Published in the Times

I’d like to take my mother for a day trip to the English countryside. Which probably sounds simple enough. But single-handedly decoding the human genome would be easier. Not least among the complicating factors is the fact that, as a family, like many immigrant Asian families, we have no tradition of leisure in the conventional sense. I recall only three outings as a child that weren’t visits to relatives’ houses.

There’s also our highly unrelaxed approach to travel. Even a trip to a park down the road involves extensive fuss: time to pack the necessary chapattis and brazil nuts into containers; more time for general conversation, noise and argument; and additional time for calls to random relatives who may or may not want to come along. This tendency has got more acute as my 59-year-old Sikh mother has become more religious and correspondingly stricter in her dietary and religious observances (often the same thing).

Then there’s the fact that my mother has never actually visited the English countryside in her 40 years of British residency, and also doesn’t speak English, meaning that conveying the concept of a “day trip to the North York Moors” in my rusty Punjabi is a challenge, both culturally and linguistically. In the end, after consulting a friend for the Punjabi translations of a host of terms including “walking” (“torna”), “nature” (“kudrat”) and “cow” (“gai”), I put the idea to her one evening during a trip home to Wolverhampton.

She is at the time watching a TV show on an obscure Asian satellite channel hosted by a bearded yogi who seems to be suggesting that consuming turmeric can prevent the common cold, among other ailments.

“Mum,” I venture. “Do you fancy a day trip [I use the word “phera” here, which literally means “round trip”]… to the countryside [“hariaval”, which means “open pasture”, as opposed to “farmland”]?”

“He’s right about turmeric,” she responds. “My gums stopped bleeding when I started taking it. You should have it once a day in milk – you’re always sniffling.” An abrupt advertisement break. “What did you say?”

“Do you fancy a stroll [this time I use the phrase “sair karna”]… next month… to the country… to a park?”

“A park?” She peers over the rims of her spectacles. “Like Alton Towers?”

“Well, a bit like that, but without rides. It’s a park for adults. A ‘national park’, it’s called.”

“What will it cost?”

“Nothing.”

“Hmm.” Never keen to spend money, the idea suddenly seems to hold some appeal. “Why do you want to go?”

Good question. I want to go to find out why so few people from ethnic minorities go to the countryside. Figures show that while they make up at least 9 per cent of the population of England, they account for just 1 per cent of visitors to the countryside. For some areas, the figures are even more striking: data shows that in 2006 and 2007 ethnic minorities accounted for just 0.5 per cent of visitors to the North York Moors, despite the park being near several large cities with significant Asian populations.

Numerous organisations, including English Heritage and Defra, have tried to understand and tackle the problem in recent years, and the latest is a charity called the Campaign for National Parks, which is relaunching Mosaic, a project that aims to “build ethnic minority capacity for engagement with National Parks”. Between 2005 and 2008 Mosaic arranged more than 100 visits with ethnic minority groups, introducing some 4,000 people to National Parks and training 200 people to become so-called “Community Champions” – volunteers who promote National Parks back in their home towns – in the process.

Mosaic ran out of funding last year, but in January the CNP was given £932,314 by Natural England’s Access to Nature scheme (as a part of the Big Lottery Fund’s Changing Spaces programme), and between now and 2012 CNP hopes to get another 4,000 individuals from ethnic minority groups into National Parks. And when I heard they were planning a “Walking in the Countryside Skills Day” at the Moors National Park Centre in Danbyas part of an effort to train a handful of new Community Champions, I got myself invited. But being among the small band of ethnic minorities who actually go to the country quite often, I thought the experience would be more illuminating if I got Mum to tag along.

Needless to say, having got her to agree, the walk in the park turns out to be no walk in the park. I opt to drive the 184 miles from the West Midlands to Yorkshire in the Saab 9-3 2.8 V6 XWD Sport Wagon I’m reviewing for work, but while the boot proves handy for the bags of fruit, crisps and brazil nuts that Mum insists on bringing, the leather seats spark an old argument about her increasingly fanatical vegetarianism (she used to eat meat, but since taking a religious vow avoids leather and won’t even touch food that has been handled by someone who has eaten meat), which turns into an argument about the medical benefits of turmeric, which eventually morphs into a general argument about my driving.

Four hours later, at 11pm, I’m looking forward to a night’s rest at the Middlesbrough South Premier Inn, but when Mum examines her entry card as if she has been handed a strip of kryptonite, it strikes me that this is the first time she has spent a night in a British hotel. I provide what I think is a thorough introduction, but it’s obvious I’ve done a bad job in the morning when I knock on her door and find she has made the bed, opened the curtains and washed up after making tea.

And here, perhaps, is one reason why you don’t see many Punjabis trekking over England’s green and pleasant land: they have a fundamentally utilitarian view of the environment.

On arrival, we are directed to a training room, offered Typhoo tea and Kenco coffee, and introduced to various Mosaic and National Park Authority workers and several middle-aged Community Champions: three Pakistani women, one Indian woman, two Iraqi men from Middlesbrough, and one Pakistani woman and one Iranian woman from Newcastle. Their experiences of the countryside vary – some have already arranged trips, ferrying coachloads of people to the Moors, others are just becoming acquainted with rural life – but the level of training is basic.

How basic? Well, the 90-minute session led by Bernie McLinden of the North York Moors National Park Authority tackles questions including, “What is a map?” (“A bird’s-eye view, drawn pictorially, to scale”), “What is a footpath?” (“There may be no tarmac, no evidence of wear”), “What do you do with gates?” (“Leave them as you find them”), and, “What does the ‘P’ sign signify on a map?” (“It’s not literal. It’s a car park, not a toilet”).

There follows the challenge of a buffet breakfast, which Mum dismisses as a daft commercial enterprise (“What’s to stop one person eating everything?”). She declines to eat on the grounds of the meaty smells emanating from my Full English, but is persuaded to take toast and a croissant to her room, and finally, at nine on a Friday morning, we are racing over the North York Moors in the direction of Danby, the spring sunshine warming our faces. The sight of one of the largest expanses of heather moorland in the United Kingdom prompts the question, “Why haven’t they farmed the land?”

“They want to keep it nice,” I say. “For people to visit.”

“But there’s no one around.”

“That’s the point. People come here to get away from people. It’s also kept like this for…” I’m reaching the limits of my Punjabi vocabulary and knowledge of National Parks by this point. “…for animals.”

“Animals?”

“Yes, for jaanbar.” At this point I slow down, point at a shape that seems to resemble a bird, and exclaim “batak”. Which I realise later actually means “duck”.

“It’s just laziness if you ask me. People live in tiny houses across the country and then you have all this wasted space. Madness.”

 

Things don’t get much more advanced once we head outside. I’d been concerned the activity part of the day might be too arduous for my mother because the Mosaic website showed visitors kayaking, mountain biking, abseiling, beachcombing and rock pooling. But it turns out to involve little more than walking half a mile over the course of more than an hour.

It’s this slow because absolutely nothing is left unexplained. Among other things, we are taught about sheep muck (“Don’t pick it up, and don’t eat it”), dry-stone walls (“Don’t climb them, they could easily topple”), and adders (“If you’re going to sunbathe, it’s a risk worth bearing in mind”). And while this pace would normally incite suicidal frustration, it doesn’t, because, judging from the questions posed by the group (“Why aren’t there more places to sit down in the countryside?”), it is pitched at the right level, and also because my mother’s reactions are revealing on the question of ethnic minorities’ non-relationship with the countryside.

But before we get on to them, it’s necessary to acknowledge the most popular hypothesis on why we don’t visit the countryside: because the countryside is racist. It’s a proposition that was put forward in 2007 by Liverpool University’s Professor Ann Jacoby, whose research condemned village communities for “harbouring discrimination and hostility”; in 2005 by the Countryside Agency, which complained the countryside is not seen as a “welcoming place by ethnic minorities”; and in 2004 by Trevor Phillips, who sparked a storm when he talked of “passive apartheid”, and argued “the low number of black and Asian people living in rural areas” meant there was a danger that the countryside could become a “no-go area” for ethnic minorities.

But it’s not a theory I subscribe to. Racial prejudice is certainly a factor in making ethnic minorities feel uncomfortable in the country: all my Asian and black friends have stories of being stared at, country pubs falling silent on entry, and strangers asking if they can “feel” their hair. And thinking about my numerous trips to the country, there are all sorts of things I do consciously and unconsciously to avoid such reactions: I’ll never enter a pub with a Union Jack or St George’s Cross flying outside, for instance; will invariably stay in places I know to be popular with other Londoners; and will usually travel with someone white.

But there’s a difference between ignorance and “racism”, and one needs to remember that people in the country aren’t just hostile to ethnic minorities – they’re hostile to all outsiders.

As Richard Younger-Ross, the Lib Dem MP for Teignbridge, has put it: “One lady in Widecombe said she was fed up with all the foreigners moving in… But she didn’t mean people from different ethnic backgrounds, she meant people from Newton Abbot.”

Indeed, it is significant that, of the people with whom I raise the issue during the slowest walk in human history, not one cites racism. And the complexity of the issue is demonstrated by the variety of alternative explanations. “Our communities have a culture of visiting each other and shopping,” argues one Community Champion. “There’s a perception that the country is for the retired and well-off,” says another. “There’s confusion between the National Trust and National Parks… People think they have to pay,” says yet another.

Other reports and studies throw up other possibilities, with some arguing that the lack of ethnic engagement may be a question of class rather than race (white people on low incomes living in urban areas also don’t frequent the countryside much either), others pointing out that some ethnic groups prefer to visit the countryside in large groups, which might be prohibitively expensive and also incite hostility from other countrygoers seeking peace. It certainly struck me as significant that the Campaign for National Parks describes itself as a charity that exists “to protect and promote National Parks for the benefit and quiet enjoyment of all”. We Punjabis are incapable of doing anything quietly.

Meanwhile, writer Hanif Kureishi has made the important argument that traditional English country pursuits simply do not appeal to certain ethnic groups, pointing out that his family would never have gone trekking in the countryside because it was considered demeaning for middle-class Indians “to traipse about like peasants”.

As it happens, I am from peasant stock. My family are Jat Sikhs: landowning agriculturalists. My father was a farmer in India, his father was a farmer, his father was a farmer, and so on. And for me, the striking thing about my mother’s reaction to the North York Moors, despite her initial scepticism and impatience (“He’s just saying the same thing again and again, isn’t he?”), was not, ultimately, how unfamiliar she found it, but how familiar.

Crossing a brook, she recalled walking to her family farm as a child, hopping over a stream to take her father lunch. The sight of an old tree in a field sparked a memory of a pilgrimage to a religious site where a Sikh Guru had once preached. The dryness of the moors evoked recollections of Rajasthan, and fields sapped by drought. And at other times there were reminiscences about making cow-dung cakes for cooking fuel, scattering manure for the crops, milking cows for the family and fleeing the threat of cobras and vipers.

She got a great deal out of the visit. Which makes me think that the people behind Mosaic have a point. It’s easy to be sceptical about such a right-on project, especially when it will essentially spend £233 of lottery money on each ethnic minority visitor it attracts over the next three years. But they are right to believe that the lack of engagement with the English countryside is nothing more fundamental than the fact that many ethnic minorities don’t yet have any experience of it. It’s not that we cannot appreciate the Peak District and the North York Moors; it’s just that most immigrants head to cities when they arrive for jobs, and are generally unaware of what is on offer.

And the thing that has convinced me of this is not just my personal experience (I was taken to the country for the first time by a teacher at the age of 17 and have been going back since), but also a comment my mother made as we began driving back to the Black Country, from the not-so-black country, after a lunch which gave her her first experience of blue cheese (“It stinks!”) and sparked yet another vegetarian crisis (the sandwiches were described as veggie, but contained forbidden egg and tuna): “When I woke up this morning and looked out of the hotel window, I forgot I was in England.”

It was England, though. Just not the one she has known. We’ll be going back.

Campaign for National Parks: 020-7924 4077; www.cnp.org.uk. If interested in becoming a Community Champion, e-mail Nina Arwitz, nina@cnp.org.uk, for further information. Sathnam Sanghera’s The Boy with the Topknot is out now in paperback (Penguin, £9.99)