In Praise of Urban Twilights

Another dreary weekend, little light, less warmth, winter is setting in.  No real point in heading for the hills because as soon as you start you’ll have to think about getting back before it gets dark: the joys of the northern hemisphere once the clocks go back.

Think of walking and cycling and most images will be of hiking and biking in the hills, coastal walks, rural rambles, forest trails: however diverse the activity the common factor is the location; always the countryside. But, as the dark lengthens, the leaves turn to mushy litter and diminishing daylight and unpredictable  weather make expeditions to the hills and mountains more difficult and time restricted, why not make full use of what limited light there is by exploring urban this autumn?

Indeed, the couple of months from the clock change in late October until early January is the one time of the year when, on balance, I actually prefer to be in the city, especially at twilight: bright lights glistening on the wet pavements illuminating the spindly silhouettes  of naked trees in misty parks, the treat of a hot chestnut stall providing a Dickensian tinge and unmistakeable reminder that Christmas is on the way.

And the impending festive season is  another reason  to enjoy a  wider city experIence, away from the retail ghettoes and without the crowds of fair weather tourists, This is the season to take back ownership of the parks and the attractions often too crowded to enjoy in sunnier and holiday times.

Victorian philanthropy bequeathed an impressive legacy of parks and open spaces in our major cities.  Often they also house museums, galleries and other places of interest.  Use them, make up your own walking and cycling trails linking different parks and other circuits round the city. And, as this is usually the quietest time of the year,  you’ll probably have them to yourself on raw, late autumn weekend afternoons when the visitors have left and the indigenous natives are desperately thronging the shopping malls and retail centres in pre Christmas hysteria.  Stop off at the museums and galleries en route – you’ve probably always intended to visit anyway, but never got round to it – enjoy their collections and warm up at in their (mostly) decent cafes and tearooms.

Perhaps you live in an unattractive post-industrial city that you try to get out of as much as you can?   Well lucky you, devote a few afternoons to get to know it better and take advantage of what it does offer.  The heavy industry of the nineteenth century may have declined and permanently scarred the landscape, but it will almost certainly have also left  a post-industrial legacy of canal towpaths and disused railways.  Use them. OK, you won’t find many gradients, but they are great ways of getting through cities and the longer the industrial decline, the more established and varied the flora and fauna. You’ve missed the blackberries and sloes, but you’ll find plenty of ducks, swans, moorhens and other wildlife to keep you company on the way.

Think up a theme – history, art, sport, literature, famous people, anything from the locality – get the kids involved, put together some related clues to find on your circuit, maybe devise a photography competition and you’ve got a whole day’s outing, maybe six to eight hours, with as much exercise as you would get on a three hour country hike or hilly cycle. You will be using all the daylight available with no long travelling times and, if it does get dark before you finish, you’ve always got the streetlights to see you home.

And don’t overlook the weird  allure of the city in the raw, murky months heading to mid winter. Those solid, but extravagant, Victorian municipal buildings assume an eerie and bizarre beauty highlighted in the shadowy orange glow of streetlights and headlights.  River vistas strike a more dramatic edge with the lights from bridges and quays reflected vividly  in the black water

Our continental neighbours, perhaps as a response to their traditionally colder climate, seem to make much more of their winters than we do and lighten up the darkest months with markets, celebrations and festivals  So, take a leaf out of their book, get out and about, resist the temptation to crawl into a hibernal nest  and instead, exploit what daylight there is.  Re-acquaint yourself with your city and, when the first signs of spring emerge in the new year, you will be fit and raring to get back on the hills and in the forests.

Oh, and getting out, getting hot and keeping the circulation active, sure keeps the home heating bills down during the day.

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Big Society or Big Business? How Spending Cuts and Reductions in Regulation threaten the Environment and Access to the Countryside.


Six months into Coalition rule and perhaps, just after the spending review, the student protest and last week’s welfare announcement, it is probably only now that many of us are actually beginning to realise the extent of the proposed cuts and change in policy and waking up to the reality that they will, whether employed or unemployed, young or old, private or public sector, affect us all and in ways we might not have originally considered.

Well, yes, maybe but what’s this got to do with getting out your boots and bike and heading for the great outdoors, I hear some of you asking? Well, rather a lot and, as more and more proposals are rolled out, the potential effects on all aspects of life and groups in society are becoming ever more evident. And, as far as the great outdoors is concerned, with proposals to sell off woodlands in England and threats to move ownership of national parks out of government control, we’ve already got enough to get on with. Clearly, whether you welcome, or fear, these proposals depends largely on your own personal political viewpoint, but what is not open to debate is that these radical changes could affect access to and use of the countryside.

Of course, the countryside is also a place where people live and work and does not exist solely as a playground for the rest of us, but mountains, coasts and forests should never become the exclusive preserve of those who can afford to buy large tracts of land, or who want to exploit them for commercial profit.

At a time of increasing concern over inactivity and conditions like obesity, combined with the need to understand as much as possible about climate change and environmental factors, it is absolutely vital to encourage and enable as many people as possible to visit, enjoy and conserve the countryside. However, if large areas of land now fall into private hands, particularly if accompanied by a reduction in regulation, then opportunities to experience the countryside will inevitably decrease.

Depressingly, the portents don’t look too great. The Guardian (November 13th) reported that representatives from, amongst others, McDonald’s, Pepsi Cola, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association and catering company Compass (of turkey twizzler fame) are now to be at the heart of writing government policy on obesity, alcohol and diet-related disease: all part of the Coalition’s desire to work with relevant commercial partners to explore voluntary, not regulatory, approaches and to support them in removing obstacles. A strategy described by Jeanette Longfield, head of the food campaign group Sustain, as akin to putting the tobacco industry in charge of smoke-free places. “This isn’t “Big Society” it’s big business,” she added.

Meanwhile on the same day, the Independent headlined that the Coalition intends to allow badgers to be cage-trapped and shot and is set to scrap a tranche of animal welfare measures including:
*the proposed ban on beak mutilation of laying hens
*intended prosecutions of slaughterhouse operatives accused of kicking and stamping on animals, some of which had their throats cuts while fully conscious
*a proposed ban on keeping game birds in battery cages, following intense lobbying from the Countryside Alliance and shooting organisations
These measures were justified by James Paice, the agriculture minister, as important ways of cutting bureaucracy.

Cutting bureaucracy may be close to the Coalition’s heart, but responsible access to the countryside is regarded as a fundamental right by millions of citizens of this country and any indication that the government is being unduly influenced by the Countryside Alliance and landowners’ organisations should raise alarm bells among everyone who has supported the fight to remove restrictions on access.

Indeed, access is already difficult enough for a number of reasons. Although many millions enjoy walking, cycling, climbing, visiting gardens and country houses, many more never visit the countryside at all, although many of them claim to want to. The reasons are varied and complex, ranging from lack of knowledge of, and confidence in, the countryside, to disability, social isolation and cultural alienation.

Large numbers of people, and not just in inner cities, simply cannot reach the countryside because they cannot drive or do not have access to a car and this  problem can only get worse when proposed cuts to bus subsidies and local authority spending begin to bite. Our public transport provision is already limited enough, our trains expensive, overcrowded and sparse in rural areas. so any further reduction in bus services and public transport will simply cease to exist. Given that we should be trying to limit car use, particularly in sensitive environments, withdrawing what little public transport there is makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Reduction in regulation may be an appealing catch phrase for some but, as far as access to the countryside is concerned, we must all ensure Cameron’s Big Society includes all of us, not just big business and big landowners.

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