Is the British countryside racist? BBC Countryfile presenter Ellie Harrison thinks so. 'Even a single racist event means there is work to do,' she said. 'In asking whether the countryside is racist, then yes it is; but asking if it’s more racist than anywhere else — maybe, maybe not.' As a native Northern Irishman who has been warmly welcomed on the fringes of southern England’s Big Empty, Dartmoor, I don't agree.
It's sadly true, as Harrison points out, that there are racists everywhere in life. There are homophobes, misogynists and all sorts of intolerant people often hiding in plain sight. But these people are in the minority. And that includes in the countryside. So Harrison's performative shaming will achieve little.
The rural community I live in – and love – isn’t exactly a melting pot but it has plenty of diverse people living quietly and happily together. Our local pub is now run by a brilliant husband and wife combo, but when it was on its last legs it was saved by a much-loved and much-missed gay couple from the continent who opened a bistro next door. Their civil partnership ceremony, when tweed rubbed along with, er, rubber, gave true meaning to ‘village people’.
If anything, the countryside is far more tolerant and welcoming than Britain's towns and cities. On a recent break in Snowdonia (I need to get out less), I was struck by the numbers of black and asian people and single women who were out in the mountains enjoying themselves, not as adjuncts to some quota scheme or outreach protocol but just as normal Brits enjoying the last of our Indian summer.
These are, of course, just little vignettes – as unscientific and partial as a BBC presenter trolling the entirety of rural Britain. But I’ll bet these tales are replicated everywhere in this small island, where former strangers have ended up living far from the metropolis and its patronising caricatures.
Dartmoor, like most rural communities needs people of all shapes and makes in order to survive. It also needs many visitors to sustain a fragile economy built on tourism and our apparently funny idea of hospitality. What they bring to our local life is far more important than the irrelevance of what they look like or who they love.
What's more, telling people of colour that the countryside is a cold house for them runs the risk of a self-fulfilling prophesy. We actually like difference out here in the willy-wags. It makes a change from counting sheep, shooting raptors and fly tipping. So don’t listen to the doomsters; come to visit and live on Dartmoor. We don’t bite, except when in season. Oh, and any racists who do come to our local pub can be sure that they won't receive a warm welcome.