silently every night. All his cattle and his two cats were culled and he can't cope.

Sympathetic though I am to farmers, we need to be bold and declare large areas of Britain fully open. Government hand-wringing isn't the answer. The fact is, the countryside is shut, no matter what Tony Blair says. And it doesn't have to be.

Unlike three years ago, my 2001 journey had to be made by car ­ not just to save time, but because every footpath is closed and walking on farmland forbidden. In 1998 I set out on a blazing hot August day at the height of the Edinburgh Festival. Last week it was pouring with rain, with only a handful of die-hard Japanese tourists patrolling the Royal Mile...

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