Access means different things to different people. When it comes to the Great British Countryside for some it means access for all to all, with a right to roam on a par to that in Scotland; others see it as maintaining access to that which they’ve always been able to enjoy; and for some it’s about improved access for those with a disability.
For one set of attendees at Countryfile Live it meant having access to the closest car park to the event, saving places for friends arriving in 10 minutes time. Aside from feeling sorry for the parking attendant on his first morning on the job, it struck me as somewhat strange to come to a rural show and demand minimal walking but especially strange given the brand associated with that show, Countryfile, had made rural issues more accessible to an urban audience than perhaps any TV show or publication.
It took all of an hour for me to realise the potential of Countryfile Live. I was unable to attend the first year in 2016 so was determined to go this year. Running a little late for the 11 o’clock start of many of the introductory talks/debates I slipped in and perched on a chair in the breezy open-backed Quilter Cheviot Theatre. There, I listened to Ross Murray of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) who was there to promote their Countryside Matters Campaign.
Firstly I was struck by the presence of a sign language interpreter. I’d never seen this at a rural show before; very BBC but fantastic to see on many of the stages through the day.
Secondly I was struck by the range of people asking questions: a farmer, a land owner, a land management advisor and a rural practice chartered surveyor. Perhaps not that surprising given the CLA’s remit but there was also a question from Brenda the housewife. She was sitting in an audience with all these other people who worked in, on, and around the countryside and I thought – where else would you get this mix? Where else would a housewife have the chance to ask the head of the CLA about the influence of supermarkets in post Brexit Britain?
I admit I’ve not been to every rural show out there. But please let me know if there’s another that has the same audience, attractions and topical debates as Countryfile Live? Via twitter @strawbtractor.
At Burghley Horse Trials you get those that want to shop. At The Game Fair you’re excluding the vegetarians. And as far as I’m aware local county shows and the big Royals of Scotland and Wales don’t address issues that are discussed in the National Trust Tent: cheap food, rural connectivity, fracking, to name a few. The shows do promote the best of the animals and farm equipment and they have educational opportunities for youngsters, like Countryfile Live. BUT isn’t that exactly what some criticise Coutryfile on TV for? For portraying a sanitised view of rural life. What’s the difference between a fluffy country show and a pretty portrayal of rural Britain on TV? Neither tell the full picture.
I doubt I’m the only consumer who buys food at these sorts of events with a vague feeling that its different from what I normally buy because of where I’m buying it. There’s a feeling it’s produced in the lovely countryside, and the animals are high welfare, everything is fair and nice and cuddly and done properly like Grandma would have done it.
But which event also has Kathleen Kerridge at it telling you that her food budget is sometimes as low as £25 a week? That’s the real story of food. Or the fatter picture if you like. And if the wider public don’t engage with it, and other issues surrounding the countryside and food production, we’ll be all the poorer for it.
ACCESS IS KEY
So it was a shame to find the National Trust tent, where the majority of the topical issues are discussed at Countryfile Live, rather shut off to passing traffic.
If you looked on the website before attending, you were told to book tickets for the theatre. Perhaps pre-booking adds to a sense of popularity but it put me off committing because I wanted to experience the event as and when I got there. On the day I could do just that as I was able to wander in and find a seat after two events had started.
It was a large marquee with no open sides like the Quilter Cheviot, Big Barn and Explore Britain Theatres; all three of which I walked past and stopped to listen to the speakers before carrying on 15-20 minutes later. If the Explore Britain Theatre hadn’t been open-sided I wouldn’t have heard John Hammond and Mike Dilger discussing the difference between weather and climate and their impact on nature. Not an event on my radar to attend but fascinating none the less.
The potential of the National Trust tent at this sort of event could have been so much more, engaging with people keen to connect with rural Britain but not always having access to the true picture of rural life and farming’s difficulties. Just imagine if some of them had been able to pause at the edge of a discussion they’d never even thought to engage in. What could that mean for the relationship between the Great British Countryside and the 80+% of urban dwellers?
Where Countryfile on TV on a Sunday night can sometimes be a passive activity, with viewers relaxing at the end of a weekend, Countryfile Live has the potential to actively engage people through the power of memory and experience; a chance to engage people in the fun to be had in the outdoors, talks and displays of animals but also the reality of what it takes to maintain the beautiful views and produce the food we eat.
I can’t help but think access in this instance is about knowledge first. Then the consumer truly has a pathway to choice and change.