Mian Ridge

A question of ethnics

The government is trying to persuade ethnic minorities to visit the countryside, but the only black farmer in Britain tells Mian Ridge that the scheme is misconceived

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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 shalwar-kameezes 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it would axe its free guided walks because they seemed to attract only white hikers, although this decision was later rescinded.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. Shabeen Rehman, one of the Bolton Asian Elders featured in Visits to National Parks, said of her visit to the lakes: ‘Oh, we had a lovely day.’ But she does not think many of the elders will be going back. Many of them grew up in steamy South Asia and East Africa and dislike the English weather. Moreover, she adds, even if they did return, it would be unlikely to be as individuals. As the diversity review noted, some ethnic groups like to visit the countryside in very large family groups — thereby, it could be argued, imposing an apartheid of their own.

For one countryman, at least, the day-trips are misconceived. ‘It’s superficial nonsense and won’t change anything. It looks like taking busloads of prisoners to the countryside,’ says Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, a Cornish farmer. His view is pertinent, because Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones is Britain’s only black farmer. Born in Jamaica, he grew up in a two-up, two-down in Birmingham and discovered his love of open spaces when helping his factory-worker father on his allotment. He has come a long way since then: after working in catering he enrolled on a training scheme at the BBC where he worked on food programmes, an experience that encouraged him to set up a marketing agency specialising in big food brands. In 1997, by now a wealthy businessman, he bought a 30-acre farm on the Devon-Cornwall border where he lives with his wife and three children. His range of sausages and sauces is available in many supermarkets.

‘There were no black people here; I was the first black person many of my neighbours had seen,’ Emmanuel-Jones says. ‘At first they thought I was a nutter, buying a farm, with farming in a state of crisis, but I’ve been brilliantly accepted by my community.’

He believes that declaring the countryside unwelcome to ethnic minorities helps no one. ‘There’s the black intellectual set, making a living out of making the host community feel guilty,’ he says, arguing that white liberals should not let themselves be manipulated. ‘We’ve got to stop having these woolly schemes — so much money goes into them.’

Black people too often forget, he says, that their parents and grandparents were pioneers who created Britain’s first ethnic communities in overwhelmingly white cities. ‘But the second and third generations seem to feel that they are stuck in those ghettos,’ he says. ‘They need to take some responsibility for themselves, and stop feeling like victims.’

Mr Emmanuel-Jones believes that the only way for ethnic minorities to become attuned to the countryside is for them to live and work in it. He has set up a scheme whereby black urban teenagers work on his farm for weeks at a time. ‘I was amazed by their prejudice at first,’ he says. ‘They come expecting racism and see it every time someone looks at them. They were used to manipulating white liberals, but they couldn’t manipulate me.’

He showed them the workings of the countryside, including the hunt — ‘they were all anti-hunting, of course’ — and within weeks many of them decided they wanted to stay in Cornwall. They also came to realise it might not be quite as easy finding work as it would be in the city. ‘One thing they discovered quite quickly, as I did,’ says Emmanuel-Jones, ‘is that people living in rural Britain have just as much reason to feel as isolated and disenchanted as they do.’