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Three years of revolution in rural affairs

Friday 28 May 2003

Writing the 150th edition of this column, our countryside commentator John Sheard reflects of three years of revolutionary change in the countryside

THIS IS the 150th edition of A week in the country, a mere three years in the unfolding drama of rural life going back centuries. Yet future historians may well record this mere bat of an eyelid as one of the most revolutionary periods of all time.

Rural revolution: we must share this with townsfolk

Change normally comes slowly in rural areas. In Britain, the milestones are centuries apart: the arrival of relatively modern farming techniques with the Romans, the abandonment of serfdom after the Black Death in the 13th Century, the introduction of farm machinery by the Improvers of the 17th and 18th Centuries – and the enclosures of the fields that came with it, throwing thousands of peasants off the land.

The pace quickened in the last half of the 20th Century with almost constant change – not all of it for the good – as modern technology and biochemistry took over. But in the past three years, the changes have come so fast that many of them have still to be absorbed.

These reflections were triggered by the opening of a new stretch of the Pennine bridleway – the equestrian equivalent of the Pennine Way (see News, Pennine bridleway edges towards Dales - just) – bringing it from Derbyshire via Lancashire to the Yorkshire border near Rochdale.

It will not be coming through the Yorkshire Dales for many years yet, as we reported, because of a decade-long row when a handful of residents of the tiny hamlet of Selside objected to the proposed route because they said horses and their riders would spoil their peace and quiet.

Now this was the sort of bitter local skirmish that I had been reporting in the Yorkshire Dales for yonks. The first I can remember was the nationally derided bust-up when residents of Hubberholme objected to the remains of the author and broadcaster J.B.Priestley, a Bradfordian who spent his life boosting the Dales, being buried in their churchyard as he had dearly wished.

Now, the Yorkshire Dales National Park has finally come to a decision about the route of the Pennine bridleway, which will eventually cover some 350 miles on its way to Hadrian's Wall – but it won't be ready here for a very, very long time.

Today, however, the thought that a handful of people could hold up a project bringing pleasure to thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands in the long run – because of noisy horses would be unthinkable.

And the reason for that, tragically, was foot and mouth disease. This trauma exposed for all to see the fact that, if the countryside is to survive and prosper as a living entity – as opposed to a museum for wealthy retirees or second-home owners – it must welcome people from the towns and cities.

This is unpalatable to many – and I must admit that I get thoroughly browned off when my local places are swamped by trippers on a Bank Holiday weekend like this – but, like it or lump it, it is the townies who pay the taxes which subsidise our farmers and it is their spending money that keeps many of our shops, pubs and hotels open.

This is the key message of the last three years of rural revolution. Country folk must learn to share their delights with outsiders. If we have any sense, we will look upon this as a challenge which, properly addressed, could make country life even better, socially and economically.

This, of course, would mean getting off our backsides and fighting to make the rural voice heard. Times have changed – forever. If we continue to sit and grumble, isolated in our rustic idyll, and do nowt else, we might as well wish it Goodbye – forever!

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