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A walk in the park – if you’re lucky

Friday 25 September 2009

When I was nobbut a lad back in the distant mists of time, I was lucky to be brought up on the outskirts of a prosperous city just down the road, open fields a hundred yards ahead and – to the right – a wonderful public park.

This one-time stately home and its 18th Century park had been left to the local citizenry by its last owner, an elderly spinster with no close family, in a gesture which was quite common in Victorian times: in those days, the rich often made a point in “giving something back” in thanks for the privilege they had enjoyed.

So, as a child, I could wander with my gang in the countryside under the weary eyes of the local farmers – we were taught early not to damage crops, walls or hedges – or in this huge park complete with boating lake, bandstand for open air dances, ornamental gardens and a crystal clear stream brimming with minnows, sticklebacks and (much to our terror whilst paddling) crayfish.

Aireville Park

Both areas, covering several square miles, were always teeming with other kids in gangs. Some younger – against whom we would sometimes play cricket or rounders (for the girls) - and some older, from whom we learned to keep our distance: bullying, if not rife, did happen so we opted to be safe rather than sorry.

In this, we were learning some of the important lessons of life but, most of the time, we were doing so under the watchful eyes of caring adults: the farmers, who knew our familes and would report any heinous misdemeanours, or patrols of park keepers, whose main job was to prevent hooliganism but who in our case spent most of their time telling us off for riding bikes in parts where this was forbidden. More than half a century later, I have virtually replicated that local geography, with the open Yorkshire Dales half a mile up the road and 50 yards away a smaller but beautiful park presented to the town by a wealthy mill-owning family.

I spend a great deal of time in both but there has been one fundamental change: where have all the children gone?

This is a question that has puzzled me on and off for years, either walking across the park to my allotment or out fly fishing in the Aire Valley and beyond: the only youngsters I am likely to see are toddlers playing on the swings with their mums or (and more of this later) rather sinister gangs of youths, male and female, who lurk hands in pockets, hoods up, as dusk approaches as though waiting for any adults to get out of their territory.

What causes me to raise this subject is the launch in Yorkshire this week of Natural England’s so-called “Natural Health Service”, a gimmicky name for a project designed to get more people, and children in particular, off their backsides top start walking, either on public footpaths or in public parks (see News, Wednesday). The aim is to reduce obesity, that national plague which threatens to swamp the National Health Service in a few years time: Britain already has more obese children than any nation in Europe and the experts predict that 90% of British adults will be clinically obese by 2050.

It is significant, I feel, that the initiative was officially launched in Rotherham, the former steel and mining town in South Yorkshire, for it is in areas of old heavy industry where these social problems are most acute. And Natural England is doing its best to get these inner cities kids out into the countryside into their local park.

patrols of park keepers, whose main job was to prevent hooliganism...

The target is to get a million children outdoors and have the nation fitter by the time of the 2012 London Olympics. These are brave plans and I wish them well. But if they are to succeed, serious steps will have to be taken to persuade over-protective mums to give their children a bit of freedom – and to make the great outdoors as attractive as video games to the youngsters.

For a start, children going into the countryside unattended must be taught the Countryside Code, which will be much more difficult than it seems: to many of them, the country is as alien as the Moon.

But if farmers are to let them wander and play to their heart’s content, they much be reassured that their crops will not be trampled, their drystone walls damaged or their livestock worried by un-controlled dogs. Learning such lessons would increase the child’s appreciation of the delights of the great outdoors.

When it comes to public parks, why not bring back the park keeper (the “parkie,” we used to call him). My local park now is by no means in an inner city but those hooded youths use it as a gathering place for illicit drinking and, I suspect, drug abuse: I have picked up the tins and the bottles the morning after. In effect, this wonderful open space has become a no-go area for decent folk after nightfall.

The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. This “Natural Health Service” is a very good idea and a lot of good people will undoubtedly put a lot of effort into it. But unless our countryside and public parks are properly protected, England, instead of living off the fat of the land, will simply become the Land of the Fat.

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