Last weekend I met some charity volunteers in Alston. It was a warm, late summer day – none of the leaves yet falling – and the volunteers were heading cheerfully into the hills. Twenty other groups were setting off at the same moment: all from different points along a route that Alfred Wainwright first walked 75 years ago. I found the walkers had a deep and surprising relationship with the landscape. One man had an encyclopaedic recall, field by field, of the archaeology from the Iron Age to the Steam Age. Another woman lacked book knowledge but knew the soil. A third could recite poetry about the Pennine mines. A fourth drew maps by hands. It was a day – organised by David Pitt, Ian Forbes, Claire Lumley and many others – that combined voluntary work, the outdoors, and understanding of the landscape. I could not think of a better way of catching the genius of our communities.

Only two things troubled me. First, there were very few young people out on the hills. Although it was not a school day, or work day, the majority were over 60. Second, one of the younger people there – who had been born elsewhere and moved to Alston – refused to shake my hand. He was as pleasant as he could be, given the circumstances (‘Nothing personal’, he said, ‘I’ve heard good things about you’). But he wouldn’t shake my hand because I was a politician.

Relatively few younger people seem to want anything to do with political parties, elections, or government. This is, I think, a relatively new thing. For an ancient Greek being a ‘citizen’ – an active participant, voter, decision-maker, shaper of the politics of your own state – was one of the central purposes of being alive. It was important for us in the past. It is still a very important value in many parts of the United States. The man on the hill by Alston, however, was comfortable supporting charities which were either very local or grandly global, but he was much less comfortable with national issues, and he felt politics was a dirty word, and politicians dirty people. And I suspected he was far from alone.

Later that day I saw the beginnings of an answer to the lack of young people, and the lack of ‘citizenship’. It was in the Methodist Chapel in Wordsworth Street in Penrith, and I was meeting some 16-year-olds from Ullswater Community College and QEGS who had just finished their National Citizen Service. They had done a two-week course in an Outward Bound centre. I had seen a bit of it with the Prime Minister at Ullswater. We worked with the students to build a rickety raft out of oil drums – and then the Prime Minister waded out into the lake.  (I learned that the Prime Minister liked swimming in Ullswater and that he felt his own life had been changed by going through an outward-bound course when he was 16.)  When I saw the students in the Methodist Chapel, they had just finished working on voluntary projects in their communities.

It was, I discovered, a powerful combination. As I wrote afterwards about the programme, the participants had spent almost all their lives in their families or schools. Now, they were learning to live independently in an outdoor centre, and then in a rain-soaked tent. They were pushing themselves to climb mountains, or ford streams. They were learning how to work as a group. They were taking responsibility for real projects in communities. And they were succeeding, often to their surprise, in all these things.

The benefits were even more dramatic for students not from Cumbria. A girl from London, for example, described how surviving on her own on the hillside had given her confidence for the first time. Many of them had never lived outdoors.  Students from cities were discovering directly that the countryside was also theirs. They were working in teams with people from different backgrounds. They were learning how they were part of a more varied society that included Brighton or Newcastle as much as Penrith. And they were learning it in a very British way. Like those walkers in Alston these students had gone outdoors, in a country which first discovered the romance of landscape; and they were working in charities in Britain – which has a particular genius for community action.

The National Citizen Service has been piloting for three years, and growing steadily and successfully. 50,000 people should pass through this year. But I feel we should put ten times as many students through, expand it to Scotland and Wales, and make the experience deeper and longer. There are already many good youth programmes. But this would be different because it would be truly national: reflecting our imagination and values as a nation.  We should also aim to make it close to universal. It will cost money – perhaps as much as half a mile of Crossrail – but it is difficult to think of a single programme that would make as much difference to as many people.

National Citizen Service is helping students to understand a little of what we share in our landscape, and to see a potential beyond their families, or their work. It may also encourage them to engage – in a positive sense – with politics again. I hope that if I can get onto that Alston hillside again, in forty years’ time, I will see some of them there with me. And that they will be more than simply citizens of a parish – or simply, blandly, citizens of the world – but, in a fuller sense, citizens of Britain.

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