Lockdown Ending? Hills Open?

Lockdown is coming to an end, at least in England, and the hills are open. Hill walkers are getting very excited, as excited as some are about the prospect of the pub being open. Of course, hill walking is made for social distancing but things are not yet that straightforward.

Some of my hill walking friends will be up and running this weekend, some even planning multi day, wild camp excursions. And who can blame them? We have been a long time away. Muscles have lost their tone and stomachs, perhaps, a tad more under pressure. I suspect a slightly bigger problem is the absence of the way the great outdoors deals helps us deal with the pressures and stress of life. Lockdown may yet be seen to having greater and longer lasting consequences for mental health.

I shall be taking the same approach to the hills as I am to the pubs re-opening. I shan’t be out this weekend and maybe for a week or two. Last night I popped down to my local pub that has been providing us with takeout Friday night curries and real ale during the lockdown. This is a properly independent only boozer and the proprietor and his bar manager have been quite canny. They were already building an extension eating area on the side of the pub and during lockdown they’ve refurbished toilets, completely gutted one of the bars and are planning the deepest clean the place has had for 30 years. We talked about opening up this weekend and must laughed. Even if they could they wouldn’t be rushing to open. Their priority is to support their regulars, the very people who have been supporting them during lockdown. The thought of crowds of heavy drinkers descending on the beer garden was enough for them to say, “No thanks”. Let’s see how things pan out over the next few weeks and we’ll open towards the end of July. I wondered whether all of the predictions of madness and mayhem might have been over-blown, that people would be far more responsible. And then I thought of Birmingham’s Broad Street, its strip of nightclubs that serve both local revellers and convention delegates; this is the kind of place where young people wear very few clothes even in the depth of winter and where by 12.00 many of them are falling around in gutters. You may well have a place like this near you. But thoughtful analysis seems to be winning with many people. Our local posh restaurant (one Michelin Star where all of the staff are under 30) has simply decided to wait until September.

Reading this over I’m wondering whether I have moved backwards through a time warp, back to the 1950’s. But for some of us at least there are parallels here for the great outdoors.

I’ve mentioned before that this household doesn’t own a car for the simple reason that for most of the time we don’t need one; on the few times a year we could do with one we hire one. Most of my trips to hills involve the train and especially the local service that gets me to South Shropshire or Malvern, my ‘locals’ as it where. Despite national pronouncements local guidance is still not to use public transport if you can. I suppose everything would be fine using face coverings and hadn’t sanitiser but most people are being cautious; the rail system in the West Midlands is still running without many customers. But if rail then travel is a consideration then there is probably a bigger one still to be dealt with.

As hill walkers we benefit — and to an extent rely — on the hospitality and openness of small rural communities. As writer Mark Richards is always keen to say make sure to spend some money locally when you are out even if it is just a sandwich from the local mini market of bakery or a pint or glass of wine in the pub at the end of the walk. Local communities — especially the farmers who often get a bad rap — are the stewards of our hills and in return their communities are increasingly focussed on tourism and outdoors tourism in particular. One of my favourite starting points (and ending points) is the South Shropshire village of Church Stretton — always hospitable in a lad-back kind of way. Like many gateway villages that are popular with the early retired, Church Stretton has a higher proportion of ageing people than you will find in most cities.

The residents of such villages and small towns are naturally concerned. There’s very little chance of me infecting them as a stroll up the high street with my rucksack, and no chance of me polluting their water supply when I wild camp. However, I do think it is important to be alive to local sensitivities, after all I want that hospitality to continue. Church Stretton was the first village in the country to adopt a ‘Walker Friendly’ brand that is now being adopted elsewhere. Pubs, cafes and restaurants welcome walkers and many even announce that they don’t mid muddy boots (well within reason I guess). But in villages and small towns such of these local populations have been very nervous, so much so that home made signs on major roads announce that the place is closed to visitors or outsiders.

As lockdown is lifted it will take time for people to regain their confidence, to be sure that their hospitality will be properly respected. I’ll be watching their reaction over the next few weeks (hopefully few days). A feeling of being unwelcome or even a run-in with a local won’t really add much to my outdoor experience.

And the point is this; the COVID pandemic is very different from anything we have experienced really since the World War II. The last episode that was anything like this was the last outbreak of foot and mouth epidemic in 2001/2. Farming areas were closed for months and rural economies took a real battering. We could see the timescale for re-opening the hills. Kate and I rented a cottage in the Yorkshire dales town of Settle. We arrived during the first weekend that the hills were open. I’ve never had such a warm welcome anywhere. Locals told us they felt they were really on their last legs. That short break was one of the most memorable that I have ever had. But this is different.

With foot and mouth the virus had been eradicated through the decimation of entire cattle herds. When the hills re-opened there was not much doubt that it was safe to do so and local communities were desperate to have their tourists back (and you know, we hillwalkers are still mostly tourists)!. This time small communities are racked with doubt. Does anybody really understand what is going on and what dangers might come from the big cities?

At this time it is important to still respect local sensibilities and even local fears. So, I shall be taking things gently. When I next stroll through Church Stretton I want to see those familiar smiling faces, experience strangers smiling when they see a walker and wishing me ‘good morning’. I want to experience the happy banter of the staff at Mr Bun the Baker when I buy my cheese rolls for the day. I want to happily sit in the bar of the Buck’s Head and watch the end of the football and feeling at one with the locals. I want to trot from the Youth Hostel at Bridges to the Bridges Pub and know there is a warm welcome, or camp in Little Stretton and relax in the Ragleth Arms after yomping over the hills.

So, whatever you do over the next week or so. Be sensitive the local concerns and needs whether they seem over-the-top or not. Our hill walking areas are populated by communities that we benefit from. I think we need these communities to be confident that they are doing the right thing by opening up; we certainly don’t want to be upsetting people while upholding our right.

Think. Be sensitive. It will be worth it over the medium term and hopefully the short term.

Comments

  1. Stan Appleton says

    Absolutely spot on. I live in a Dales village that is heavily dependent on tourism. The hospitality business is on its knees and is cautiously opening up in a phased way. Many of the local residents are still extremely nervous of virus being being brought out from Bradford, Leeds, etc and really don’t see why they can’t continue with lockdown until we are ‘sure’ everything is ‘safe’. Just before lockdown was announced the village was swamped and shelves stripped so that locals who rely on those local shops were left empty-handed; those few shops have done sterling service during lockdown but can’t plan ahead. There are tensions between traders and residents never mind visitors. My running group did one of its periodic litter-runs this week and received abuse because we would be encouraging tourists to linger. Normal rationality seems to have taken a back seat. I’m lucky that I live in the hills and have been able to get out locally but I shan’t be venturing further for some time to come. Stay safe but stay sensitive.

  2. Well said Andy.
    And as for the that YHA , you’d be lucky to find one opening at present. That’s one organisation who bring a lot of business into local economies, but after the F&M financial hit I wonder if they will ever recover this time around

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