This morning the writer Bill Bryson made the BBC Radio 4 appeal for the Campaign for National Parks (CNP), which this year celebrates its eightieth birthday. In that time it has done a phenomenal job, first establishing the parks and then fearlessly fighting developments such as roads, reservoirs, quarries, military training, power boats, pylons, afforestation and the more subtle but equally damaging effects of suburbanisation and the decline in hill farming.
The two-minute appeal was short on CNP’s campaign successes and challenges, probably because of the BBC’s regrettable timidity about appearing to endorse a campaign (see my previous blog on the BBC’s refusal to insert the Open Spaces Society’s flyer with its Countryfile Magazine).
In the last 20 years or so CNP, through its brilliant Mosaic project (which has now ended), has turned its attention to enabling everyone to enjoy the national parks, no easy feat when public transport is declining and government policies have increased social divides. The effort continues, having been adopted by individual park authorities and local groups, including those which were initiated and fostered through Mosaic.
I was pleased to help launch one such group in July, the Sheffield Environmental Movement (SEM). The leading-light is Maxwell Ayamba, whom I first met as a Mosaic community champion in Sheffield. We co-opted him to the Ramblers’ board of trustees for three years in 2006-9. Maxwell has been promoting walking among black and ethnic minorities in Sheffield for a long time; he has worked tirelessly and energetically for this cause.
The event was on 14 July at Sheffield Hallam. I pointed out that it was appropriate to launch SEM on Bastille Day because it too was a movement for the people (this was just hours before the terrible carnage in Nice). SEM had grown out of our access movement: Octavia Hill wrote of green spaces as the sitting rooms of the poor; we had fought for the national parks and access to open country. But these places were still inaccessible to far too many people, who either did not know of the opportunities they offered or, if they did, could not get there.
SEM enables black, Asian, minority ethnic and refugee communities in Sheffield to gain access to the natural environment including the Peak District. It promotes a range of outdoor activities and helps people to learn about their environment. Its officers spoke movingly at the launch of how they had become involved and what it meant to them.
Mark Hutchinson, the vice-chairman (who teaches religious education at High Storrs school), explained that SEM developed from the 100 Black Men Walk for Health group, which emerged from a health-walks group, recognising the value of walking for health and well-being.
He said: We want to step out from anywhere in Sheffield and walk as a group. We look back to the Kinder trespass and know that we need groups to stand up and fight for our rights. Walking is a sign you feel comfortable, you feel entitled to walk there. Black people felt safe in the city. But the right to roam was instilled in me as a child. As a grown-up I wanted to have the experience with other adults, to go out and capture the essence of what the country has to offer, as citizens of Britain. We were not bound like our parents as a Caribbean group. We don’t need a Moses but a movement; we don’t want to be trammelled.
The treasurer, Donald McLean who is vice-principal of Longley Park sixth-form college, said that he used to feel like a leper in the countryside. But his involvement with the 100 Black Men had changed that and, in 2014, 23 black men, women and children climbed Ben Nevis: you can see them here.
These and other heartfelt speeches at the event demonstrated how essential it is that everyone should be able to benefit and learn from what wild country can offer, the challenge and exhilaration, the peace and beauty.
The government’s recent eight-point plan for national parks called on the English national park authorities, to encourage more diverse visitors to national parks. … We will support the national park authorities to forge partnerships in order to meet their aspiration of removing barriers that can inhibit those without access to transport from visiting national parks.
It is not at all clear how this will be done, but SEM is showing the way in partnership with the Peak District National Park. And we can depend on CNP to champion the defence of the national parks’ unparalleled qualities and fine landscapes for another 80 years.