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6 March 2000

Please don’t wash your hands when you leave

We prefer manicured nails to the dirty realities of the countryside. Celia Brayfield laments our ign

By Celia Brayfield

The summer holidays of my childhood were an Enid Blyton paradise. We went to a village in West Dorset near Lyme Regis, where we rambled through the fields and woods, built sandcastles on the beach and went swimming six times a day. Yes, the sea was cold, but it was lovely once you were in and, anyway, I’d never been to the Mediterranean and I didn’t know any better.

My sister and I went fishing for mackerel at Lyme and caught crabs off the Cobb. We ravaged rock pools with our shrimping nets and once caught enough of the weird transparent crustaceans to fill a sandwich. We picked poppies at the margins of cornfields, watched the streams for fish and tried to teach our dog not to chase sheep. My mother named the hedgerow flowers for us, though she was a bit dodgy on the difference between ragged robin and red campion, just as my father was pretty weak on telling a chaffinch from a bullfinch.

The cows came past our cottage door every morning. Our mother would send us running after them to buy milk, dodging the cowpats on the road, swinging our blue enamel milk can. At the farm we waited in the white tiled dairy room, breathing that special intimate stink of new milk, watching the white liquid flowing down the ridged steel cooler in a pearly veil. In another room the clotted cream stood coagulating into yellow crusts on enamel bowls that rested on a hotplate. Sometimes, someone let us peek into the milking shed. On the way back, we stopped at the gate to the butcher’s field and tipped out a bag of toast crusts and potato peelings for his pigs.

In the land of Thomas Hardy and John Fowles, I was a bit young for heavy-duty literature, but Enid Blyton was spot-on. Nobody ever credits the creator of Noddy as a naturalist writer, but she was, and is, superb. At night I would curl up and read thrilling tales of all the animals we never saw, the shy woodland creatures, the little hedgerow friends, the badgers, weasels, moles and otters.

Obsessively I taught myself about their looks and ways and habitats, preparing for the excitement of the sightings that I was sure would happen one day. I met a stoat properly only a couple of years ago and I’m still on the lookout for an otter.

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There were three kinds of characters in these books – wise old country folk who did the explaining; selfish, spoilt girls who told lies, shirked their turns at everything and lay around moaning and manicuring their nails; and sensible, down-to-earth heroines who told the truth, shut gates, cleaned tack and didn’t mind getting their hands dirty. Trust me to pick the wrong role model.

We thought we were just having fun, but now I realise that we were learning to love the land and the sea. With that love came respect for nature, for its forces and processes, and an understanding of a good relationship between people and their environment.

I didn’t think I was particularly lucky. Holidays in England were already becoming the resort of the middle-class poor. The privileged children at our school went to hotels in Spain or camping in France.

Food production and landscape creation were going on all around us, the natural context to sunny holidays. In this moral universe, farmers were honoured and important people, responsible for taking care of the land and ensuring our survival. Annoying a farmer was one of the worst things you could possibly do. Little did we know that the lying, moaning manicurists were going to inherit the earth.

Learning about the land is definitely not part of the core curriculum. There are probably a lot of people who think green peas are extruded by a pea machine in a sweatshop in Guatemala and instantly cling-filmed into a polystyrene tray and air-freighted to Tesco. They would have no problem with this provided it were a fairtrade sweatshop, the peas were produced organically and the film were microwave-safe.

These same people will jet off to Bali or Bordeaux to enjoy living in societies that honour their own land, and come home with the digital happy snaps of animistic village fertility festivals or lovingly tended vineyards. They will slurp the oysters and squidge the mangoes and fly home to praise the inventive cuisine and the quality of the food and moan about our native eating standards. They will see no connection between their own ignorance, the part-baked baguette on their plates and the BSE scandal.

These same people will fork out to save the white rhinoceros but regard our own British animals, wild or domesticated, with apathy – except for foxes, of course. They will rave about rainforests but their eyes glaze at the words “native woodland”. They might pamper themselves with a mini-break in a country house hotel, but will never make the mental effort to grasp the social cost of a breathtaking view. The lack of political will to grapple with the issues of where we live and what we eat is frightening.

Last month, the Prime Minister made a state visit to the West Country and gave a speech at Exeter University assuring the local peasants that their quality of life indicators were terrific and they had no problems worth worrying the government about; representatives of the most active rural lobbying groups were not invited. This seems as provocative as if the Prime Minister had gone to Merthyr Tydfil in 1970 and announced that the local quality of life was terrific and things could only get better to an audience from which all miners’ leaders had been excluded.

Tony Blair was attempting to put a smiley face on a Cabinet Office report which found that agriculture was in severe recession, with workers’ incomes having fallen by 60 per cent in the past five years to their lowest level for 30 years. This means that, as amazing as it seems, the modern farm-worker is earning about the same as his or her grandparents once did. This report was ironically titled “Sharing the Nation’s Prosperity”. So what was wrong with “Let Them Eat Cake”?

The worst implication of the whole event was that it was not staged for the benefit of the local people, but for the national media. There is nothing democratic about the countryside. Very few people live there: 25 per cent of the population occupies 80 per cent of the land. So in any head-counting exercise, such as voting or demonstrating, those who care for the country are going to be a minority.

The altruism of the majority is so selective that it can’t see a rural minority as marginalised or disadvantaged. The rural poor aren’t really poor, they have those lovely views. Thus, from a politician’s viewpoint, it’s perfectly safe to ignore them.

The shadow of Marie Antoinette, the all-time icon of the lying manicurists, stretches gloomily over the battlefields where the Islington tendency opposes the Countryside Alliance and where the farmers face investors in theme-park England. Gardening may be the new sex but – ugh – nobody actually wants to get their hands dirty any more, or risk treading in a cow-pat, let alone talk to nasty right-wing landowners or those hopelessly brutalised people working in the menial echelons of the food industry.

The ignorance and hysteria with which rural issues are discussed is scary. Following the advice from Professor Hugh Pennington that children under five should not visit farms, the Guardian recently devoted a spread to avoiding the perils of the farmyard. Stick to areas marked for public access. Make sure the washing facilities are clearly signposted and that the cafe is separate from the animals. Be vigilant. Stick to Health and Safety Executive guidelines. Don’t let children lick their fingers if they’ve touched an animal. Wash your hands before leaving. Why not just issue all the kids with sterile space-suits? The possibility that a child who cannot see off a farmyard bug has a defective immune response was not addressed.

Learning about the land, the sea, the animals and the food we eat is a lifetime process that cannot begin too early. It is about teaching the morality of stewardship and symbiosis as well as the mechanics of raising hamburger on the hoof. A farm trip and an optional geography module are nowhere near enough to fill an educational void which has been growing for decades, in keeping with our cities.

And West Dorset? You know the story. All the towns have swollen. The main roads are bigger and faster, three times the size they were ten years ago. Most of the villages have decayed or been swallowed by the towns. The recent history of the region is of one public inquiry after another. The latest drama concerns the hamlet of Pymore, outside Bridport, an enchanting 18th-century settlement built for the workers who made ropes and nets for local fishermen, now about to become another commuter housing estate unless a handful of activists succeeds in protecting it.

The walks are going. The coastal path is trampled by thousands of feet each year. Inland, the ancient meadows, the orchard colonised by wild daffodils and the 300-year-old oak trees overhanging the meandering river all went under the village bypass. It’s pretty damn spooky to swoop down a dual carriageway at 90mph and realise that you walked ankle-deep in wild orchids on the same spot. One local farmer has created an orchid sanctuary in compensation.

You can still catch mackerel in the bay but the days of the shoals as wide as football pitches are over. You’d be lucky to find one prawn on the whole beach. The rights to the crabs under Lyme Regis Cobb have been sold to Spanish fishermen. I’m not kidding. Check out the Lyme Juice website. The harbour, meanwhile, has been augmented by a big marine sports centre with at least one holiday tragedy to its discredit.

Most of this landscape has been protected as far as it can be, taken under the wing of the National Trust or designated an area of outstanding natural beauty, but nothing can really protect it from the neglect of one lying manicurist government after another in the face of a growing population. The local people are now moving to apply to Unesco to have the area made a World Heritage Site for the sake of the famous fossils on the beach. I hope they succeed. And I won’t be washing my hands when I leave.

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