If Prince Charles really wants us to love the countryside, he could give some back
tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Thu Nov 13 16:46:31 GMT 2014
If Prince Charles really wants everyone to love
the countryside, he could start by giving some back
Jane Merrick - Wednesday 12 November 2014
If landowners like him regarded the countryside
as belonging to all of us, the gulf between urban and rural would narrow
Last weekend, deep in rural North Yorkshire, we
went searching for the last of the seasons sloes
in the hope of topping up supplies for our
Christmas sloe gin. Our route took us along
designated footpaths along the fringes of
farmers fields and off piste into ditches and
along streams in the hunt for the berries. We
could have walked for miles on open-access land
some of it owned by farmers, but still free for
the right to roam in an Area of Outstanding
Natural Beauty. But there were also plenty of
warnings to us not to go on to private land an
electric fence to keep the cows in and us out, or
a huge stone wall blocking our way.
There we were, up from London for the weekend,
metropolitan-dwellers desperate to soak up some
of Britains beautiful countryside before
returning to the concrete and traffic of the
city. But does our appreciation of North Yorkshires hedgerows count?
The Prince of Wales, in an article for Country
Life, says most people in Britain have lost any
real connection with rural ways. The majority of
the public are four or more generations removed
from anyone who worked on the land and it
frequently shows in their attitudes. Townies and
city-dwellers like me have only a vague
understanding of farming and are outsiders
increasingly suspicious of it.
In a way, Prince Charles is right about me in
particular and the population in general: there
is a widening gulf between, on the one hand,
farming and rural communities, and, on the other,
us urbanites. I may know, for example, that by
mid-November the sloes have all but disappeared
from hedgerows (as our near-empty bags at the end
of the walk testified), but I wouldnt know what
to do if I came across a herd of cows around the next corner.
It is true that fewer people work on the land
than a century ago not surprising when you
think of how our country is becoming increasingly
urbanised. Prince Charles says our collective
disconnection with the land is making us value it
less, and the risk is that we will lose what we
treasure the beautiful landscapes, hedgerows
and village pubs. When it comes to, for example,
the price of milk, which is dictated by mass
production and supermarkets rather than farmers,
and how little we understand about the rearing
and slaughter of cattle, he may be right. But is
it our fault, as the Prince suggests?
When Prince Charles talks about us outsiders
being suspicious of farming and the countryside
he seems to do so with the sneer of a landowner
rather than an heir to the throne with a serious
message for his future subjects. How can a nation
truly understand its own countryside when so much
of it does not belong to we who are in the
literal sense, the commoners? There may be a real
point to erecting electric fences and walls to
stop trespassers from disturbing cattle or
trampling over crops, but so much land is out of
bounds when it does not need to be.
Over centuries, through the enclosures, millions
of acres of common land were seized by wealthy
landowners: a countryside turned over to a small
elite. We have a public right to roam, but it is
restricted, not free. Prince Charles sees us as
outsiders because that is what we are, in his
eyes. To him, we are the wrong side of the
electric fence, but he doesnt want to take it
down. If landowners like him regarded the
countryside as belonging to all of us, the gulf
between urban and rural would narrow. And if
farmers did more to engage with the public not
just with local rural communities but the wider
population, including weekending urbanites like
me then we would understand each other better.
There is an event called Open Farm Sunday, run by
the organisation Linking Environment and Farming,
where the public are welcomed through the gates
of nearly 400 farms nationwide, but that is just
one day a year. Then there are the vast country
estate owners who open their houses and farm
shops to the public, but at a high price for a daily ticket.
And it is not just the historic injustice of
enclosures that has robbed us of common land. The
Government is trying its best to erode our rights
over what is left to us. According to the Open
Spaces Society, ministers are resisting
amendments to exempt commons and public paths
from a measure in the Infrastructure Bill to
allow government agencies to transfer surplus
land to developers. If this passes through
Parliament without the protection of those
amendments, local authorities and government
could seize public spaces for development.
There may be a huge demand for housing, but there
is, as the OSS argues, enough brownfield land
particularly in land banks fit for development
without losing our commons. In his article,
Prince Charles talks of the countryside as a
rich, natural tapestry that risks unravelling.
But it is not we, the common people, who are pulling at its threads.
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