The political question of opening up Britain’s countryside

Britain is famed around the world for its great historic cities. Visitors have everything from awe inspiring cathedrals and great parks to fascinating museums and first class theatre. Take a boat ride down the Thames in London for a close up view of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament; visit Stratford to see Shakespeare’s birthplace; take the waters in Bath and follow in the footsteps of wealthy Romans and Georgians; get onboard Brunel’s infamous boat SS Great Britain in Bristol; find out about Vikings in York. The list is, quite literally, endless.

This great heritage is not just available for visitors; Britain’s cities are for British people to enjoy as well. Addressing the British public, Conservative leader David Cameron told his party’s 2009 conference that Britain is a great place to live: “Look at Britain in 2009. It is, in so many ways, a great place to live. Great culture and arts, great diversity, great sport.”

But there is another Britain that most, visitors and residents alike, barely dip their toe into. This is the Britain away from busy cities where political parties hold their annual conferences. Far from the crowds there is literally mile and mile of rolling national park to enjoy. Some parts are so peaceful and so unspoiled that you can walk for hours and not see a single person.

Yes, some parts of rural Britain can get busy. Ghastly hotspots like Windermere in the Lake District sometimes feel just as busy as Oxford Street in London. Arriving here on a summer’s day could put you off the countryside for life.

Do persevere though; get out there and enjoy the wonderful scenery and the natural landscapes. Britain is a small island but the wild areas you find in the Lake District are repeated in national parks across the nation, in Snowdonia, the Peak District, the Yorkshire Dales and the like. By picking the hills you walk carefully, away from the touristy towns, you quickly get away from all the strains and stresses of everyday life. It’s the ideal opportunity to re-charge your batteries.

In his conference speech David Cameron said: “to be British is to have an instinctive love of the countryside and the natural world.” That is the way it should be. Unfortunately many Brits don’t even get to see the fake countryside around Windermere in the Lake District. Whole groups of people don’t even get out of the cities. They are imprisoned in their own neighbourhoods.

Britain is a divided nation; there are the middle classes who get to enjoy walking in the hills at the weekend and there are those who don’t have the means to afford a car or the bus fares to reach such places. In many cases the latter groups don’t simply know what there is on offer.The Industrial Revolution brought a massive population shift; in the 1800s the majority of people lived in urban, rather than rural, areas for the first time. Whole generations just lived for their work so had no reason to travel to the countryside. The opportunities were in the cities.

David Cameron has a vision: “I see a country where more children grow up with security and love because family life comes first. I see a country where you choose the most important things in life — the school your child goes to and the healthcare you get. I see a country where communities govern themselves — organising local services, independent of Whitehall, a great handing back of power to people.”

Whatever political party wins the next general election has its work cut out to eradicate poverty. Not least, it is important to make sure the countryside is open to and enjoyed by all. This apartheid can’t continue. Perhaps then we can also then start put more emphasis on educating our visitors that there is more to Britain’s countryside than Lake Windermere and the Cotswolds.

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