Opening the Countryside

May 7, 2020

Opening the countryside could create division amongst local people depending on how its done. I have set out below a strategy for a staged and, I believe, safe way of opening the countryside .

At the present time (in lock down) visiting the countryside is off limits for anyone unless they live there. Even for those who live in the countryside there is little or no leeway to travel by car anywhere to walk (or cycle or run). If you live somewhere nice that is fine, if you do not and walking from the door is not much fun it is a necessary evil.

Keep your distance

However the time has undoubtedly come to consider how best to allow more people to visit the outdoors. This needs to take in the concerns of the local population but also the benefits of the wider community, both locals who are involved in businesses and those wishing to travel to ‘the better outdoors’.

Reasons to open up the countryside

I believe it is important that the countryside is opened up to as many people as is reasonable as a priority. There are a number of reasons for this, I have prioritised them.

  • Mental Health. Countless studies (including government funded) have concluded that the outdoors has a positive benefit on your mental health. Simply being in the fresh air (walking, cycling or running) produces endorphins and other chemicals that make us feel better, more relaxed and happier. This is not just good for the individual but also for those around the individual. Being cooped up with the same people in the same place is an enormous mental challenge for many, many people. Local exercise in crowded streets is not the answer, better than nothing but much worse than the countryside option.
  • Physical Health. Walking is simply good for you. It makes you fitter, more healthy and less likely to develop underlying illnesses (diabetes, heart disease, overweight etc:).
  • NHS. Being healthy (mentally and physically) means less strain on the NHS, less visits and more time to treat virus victims. It is a balance of course.
  • Rural Businesses. It is believed that rural businesses will suffer the most from Covid 19. In my own Yorkshire Dales many, many businesses are small scale without the ability to cope with the loss of income, particularly during these summer months. In addition the government financial packages have been less than helpful for small businesses and the self employed. Loans are not useful, furloughing not relevant and the financial margin for error very small.
  • Holidaying in the UK. Overseas travel is without doubt going to be restricted for the rest of 2020 and expensive in the next few years. The reduction in airline capacity seems inevitable and this offers a massive opportunity to the UK tourist businesses (both large and small) to capitalise on. At present there is no plan to capitalise on this.
Small parties

Reasons to keep visitors away

However there are strong and passionate arguments not to open up our outdoors. In particular the population tends to be older and more vulnerable to the disease, putting a strain on local services. In addition a proportion of visitors do ‘lose their sanity’ when arriving in a holiday place and act inappropriately. They also tend to turn up at the same places (Malham, Snowdon, Whitby ie: the honeypots) leaving the majority of the countryside empty. Finally they drive creating an increased likelihood of accidents.

To address these issues. The older and vulnerable are liable to be asked to stay indoors longer than the rest of us. This was planned at the start of the outbreak (three months, taking us to nearly the end of June) and may well be extended further. Therefore the most vulnerable in rural areas are indoors and away from the visitors. Those locals who are out and about just need to avoid the visitors, however annoying many find them. Local businesses may see an influx of visitors somewhat differently.

Larger parties, more risk?

How to re-open the outdoors

Whilst reading the plan below always bear in mind it is less easy to catch the disease outdoors than indoors. It tries to find a balance in addressing the needs of the wider population with local concerns.

Stage 1

This is my ‘Stage 1’ advice, the purpose being to open up some businesses at the least risk. It could be achieved during May.

  • Allow small groups of friends/relatives to visit the countryside. Any number is arbitrary but 8 to 10 seems reasonable.
  • Encourage them Not to visit the honeypots (name them, close the car parks if necessary) . Many will still head for Malham but the majority of visitors will act on suitable advice look for alternatives. For example instead of going to Malham, head for the car parks on Malham Tarn and walk/cycle from there.
  • Allow cafes/pubs to open but on a takeaway/outdoor basis initially. Apply social distancing and suitable hygiene. For those who know the cafe at the Cow and Calf in Ilkley it is a great all weather option.
  • Allow people to come and stay in self catering accommodation. In this case I am talking about smaller cottages rather than larger businesses such as holiday parks which have communal areas.
Cafes and pubs

Stage 2

My ‘Stage 2’ advice starts by opening up hotels/guest houses which is a major step in getting the rural economy back on its feet. Social distancing and correct hygiene would need to be practiced. As an example imagine visiting a pub for a meal/drink. There will need to be bigger gaps between tables that exist in many places at the moment, plenty of hygiene points and a sensible approach for any ordering at the bar.

Small guest houses may need to offer evening meals for a while if capacity is limited in pubs. There are opportunities and many businesses will have to do things differently (at least for the time being)

Larger rural hotels, holiday parks etc should be included if they are able to meet the social distancing guidelines. Some communal areas in larger premises (such as indoor swimming pools) may have to wait longer.

Risk free walking can be done

Clear Communication

Stage 1 could be implemented shortly, it is impossible to put a timescale on to Stage 2 but it is very important that the advice/rules are in place well before any opening. The biggest problem will be uncertainty and friction.

Key bits of advice

  • Social distance in villages or walks
  • Consider where to take a walk. Avoid the popular areas and plan your trip.
  • Do not push yourself too hard. Remember the Mountain Rescue are volunteers.
  • Use local services and businesses.

One of the biggest issues when returning to the countryside will be the conflict between different people with differing perspectives on the crisis. Some want a quick end to lock down, other want it to continue. I can only hope conflicts are limited but it is naive to assume there will not be any. It is inevitable that opening up the countryside will see an increase in covid 19 but it can be managed. The alternatives of a continued shut down are horrific for the future.

More risky, very large groups

Examples from my business

To give examples of the two stages in practice I will use examples from my own business.

  • Navigation Courses. These are small groups, mainly outside and have no social contact outside the group. These would fit in to Stage 1 although those coming a distance may have overnight accommodation issues.
  • Self guided Walking Holidays. These involve small groups/couples who have multi stay breaks for up to a week. They usually move to a different guest house/hotel every couple of days. They would fall in to Stage 2. I would add a leaflet in to their pack on social distancing guidelines, particularly within hotels and when they are eating/drinking.
  • Providing Information. Information for alternative places to walk is critical to avoid over crowding. This website and many others/guide books provide this information. The vast majority of walks on this website involve parking and walking away from the crowds. Most public rights or way are empty even in the good times. The National Parks/councils/Trust have a large part to play in this. There are hundreds of walks within striking distance of millions.
Even Malham walks can be quiet

Working together on Opening the Countryside

The biggest issue is to get a clear and concise plan out in the public domain which is well communicated. Sadly there will be idiots on both sides of the debate creating media headlines (who will lap it up) but the silent majority will react to clear guidelines. The importance of opening up the countryside outweighs the petty squabbles.

Finally just consider the photos on this page and ask yourself to consider the risks against the rewards.

Enjoy your walks

Jonathan

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