It has the best window view in all of England, worthy of a luxury hotel. It had peace and quiet too, far from the distractions of email, phone signal, or people. It was perfect for a few days’ book editing, even if the bothy window was a significant distraction to me. My concentration though was also broken occasionally by walkers, for the bothy lies close to a popular hiking route. Some sought shelter while they ate their sandwiches, others wanted to enjoy the window view. Writers are always eager for an excuse to procrastinate, so I enjoyed these interruptions. The fleeting conversations, as well as the bothy visitors book gave an interesting insight into the sort of people who were out enjoying the hills.
Most were men, alone, aged from about 30 to 50. Perhaps a quarter were women, always with one or two male companions. Only one child was getting a decent education that week, far from school and enjoying himself up a hill. Accents regional, not posh. Everyone was attired in expensive outdoor gear. Make of all this what you choose in terms of the mix of people who spend time in the fells. One observation, however, was stark. Everybody was white.
There is a glaring lack of ethnic diversity in the outdoor world, albeit not through design or malice. It is pleasing, therefore, to see the growth of groups such as Boots and Beards in Scotland working to widen access to the natural environment for the BME community. They take novice groups hill walking all over Scotland. I received a very cheerful response to my email asking if I could join in, despite my lack of beard or boots. I think it is brilliant. (By the way, they are looking for help to buy a new minibus, if you’d like to chip in: https://bootsandbeards.co.uk/minibus-project)
The adventure community is particularly pale-faced too. Chatting to Imran Mughal (@imrancyclone), the first British Pakistani to cycle round the world, it was interesting how much incredulity and opposition he faced about his plans compared to when I myself prepared to do the same thing. He told me, ‘œCulturally, Alastair, this is not what we do. Ask any of my friends and they’d say you’re supposed to settle down, get married.’)
I follow an account on Instagram called @BrownPeopleCamping. That Ambreen, who runs that account, feels conspicuously different from everyone else she meets when in the outdoors, needs to be addressed. She describes herself as ‘œon a journey to diversify our public lands, one story at a time.’
If spending time in the wilderness is about more than mere recreation – if we deem it important for physical and mental health, developing character traits such as resilience and responsibility, and an appreciation of the natural world that leads to more environmentally considerate behaviour – then it is vital that the scope of people disturbing my bothy window gazing should match our increasingly colourful, youthful, urban society.
Much of the reason for the homogeneity of people you meet in the hills, I suspect, is that it’s hard to imagine climbing Haystacks or Tryfan if you’ve never done it, without that person who took you out for the first time. The rugged scale of the mountains that thrill us would naturally look forbidding and impossible to someone who had never been up there before.
Before even that point of intimidation however, there are vast swathes of society who have never even entertained the idea that climbing a mountain might be a fun thing to try, or that people similar to them might be able to do it. I would love to hear from readers of this column your thoughts on this issue, whatever your colour. Reach me on Twitter at @al_humphreys.
My challenge for this month then is to evangelise. Take someone out on their first hill walk, or at least sow the seeds of the idea. New Year is the perfect excuse to tempt someone to try something new. It will have to be down to you to suggest the idea, to a friend or someone in the office. You can’t use the excuse of, ‘œbut nobody ever asked me’. If somebody has never had the idea of climbing a mountain they will not ask you of their own volition. Give it a try! The worst they can do is laugh at you. In which case lend them a copy of Trail, and wait for all that beautiful mountain photography to work a little magic on your behalf’¦
Finally, keep an eye out for that beautiful little first flower of the year – the snowdrop, even though given the context of this article, it is inappropriately and consistently white’¦
This piece originally appeared in Trail Magazine.