Outdoors, Rants

Countryside: “The Gym Extension”

No angry, ranty response about a specific piece of work should start without showing the original source, so here it is, by author Marion Shoard. Her piece starts on page six, but there’s an insightful introduction about Marion on pages four and five too, also worth reading.

After a look at her web site (here) it’s clear to see Marion has worked tirelessly researching, highlighting and combating rural countryside issues, in addition she’s also published a book on caring for the elderly, based on personal experiences of her own which I find extremely admirable.

Going back to the article in question though, I find myself categorically disagreeing with pretty much all of it. The wonderful thing about having an opinion is that it’s fine to agree and disagree, but unfortunately some choice quotes have really riled me, and I’m feeling quite defensive, but I’ll try to be a rational as possible.

Apparently, our enjoyment of the countryside is being threatened by something “more profound and insidious” than farmers finding the balance between food production and environmental improvements. This problem is in fact our attitude, which I am told is causing both social and environmental damage.

“When people go to the countryside, they no longer tend to wander around where the whim takes them.”

Marion’s proof that roaming around the countryside is no longer the done thing hinges on the declination in visits to British woods between 1994 and 2003, a decrease of 17 per cent.

However in 2001, an outbreak of foot and mouth caused enormous problems for the agricultural and tourist industries, particularly in Cumbria. One harrowing statistic is that around 80% of the livestock killed to try and contain the disease were in fact clean. The measures taken were extreme, with the public rights of way (which I believe Marion has been a key instigator in achieving) across the countryside being closed, undoubtedly affecting both levels of tourism and, most obviously, people’s tendency to “wander around where whim takes them”; under the restrictions in place during the foot and mouth crisis, Keswick was a ghost town.

People come here to walk on the hills and roam the countryside, so once access to the land had been prohibited, there was virtually no-one here. Apparently the most popular reason to come here is to “eat or drink out”, yet during foot and mouth eating and drinking out were still perfectly possible, but no-one was coming to do this. Local industry suffered massively with large redundancies throughout the area, something that wouldn’t happen if people were still coming simply for those two menial reasons. Keswick has streets upon streets of guest houses (or B&B’s – Bed and Breakfast) to accommodate the regular flood of tourists, but foot and mouth stopped virtually everyone in their tracks.

Something absolutely crucial to define here is “leisure trips”, the survey that Marion has taken these figures from is by Natural England, and they have defined both “Leisure Visits” and “Tourism Visits” as trips that last 3 hours or more, and crucially where that person sets off from home and travels back in the same day.

While I’m unable to perform my own survey, I imagined that the majority of people who visit the countryside specifically for the purpose of walking or rambling do so as part of a holiday, which is why there are so many B&B’s, holiday cottages and chalets for people staying a day or more.  If I’m going on a big walk I want the facilities to freshen up and shower when I’m done, I wouldn’t fancy hopping in a car/bus/train before I can get back to my home comforts, although arguably this is a minor thought and could just be me.

Another thing – what about those of us walking out that are back in under 3 hours? I don’t usually spend 3 hours at a time walking my dogs, while if I went for my regular run up Walla Crag I never took over 3 hours, so any weight someone like me could add to these statistics is completely lost. If I’m not out there for over 3 hours, then I’m not reaping the “spiritual and psychological” benefits on offer. I completely, utterly, entirely disagree.

Running, jogging, walking, ambling; all of these activities I undertook primarily out of my own enjoyment, but also for personal achievement, bettering myself, my body, my head. I largely attribute personal satisfaction during the worst years of my life to solitary activities like playing video games and running outside. I really have no idea what I’d do to cope in that period if I didn’t have access to both of these things (I also owe some sanity to having a supportive family, counselling, access to a psychologist and eventually gaining close friends, but I hope that goes without saying).

In reading Marion’s article, going by her opinion and the survey information she uses to back it up, I am being condemned for my “insidious” behaviour, causing “social and environmental” damage to my home. By this logic, the teens who sit by Derwent Water for a drink and leave cans of Fosters everywhere are doing less harm than me, as long as they sit there for over three hours and travel back the same day.

Perhaps what angered me most is the use of a photograph from the Three Peaks fell race, with her quote beneath it: “If large numbers of people see the countyside as only an extension of the gym, they aren’t going to find the spiritual refreshment which only the countryside can offer…”

I can’t help but feel the point of a competitive race has been lost in this quote completely, as well as the purpose of a gym.

Running and moving around outside is arguably the purest form of exercise. Anyone can put on some shoes, step out the door, and run somewhere. I find racing on the fells exhilarating, liberating, fun, and of course hard work.

I find running in the gym hard work, and hard work only.

I’d be willing to bet money that not one person in the photograph used (and I imagine there’s about a hundred runners in it) views their participation in a fell race as an “extension” to the gym. Most of them probably aren’t even members of a gym, or have ever been associated with a gym.

Gyms can be used to recreate activities such as rowing, running, and cycling. But a gym cannot even attempt to recreate the sport of fell running, because it takes place on a fell. This is core to fell running; being outside in the elements, traversing rough and steep terrain, and sometimes navigating. You cannot experience the weather, terrain, or navigation that occurs in a fell race within the confinements of a gym.

If moving around and running outside only requires a pair of legs, and let’s face it, was performed before the existence of gyms, surely the gym is an extension to running, not the other way round?

Perhaps whatever point was being aimed for here would’ve been better illustrated using a different image, one that doesn’t insinuate that everyone running the Three Peaks is unable to find “spiritual refreshment”, and should’ve just contained their talent for running on a treadmill overlooking a car park instead.

Spiritual refreshment is an individual, unique area to fulfil, and different people will find it in different ways. It feels unfair to say the least declaring that specific people will not find it doing something they love.

Apparently, someone like me running among the hills views the environment as a stadium. I do not. I have ran inside stadiums, and they are dull. I would never choose to run inside a stadium if I had the option of being in the countryside instead.

“People go jogging to develop honed muscles and to lose weight, not to engage with their surroundings” – that’s quite a narrow generalisation. Running has so, so many benefits, loosing excess weight and developing muscles is just a bi-product of exercise, it doesn’t make it the soul purpose of it. While apparently walkers attempt their routes as swiftly as they can, with no immersion (I find that very odd, I usually only question levels of immersion in video games, books and films that are trying to simulate other worlds, places and characters in front of me, I don’t judge the amount of immersion I’m experiencing when I’m actually physically there), the landscape, past and present day uses, inhabitants, geology and wildlife.

I can’t comprehend this judgement at all, it’s not something I understand or relate to. Wildlife is absolutely fascinating, I certainly feel a little wonder when I’ve chanced upon a red squirrel or a deer, and while I can’t best anyone with any amount of wildlife knowledge, I enjoy learning from those that do, while I’m walking outside.

At the point where runners of the Three Peaks are blamed for erosion, I’m still not seeing the gist of this piece at all. I thought we were condemning people who didn’t roam freely, and expressing dismay at the decline of people enjoying the countryside? Now, Marion is blaming too many people going up and running for damaging plants and causing erosion. I’m lost. Cyclists who perform “extreme exertion” are also taking some flak, as though it’s a bad attitude to have towards getting on a bike. I truly don’t understand this. She’s saying that a specific amount of exertion must not be fulfilled. Why?

Finally, I find the very idea that “fences” which stop people taking full advantage of the countryside are being erected by “the minds of the people themselves” is ridiculous. Is it really that hard to consider the notion that these people are enjoying the countryside in a way that suits them, a way that they have chosen, a way to derive enjoyment that’s just right for them?

I believe Marion has found a very specific, laid back way to enjoy the countryside, while simultaneously yearning for knowledge about it, which in itself I find romantic and wonderful. But her article fails to account for people being individuals. One persons joy is another persons bore. Things like “recharging spiritual batteries” and “refreshing [your] spirit” are not going to be achieved by the entire human race in the exact same way that (I think) Marion would like us to.

As an end note, some great and perfectly valid points in changing childhood and landowner attitudes are made that I do agree with, but overall, my verdict is a massive disagreement. The joy of sharing opinions!



2 thoughts on “Countryside: “The Gym Extension”

  1. I have to find myself majorly questioning some of the statements she made actually.. Reflecting upon my Duke Of Edinburgh hike in the Lake District, I can’t imagine anything more terrifyingly boring than doing that same hike around the same square of my school field. I think it’s a pretty ridiculous to say that people don’t engage with their environment, and I personally think that the Lake District (and many other beautiful landscapes) demand your attention, whether you like it or not.

    I found my hike exhausting and very challenging yet my environment made it an extremely rewarding experience. As someone who lives in a flat, moderately urban town, a few steps into a small forest is like a wonderland to me.
    I also found the ‘gym extension’ statement rather ridiculous. Gyms are a place of convenience for exercise and more often than not a boring chore. If there were a teleportation device next to the treadmill giving me the option to take a run in the Lake District or an equally awe inspiring place I would! (if only)

    As for “SCARY MIND FENCES” (lol-worthy), the only thing that ever stopped me and my family were some rather large motherly cows and their calves, safety first people! 😛

    But yet again this is just another personal opinion. Regardless, I still found some of her views rather.. irregular.

    Posted by kyralhills | May 10, 2010, 3:26 pm
  2. Me too Kai, I was constantly surprised as I continued to read it, it just comes across as an aggressive piece towards people who are quite innocently enjoying the location, and supporting the local economy. There are far worse things, like the Keswick Christian Convention and leaving notes after ordering a meal saying “God will pay you”… that’s called stealing!

    Posted by knoxee | May 10, 2010, 4:45 pm

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