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Who gets to call Britain’s great outdoors ‘green and pleasant’?

For Black and Brown people, Britain's natural landscapes have historically been sites of exclusion and exploitation, it’s time to dispel the myth of the rural idyll.

16 Feb

photography courtesy of Sam Siva

The green and pleasant land, rural Britain, with its valleys and orchards, rolling hills and chocolate box villages, can be best encapsulated in the National Parks which stretch from Snowdonia in the West to Loch Lomond in the North. But if these spaces are the pride of Britain, why did a Ramblers Report reveal that Britons of BAME backgrounds made up only 1% of National Park visitors in 2020? 

One big reason for this is the fact that rural Britain holds a meaningful space in Britain’s collective memory. That ‘memory’ is not really a memory at all, but a nostalgic dream of a white, virgin landscape void of people of colour. It is a dangerous dream weaponised by nationalists, from folk musician Cecil Sharpe in the nineteenth century to the rhetoric of the pro-Brexit UK Independence Party and its former leader Nigel Farage in recent years, using folklore and fear tactics to permeate the British psyche and coax the public into believing that a mythical, white ‘idyll’ is the place where Britain’s national purity can be found. Naturally, any non-white person is figured as a trespasser as soon as they dare to set foot inside its boundaries.

The myth of the rural idyll 

This lust for national purity (a mono-ethnic, mono-cultural Britain) pre-dates the construction of whiteness at the wake of the transatlantic slave trade. As early as the 1500s, a Venetian ambassador remarked that “the English are great lovers of themselves and of everything belonging to them…They have an antipathy to foreigners, and imagine that they never come into their island, but to make themselves masters of it, and to usurp their goods.” 

I spoke to Dr Corinne Fowler, author of Green Unpleasant Land and director of the Colonial Countryside project, a project about the colonial links of 11 National Trust properties. Corinne argues that the rural ‘idyll’ can really be viewed as a “self-knowing artifice”. For the past 15 years, and especially post-Black Lives Matter, Corinne explains, “The whole museum sector is reappraising and reconsidering its collections…the whole of the heritage sector is reconsidering how it presents its properties like country houses as somehow intrinsically ‘British’.” She says the result is that there is “virtually no Briton… who doesn’t now know that country houses are connected to slavery and the East India Company,” however much they may try to deny it.

Trespassers

The violent exclusion of people of African and Asian descent, in particular, is no coincidence. Take the statement made by Dorset’s Lulworth Estate in 2021, which blamed ‘culturally diverse’ visitors for littering and ‘wild toileting’ and urged the government to educate them on how to behave at the British seaside. And most recently, there was the devastating racist attack on 22-year-old Siyanda Mngaza that occurred while she spent a day at the Brecon Beacons, leading to her imprisonment as perpetrators who walk free.

For Sam Siva, a climate justice campaigner for Land In Our Names (LION) and Right to Roam,  Lulworth Estate’s statement “is just racist”. They say that the Estate should focus less on “demonising and shaming people” and should instead be reflecting on their role and responsibility in ensuring equal access to land for all, as well as in educating everyone about their land and the biodiversity that exists within it. 

Sam also argues that Lulworth’s statement highlights why we need more structures that facilitate a relationship between people and nature. Campaigns like the Right to Roam move away from “look but don’t touch” and instead encourage people “to learn and understand and pay attention,” becoming a part of nature instead of being framed as trespassers inside it. 

There is no rural ‘idyll’ without Black people 

Blackness is an essential component of Britain’s rural ‘idyll’ and Black people existed in the British countryside far before the Windrush generation arrived in 1948.  By the 1790s, Black people were living on the remote Sutherland coast of Scotland, and the first well-recorded Black man in Wales, John Ystumllyn, was an eighteenth-century gardener. 

Perhaps more strikingly though, is the fact that money derived from the transatlantic slave trade, which relied on the labour of enslaved Africans, built the rural Britain that is celebrated today. 93 of Britain’s National Trust houses and collections have links to colonialism and slavery, including Stowe in Buckinghamshire where Netflix’s Bridgerton filmed one of its ball scenes. 

By the 1790s, Black people were living on the remote Sutherland coast of Scotland”

And many of the plants we know and love, and that can be found in the palatial gardens of those National Trust properties, have come from across the world. Rasheeqa Ahmad, a community medical herbalist who runs the Community Apothecary in north-east London tells me that during the late Early Modern period the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew was a space where hundreds of thousands of seeds obtained through “methodical pilfering and pillaging…throughout the Colonial Project” were grown, forming “curiosity gardens.” These plants were exoticised yet reduced to the position of ornamentals, their healing properties often forgotten. Following that initial period of obsession, Rasheeqa explains that plants like Virginia Creeper and Senegal Tea are now sometimes framed as weeds, unwanted, staining the “purity” of the land. 

‘Exotic’ plants serving their purpose as spectacles for the British public in an allotted space, until their spread throughout the country was re-framed as a contamination is a powerful metaphor for the conditional acceptance met by people of Black and Brown people today.

Uprooting the status quo

Black people in England are almost four times more likely than white people to have no outdoor space at home. Despite this, and as a result of the confinement of the pandemic when many of us were limited to leaving our homes for 30 minutes of exercise per day, Black and Brown people in particular have sought alternative ways to get outside and into nature. From collective bird watching with Flock Together, to a growing community of walkers and hikers who march under the banner of Black Girls Hike, thousands are discovering and rediscovering the therapeutic benefits of nature

Foraging is a radical way to reject the idea that Blackness is the antithesis to nature, and the workshops that Rasheeqa offers are evidence of this. She insists that foraging can start “as soon as you step out of your door, as soon as you look out of your window.” It’s something that is not only accessible but that shows us that being in nature can be something that city-dwellers enjoy on their doorstep, not something they need to travel to the moors to enjoy. Indeed, near her home in East London Rasheeqa forages herbs like “Dandelion, Burdock, Nettle and Herb robert which have such magnificent effects on the body in terms of promoting vitality and organ function and overall health” yet are so often “trampled underfoot, ignored and dismissed as weeds.” 

Sowing seeds of hope

Speaking to Rasheeqa and Sam about the ways that Black and Brown people are reclaiming their space in the natural world reminded me of Robin D G Kelley’s idea of Freedom Dreaming. Kelley argues that Freedom Dreaming is an ‘emancipation of thought’ that empowers us to imagine – and enact – reparative justice and abolition as a daily practice. Whether it is trespassing in untouched woodland or picking herbs while waiting for the bus, practices like these empower us to reject belonging in the conditionality of the curated rural idyll. 

For Zakia Sewell, the creator of My Albion (a podcast that follows her quest for Albion, a semi-mythical Britain where her oxymoronic identity of mixed-race Black Britishness might find harmony), it became clear that the natural world we seek to build in Britain must encompass the many different aspects of life here. And as tempting as it may be, we should not all go and live in tiny homes in the middle of the countryside disconnected from one another.

Although Zakia’s pursuit of Albion began as a search for “a different kind of British culture that wasn’t…founded on racism, exclusion and white supremacy,” she soon realised that this was a naïve hope for a “false paradise”. In its place, she now sees her search for Albion as “an expression of a hope for…an inclusive vision of Britain or British history,” accommodating all of the stories that have shaped this “green and pleasant ‘so called’ land.” 

This is where the work of projects like the National Trust’s Colonial Countryside Project begin to sow the seeds of hope. Describing the children she collaborated with, Corinne told me that “however narrow an education” they had received in the British system, they all had “a global consciousness and an understanding of wider histories beyond the British Isles”, whether this was from family or even through social media. Not only this, but they were “very receptive to new ideas” and that fluidity allowed real and engaged conversations to take place.

This is the Freedom Dreaming we must be doing to bring about the reparative justice that will ensure that nature is for everyone. As Corinne says “people are more able to listen to children when they engage with this history than to adults… they make the case for looking again.” When the British public decide to look again, the whole nation can begin the process of Freedom Dreaming, rejecting the pursuit of belonging to the non-existent rural ‘idyll’.

This article was amended on 21 February to state that the rhetoric of the pro-Brexit UK Independence Party and its former leader Nigel Farage used the “nostalgic dream of a white, virgin landscape void of people of colour” in recent years. An earlier version referred only to Farage.