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Where does milk come from: cow or carton?

Friday 21 October 2005

As the Yorkshire Dales National Park promotes a new scheme to take town children into the countryside, our commentator John Sheard ponders on the ignorance of many of today's youngsters

WHEN someone of the wealth and stature of the Duke of Westminster tells you a story about the gulf between town and country, you really ought to believe it. But I admit my mouth gaped with incredulity some years ago when he told me about a visit to his rambling estate near Chester by a group of inner city kids from Liverpool.

"It was the first time that many of them had ever seen a cow," he said. "Now that is bad enough but do you know that some of them didn't even know that milks comes from cows? They just assumed it just appeared in a bottle or a carton and no-one had bothered to explain the truth."

Beacon of hope for town children?

Quite frankly, I thought His Grace was pulling my leg. But when I got back to the Dales, I rang a friend who has the misfortunate to teach at an inner city school in Leeds and he said: "That doesn't surprise me at all. There are kids here who have barely seen a tree. A stretch of open grass is a novelty, never mind a cow."

Similar thoughts, if not quiet so dramatic, seem to have occurred to officials of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA), who this coming week will invite pupils from five schools in Keighley to visit the Dales, take photographs and then create a monster collage of what they have seen in the town's Cliffe Castle Museum (See news).

Now Keighley is not inner Leeds or Liverpool. From the museum itself, perched on the hillside overlooking Airedale, you can see quite an expanse of open country. I'm not quite sure how many cows would be in view but there would undoubtedly be lots of sheep. The question is: would a modern town kid know that sheep produce wool?

Like many former mill towns, Keighley has seen better days economically. That can be said for dozens of such communities in the old West Riding (and of former pit towns and villages further south). But that, surely, cannot be an excuse for parents failing to tell their offspring some of the very basic facts of every day life (as opposed to THE facts of life, which they are taught in clinical detail at school).

When I was a lad, there were organisations like the scouts and guides, church and chapel societies, and the schools themselves which would take city children out into the countryside. In the process of doing this, it was hoped, they would learn to love and respect rural life - and know that it was always there for them to visit, surely a beacon of hope for even the toughest slum child.

Today, sadly, many youngsters seem to fall into two categories: the ones who stay at home all the time, getting their stimuli electronically from computers, video games or the TV; and the ones who form gangs of feral toughs to make life a misery for hundreds of people, particularly the elderly, with noise, bad language, vandalism and, all too often, actual violence.

The blame for much of this behaviour is boredom, as Sir Baden Powell, founder of the boy scouts, knew of city children in Victorian times. It was a theme taken up by Prince Philip exactly 50 years ago this week when he founded the Duke of Edinburgh's award scheme.

I hope that the initiative of the YDNPA this coming week will show similar dividends. If just half a dozen children on those trips latch onto the fact that - just up the road - there is a paradise to be enjoyed, the effort will have been worthwhile.

After all, Keighley is not the end of the earth: there are plenty of buses and trains which will get them into the heart of the Dales in under an hour. After that, the walking and the landscape are free. I make just one proviso: let's teach them the Countryside Code too!

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