No, after you!

by Patrick O'Connor

Walking
Photo by Amatsu Therapy

DURING the last few months I have been fortunate enough to enjoy walking in three beautiful areas of the English countryside.

Firstly there was the breathtaking Northern Cornish coastal paths around Perranporth, then the rugged Peak District in Derbyshire and most recently the spectacular South Sussex Downs.  All three enabled me to enjoy the pleasure of being in fresh air, encountering walks of between five and seven miles through terrain of varying toughness.

Fortunately the weather was on the whole  mild (although I got the odd soaking), but the lasting memory of my jaunts was the friendliness and politeness of my fellow travellers.

Whether they were walkers, cyclists or horse riders, there was universal cordiality.

'Good morning', 'nice day', 'hi' or, at the very least, a warm, engaging smile.  These were all from complete strangers, and what struck me forcibly was the realisation that such greetings would not appear if I met the same person in a busy, city street.  There, we would just bustle past, head down, often engrossed reading or sending a text or in deep mobile phone conversation.

So what is it in the countryside, that encourages us to engage our fellow man (or woman) in such a civilised manner?

Part of the reason could be that the isolation forces a desire to make contact wherever possible. If you have walked for several miles without seeing a soul, then maybe you are eager to acknowledge the first person you come across.

The friendliness may also be partly out of a recognition that you are a kindred spirit.  Not everyone gets kitted out in walking boots, waterproofs, rucksacks etc. to trek around, so if you bump into another walker you know they are there for the same reason as you.  That is, to enjoy and cherish the peacefulness, fresh air and glorious views, especially if the majority of your other time is spent enclosed in an air conditioned office with no natural light.

This politeness also extends to standing back to let someone through a gate or stile before you - a tradition rapidly disappearing from modern city life.

Way back in the 1940s, a popular catchphrase from the BBC radio comedy ITMA was; "After you, Claude - no, after you Cecil".  Maybe there aren't enough people called Claude and Cecil any more.

Being in the countryside also accentuates your appreciation of all forms of life.  You feel much closer to nature - to the trees and plants, to the birds and other forms of wildlife.  Those of a vegetarian persuasion can also be prone to a little nudge in the side of meat-eating companions as they meander through a field of frolicking lambs or cute calves.

'Do you really want to butcher that so you can devour a burger?'  is the subtle, often unspoken message.

Of course, there are many, many people who never ever venture out into the countryside, so are they less polite?  Is it just shyness or not wanting to appear overly friendly that prevents us from saying 'hello' or smiling to everyone we meet in the street as we go about our daily business?

But what the heck!  Why not give it a try?   Next time you are out, be brave, and try a bit of eye contact and a friendly smile.

Go on, it won't hurt you and you might just get a smile back.

I had hoped that there might be a society or organisation out there which actively promoted politeness.  My Wikipedia trawl on the Internet took me to 'The Polite Society,' but this turned out to be an organisation, set up by two Americans, one from Tennessee and one from Kentucky, which holds shooting events to test defensive skills with the handgun.

Apparently the society name and idea came from a quote by Robert A Heinlein who, according to Wikipedia, wrote: "An armed society is a polite society.  Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life."

Back to the fresh air I think.....