Walking in my mud-caked boots with a friend along the River Lea from Tottenham Hale to Waltham Abbey on a blustery, sunny winter’s day, I am struck by how easy it is to be transported away from the buzz of inner city London. The trail is an urban oasis, and during the eight-mile walk I come across electricity pylons, derelict sites and a bus graveyard, contrasting with the wild flowers, reservoirs, mud mottled horses and serendipitous river boats showcasing Buddha heads. But I’ve noticed on my walks, I don’t see many brown faces, especially considering how multicultural Tottenham is.
On our tea break I ask Saira Niazi, who has worked on conservation projects and at the London Wetland Centre, about some of her walking experiences: “I mean it’s a universal thing, and going for long walks in England is very easy because of the rights of ways and public access roads. You visit villages you wouldn’t usually go to and learn more about other people. Once I met a chicken farmer in Cornwall who had never met a Muslim before, and so we had a very pleasant and long conversation.” I’m curious as to how many people are interested in or are even aware that there are great walking trails on their doorstep, and what efforts are being made to encourage more people to get involved in outdoor pursuits, and especially from black and ethnic minority (BME) communities?
The debate on outdoor pursuits was recently raised in the Commons by David Rutley, MP for Macclesfield. He tells me that he cares about this issue and on a recent trip to Snowdon in Wales, he met several Asian women climbing up for the first time for their Duke of Edinburgh Award, and this is something that needs more encouragement. Rutley explained that more people should enjoy the great outdoors as it “broadens people’s horizons, and when people are taken out of their usual circumstances it is often life changing.” He adds that “most people are close to walking spaces, and once you get there it is mostly free. It is important for the human spirit, giving young people an array of experiences, and is important for health and well-being.” In a time of economic downturn, it has the added benefit of stimulating local economies, too.
The perception that exploring the great outdoors is a white, middle-class pursuit can be off-putting. But the countryside isn’t exclusively for those who spend their weekends in second homes and wear hunter-wellies. Nor is it only for pony-tailed blokes in hiking boots. In fact Ed Douglas, from the British Mountaineering Council, tells me that that this image is completely outmoded: the UK’s top climber, 15 year old inner-city Londoner Molly Thompson-Smith, defies the stereotype. But train tickets can be expensive: the price of a downlander ticket to visit the South Downs has gone up to £14, perhaps presenting a financial barrier. But many walks are closer to home and less costly.
Efforts to debunk the myth that the outdoors is inaccessible are being made. Mosaic, a National Parks campaign, was launched for this very purpose and has since trained 223 community champions from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) communities to encourage others and organise trips so that new people would visit the National Parks. Andrew Denton of the newly launched Britain on Foot campaign – an umbrella organisation including the National Trust, British Mountaineering Council and Berghaus, which has pooled £100,000 to get more new people walking – tells me a shocking statistic: although 10 per cent of the UK population is BME, there is only a 0.8 per cent BME attendance rate to national parks, “so that is a 10 to 1 negative correlation, so we have abysmally failed to engage in the past.” Denton further explains that about 30 per cent of the UK population is inactive by the government’s standard – which means that they are getting less than 30 mins of exercise five times a week – and this is absolutely frightening, which is why something as simple as walking needs can help change that.
It’s great that outdoor organisations are doing a lot more to raise awareness and creating incentives to walk, including subsidised equipment. But unless you’re looking for it, it’s not something you would necessarily know about. It’s not a new thing, but I feel that when community leaders organise trips to the countryside without the aid of huge organisations, it’s most inspiring. Having the confidence to read an ordnance survey map, going on a recce, coordinating a group and making sure everyone has sturdy boots when you’re no expert yourself is no mean feat. The most positive sign for me is that, despite the barriers cited above, there is a growing appetite among young Muslim women who want to explore the countryside and do hiking more regularly, whether it is through charity organisations, university student societies or local community groups. The fact that being in the great outdoors helps you to connect with nature and your spirituality, and being free to make ablution in a stream and praying on the grass, helps too.
The Tooting Sunday Circle in south London is one such community group that organises walks for young Muslim women – most recently a ten mile ramble in the Chiltern Hills. I spoke to organiser Jasmine Nahar who explained that, “many of the young women that we work with have a great enthusiasm for exploring the outdoors - we wanted to tap into that and give them the opportunity to develop their skills and hobbies in that area.” She added:
We wanted to share this great activity with those who might never have considered going hiking for various reasons: perhaps it just seemed out of reach from a logistical or financial perspective, or it just didn't seem interesting, or they might have been put off by the physical aspect of it. But we’ve been really impressed with the number of girls willing to give it a go.
I find that you can develop meaningful connections on a long walk with the people you’re with, and you’re guaranteed to meet characters along the way. Important steps are being made to open up outdoor pursuits, and walking as a hobby is on the up, but of course more can be done. The perception that exploring the countryside is something you can’t do unless you wear tweed and say "tally-ho" is simply untrue. Terms like "hiking" and "orienteering", a fuss over expensive footwear and a Northface raincoat can be daunting, creating unnecessary barriers. This façade can be broken if our local green spaces are celebrated more, young people are made to feel that they belong there and that rambling can be just as enjoyable as other leisure pursuits. And let’s be honest, a train ticket to Epping Forest or Chipstead Downs falls within Zone 6, which costs much less than a trip to the cinema.