If Prince Charles really wants us to love the countryside, he could give some back

Tony Gosling 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 season’s 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 Britain’s beautiful countryside before 
returning to the concrete and traffic of the 
city. But does our appreciation of North Yorkshire’s 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 
looking in 
 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 wouldn’t 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 doesn’t 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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