Learnings along the Cotswold Way….

Last weekend, I went on a four day, fifty mile walk along the Cotswold Way. My friend Olivia Sprinkel and I use these walks for exercise, connection with nature and connection with our selves through focused dialogue, awareness, and meditation. We also, social types that we are, tend to end up connecting with other people – people we meet randomly along the way. This trip seemed more social than other ones – we had quite a few lengthy conversations. We talked with farmers, a publican, B&B owners and the owner of a Cheltenham tea shop (the oldest one in town, I believe). The learning that stands out the most to me is not to assume and to be open – people are full of surprises and different perspectives . And so here I am, eager to report on a dinner conversation along the Cotswold Way.

Our first night we stayed in North Farmcote at a B&B run by David (we highly recommend it!). To our surprise, when he gave us a lift to a nearby pub for dinner, he intended for it to be a group event. So it is, that Olivia and I had dinner with David, Rowan and Michael, and Annie. David runs his B&B while also being a farmer – sheep, I believe (somehow, we didn’t find out, only know that in the afternoon he has been baling – though what I’m not sure – could be hay, straw, silage….). Rowan and Michael are a retired farming couple from South Devon. Their farm was dairy. Rowan also runs a <a href=" http://www.pittaford.co.uk/” title=”Pittaford Farm” target=”_blank”>B&B (yes a shameless plug, though we have not stayed there!) on their property. Annie, well, Annie is a former professional singer-turned-voice coach. She grew up in the area and is a friend of David. 

That evening we were told that smallhold dairy farming – at least in Devon – is in a state of demise. Where Rowan and Michael come from, the number of smallhold (I think, but am not sure, this is the correct term to use) dairy farms have gone from 23 to 1. I’ve heard it said that dairy farming is bad for the environment – an argument usually made by vegetarians and vegans. If we use this as our springboard, we might think it a good thing – this demise of the dairy farmer in south England. However, the reality is that this is a country full of meat and dairy consumers. As independent dairy farms disappear, they are being replaced by factory/insdustrial farms: mass production for mass consumption. And as I understand it, factory farming is not good for the consumer, the animal or the environment. Where domestic factory farming is inadequate either David or Michael explained – and this was very much news to me – England imports its milk from Poland. Now, I’m neither expert environmentalist nor economist, but that just seems daft on both fronts. In fact, Olivia revealed that possibly my favourite yogurt producer – Yeo Valley, which I always assumed was end-to-end a domestic product (because of the claims it makes) – actually uses milk from Poland! Pah! Rather deceptive advertising if it is true…

We heard about how farming is hard work. A lot of farms disappear because the children of farmers grow up and think ‘I’m not going to do this – slog it out day after day only to be in a precarious financial situation.” A smallhold farm requires labour, but sometimes it is too small to be able to employ labour – so without family commitment, a farm goes down.Some people might argue this is ‘progress’ – industrialisation and no need for such hard, menial labour – it frees people up to pursue other, more enriching activities.  That’s the subject of another conversation/post. What struck me most about our dinner chat was that these folks were very cross with Government.  

Our dinner companions shared the view that Government is ignoring the interests of small farmers. Government isn’t actively doing anything to harm them, but also isn’t doing anything to help them. Everyone around the table agreed that when it comes to food production in England, the large supermarkets are in control – not Government. Olivia and I  were surprised – and later discussed this- because we figured the Coalition is the type of government that would be out there supporting small farmholds and we assumed that the Cotswolds was diehard Tory territory. On the latter point, I’m still sure it is, but I am now curious to know how many of the folks out in the countryside are disenchanted with the Coaltion – and not just because of any Lib-Dem influence upon it…  And, of course, I enjoyed the idea that we lefty urbanites who are frustrated by chain supermarket domination of the high streets have common ground with large sections of rural folk who otherwise are likely to be Tory supporters.

There was one mention of governmental engagement with smallhold farmers: regulations requiring that farmers don’t mess too much with surrounding environment. I think we’re talking here about government wanting to ensure farmers are encouraging bio-diversity on their smallholds. Which, of course, a lot of lefties I know would be keen to support. I didn’t get a clear sense of how much these regulations do or don’t bug farmers… but, of course, it reminded me that there are Tory environmentalists – that perhaps the Green movement readily transcends other forms of political ideology. Again, subject of another post (one that I will never write, because I don’t know huge amounts about the Green movement, though the Cotswold conversation has got me thinking more than I ever have about food production…). 

We moved on from the subject of farming to immigration. Yup, that old chestnut. Now, you might think, being the only non-White person at the table and possibly in the pub, I’d stay away from that topic. But for starters, when these folks think of immigration, they firstly think of Polish people. And, truth be told, they think of how wonderful they are. Michael told a story of how he went into a shop to get parts for some mechanical equipment. When he realised the person behind the counter was Polish, he was instinctively annoyed – assumed their English wouldn’t be good and he wouldn’t get the help he needed. He came in not sure about exactly what part he needed to fix what he wanted to fix. So, he didn’t just want to buy a part, he wanted advice. Well, he described to the best of this ability what he thought he needed and what types of parts he might be looking for. After a little while, the woman – yes, I do believe it was a woman – behind the counter did that gesture of ‘hang on, I know just the thing’, grabbed the ladder, climbed up the shelves to a set of boxes and came down with a part. Lo and behold, when she showed him what she had brought down and why she chose that particular part, he knew he had exactly what he needed. 

Now Michael’s conclusion to this story was that if an English person – probably in their late teens, early twenties – had been behind the counter, they would have just said, ‘Nope, sorry, we can’t help you.’ In the run up to this story there had been a lot of head-nodding about the proposition that ‘immigrants take the jobs nobody here seems to be willing to do.’ And Michael’s story seemed to be adding to that assumption: ‘And they do a helluvabetter job than our people would.’ Now, you are thinking that I’m dissing ‘British Youth’ and/or that the thing is these Polish people are undercutting wages – they work for less. And when I hear that I’m not going to say who is right or wrong. Rather, I start thinking: ‘Yeh, this is a complex picture – which is why it is important to look at it from many different angles and perspectives, to explore deeply the different types of information and insight it gives us.’

We did talk a little bit about immigrants from elsewhere – courtesy of Annie who has been doing a lot of work lately up in Birmingham. Of course, the people we were probably calling immigrants were probably not ‘immigrants’ at all. Some were no doubt born and raised in this country. This is a bugbear of  mine – when do people stop becoming immigrants here? I mean, there is no such thing as a ‘2nd-generation immigrant’ – you are either an immigrant or you aren’t – and I wish we’d toss that phrase and others like it out of existence.  But that is by the by. Annie – like Michael – tended to associate immigrants with people who work hard. 

Now, this is potentially working up what is called a ‘positive stereotype’ – well, for the immigrants at least. And we have to be careful here – stereotypes (negative and positive) have a tendency to constrain dialogue as we put people in boxes, and take positions based on overly-simplified assumptions.That said, I was pleased to be in rural England, talking with farmers and locals about immigrants and hearing nothing but nice words said. And I told them this – I said, back in London one gets the idea that everyone outside of London is an immigrant-hating fiend, and I was glad we could be having a conversation where that wasn’t the case. 

In response,  Michael added the point that immigrants were bringing new ideas to this country, including in farming. He had heard that in farmers in other parts of the country were growing all sorts of new types of vegetables in order to meet different food preferences. Am I now going to assume that the xenophobia we hear about and see signs of is exagerrated?  Well, a little bit. I do wonder sometimes if some politicians and media voices are stoking fires, trying to pit people against one another so they can come out as the heroes who save the day from the undesirable ‘invaders.’ At the same time, I know racism and prejudice exists in significant enough levels and forms (in and out of rural England) that we can’t be complacent about. And I’m clear that one friendly dinner conversation in a rural pub isn’t necessarily at all representative of what’s out there.

Nevertheless, as a result of this conversation, I think I’m going to soften my armour a bit – soften that guard I put up, as a Brown-skinned person, outside of London or sometimes in London among certains groups of White people….I’ll move through the world with greater attention to making no assumptions about people and instead being open when I engage with them. And even when something comes up where I think ‘uh-oh, here we go….’, I’ll do my best to continue open and expansive conversation – because getting aggressive and defensive is unlikely to open up the other person to new perspectives. 

And that’s my reporting on Olivia and Veena’s dinner in North Farmcote….more reportage from the Cotswold Way coming soon!



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