Saturday, April 18, 2020

The role of the countryside in helping us through this crisis.

Snowdonia - above the Glyders.

The events of the last few weeks will be with us for decades. Economically, there’ll certainly be pre and post Covid eras, and socially, though evidence shows we swiftly revert to our norms, most commentators expect there to be some adjustment. I wonder though, as I reflect on the ‘Stay Away’ sign that’s appeared in a lane near my house, at the deeper changes this shock to the system will bring, and the attitudinal legacies it may leave?

Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve coped well with the restrictions of the lockdown. I suppose that being an introvert, I was always going to be less affected by the lack of social interaction than I was by the limits to getting outdoors. In the event, I’ve adapted to that too, finding new ways to explore, making a virtue of what’s local; dwn ei filltir sgwar, as they say in Wales – a man of his own square mile.

But for all that I’ve found solace on my doorstep, there’s also been sadness – not in the landscape or the shrinking of my horizons, but in narrow minded insularity which the sign in that lane so typifies. Walk two miles from where I’m writing this and you’ll find others of similar ilk: Stay Home, Caravans not Welcome, No access – the internet is awash with much the same and worse.

Fear, of course, feeds our darker instincts. In the first grip of a pandemic (that very word is so emotive) we want action that keeps us safe - we don’t care about fancy pants reasoning or the niceties of whether this or that restriction offends against our individual rights.  And actually, I agree. Over sophistication would risk undermining the core message – especially when there are sections of society who seem to be determinedly irresponsible and selfish.

But that doesn’t mean, we shouldn’t call out attitudes and behaviours that in any other context we’d be quick to condemn. Of course, an urban exodus to Tenby beach or Pen Y Fan should not be encouraged – and those who flout the rules should rightly be penalised. But when the call to stay at home starts to morph into a more general ‘outsiders not welcome’ then we risk crossing a line. Last week, the tires of suspected ‘visitors’ cars were slashed in communities across Wales; there were farmers calling for footpaths to be closed, there were people posting pictures of suspiciously parked vehicles – and there were keyboard warriors glorying in the Easter stay-away, not as a regretfully necessary measure, but as a statement of neo-tribal identity.

If this were just a few individuals then perhaps I could shrug it off. But regretfully, some of those who should know better have acted poorly too. The posts on social media by the Pembrokeshire National Park for example - with their sideways digs at caravaners and second homeowners - are ill thought through, reinforcing an undercurrent of ‘us and ‘them’ that no afterthought of ‘you’ll be welcome when it’s over’ can ever mitigate.  In part, that’s because it isn’t going to be ‘over’ – at least not for a long while, and not in a clean cut way.

The real sadness in all this is that rural areas have – at least potentially - an important role to play in helping us come through what will be a messy and imperfect emergence from this crisis. If we think of those few environments that can relatively safely allow for exercise, wellbeing, families to be together – then the outdoors must come high on the list.  This week, it was reported that the Government is considering the restarting of construction projects on the basis that working outside poses a limited risk – then surely walking, or mountaineering, or surfing or sailing…must be even less so. 

On Thursday there was some clarification that the current legislation allows for a short drive of up to five minutes in order to take a much longer period of exercise. To many – myself included – this makes a huge difference to their horizons - and ultimately their mental health. We should welcome the clarity rather than feigning confusion or retreating to the comfort of inflexible prescriptions. For these are exactly the types of baby steps we will need, helping us to move beyond slogans without compromise to safety or leaping from one extreme to another. I’d like to see our National Parks (and other similar bodies) start thinking – and communicating – along similar lines, rather than promoting the blanket closure of our precious natural resources.  

But most of all, I’d like to see a change in an underlying attitude of ‘us and them’, which if not universal is worryingly to the fore. Those of us lucky enough to live in rural areas – and especially those with the ability to influence others - must come to terms with the reality that there will inevitably be some risk from visitors arriving from the city – just as those in urban areas are now taking daily risks to supply us with food and medicine and telecoms and building materials…  We live in an interconnected and mutually dependent society and the idea that its ‘our’ local health service or ‘our’ landscape or ‘our’ footpaths and that these regional assets are most definitely ‘not yours’, is not only wrong in its reasoning, it’s shabby in sentiment and actually, bad for our future too.

Last week I was struck by a simple Facebook post from my friends at Alpine Action Adventures - they were offering key workers a substantial discount on any holiday they might take this or next year. Sure, it’s a marketing device; but what a fantastic and creative gesture. They have other offers too and are responsibly encouraging guests to think ahead without the need to risk large deposits or inflexible commitments. What they are saying is Come and stay, we’re grateful for what you’ve done; we’re happy to share some of our good fortune - and these are people who live in France!  Let’s have more and similar gestures from businesses and public bodies here in the UK.

My grandfather, who lived through the great depression, was fond of the saying ‘we reap what we sow’. These too are seminal times, and we should grant some leeway for the planting of a few bad seeds. But in a few short months, the communities and the landscapes of rural Wales will have a golden opportunity to show – and share – the depth of their value to us all. In so doing, they can make a huge contribution to our national wellbeing and play a vital role in shaping some of the few positive legacies of this pandemic. Rather than putting signs on gates (either literally or online) we ought – right now - to be thinking of how we might embrace that challenge, even if the ways to do so are not immediately obvious.   

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