Magazine article The Spectator

A Question of Ethnics

Magazine article The Spectator

A Question of Ethnics

Article excerpt

Two elderly men and a woman sit on a jagged rock beside a limpid pool of water in the green hills of the Lake District. They are Indians, wearing shalwarkameezes beneath layers of cardigans, coats and scarves; the men wear white Muslim topi caps. On the next page of Visits to National Parks -- a Guide for Ethnic Communities a group of windswept Chinese men and women stand smiling, cameras round their necks, in the Yorkshire Dales. In the Broads National Park, meanwhile, members of a large Afro-Caribbean family laugh as they trip through a field of long golden grass.

These pictures were taken on a series of experimental outings to the British countryside for city-dwelling black and Asian Britons. Alongside are snatches of encouraging blurb: we learn that a group called Bolton Asian Elders were able to bring their own food to the Lakes; while the Chinese, hailing from Manchester, were delighted to find that their youth hostel had ensuite bathrooms.

'This . . . gives you an idea of what you can do in National Parks -- based on real-life visits by different ethnic community groups, ' the guide gushes.

Since the Race Relations (Amendment) Act of 2000, bodies like national parks have been compelled to ensure that they discriminate against no one. And so, in 2001, the Council for National Parks formed the Mosaic Project to organise ethnic minority outings into the hills and dales. The Lake District National Park even announced it would axe its free guided walks because they seemed to attract only white hikers, although this decision was later rescinded. But these steps were deemed insufficient by the government's rural watchdog, the Countryside Agency. In its recent diversity review, it seemed to echo the view expressed by the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, that there was a 'passive apartheid' in the countryside. Country pursuits were targeted at 'white, middle-aged, middle-class people', the review said. Minority groups were not 'comfortable' when visiting the countryside; it was not a 'welcome' place for them.

While some derided the report -- the Countryside Alliance, which campaigns for the countryside and country sports, asked why a body set up to promote the interests of the countryside was fretting over urban communities -- others were more sympathetic to the agency's concerns. In September the National Farmers Union held a multicultural picnic at Waseley Hills Country Park in Worcestershire. Aboriginal art was on display and there were Chinese performers.

The Ramblers' Association has said it plans to monitor the ethnicity of its members. The Mosaic Project, meanwhile, has morphed into the Mosaic Partnership, a £1 million enterprise funded by the Countryside Agency and others to continue bringing Asians and blacks into parks.

That there is little understanding between the town and the country is well known. But the importance attached to ethnic minorities in narrowing this rift seems surprising.

According to Sean Prendergast of the Peak District National Park, many Asian families already visit the park under their own steam:

on sunny Sundays they like to picnic at the Dovestone Reservoir. 'You don't find them on the upper moorland in their walking boots, ' he adds, 'but I don't think we should be judgmental about that.' The writer Hanif Kureishi has said that his family would never have gone walking in the countryside when they moved from Bombay to Bromley, because they considered it demeaning for middle-class Indians to traipse about like peasants. …

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